Monday, May 10, 2010

Howard Zinn and the myth of the “People’s War”

This discussion led me to thinking about Zinn’s approach to WWII in chapter sixteen of “People’s History of the United States”, titled appropriately enough “A People’s War?” (The entire book can be read online here.) Written in 1980, the book adopts a “revisionist” perspective that was associated with a number of younger New Left historians such as Gar Alperovitz whose 1965 book “Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam” revealed U.S. war aims as setting the stage for the Cold War.

Alperovitz studied history at the University of Wisconsin under William Appleman Williams who was a seminal figure of the New Left. Williams, his 1959 “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy” was a highly influential work, arguing that the U.S. had imperial ambitions from the days of Thomas Jefferson.

Charles Beard, having an influence on Williams, was an “economic determinist”, Beard is known for a kind of class analysis of the American constitution. He was a member in good standing of the Progressivist current. he was immune, to get on FDR’s bandwagon. He was more in line with Marxist principles in refusing to treat WWII as a “people’s war”. Truman only bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to “teach the Russians a lesson” as Gar Alperovitz reported.

The term “New Left” was coined to distinguish the 1960s radicals from the political dry rot bequeathed by the Communist Party. It was a rejection of the dogmatism of all Marxist groups. whatever it lacked theoretically it made up for politically by breaking with the social patriotism of the CP.

Howard Zinn identified with this outlook. he demonstrated that WWII was an imperialist war, even if it coincided with anti-imperialist struggles and the necessary defense of the USSR.

veterans of the New Left are much stronger position to resist new efforts to “fight fascism”, especially in Yugoslavia and Iraq—two arenas that people like Christopher Hitchens have specifically likened to the efforts to defeat Hitlerism.

Beard belonged to the earlier Progressive school. Other members were John Dewey the philosopher and cultural historian Vernon Parrington. These were people of Eugene V. Debs’ generation and likely to take the “people’s war” rhetoric with a grain of salt

Beard's opposition to World War Two caused him to be an isolated figure in the world of cold-war liberalism

A new generation of “revisionist” historians came along in the 1960′s and put their support behind Beard’s interpretation. United States intervention as an ally of the USSR against the Nazis prove that it was fighting a “people’s war” as opposed to a war based on the need for power and profit? The USA had no intention of extending democracy to the colonies of its European allies. Sumner Welles assured the French that they could hold on to their colonies. Sec. of State Cordell Hull said, ...war was primarily for reasons of national self- interest.

Archibald MacLeish, “As things are now going, the peace we will make, the peace we seem to be making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping, a peace, in brief…without moral purpose or human interest.”

Roosevelt had no interest in saving Jews, see “While 6 Million Died”, by NY Times reporter Arthur D. Morse. In the USA, the class-struggle continued. During the war, there were 14,000 strikes, involving 6,770,00 workers.

“A People’s History is shaped by a radical populism tinged with anarchism

Jacques R. Pauwels’ The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, which is a short, but brilliant synthesis of German, Canadian and American “revisionist” writings on World War II…

Mickey Z.’s Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War”

I agree that hagiographies of World War II as the “people’s war” instead of an inter-imperialist conflict tend to give cover to “humanitarian interventions

In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion by Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel, Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. This challenge the familiar understanding of Munich as the product of a naive “appeasement”, the culmination of cynical collaboration between the Tory government and the Nazis documents the steps taken
by the West to strike a bargain with Hitler based upon shared anti-Soviet premises

Allen Nasser disproves incontovertibly once & for all the myth that FDR had an “ideological abhorrence of fascism?

on the eve of the bombing of Dresden the Red Army was poised to take over that city which housed the vast bulk of Germany’s indusrtial machine tools. The mythology to “terrorize” the German civilian population. The reality was that it was an atrocity committed purely to stop the Red Army from getting German technology

first novel to expose the American myth of the “good war” was CATCH 22, written by Joseph Heller in 1961

‘Marxism at the Millennium’, Tony Cliff recalls

something like a dozen American Divisions (being conservative) on the Western Front versus something like 119 USSR divisions at the Eastern Front. After all, 500,000 Americans died whereas anywhere from 25 to 50 million Soviets died.

He could have retorted that Allied bombings were decisive but I would have had him account for why Germany’s industrial output rose progresssively until sometime in 1944?

Although the great historians Christopher Hill , E. J. Hobsbawm, and E. P. Thompson were older than the New Left generation, and Communists, much of their work appeared during the 1960s and served as inspiration for the American “revisionist” historians. They all eventually broke with Stalinism but continued as active Leftists

The younger group around New Left ReviewRobin Blackburn, Alex Cockburn, Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali and others, wrote and published independent Marxist analyses with a level of theoretical sophistication missing from the writings of virtually all their American counterparts.

The political and cultural journalism in British publications of the 1970s like “Seven Days” was more original and exciting than most left journalism in the U.S. during that period. Much work by the Americans was new and valuable, but there is no justification for U.S. exceptionalism here.

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