Just and Unjust War
by Howard Zinn
excerpted from the book
Howard Zinn on War
Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper
I enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War II and was an
eager bombardier, determined to do everything I could to help
defeat fascism. Yet, at the end of the war, when I collected my
little mementos-my photos, logs of some of my missions-I wrote
on the folder, without really thinking, and surprising myself:
"Never Again." In the years after the war, I began to
plumb the reasons for that spontaneous reaction, and came to the
conclusions which I describe in the following essay, published
as a chapter in my book Declarations of Independence (HarperCollins,
Years before (in Postwar America, Bobbs Merrill, 1973), I
had written an essay called "The Best of Wars," in which
I questioned-I was unaware of anyone else asking the same question-the
total acceptance of World War II. After my own experience in that
war, I had moved away from my own rather orthodox view that there
are just wars and unjust wars, to a universal rejection of war
as a solution to any human problem. Of all the positions I have
taken over the years on questions of history and politics, this
has undoubtedly aroused the most controversy. It is obviously
a difficult viewpoint to present persuasively. I try to do that
here, and leave it to the reader to judge whether I have succeeded.
There are some people who do not question war. In 1972, the
general who was head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command told an
interviewer, "I've been asked often about my moral scruples
if I had to send the planes out with hydrogen bombs. My answer
is always the same. I would be concerned only with my professional
It was a Machiavellian reply. Machiavelli did not ask if making
war was right or wrong. He just wrote about the best way to wage
it so as to conquer the enemy. One of his books is called The
Art of War.
That title might make artists uneasy. Indeed, artists-poets,
novelists, and playwrights as well as musicians, painters, and
actors-have shown a special aversion to war. Perhaps because,
as the playwright Arthur Miller once said, "When the guns
boom, the arts die." But that would make their interest too
self-centered; they have always been sensitive to the fate of
the larger society round them. They have questioned war, whether
in the fifth century before Christ, with the plays of Euripedes,
or in modern times, with the paintings of Goya and Picasso.
Machiavelli was being realistic. Wars were going to be fought.
The only question was how to win them.
Some people have believed that war is not just inevitable
but desirable. It is adventure and excitement, it brings out the
best qualities in men- courage, comradeship, and sacrifice. It
gives respect and glory to a country. In 1897, Theodore Roosevelt
wrote to a friend, "In strict confidence...I should welcome
almost any war, for I think this country needs one."
In our time, fascist regimes have glorified war as heroic
and ennobling. Bombing Ethiopia in 1935, Mussolini's son-in-law
Count Ciano described the explosions as an aesthetic thrill, as
having the beauty of a flower unfolding.
In the 1980s, two writers of a book on war see it as an effective
instrument of national policy and say that even nuclear war can,
under certain circumstances, be justified. They are contemptuous
of "the pacifist passions: self-indulgence and fear,"
and of "American statesmen, who believe victory is an archaic
concept." They say, "The bottom line in war and hence
in political warfare is who gets buried and who gets to walk in
Most people are not that enamored of war. They see it as bad,
but also as a possible means to something good. And so they distinguish
between wars that are just and those that are unjust. The religions
of the West and Middle East-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-approve
of violence and war under certain circumstances. The Catholic
church has a specific doctrine of "just" and "unjust"
war, worked out in some detail. Political philosophers today argue
about which wars, or which actions in wars, may be considered
just or unjust.
Beyond both viewpoints-the glorification of war and the weighing
of good and bad wars-there is a third: that war is too evil to
ever be just. The monk Erasmus, writing in the early sixteenth
century, was repelled by war of any kind. One of his pupils was
killed in battle and he reacted with anguish:
Tell me, what had you to do with Mars, the stupidest of all
the poet's gods, you who were consecrated to the Muses, nay to
Christ? Your youth, your beauty, your gentle nature, your honest
mind-what had they to do with the flourishing of trumpets, the
bombards, the swords?
Erasmus described war: "There is nothing more wicked,
more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious,
more loathsome." He said this was repugnant to nature: "Whoever
heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher
each other, as men do everywhere?"
Erasmus saw war as useful to governments, for it enabled them
to enhance their power over their subjects: "...once war
has been declared, then all the affairs of the State are at the
mercy of the appetites of a few."
This absolute aversion to war of any kind is outside the orthodoxy
of modern thinking. In a series of lectures at Oxford University
in the 1970s, English scholar Michael Howard talked disparagingly
about Erasmus. He called him simplistic, unsophisticated, and
someone who did not see beyond the "surface manifestations"
of war. He said,
With all [Erasmus's] genius he was not a profound political
analyst, nor did he ever have to exercise the responsibilities
of power. Rather he was the first in that long line of humanitarian
thinkers for whom it was enough to chronicle the horrors of war
in order to condemn it.
Howard had praise for Thomas More: "Very different was
the approach of Erasmus's friend, Thomas More; a man who had exercised
political responsibility and, perhaps in consequence, saw the
problem in all its complexity." More was a realist; Howard
He accepted, as thinkers for the next two hundred years were
to accept that European society was organized in a system of states
in which war was an inescapable process for the settlement of
differences in the absence of any higher common jurisdiction.
That being the case, it was a requirement of humanity, of religion
and of common sense alike that those wars should be fought in
such a manner as to cause as little damage as possible.. For better
or worse war was an institution which could not be eliminated
from the international system. All that could be done about it
was, so far as possible, to codify its rationale and to civilize
Thus, Machiavelli said: Don't question the ends of the prince,
just tell him how best to do what he wants to do, make the means
more efficient. Thomas More said: You can't do anything about
the ends, but try to make the means more moral.
In the 400 years following the era of Machiavelli and More,
making war more humane became the preoccupation of certain liberal
"realists." Hugo Grotius, writing a century after More,
proposed laws to govern the waging of war ( Concerning the Law
of War and Peace). The beginning of the twentieth century saw
international conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands and
at Geneva in Switzerland which drew up agreements on how to wage
These realistic approaches however, had little effect on the
reality of war. Rather than becoming more controlled, war became
more uncontrolled and more deadly, using more horrible means and
killing more noncombatants than ever before in the history of
mankind. We note the use of poison gas in World War I, the bombardment
of cities in World War II, the atomic destruction of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki near the end of that war, the use of napalm in Vietnam,
and the chemical warfare in the Iran-Iraq war of the early 1980s.
Albert Einstein, observing the effects of attempts to "humanize"
wars, became more and more anguished. In 1932, he attended a conference
of sixty nations in Geneva and listened to the lengthy discussions
of which weapons were acceptable and which were not, which forms
of killing were legitimate and which were not.
Einstein was a shy, private person, but he did something extraordinary
for him: he called a press conference in Geneva. The international
press turned out in force to hear Einstein, already world famous
for his theories of relativity. Einstein told the assembled reporters,
"One does not make wars less likely by formulating rules
of warfare....War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished."
But the Geneva conference went on, working out rules for "humane"
warfare, rules that were repeatedly ignored in the world war soon
to come, a war of endless atrocities.
In early 1990, President George Bush, while approving new
weapons systems for nuclear warheads (of which the United States
had about 30,000) and refusing to join the Soviet Union in stopping
nuclear testing, was willing to agree to destroy chemical weapons,
but only over a ten-year period. Such are the absurdities of "humanizing"
Liberal States and Just Wars: Athens
The argument that there are just wars often rests on the social
system of the nation engaging in war. It is supposed that if a
"liberal" state is at war with a "totalitarian"
state, then the war is justified. The beneficent nature of a government
is assumed to give rightness to the wars it wages.
Ancient Athens has been one of the most admired of all societies,
praised for its democratic institutions and its magnificent cultural
achievements. It had enlightened statesmen (Solon and Pericles),
pioneer historians (Herodotus and Thucydides), great philosophers
(Plato and Aristotle), and an extraordinary quartet of playwrights
(Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristphanes). When it went
to war in 431 BC against its rival power, the city-state of Sparta,
the war seemed to be between a democratic society and a military
The great qualities of Athens were described early in that
war by the Athenian leader Pericles at a public celebration for
the warriors, dead or alive. The bones of the dead were placed
in chests; there was an empty litter for the missing. There was
a procession, a burial, and then Pericles spoke. Thucydides recorded
Pericles' speech in his History of the Peloponnesian War:
Before I praise the dead, I should like to point out by what
principles of action we rose to power, and under what institutions
and through what manner of life our empire became great. Our form
of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions
of others.... It is true that we are called a democracy, for the
administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few....
The law secures equal justice to all alike.... Neither is poverty
a bar.... There is no exclusiveness in our public life.... At
home the style of our life is refined.... Because of the greatness
of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us....
And although our opponents are fighting for their homes and we
on foreign soil, we seldom have any difficulty in overcoming them....
I have dwelt upon the greatness of Athens because I want to show
you that we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy
none of these privileges.
Similarly, American presidents in time of war have pointed
to the qualities of the American system as evidence for the justness
of the cause. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt were liberals,
which gave credence to their words exalting the two world wars,
just as the liberalism of Truman made going into Korea more acceptable
and the idealism of Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great
Society gave an early glow of righteousness to the war in Vietnam.
But we should take a closer look at the claim that liberalism
at home carries over into military actions abroad.
The tendency, especially in time of war, is to exaggerate
the difference between oneself and the opponent, to assume the
conflict is between total good and total evil. It was true that
Athens had certain features of political democracy. Each of ten
tribes selected 50 representatives, by lot, to make a governing
council of 500. Trial juries were large, from 100 to 1,000 people,
with no judge and no professional lawyers; the cases were handled
by the people involved.
Yet, these democratic institutions only applied to a minority
of the population. A majority of the people-125,000 out of 225,000-were
slaves. Even among the free people, only males were considered
citizens with the right to participate in the political process.
Of the slaves, 50,000 worked in industry (this is as if, in
the United States in 1990, 50 million people worked in industry
as slaves) and 10,000 worked in the mines. H.D. Kitto, a leading
scholar on Greek civilization and a great admirer of Athens, wrote:
"The treatment of the miners was callous in the extreme,
the only serious blot on the general humanity of the Athenians..
Slaves were often worked until they died." (To Kitto and
others, slavery was only a "blot" on an otherwise wonderful
The jury system in Athens was certainly preferable to summary
executions by tyrants. Nevertheless, it put Socrates to death
for speaking his mind to young people.
Athens was more democratic than Sparta, but this did not affect
its addiction to warfare, to expansion into other territories,
to the ruthless conduct of war against helpless peoples. In modern
times we have seen the ease with which parliamentary democracies
and constitutional republics have been among the most ferocious
of imperialists. We recall the British and French empires of the
nineteenth century and the United States as a world imperial power
in this century.
Throughout the long war with Sparta, Athens' democratic institutions
and artistic achievements continued. But the death toll was enormous.
Pericles, on the eve of war, refused to make concessions that
might have prevented it. In the second year of war, with the casualties
mounting quickly, Pericles urged his fellow citizens not to weaken:
"You have a great polis, and a great reputation; you must
be worthy of them. Half the world is yours-the sea. For you the
alternative to empire is slavery."
Pericles' kind of argument ("Ours is a great nation.
It is worth dying for.") has persisted and been admired down
to the present. Kitto, commenting on that speech by Pericles,
again overcome by admiration, wrote,
When we reflect that this plague was as awful as the Plague
of London, and that the Athenians had the additional horror of
being cooped up inside their fortifications by the enemy without,
we must admire the greatness of the man who could talk to his
fellow citizens like this, and the greatness of the people who
could not only listen to such a speech at such a time but actually
be substantially persuaded by it.
They were enough persuaded by it so that the war with Sparta
lasted twenty-seven years. Athens lost through plague and war
(according to Kitto's own estimate) perhaps one-fourth of its
However liberal it was for its free male citizens at home,
Athens became more and more cruel to its victims in war, not just
to its enemy Sparta, but to every one caught in the crossfire
of the two antagonists. As the war went on, Kitto himself says,
"a certain irresponsibility grew."
Could the treatment of the inhabitants of the island of Melos
be best described as "a certain irresponsibility"? Athens
demanded that the Melians submit to its rule. The Melians, however,
argued (as reported by Thucydides), "It may be to your interest
to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?"
The Melians would not submit. They fought and were defeated. Thucydides
wrote, "The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were
of military age, and made slaves of the women and children."
(It was shortly after this event that Euripides wrote his great
antiwar play, The Trojan Women).
What the experience of Athens suggests is that a nation may
be relatively liberal at home and yet totally ruthless abroad.
Indeed, it may more easily enlist its population in cruelty to
others by pointing to the advantages at home. An entire nation
is made into mercenaries, being paid with a bit of democracy at
home for participating in the destruction of life abroad.
Liberalism at War
Liberalism at home, however, seems to become corrupted by
war waged abroad. French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau noted
that conquering nations "make war at least as much on their
subjects as on their enemies." Tom Paine, in America, saw
war as the creature of governments, serving their own interests,
not the interests of justice for their citizens. "Man is
not the enemy of man but through the medium of a false system
of government." In our time, George Orwell has written that
wars are mainly internal. . One certain effect of war is to diminish
freedom of expression. Patriotism becomes the order of the day,
and those who question the war are seen as traitors, to be silenced
and imprisoned. Mark Twain, observing the United States at the
turn of the century, its wars in Cuba and the Philippines, described
in The Mysterious Stranger the process by which wars that are
at first seen as unnecessary by the mass of the people become
converted into "just" wars:
The loud little handful will shout for war. The pulpit will
warily and cautiously protest at first.... The great mass of the
nation will rub its sleepy eyes, and will try to make out why
there should be a war, and they will say earnestly and indignantly:
"It is unjust and dishonorable and there is no need for war."
Then the few will shout even louder.... Before long you will
see a curious thing: anti-war speakers will be stoned from the
platform, and free speech will be strangled by hordes of furious
men who still agree with the speakers but dare not admit it....
Next, the statesmen will invent cheap lies...and each man
will be glad of these lies and will study them because they soothe
his conscience; and thus he will bye and bye convince himself
that the war is just and he will thank God for a better sleep
he enjoys by his self-deception.
Mark Twain died in 1910. In 1917, the United States entered
the slaughterhouse of the European war, and the process of silencing
dissent and converting a butchery into a just war took place as
he had predicted.
President Woodrow Wilson tried to rouse the nation, using
the language of a crusade. It was a war, he said, "to end
all wars." but large numbers of Americans were reluctant
to join. A million men were needed, yet in the first six weeks
after the declaration of war only 73,000 volunteered. It seemed
that men would have to be compelled to fight by fear of prison,
so Congress enacted a draft law.
The Socialist Party at the time was a formidable influence
in the country. It had perhaps 100,000 members, and more than
a thousand Socialists had been elected to office in 340 towns
and cities. Probably a million Americans read Socialist newspapers.
There were fifty-five weekly Socialist newspapers in Oklahoma,
Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas alone; over a hundred Socialists
were elected to office in Oklahoma. The Socialist party candidate
for president, Eugene Debs, got 900,000 votes in 1912 (Wilson
won with 6 million).
A year before the United States entered the European war,
Helen Keller, blind and deaf and a committed Socialist, told an
audience at Carnegie Hall:
Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought!
Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other
tools of murder! Strike against preparedness that means death
and misery to millions of human beings! Be not dumb, obedient
slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes in an army of construction!
The day after Congress declared war, the Socialist party met
in an emergency convention and called the declaration "a
crime against the American people." Antiwar meetings took
place all over the country. In the local elections of 1917, Socialists
made great gains. Ten Socialists were elected to the New York
State legislature. In Chicago the Socialist party had won 3.6
percent of the vote in 1915 and it got 34.7 percent in 1917. But
with the advent of war, speaking against it became a crime; Debs
and hundreds of other Socialists were imprisoned.
When that war ended, 10 million men of various countries had
died on the battlefields of Europe, and millions more had been
blinded, maimed, gassed, shell-shocked, and driven mad. It was
hard to find in that war any gain for the human race to justify
that suffering, that death.
Indeed, when the war was studied years later, it was clear
that no rational decision based on any moral principle had led
the nations into war. Rather, there were imperial rivalries, greed
for more territory, a lusting for national prestige, and the stupidity
of revenge. And at the last moment, there was a reckless plunge
by governments caught up in a series of threats and counterthreats,
mobilizations and counter-mobilizations, ultimatums and counter-ultimatums,
creating a momentum that mediocre leaders had neither the courage
nor the will to stop. As described by Barbara Tuchman in her book
The Guns of August:
War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments
struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at
frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment
to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their
relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal
to move lest their opponents gain an hour's head start. Appalled
upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible
for their country's fare attempted to back away, but the pull
of military schedules dragged them forward.
Bitterness and disillusion followed the end of the war, and
this was reflected in the literature of those years: Ernest Hemingway's
A Farewell to Arms, John Dos Passo's U.S.A., and Ford Madox Ford's
No More Parades. In Europe, German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque
wrote the bitter antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
In 1935 French playwright Jean Giradoux wrote La guerre de
Troi n'aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place; the
English translation was retitled Tiger at the Gates). The war
of the Greeks against Troy, more than a thousand years before
Christ, was provoked, according to legend, by the kidnapping of
the beautiful Helen by the Trojans. Giraudoux at one point uses
Hecuba, an old woman, and Demokos, a Trojan soldier, to show how
the ugliness of war is masked by attractive causes, as in this
case, the recapture of Helen.
Demokos: Tell us before you go, Hecuba, what it is you think
war looks like.
facing us, there is the face of war exactly; scarlet, scaly glazed,
framed in a clotted filthy wig.
Demokos: So war has two faces: this you describe, and Helen's.
An Eager Bombardier
My own first impressions of something called war had come
at the age of ten, when I read with excitement a series of books
about "the boy allies"- A French boy, an English boy,
an American boy, and a Russian boy, who became friends, united
in the wonderful cause to defeat Germany in World War I. It was
an adventure, a romance, told in a group of stories about comradeship
and heroism. It was war cleansed of death and suffering.
If anything was left of that romantic view of war, it was
totally extinguished when, at eighteen, I read a book by a Hollywood
screenwriter named Dalton Trumbo (jailed in the 1950s for refusing
to talk to the House Committee on Un-American Activities about
his political affiliations). The book was called Johnny Got His
Gun. It is perhaps, the most powerful antiwar novel ever written.
Here was war in its ultimate horror. A slab of flesh in an
American uniform had been found on the battlefield, still alive,
with no legs, no arms, no face, blind, deaf, unable to speak,
but the heart still beating, the brain still functioning, able
to think about his past, ponder his present condition, and wonder
if he will ever be able to communicate with the world outside.
For him, the oratory of the politicians who sent him off to
war-the language of freedom, democracy, and justice-is now seen
as the ultimate hypocrisy. A mute, thinking torso on a hospital
bed, he finds a way to communicate with a kindly nurse, and when
a visiting delegation of military brass comes by to pin a medal
on his body, he taps out a message. He says: Take me into the
workplaces, into the schools, show me to the little children and
to the college students, let them see what war is like.
Take me wherever there are parliaments and diets and congresses
and chambers of statesmen. I want to be there when they talk about
honor and justice and making the world safe for democracy and
fourteen points and the self determination of peoples.... Put
my glass case upon the speaker's desk and every time the gavel
descends let me feel its vibration.... Then let them speak of
trade policies and embargoes and new colonies and old grudges.
Let them debate the menace of the yellow race and the white man's
burden and the course of empire and why should we take all this
crap off Germany or whoever the next Germany is.... Let them talk
more munitions and airplanes and battleships and tanks and gases
and why of course we've got to have them we can't get along without
them how in the world could we protect the peace if we didn't
But before they vote on them before they give the order for
all the little guys to start killing each other let the main guy
rap his gavel on my case and point down at me and say here gentlemen
is the only issue before this house and that is are you for this
thing here or are you against it.
Johnny Got His Gun had a shattering effect on me when I read
it. It left me with a bone-deep hatred of war.
Around the same time I read a book by Walter Millis, The Road
to War, which was an account of how the United States had been
led into World War I by a series of lies and deceptions. Afterward
I would learn more about those lies. For instance, the sinking
of the ship Lusitania by German submarines was presented as a
brutal, unprovoked act against a harmless passenger vessel. It
was later revealed that the Lusitania was loaded with munitions,
intended for use against Germany; the ship's manifest had been
falsified to hide that. This didn't lessen the ugliness of the
sinking, but did show something about the ways in which nations
are lured into war.
Class consciousness accounted for some of my feeling about
war. I agreed with the judgment of the Roman biographer Plutarch,
who said, "The poor go to war, to fight and die for the delights,
riches, and superfluities of others."
And yet, in early 1943, at the age of twenty-one, I enlisted
in the U.S. Army Air Force. American troops were already in North
Africa, Italy, and England; there was fierce fighting on the Russian
front and the United States and Britain were preparing for the
invasion of Western Europe. Bombing raids were taking place daily
on the continent, U.S. planes bombing during the day, British
planes bombing at night. I was so anxious to get overseas and
start dropping bombs that after my training ~n gunnery school
and bombing school I traded places with another man who was scheduled
to go overseas sooner than me.
I had learned to hate war. But this war was different. It
was not for profit or empire, it was a people's war, a war against
the unspeakable brutality of fascism. I had been reading about
Italian fascism in a book about Mussolini by journalist George
Seldes called Sawdust Caesar. I was inspired by his account of
the Socialist Matteotti, who stood up in the Italian Chamber of
Deputies to denounce the establishment of a dictatorship. The
black-shirted thugs of Mussolini's party picked up Matteotti outside
his home one morning and shot him to death. That was fascism.
Mussolini's Italy, deciding to restore the glory of the old
Roman Empire, invaded the East African country of Ethiopia, a
pitifully poor country. Its people, armed with spears and muskets,
tried to fight off an Italian army equipped with the most modern
weapons and with an air force that, unopposed, dropped bombs on
the civilian populations of Ethiopian towns and villages. The
Ethiopians who resisted were slaughtered, and finally surrendered.
American black poet Langston Hughes wrote,
The little fox is still-
The dogs of war have made their kill.
I was thirteen when this happened and was only vaguely aware
of headlines: "Italian Planes Bomb Addis Ababa." But
later I read about it and also about German Nazism. John Gunther's
Inside Europe introduced me to the rise of Hitler, the SA, the
SS, the attacks on the Jews, the shrill oratory of the little
man with the mustache, and the monster rallies of Germans in sports
stadia who shouted in unison: "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!"
Opponents were beaten and murdered. I learned the phrase concentration
I came across a book called The Brown Book of the Nazi Terror.
It told in detail about the burning of the German Reichstag shortly
after Hitler came to power and the arrest of Communists accused
of setting the fire, clearly a frame-up. It told also of the extraordinary
courage of the defendants, led by the remarkable Bulgarian Communist
George Dimitrov, who rose in the courtroom to point an accusing
finger at Hermann Goering, Hitler's lieutenant. Dimitrov tore
the prosecution's case to shreds and denounced the Nazi regime.
The defendants were acquitted by the court. It was an amazing
moment, which would never be repeated under Hitler.
In 1936 Hitler and Mussolini sent their troops and planes
to support the Spanish Fascist Franco, who had plunged his country
into civil war to overthrow the mildly socialist Spanish government.
The Spanish Civil War became the symbol all over the world of
resistance to fascism, and young men-many of them socialists,
Communists and anarchists-volunteered from a dozen countries,
forming brigades (from the United States, the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade), going immediately into battle against the better-equipped
army of Franco. They fought heroically and died in great numbers.
The Fascists won.
Then came the Hitler onslaught in Europe-Austria, Czechoslovakia,
and Poland. France and England entered the war, and, a year after
the quick defeat of France, three million German soldiers supported
by tanks, artillery, and dive bombers turned eastward to attack
the Soviet Union ("Operation Barbarossa") along a thousand-mile
Fascism had to be resisted and defeated. I had no doubts.
This was a just war.
I was stationed at an airfield out in the countryside of East
Anglia (between the towns of Diss and Eye), that part of England
that bulges eastward toward the Continent. East Anglia was crowded
with military airfields, from which hundreds of bombers went out
every day across the Channel.
Our little airfield housed the 490th Bomb Group. Its job was
to make sure that every morning twelve B17s-splendid-looking,
low-winged, four-engined heavy bombers-each with a crew of nine,
wearing sheepskin jackets and fur-lined boots over electrically
heated suits and equipped with oxygen masks and throat mikes-were
ready to fly. We would take off around dawn and assemble with
other groups of twelve, and then these huge flotillas would make
their way east. Our bomb bay was full; our fifty-caliber machine
guns (four in the nose, one in the upper turret, one in the ball
turret, two in the waist, and one in the tail) were loaded and
ready for attacking fighter planes.
I remember one morning standing out on that airfield, arguing
with another bombardier over who was scheduled to fly that morning's
mission. The target was Regensburg, and Intelligence reported
that it was heavily defended by antiaircraft guns, but the two
of us argued heatedly over who was going to fly that mission.
I wonder today, was his motive like mine-wanting to fly another
mission to bring closer the defeat of fascism. Or was it because
we had all been awakened at one AM in the cold dark of England
in March, loaded onto trucks, taken to hours of briefings and
breakfast, weighed down with equipment, and after going through
all that, he did not want to be deprived of another step toward
his air medal, another mission. Even though he might be killed.
Maybe that was partly my motive too, I can't be sure. But
for me, it was also a war of high principle, and each bombing
mission was a mission of high principle. The moral issue could
hardly be clearer. The enemy could not be more obviously evil-openly
espousing the superiority of the white Aryan, fanatically violent
and murderous toward other nations, herding its own people into
concentration camps, executing them if they dared dissent. The
Nazis were pathological killers. They had to be stopped, and there
seemed no other way but by force.
If there was such a thing as a just war, this was it. Even
Dalton Trumbo, who had written Johnny Got His Gun, did not want
his book to be reprinted, did not want that overpowering antiwar
message to reach the American public, when a war had to be fought
If, therefore, anyone wants to argue (as I am about to do)
that there is no such thing as a just war, then World War II is
the supreme test.
I flew the last bombing missions of the war, got my Air Medal
and my battle stars. I was quietly proud of my participation in
the great war to defeat fascism. But when I packed up my things
at the end of the war and put my old navigation logs and snapshots
and other mementos in a folder, I marked that folder, almost without
thinking, "Never Again."
I'm still not sure why I did that, because it was not until
years later that I began consciously to question the motives,
the conduct, and the consequences of that crusade against fascism.
The point was not that my abhorrence of fascism was in any way
diminished. I still believed something had to be done to stop
fascism. But that clear certainty of moral rightness that propelled
me into the Air Force as an enthusiastic bombardier was now clouded
over by many thoughts.
Perhaps my conversations with that gunner on the other crew,
the one who loaned me The Yogi and the Commisar, gave me the first
flickers of doubt. He spoke of the war as "an imperialist
war," fought on both sides for national power. Britain and
the United States opposed fascism only because it threatened their
own control over resources and people. Yes, Hitler was a maniacal
dictator and invader of other countries. But what of the British
Empire and its long history of wars against native peoples to
subdue them for the profit and glory of the empire? And the Soviet
Union-was it not also a brutal dictatorship, concerned not with
the working classes of the world but with its own national power?
I was puzzled. "Why," I asked my friend, "are
you flying missions, risking your life, in a war you don't believe
in?" His answer astonished me. "I'm here to speak to
people like you."
I found out later he was a member of the Socialist Workers
party; they opposed the war but believed that instead of evading
military service they should enter it and propagandize against
the war every moment they could. I couldn't understand this, but
I was impressed by it. Two weeks after that conversation with
him, he was killed on a mission over Germany.
After the war, my doubts grew. I was reading history. Had
the United States fought in World War II for the rights of nations
to independence and self-determination? What of its own history
of expansion through war and conquest? It had waged a hundred-year
war against the native Americans, driving them off their ancestral
lands. The United States had instigated a war with Mexico and
taken almost half its land, had sent marines at least twenty times
into the countries of the Caribbean for power and profit, had
seized Hawaii, had fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos,
and had sent 5,000 marines into Nicaragua in 1926. Our nation
could hardly claim it believed in the right of self-determination
unless it believed in it selectively.
Indeed, the United States had observed Fascist expansion without
any strong reactions. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, the United
States, while declaring an embargo on munitions, allowed American
businesses to send oil to Italy, which was crucial for carrying
on the war against Ethiopia. An official of the U.S. State Department,
James E. Miller, reviewing a book on the relations between the
United States and Mussolini, acknowledged that "American
aid certainly reinforced the hold of fascism."
During the Spanish Civil War, while the Fascist side was receiving
arms from Hitler and Mussolini, Roosevelt's administration sponsored
a Neutrality Act that shut off help to the Spanish government
Neither the invasion of Austria nor Czechoslovakia nor Poland
brought the United States into armed collision with fascism. We
went to war only when our possession Hawaii was attacked and when
our navy was disabled by Japanese bombs. There was no reason to
think that it was Japan's bombing of civilians at Pearl Harbor
that caused us to declare war. Japan's attack on China in 1937,
her massacre of civilians at Nanking, and her bombardments of
helpless Chinese cities had not provoked the United States to
The sudden indignation against Japan contained a good deal
of hypocrisy. The United States, along with Japan and the great
European powers, had participated in the exploitation of China.
Our Open Door Policy of 1901 accepted that ganging up of the great
powers on China. The United States had exchanged notes with Japan
in 1917 saying, "the Government of the United States recognizes
that Japan has special interests in China," and in 1928,
American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese troops.
It was only when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by
its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved toward
the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States
became alarmed and took those measures that led to the Japanese
attack: a total embargo on scrap iron and a total embargo on oil
in the summer of 1941.
A State Department memorandum on Japanese expansion, a year
before Pearl Harbor, did not talk of the independence of China
or the principle of self-determination. It said,
Our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably
weakened-by our loss of Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets
(and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods,
as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well as
by insurmountable restrictions upon our access to the rubber,
tin jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and Oceanic regions.
A War to Save the Jews
Did the United States enter the war because of its indignation
at Hitler's treatment of the Jews? Hitler had been in power a
year, and his campaign against the Jews had already begun when,
in January 1934, a resolution was introduced into the Senate expressing
"surprise and pain" at what the Germans were doing and
asking for a restoration of Jewish rights. The State Department
used its influence to get the resolution buried in committee.
Even after we were in the war against Germany (it should be
noted that after Pearl Harbor Germany declared war on the United
States, not vice versa) and reports began to arrive that Hitler
was planning the annihilation of the Jews, Roosevelt's administration
failed to take steps that might have saved thousands of lives.
Goebbels, minister of propaganda for Hitler's Germany, wrote
in his diary on December 13, 1942: "At bottom, however, I
believe both the
English and the Americans are happy we are exterminating the
Jewish riffraff." Goebbels was undoubtedly engaging in wishful
thinking, but in fact, the English and American governments had
not shown by their actions that they were terribly concerned about
the Jews. As for Roosevelt, he shunted the problem to the State
Department, where it did not become a matter of high priority.
As an example of this failure to treat the situation as an
emergency, Raul Hilberg, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, points
to an event that took place in 1942. Early in August of that year,
with 1,500,000 Jews already dead, the Jewish leader Stephen Wise
was informed indirectly through a German industrialist that there
was a plan in Hitler's headquarters for the extermination of all
Jews; Wise brought the information to Under Secretary of State
Sumner Welles. Welles asked him not to release the story until
it was investigated for confirmation. Three months were spent
checking the report. During that time a million Jews were killed
It is doubtful that all those Jews could have been saved.
But thousands could have been rescued. All the entrenched governments
and organizations were negligent.
The British were slow and cautious. In March 1943, in the
presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Hull pressed
British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden on plans to rescue the 60,000
Jews in Bulgaria threatened with death. According to a memo by
Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins who was at that meeting, Eden worried
that Polish and German Jews might then also ask to be rescued.
"Hitler might well take us up on any such offer and there
simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the
world to handle them." When there was a possibility of bombing
the railroad lines leading into the murder chambers of Auschwitz,
to stop further transportation of Jews there, the opportunity
It should be noted that the Jewish organizations themselves
behaved shamefully. In 1984, the American Jewish Commission on
the Holocaust reviewed the historical record. It found that the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief agency
set up during World War II by the various Jewish groups, "was
dominated by the wealthier and more 'American' elements of U.S.
Jewry.... Thus, its policy was to do nothing in wartime that the
U.S. government would not officially continence."
Raul Hilberg points out that the Hungarian Jews might have
been saved by a bargain: the Allies would not make air raids on
Hungary if the Jews would be kept in the cities and not sent away.
But "the Jews could not think in terms of interfering with
the war effort, and the Allies on their part could not conceive
of such a promise.... The Allied bombers roared over Hungary at
will, killing Hungarians and Jews alike."
As I read this I recalled that one of the bombing raids I
had done was on a town in Hungary.
Not only did waging war against Hitler fail to save the Jews,
it may be that the war itself brought on the Final Solution of
genocide. This is not to remove the responsibility from Hitler
and the Nazis, but there is much evidence that Germany's anti-Semitic
actions, cruel as they were, would not have turned to mass murder
were it not for the psychic distortions of war, acting on already
distorted minds. Hitler's early aim was forced emigration, not
extermination, but the frenzy of it created an atmosphere in which
the policy turned to genocide. This is the view of Princeton historian
Arno Mayer, in his book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken, and it
is supported by the chronology-that not until Germany was at war
was the Final Solution adopted.
Hilberg, in his classic work on the Holocaust, says, "From
1938 to 1940, Hitler made extraordinary and unusual attempts to
bring about a vast emigration scheme.... The Jews were not killed
before the emigration policy was literally exhausted." The
Nazis found that the Western powers were not anxious to cooperate
in emigration and that no one wanted the Jews.
A War for Self-Determination?
We should examine another claim, that World War II was fought
for the right of nations to determine their own destiny. This
was declared with great fanfare by Winston Churchill and Franklin
Roosevelt when they met off the coast of Newfoundland in August
1941 and announced the
Atlantic Charter, saying their countries, looking to the postwar
world, respected "the right of all peoples to choose the
form of government under which they will live." This was
a direct appeal to the dependent countries of the world, especially
the colonies of Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium, that their
rights of self-determination would be upheld after the war. The
support of the nonwhite colonial world was seen as crucial to
the defeat of fascism.
However, two weeks before the Atlantic Charter, with the longtime
French colony of Indochina very much in mind, acting Secretary
of State Sumner Welles had given quiet assurances to the French:
"This Government, mindful of its traditional friendship for
France, has deeply sympathized with the desire of the French people
to maintain their territories and to preserve them intact."
And in late 1942, Roosevelt's personal representative told French
General Henri Giraud, "It is thoroughly understood that French
sovereignty will be reestablished as soon as possible throughout
all the territory; metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the
French flag in 1939." (These assurances of the United States
are especially interesting in view of the claims of the United
States during the Vietnam War, that the United States was fighting
for the right of the Vietnamese to rule themselves.)
If neither saving the Jews nor guaranteeing the principle
of self-determination was the war aim of the United States (and
there is no evidence that either was the aim of Britain or the
Soviet Union), then what were the principal motives? Overthrowing
the governments of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo was certainly one
of them. But was this desired on humanitarian grounds or because
these regimes threatened the positions of the Allies in the world?
The rhetoric of morality-the language of freedom and democracy-had
some substance to it, in that it represented the war aims of many
ordinary citizens. However, it was not the citizenry but the governments
who decided how the war was fought and who had the power to shape
the world afterward.
Behind the halo of righteousness that surrounded the war against
fascism, the usual motives of governments, repeatedly shown in
history, were operating: the aggrandizement of the nation, more
profit for its wealthy elite, and more power to its political
One of the most distinguished of British historians, A.J.P.
Taylor, commented on World War II that "the British and American
governments wanted no change in Europe except that Hitler should
disappear." At the end of the war, novelist George Orwell,
always conscious of class, wrote, "I see the railings [which
enclosed the parks and had been torn up so the metal could be
used in war production] are returning in one London park after
another, so the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of
their keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out."
World War II was an opportunity for United States business
to penetrate areas that up to that time had been dominated by
England. Secretary of State Hull said early in the war,
Leadership toward a new system of international relationships
in trade and other economic affairs will devolve very largely
upon the United States because of our great economic strength.
We should assume this leadership, and the responsibility that
goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure national self-interest.
Henry Luce, who owned three of the most influential magazines
in the United States-Life, Time, and Fortune-and had powerful
connections in Washington, wrote a famous editorial for Life in
1941 called "The American Century." This was the time,
he said, "to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity
as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence
to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for
such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."
The British, weakened by war, clearly could not maintain their
old empire. In 1944 England and the United States signed a pact
on oil agreeing on "the principle of equal opportunity."
This meant the United States was muscling in on England's traditional
domination of Middle East oil. A study of the international oil
business by the English writer Anthony Sampson concluded,
By the end of the war the dominant influence in Saudi Arabia
was unquestionably the United States. King Ibn Saud was regarded
no longer as a wild desert warrior, but as a key piece in the
power-game, to be wooed by the West Roosevelt, on his way back
from Yalta in February, 1945, entertained the King on the cruiser
Quincy, together with his entourage of fifty, including two sons,
a prime minister, an astrologer and flocks of sheep for slaughter.
There was a critic inside the American government, not a politician
but poet Archibald MacLeish, who briefly served as assistant secretary
of state. He worried about the postwar world: "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."
A War Against Racism?
If the war was truly a war of moral purpose, against the Nazi
idea of superior and inferior races, then we might have seen action
by the U.S. government to eliminate racial segregation. Such segregation
had been declared lawful by the Supreme Court in 1896 and existed
in both South and North, accepted by both state and national governments.
The armed forces were segregated by race. When I was in basic
training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, in 1943, it did not
occur to me, so typical an American white was I, that there were
no black men in training with us. But it was a huge base, and
one day, taking a long walk to the other end of it, I was suddenly
aware that all the GIs around me were black. There was a squad
of blacks taking a ten-minute break from hiking in the sun, Iying
on a small grassy incline, and singing a hymn that surprised me
at the moment, but that I realized later was quite appropriate
to their situation: "Ain't Gonna Study War No More."
My air crew sailed to England on the Queen Mary. That elegant
passenger liner had been converted into a troop ship. There were
16,000 men aboard, and 4,000 of them were black. The whites had
quarters on deck and just below deck. The blacks were housed separately,
deep in the hold of the ship, around the engine room, in the darkest,
dirtiest sections. Meals were taken in four shifts (except for
the officers, who ate in prewar Queen Mary style in a chandeliered
ballroom-the war was not being fought to disturb class privilege),
and the blacks had to wait until three shifts of whites had finished
On the home front, racial discrimination in employment continued,
and it was not until A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters, a union of black workers, threatened
to organize a march on Washington during the war and embarrass
the Roosevelt administration before the world that the president
signed an order setting up a Fair Employment Practices Commission.
But its orders were not enforced and job discrimination continued.
A spokesman for a West Coast aviation plant said, "The Negro
will be considered only as janitors and in other similar capacities....
Regardless of their training as aircraft workers, we will not
There was no organized black opposition to the war, but there
were many signs of bitterness at the hypocrisy of a war against
fascism that did nothing about American racism. One black journalist
wrote: "The Negro...is angry, resentful, and utterly apathetic
about the war. 'Fight for what?' he is asking. 'This war doesn't
mean a thing to me. If we win I lose, so what?"'
A student at a black college told his teacher: "The Army
jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red
Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out.
Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon.
What more could Hitler do than that?" That student's statement
was repeated by Walter White, a leader of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to an audience
of several thousand black people in the Midwest, expecting that
they would disapprove. Instead, as he recalled, "To my surprise
and dismay the audience burst into such applause that it took
me some thirty or forty seconds to quiet it."
In January 1943, there appeared in a Negro newspaper a "Draftee's
Dear Lord, today
I go to war:
To fight, to die.
Tell me, what for?
Dear Lord, I'll fight,
I do not fear,
Germans or Japs
My fears are here
In one little-known incident of World War II, two transport
ships being loaded with ammunition by U.S. sailors at the Port
Chicago naval base in California suddenly blew up on the night
of July 17, 1944. It was an enormous explosion, and its glare
could be seen in San Francisco, thirty-five miles away. More than
300 sailors were killed, two-thirds of them black, because blacks
were given the hard jobs of ammunition loaders. "It was the
worst home front disaster of World War II," historian Robert
Allen writes in his book The Port Chicago Mutiny.
Three weeks later 328 of the survivors were asked to load
ammunition again; 258 of them refused, citing unsafe conditions.
They were immediately jailed. Fifty of them were then court-martialed
on a charge of mutiny, and received sentences ranging from eight
to fifteen years imprisonment. It took a massive campaign by the
NAACP and its counsel, Thurgood Marshall, to get the sentences
To the Japanese who lived on the West Coast of the United
States, it quickly became clear that the war against Hitler was
not accompanied by a spirit of racial equality. After the attack
by Japan on Pearl Harbor, anger rose against all people of Japanese
ancestry. One Congressman said, "I'm for catching every Japanese
in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration
camps.... Damn them! Let's get rid of them now!"
Hysteria grew. Roosevelt, persuaded by racists in the military
that the Japanese on the West Coast constituted a threat to the
security of the country, signed Executive Order 9066 in February
1942. This empowered the army, without warrants or indictments
or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast-110,000
men, women and children-to take them from their homes, to transport
them to camps far in the interior, and to keep them there under
Three-fourths of the Japanese so removed from their homes
were Nisei-children born in the United States of Japanese parents
and, therefore American citizens. The other fourth-the Issei,
born in Japan-were barred by law from becoming citizens. In 1944
the United States Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on
the grounds of military necessity.
Data uncovered in the 1980s by legal historian Peter Irons
showed that the army falsified material in its brief to the Supreme
Court. When Congress in 1983 was considering financial compensation
to the Japanese who had been removed from their homes and lost
their possessions during the war, John J. McCloy wrote an article
in The New York Times opposing such compensation, defending the
action as necessary. As Peter Irons discovered in his research,
it was McCloy, then assistant secretary of war, who had ordered
the deletion of a critical footnote in the Justice Department
brief to the Supreme Court, a footnote that cast great doubt on
the army's assertions that the Japanese living on the West Coast
were a threat to American security.
Michi Weglyn was a young girl when her family experienced
evacuation and detention. She tells in her book Years of Infamy
of bungling in the evacuation; of misery, confusion, and anger;
but also of Japanese-American dignity and of fighting back. There
were strikes, petitions, mass meetings, refusals to sign loyalty
oaths, and riots against the camp authorities.
Only a few Americans protested publicly. The press often helped
to feed racism. Reporting the bloody battle of Iwo Jima in the
Pacific, Time magazine said, "The ordinary unreasoning Jap
is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing indicates it."
In the 1970s, Peter Ota, then fifty-seven, was interviewed
by Studs Terkel. His parents had come from Japan in 1904, and
became respected members of the Los Angeles community. Ota was
born in the United States. He remembered what had happened in
On the evening of December 7, 1941, my father was at a wedding.
He was dressed in a tuxedo. When the reception was over, the FBI
agents were waiting. They rounded up at least a dozen wedding
guests and took'em to county jail.
For a few days we didn't know what happened. We heard nothing.
When we found out, my mother, my sister and myself went to jail..
When my father walked through the door my mother was so humiliated....
She cried. He was in prisoner's clothing, with a denim jacket
and a number on the back. The shame and humiliation just broke
her down.... Right after that day she got very ill and contracted
tuberculosis. She had to be sent to a sanitarium.... She was there
till she died....
My father was transferred to Missoula, Montana. We got letters
from him-censored, of course.... It was just my sister and myself
I was fifteen, she was twelve.... School in camp was a joke....
One of our basic subjects was American history. They talked about
freedom all the time. (Laughs.)
In England there was similar hysteria. People with German-sounding
names were picked up and interned. In the panic, a number of Jewish
refugees who had German names were arrested and thrown into the
same camps. There were thousands of Italians who were living in
England, and when Italy entered World War II in June of 1940,
Winston Churchill gave the order: "Collar the lot."
Italians were picked up and interned, the windows of Italian shops
and restaurants were smashed by patriotic mobs. A British ship
carrying Italian internees to Canada was sunk by a German submarine
and everyone drowned.
A War for Democracy?
It was supposed to be a war for freedom. But in the United
States, when Trotskyists and members of the Socialist Workers
Party spoke out in criticism of the war, eighteen of them were
prosecuted in 1943 in Minneapolis. The Smith Act, passed in 1940,
extended the anti-freespeech provisions of the World War I Espionage
Act to peacetime. It prohibited joining any group or publishing
any material that advocated revolution or that might lead to refusal
of military service. The Trotskyists were sentenced to prison
terms, and the Supreme Court refused to review their case.
Fortunes were made during the war, and wealth was concentrated
in fewer and fewer hands. By 1941 three-fourths of the value of
military contracts were handled by fifty-six large corporations.
Pressure was put on the labor unions to pledge they would not
strike. But they saw their wages frozen, and profits of corporations
rising, and so strikes went on. There were 14,000 strikes during
the war, involving over 6 million workers, more than in any comparable
period in American history.
An insight into what great profits were made during the war
came years later, when the mulitmillionaire John McCone was nominated
by President John F. Kennedy to head the CIA. The Senate Armed
Services Committee, considering the nomination, was informed that
in World War II, McCone and associates in a shipbuilding company
had made $44 million on an investment of $100,000. Reacting indignantly
to criticism of McCone, one of his supporters on the Senate committee
Sen. Symington: Now, it is still legal in America, if not
to make a profit, at least to try to make a profit, is it not?
McCone: That is my understanding.
Bruce Catton, a writer and historian working in Washington
during the war, commented bitingly on the retention of wealth
and power in the same hands, despite a war that seemed to promise
a new world of social reform. He wrote:
We were committed to a defeat of the Axis but to nothing
else.... It was solemnly decided that the war effort must not
be used to bring about social or economic reform and to him that
hath shall be given....
And through it all...the people were not trusted with the
facts or relied on to display that intelligence, sanity, and innate
decency of spirit, upon which democracy...finally rests. In a
very real sense, our government spent the war years looking desperately
for some safe middle ground between Hitler and Abraham Lincoln.
Dresden and Hiroshima
It becomes difficult to sustain the claim that a war is just
when both sides commit atrocities, unless one wants to argue that
their atrocities are worse than ours. True, nothing done by the
Allied Powers in World War II matches in utter viciousness the
deliberate gassing, shooting, and burning of six million Jews
and four million others by the Nazis. The deaths caused by the
Allies were less, but still so massive as to throw doubt on the
justice of a war that includes such acts.
Early in the war, various world leaders condemned the indiscriminate
bombing of city populations. Italy had bombed civilians in Ethiopia;
Japan, in China; Germany and Italy, in the Spanish Civil War.
Germany had dropped bombs on Rotterdam in Holland, on Coventry
in England and other places. Roosevelt described these bombings
as "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience
But very soon, the United States and Britain were doing the
same thing and on a far larger scale. When the Allied leaders
met at Casablanca in January 1943, they agreed on massive air
attacks to achieve "the destruction and dislocation of the
German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining
of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity
for armed resistance is fatally weakened." Churchill and
his advisers had decided that bombing working-class districts
of German cities would accomplish just that, "the undermining
of the morale of the German people."
The saturation bombing of the German cities began. There were
raids of a thousand planes on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, and Hamburg
The British flew at night and did "area bombing"
with no pretense of aiming at specific military targets.
The Americans flew in the daytime, pretending to precision,
but bombing from high altitudes made that impossible. When I was
doing my practice bombing in Deming, New Mexico, before going
overseas, our egos were built up by having us fly at 4,000 feet
and drop a bomb within twenty feet of the target. But at 11,000
feet, we were more likely to be 200 feet away. And when we flew
combat missions, we did it from 30,000 feet, and might miss by
a quarter of a mile. Hardly "precision bombing."
There was huge self-deception. We had been angered when the
Germans bombed cities and killed several hundred or a thousand
people. But now the British and Americans were killing tens of
thousands in a single air strike. Michael Sherry, in his study
of aerial bombing, notes that "so few in the air force asked
questions." Sherry says there was no dear thinking about
the effects of the bombing. Some generals objected, but were overruled
by civilians. The technology crowded out moral considerations.
Once the planes existed, targets had to be found.
It was terror bombing, and the German city of Dresden was
the extreme example. (The city and the event are immortalized
in fiction by Kurt Vonnegut's comic, bitter novel, Slaughterhouse
Five.) It was February, 1945, the Red Army was eighty miles to
the east and it was clear that Germany was on the way to defeat.
In one day and one night of bombing, by American and British planes,
the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum, and
an enormous firestorm swept the city, which was full of refugees
at the time, increasing the population to a million. More than
100,000 people died.
The British pilot of a Lancaster bomber recalled, "There
was a sea of fire covering in my estimation some forty square
miles. We were so aghast at the awesome blaze that although alone
over the city, we flew around in a stand-off position for many
minutes before turning for home, quite subdued by our imagination
of the horror that must be below."
One incident remembered by survivors is that on the afternoon
of February 14, 1945, American fighter planes machine-gunned clusters
of refugees on the banks of the Elbe. A German woman told of this
years later: "We ran along the Elbe stepping over the bodies."
Winston Churchill, who seemed to have no moral qualms about
his policy of indiscriminate bombing, described the annihilation
of Dresden in his wartime memoirs with a simple statement: "We
made a heavy raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre
of communication of Germany's Eastern Front."
At one point in the war Churchill ordered thousands of anthrax
bombs from a plant that was secretly producing them in the United
States. His chief science adviser, Lord Cherwell, had informed
him in February 1944: "Any animal breathing in minute quantities
of these N (anthrax) spores is extremely likely to die suddenly
but peacefully within the week. There is no known cure and no
effective prophylaxis. There is little doubt that it is equally
lethal to human beings." He told Churchill that a half dozen
bombers could carry enough four-pound anthrax bombs to kill everyone
within a square mile. However, production delays got in the way
of this plan.
The actor Richard Burton once wrote an article for The New
York Times about his experience playing the role of Winston Churchill
in a television drama:
In the course of preparing myself...I realized afresh that
I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently.
They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through
history.... What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities
committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners
of war, "We shall wipe them out, everyone of them, men, women,
and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of
the earth"? Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave
me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and
When Burton's statement appeared in the "Arts and Leisure"
section of The New York Times, he was banned from future BBC productions.
The supervisor of drama productions for BBC said, "As far
as I am concerned, he will never work for us again.. Burton acted
in an unprofessional way." It seems that however moral is
the cause that initiates a war (in the minds of the public, in
the mouths of the politicians), it is in the nature of war to
corrupt that morality until the rule becomes "An eye for
an eye, a tooth for a tooth," and soon it is not a matter
of equivalence, but indiscriminate revenge.
The policy of saturation bombing became even more brutal when
B29s, with carried twice the bombload as the planes we flew in
Europe, attacked Japanese cities with incendiaries, turning them
In one raid on Tokyo, after midnight on March 10, 1945, 300
B29s left the city in flames, fanned by a strong northwest wind.
The fires could be seen by pilots 150 miles out in the Pacific
Ocean. A million people were left homeless. It is estimated that
100,000 people died that night. Many of them attempting to escape
leaped into the Sumida River and drowned. A Japanese novelist
who was twelve years old at the time, described the scene years
later: "The fire was like a living thing. It ran, just like
a creature chasing us."
By the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (August
6, 1945) and another on Nagasaki (three days later), the moral
line had been crossed psychologically by the massive bombings
in Europe and by the fire bombings of Tokyo and other cities.
The bomb on Hiroshima left perhaps 140,000 dead; the one on
Nagasaki, 70,000 dead. Another 130,000 died in the next five years.
Hundreds of thousands of others were left radiated and maimed.
These numbers are based on the most detailed report that exists
on the effects of the bombings; it was compiled by thirty-four
Japanese specialists and was published in 1981.
The deception and self-deception that accompanied these atrocities
was remarkable. Truman told the public, "The world will note
that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military
base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid,
insofar as possible, the killing of civilians."
Even the possibility that American prisoners of war would
be killed in these bombings did not have any effect on the plans.
On July 31, nine days before Nagasaki was bombed, the headquarters
of the U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces on Guam (the take-off airfield
for the atomic bombings) sent a message to the War Department:
Reports prisoner of war sources not verified by photo give
location of Allied prisoner-of-war camp, one mile north of center
of city of Nagasaki. Does this influence the choice of this target
for initial Centerboard operation? Request immediate reply.
The reply came, "Targets previously assigned for Centerboard
The terrible momentum of war continued even after the bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end of the war was a few days away,
yet B29s continued their missions. On August 14, five days after
the Nagasaki bombing and the day before the actual acceptance
of surrender terms, 449 B29s went out from the Marianas for a
daylight strike and 372 more went out that night. Altogether,
more than 1,000 planes were sent to bomb Japanese cities. There
were no American losses. The last plane had not yet returned when
Truman announced the Japanese had surrendered.
Japanese writer Oda Makoto describes that August 14 in Osaka,
where he lived. He was a boy. He went out into the streets and
found in the midst of the corpses American leaflets written in
Japanese, which had been dropped with the bombs: Your government
has surrendered; the war is over."
The American public, already conditioned to massive bombing,
accepted the atomic bombings with equanimity, indeed with joy.
I remember my own reaction. When the war ended in Europe, my crew
flew our plane back to the United States. We were given a thirty-day
furlough and then had to report for duty to be sent to Japan to
continue bombing. My wife and I decided to spend that time in
the countryside. Waiting for the bus to take us, I picked up the
morning newspaper, August 7, 1945. The headline was "Atomic
Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima." My immediate reaction was elation:
"The war will end. I won't have to go to the Pacific."
I had no idea what the explosion of the atomic bomb had done
to the men, women, and children of Hiroshima. It was abstract
and distant, as were the deaths of the people from the bombs I
had dropped in Europe from a height of six miles; I was unable
to see anything below, there was no visible blood, and there were
no audible screams. And I knew nothing of the imminence of a Japanese
surrender. It was only later when I read John Hersey's Hiroshima,
when I read the testimony of Japanese survivors, and when I studied
the history of the decision to drop the bomb that I was outraged
by what had been done.
It seems that once an initial judgment has been made that
a war is just, there is a tendency to stop thinking, to assume
then that everything done on behalf of victory is morally acceptable.
I had myself participated in the bombing of cities, without even
considering whether there was any relationship between what I
was doing and the elimination of fascism in the world. Thus a
war that apparently begins with a "good" cause- stopping
aggression, helping victims, or punishing brutality-ends with
its own aggression, creates more victims than before, and brings
out more brutality than before, on both sides. The Holocaust,
a plan made and executed in the ferocious atmosphere of war, and
the saturation bombings, also created in the frenzy of war, are
evidence of this.
The good cause in World War II was the defeat of fascism.
And, in fact, it ended with that defeat: the corpse of Mussolini
hanging in the public square in Milan; Hitler burned to death
in his underground bunker; Tojo, captured and sentenced to death
by an international tribunal. But forty million people were dead,
and the elements of fascism- militarism, racism, imperialism,
dictatorship, ferocious nationalism, and war-were still at large
in the postwar world.
Two of those forty million were my closest Air Force friends,
Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin. We had suffered through basic training
and rode horses and flew Piper Cubs in Burlington, Vermont, and
played basketball at Santa Ana before going our own ways to different
combat zones. Both were killed in the final weeks of the war.
For years afterward, they appeared in my dreams. In my waking
hours, the question grew: What did they really die for?
We were victorious over fascism, but this left two superpowers
dominating the world, vying for control of other nations, carving
out new spheres of influence, on a scale even larger than that
attempted by the Fascist powers. Both superpowers supported dictatorships
all over the world: the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the
United States in Latin America, Korea, and the Philippines.
The war machines of the Axis powers were destroyed, but the
Soviet Union and the United States were building military machines
greater than the world had ever seen, piling up frightful numbers
of nuclear weapons, soon equivalent to a million Hiroshima-type
bombs. They were preparing for a war to keep the peace, they said
(this had also been said before World War I) but those preparations
were such that if war took place (by accident? by miscalculation?)
it would make the Holocaust look puny.
Hitler's aggression was over but wars continued, which the
superpowers either initiated or fed with military aid or observed
without attempting to halt them. Two million people died in Korea;
two to five million in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; one million
in Indonesia; perhaps two million in the Nigerian civil war; one
million in the Iran-Iraq War; and many more in Latin America,
Africa, and the Middle East. It is estimated that, in the forty
years after 1945, there were 150 wars, with twenty million casualties.
The victorious and morally righteous superpowers stood by
in the postwar world while millions-more than had died in Hitler's
Holocaust-starved to death. They made gestures, but allowed national
ambitions and interpower rivalries to stand in the way of saving
the hungry. A United Nations official reported, with great bitterness
in pursuit of political objectives in the Nigerian Civil
War, a number of great and small nations, including Britain and
the United States, worked to prevent supplies of food and medicine
from reaching the starving children of rebel Biafra.
Swept up in the obvious rightness of a crusade to rid the
world of fascism, most people supported or participated in that
crusade, to the point of risking their lives. But there were skeptics,
especially among the nonwhite peoples of the world-blacks in the
United States and the colonized millions of the British Empire
(Gandhi withheld his support).
The extraordinary black writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote her
memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, at the start of World War II. Just
before it was to come out, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,
and her publisher, Lippincott, removed a section of the book in
which she wrote bitterly about the "democracies" of
the West and their hypocrisy. She said:
All around me, bitter tears are being shed over the fate
of Holland, Belgium, France and England. I must confess to being
a little dry around the eyes. I hear people shaking with shudders
at the thought of Germany collecting taxes in Holland. I have
not heard a word against Holland collecting one twelfth of poor
people's wages in Asia. Hitler's crime is that he is actually
doing a thing like that to his own kind....
As I see it, the doctrines of democracy deal with the aspirations
of men's souls, but the application deals with things. One hand
in somebody else's pocket and one on your gun, and you are highly
civilized.... Desire enough for your own use only, and you are
a heathen. Civilized people have things to show to their neighbors.
The editor at Lippincott wrote on her manuscript, "Suggest
eliminating international opinions as irrelevant to autobiography."
Only when the book was reissued in 1984 did the censored passages
Hurston, in a letter she wrote to a journalist friend in 1946,
showed her indignation at the hypocrisy that accompanied the war:
I am amazed at the complacency of Negro press and public.
Truman is a monster. I can think of him as nothing else but the
Butcher of Asia. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order to
drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops in China
who are shooting the starving Chinese for stealing a handful of
Some white writers were resistant to the fanaticism of war.
After it was over, Joseph Heller wrote his biting, brilliant satire
Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five. In the 1957
film Bridge on the River Kwai, the Japanese military is obsessed
with building a bridge, and the British are obsessed with destroying
it. At the end it is blown up and a British lieutenant, barely
surviving, looks around at the river strewn with corpses and mutters:
There were pacifists in the United States who went to prison
rather than participate in World War II. There were 350,000 draft
evaders in the United States. Six thousand men went to prison
as conscientious objectors; one out of every six inmates in U.S.
federal prisons was a conscientious objector to the war.
But the general mood in the United States was support. Liberals,
conservatives, and Communists agreed that it was a just war. Only
a few voices were raised publicly in Europe and the United States
to question the motives of the participants, the means by which
the war was being conducted, and the ends that would be achieved.
Very few tried to stand back from the battle and take a long view.
One was the French worker-philosopher Simone Weil. Early in 1945
she wrote in a new magazine called Politics:
Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship
or the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus-the
bureaucracy, the police, the military.... No matter what the circumstances,
the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to
this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all
human values in ourselves and in others.
The editor of Politics was an extraordinary American intellectual
named Dwight MacDonald, who with his wife, Nancy, produced the
magazine as an outlet for unorthodox points of view. After the
bombing of Hiroshima, MacDonald refused to join in the general
jubilation. He wrote with a fury:
The CONCEPTS "WAR" AND "PROGRESS" ARE
NOW OBSOLETE...THE FUTILITY OF MODERN WARFARE SHOULD NOW BE CLEAR.
Must we not now conclude, with Simone Weil, that the technical
aspect of war today is the evil, regardless of political factors?
Can one imagine that the atomic bomb could ever be used "in
a good cause"?
But what was the alternative to war, with Germany on the march
in Europe, Japan on its rampage through Asia, and Italy looking
for empire? This is the toughest possible question. Once the history
of an epoch has run its course, it is very difficult to imagine
an alternate set of events, to imagine that some act or acts might
set in motion a whole new train of circumstances, leading in a
Would it have been possible to trade time and territory for
human life? Was there an alternative preferable to using the most
modern weapons of destruction for mass annihilation? Can we try
to imagine instead of a six-year war a ten-year or twenty-year
period of resistance; of guerrilla warfare, strikes, and non-cooperation;
of underground movements, sabotage, and paralysis of vital communication
and transportation; and of clandestine propaganda for the organization
of a larger and larger opposition?
Even in the midst of war, some nations occupied by the Nazis
were able to resist: the Danes, the Norweigians, and the Bulgarians
refused to give up their Jews. Gene Sharp, on the basis of his
study of resistance movements in World War II, writes:
During the second World War-in such occupied countries as
the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark-patriots resisted their Nazi
overlords and internal puppets by such weapons as underground
newspapers, labor slowdowns, general strikes, refusal of collaboration,
special boycotts of German troops and quislings, and non-cooperation
with fascist controls and efforts to restructure their societies'
Guerrilla warfare is more selective, its violence more limited
and more discriminate, than conventional war. It is less centralized
and more democratic by nature, requiring the commitment, the initiative,
and the cooperation of ordinary people who do not need to be conscripted,
but who are motivated by their desire for freedom and justice.
History is full of instances of successful resistance (although
we are not informed very much about this) without violence and
against tyranny, by people using strikes, boycotts, propaganda,
and a dozen different ingenious forms of struggle. Gene Sharp,
in his book The Politics of Non-violent Action, records hundreds
of instances and dozens of methods of action.
Since the end of World War II, we have seen dictatorships
overthrown by mass movements that mobilized so much popular opposition
that the tyrant finally had to flee in Iran, in Nicaragua, in
the Philippines, and in Haiti. Granted, the Nazi machine was formidable,
efficient, and ruthless.
But there are limits to conquest. A point is reached where
the conqueror has swallowed too much territory, has to control
too many people. Great empires have fallen when it was thought
they would last forever.
We have seen, in the Eighties, mass movements of protest arise
in the tightly controlled Communist countries of Eastern Europe,
forcing dramatic changes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria,
Rumania, and East Germany. The Spanish people, having lost a million
lives in their civil war, waited out Franco. He died, as all men
do, and the dictatorship was over. For Portugal, the resistance
in its outlying African Empire weakened control; corruption grew
and the long dictatorship of Salazar was overthrown-without a
There is a fable written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht
that goes roughly like this: A man living alone answers a knock
at the door. When he opens it, he sees in the doorway the powerful
body, the cruel face, of The Tyrant. The Tyrant asks, "Will
you submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. The
Tyrant enters and establishes himself in the man's house. The
man serves him for years. Then The Tyrant becomes sick from food
poisoning. He dies. The man wraps the body, opens the door, gets
rids of the body, comes back to his house, closes the door behind
him, and says, firmly, "No."
Violence is not the only form of power. Sometimes it is the
least effective. Always it is the most vicious, for the perpetrator
as well as for the victim. And it is corrupting.
Immediately after the war, Albert Camus, the great French
writer who fought in the underground against the Nazis, wrote
in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance. In his
essay called "Neither Victims Nor Executioners," he
considered the tens of millions of dead caused by the war and
asked that the world reconsider fanaticism and violence:
All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we
agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.... Over the expanse
of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle
is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion,
a struggle in which, granted, the
former has a thousand times the chances of success than has
the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes
on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances
is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be
to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more
powerful than munitions.
Whatever alternative scenarios we can imagine to replace World
War II and its mountain of corpses, it really doesn't matter any
more. That was is over. The practical effect of declaring World
War II just is not for that war, but for the wars that follow.
And that effect has been a dangerous one, because the glow of
rightness that accompanied that war has been transferred, by false
analogy and emotional carryover, to other wars. To put it another
way, perhaps the worst consequence of World War II is that it
kept alive the idea that war could be just.
Looking at World War II in perspective, looking at the world
it created and the terror that grips our century, should we not
bury for all time the idea of just war?
Some of the participants in that "good war" had
second thoughts. Former GI Tommy Bridges, who after the war became
a policeman in Michigan, expressed his feelings to Studs Terkel:
It was a useless war, as every war is.... How gaddamn foolish
it is, the war. They's no war in the world that's worth fighting
for, I don't care where it is. They can't tell me any different.
Money, money is the thing that causes it all. I wouldn't be a
bit surprised that the people that start wars and promote'em are
the men that make the money, make the ammunition, make the clothing
and so forth. Just think of the poor kids that are starvin' to
death in Asia and so forth that could be fed with how much you
make one big shell out o£
Higher up in the military ranks was Admiral Gene LaRocque,
who also spoke to Studs Terkel about the war:
I had been in thirteen battle engagements, had sunk a submarine,
and was the first man ashore in the landing at Roi. In that four
years, I thought, What a hell of a waste of a man's life. I lost
a lot of friends. I had the task of telling my roommate's parents
about our last days together. You lose limbs, sight, part of your
life-for what? Old men send young men to war. Flag, banners, and
We've institutionalized militarism. This came out of World
War Two.... It gave us the National Security Council. It gave
us the CIA, that is able to spy on you and me this very moment.
For the first time in the history of man, a country has divided
up the world into military districts.... You could argue World
War Two had to be fought. Hitler had to be stopped. Unfortunately,
we translate it unchanged to the situation today....
I hate it when they say, "He gave his life for his country."
Nobody gives their life for anything. We steal the lives of these
kids. We take it away from them. They don't die for the honor
and glory of their country. We kill them.
Granted that we have started in this century with the notion
of just war, we don't have to keep it. Perhaps the change in our
thinking can be as dramatic, as clear, as that in the life of
a French general, whose obituary in 1986 was headed: "Gen.
Jacques Paris de Bollardiere, War Hero Who Became a Pacifist,
Dead at the age of 78."
He had served in the Free French Forces in Africa during World
War II, later parachuted into France and Holland to organize the
Resistance, and commanded an airborne unit in Indochina from 1946
to 1953. But in 1957, according to the obituary, he "caused
an uproar in the French army when he asked to be relieved of his
command in Algeria to protest the torture of Algerian rebels.
In 1961 he began to speak out against militarism and nuclear weapons.
He created an organization called The Alternative Movement for
Non-Violence and in 1973 participated in a protest expedition
to France's South Pacific nuclear testing site.
It remains to be seen how many people in our time will make
that journey from war to nonviolent action against war. It is
the great challenge or our time: How to achieve justice, with
struggle, but without war.
Zinn On War