A People's War?
excerpted from a
People's History of the United States
by Howard Zinn
For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless
countries [World War II] matched its image in American high school
history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had
instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It
had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted
itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of
intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought
a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had "opened"
Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared
an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United
States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers
in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations,
to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for
over thirty years.
While demanding an Open Door in China, it had insisted (with
the Monroe Doctrine and many military interventions) on a Closed
Door in Latin America-that is, closed to everyone but the United
States. It had engineered a revolution against Colombia and created
the "independent" state of Panama in order to build
and control the Canal. It sent five thousand marines to Nicaragua
in 1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for seven
years. It intervened in the Dominican Republic for the fourth
time in 1916 and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened
for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for
nineteen years. Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened
in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in
Guatemala once, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances
of half of the twenty Latin American states were being directed
to some extent by the United States. By 1935, over half of U.S.
steel and cotton exports were being sold in Latin America.
Just before World War I ended, in 1918, an American force
of seven thousand landed at Vladivostok as part of an Allied intervention
in Russia, and remained until early 19~0. Five thousand more troops
were landed at Archangel, another Russian port, also as part of
an Allied expeditionary force, and stayed for almost a year. The
State Department told Congress: "All these operations were
to offset effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia."
In short, if the entrance of the United States into World
War II was (as so many Americans believed at the time, observing
the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of nonintervention
in the affairs of other countries, the nation's record cast doubt
on its ability to uphold that principle.
What seemed clear at the time was that the United States was
a democracy with certain liberties, while Germany was a dictatorship
persecuting its Jewish minority, imprisoning dissidents, whatever
their religion, while proclaiming the supremacy of the Nordic
"race." How ever, blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in
Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much
different. And the United States had done little about Hitler's
policies of persecution. Indeed, it had joined England and France
in appeasing Hitler throughout the thirties. Roosevelt and his
Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, were hesitant to criticize publicly
Hitler's anti-Semitic policies; when a resolution was introduced
in the Senate in January 1934 asking the Senate and the President
to express "surprise and pain" at what the Germans were
doing to the Jews, and to ask restoration of Jewish rights, the
State Department "caused this resolution to be buried in
committee," according to Arnold Offner (American Appeasement).
When Mussolini's Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S.
declared an embargo on munitions but let American businesses send
oil to Italy in huge quantities, which was essential to Italy's
carrying on the war. When a Fascist rebellion took place in Spain
in 1936 against the elected socialist-liberal government, the
Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act that had the
effect of shutting off help to the Spanish government while Hitler
and Mussolini gave critical aid to Franco.
"... the United States went beyond even the legal requirements
of its neutrality legislation. Had aid been forthcoming from the
United States and from England and France, considering that Hitler's
position on aid to Franco was not firm at least until November
1936, the Spanish Republicans could well have triumphed. Instead,
Germany gained every advantage from the Spanish civil war."
Was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was
it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was
not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the
United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet
policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S.
world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable.
It was not Hitler's attacks on the Jews that brought the United
States into World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million
blacks brought Civil War in 1861. Italy's attack on Ethiopia,
Hitler's invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia,
his attack on Poland-none of those events caused the United States
to enter the war, although Roosevelt did begin to give important
aid to England. What brought the United States fully into the
war was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl
Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane
concern for Japan's bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt's
outraged call for war-Japan's attack on China in 1937, her bombing
of civilians at Nanking, had not provoked the United States to
war. It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific
Empire that did it.
Quietly, behind the headlines in battles and bombings, American
diplomats and businessmen worked hard to make sure that when the
war ended, American economic power would be second to none in
the world. United States business would penetrate areas that up
to this time had been dominated by England. The Open Door Policy
of equal access would be extended from Asia to Europe, meaning
that the United States intended to push England aside and move
The plight of Jews in German-occupied Europe, which many people
thought was at the heart of the war against the Axis, was not
a chief concern of Roosevelt. Henry Feingold's research (The Politics
of Rescue) shows that, while the Jews were being put in camps
and the process of annihilation was beginning that would end in
the horrifying extermination of 6 million Jews and millions of
non-Jews, Roosevelt failed to take steps that might have saved
thousands of lives. He did not see it as a high priority; he left
it to the State Department, and in the State Department anti-Semitism
and a cold bureaucracy became obstacles to action.
Was the war being fought to establish that Hitler was wrong
in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over "inferior"
races? The United States' armed forces were segregated by race.
When troops were jammed onto the Queen Mary in early 1945 to go
to combat duty in the European theater, the blacks were stowed
down in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as
possible from the fresh air of the deck, in a bizarre reminder
of the slave voyages of old.
The Red Cross, with government approval, separated the blood
donations of black and white. It was, ironically, a black physician
named Charles Drew who developed the blood bank system. He was
put in charge of the wartime donations, and then fired when he
tried to end blood segregation. Despite the urgent need for wartime
labor, blacks were still being discriminated against for jobs.
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
employ them." Roosevelt never did any thing to enforce the
orders of the Fair Employment Practices Commission he had set
The Fascist nations were notorious in their insistence that
the woman's place was in the home. Yet, the war against Fascism,
although it utilized women in defense industries where they were
desperately needed, took no special steps to change the subordinate
role of women. The War Manpower Commission, despite the large
numbers of women in war work, kept women off its policymaking
bodies. A report of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor,
by its director, Mary Anderson, said the War Manpower Commission
had "doubts and uneasiness" about "what was then
regarded as a developing attitude of militancy or a crusading
spirit on the part of women leaders...."
In one of its policies, the United States came close to direct
duplication of Fascism. This was in its treatment of the Japanese-Americans
living on the West Coast. After the Pearl Harbor attack, anti-Japanese
hysteria spread in the government. 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!"
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly
signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army
the power, 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, transport them to
camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison
conditions. Three-fourths of these 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 Supreme Court upheld the forced
evacuation on the grounds of military necessity. The Japanese
remained in those camps for over three years.
Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of patriotism and total
dedication to winning the war, despite the no-strike pledges of
the AFL and CIO, many of the nation's workers, frustrated by the
freezing of wages while business profits rocketed skyward, went
on strike. During the war, there were fourteen thousand strikes,
involving 6,770,000 workers, more than in any comparable period
in American history. In 1944 alone a million workers were on strike,
in the mines, in the steel mills, in the auto and transportation
When the war ended, the strikes continued in record numbers-
3 million on strike in the first half of 1946. According to Jeremy
Brecher (Strike!), if not for the disciplinary hand of the unions
there might have been "a general confrontation between the
workers of a great many industries, and the government, supporting
A few voices continued to insist that the real war was inside
each nation: Dwight Macdonald's wartime magazine Politics presented,
in early 1945, an article by the French worker-philosopher Simone
"Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship
of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus-the
bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across
the frontier or the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy
as our brothers' enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector
and makes us its slaves. 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."
Still, the vast bulk of the American population was mobilized,
in the army, and in civilian life, to fight the war, and the atmosphere
of war enveloped more and more Americans. Public opinion polls
show large majorities of soldiers favoring the draft for the postwar
period. Hatred against the enemy, against the Japanese particularly,
became widespread. Racism was clearly at work. Time magazine,
reporting the battle of Iwo Jima, said: "The ordinary unreasoning
Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing ... indicates it."
So, there was a mass base of support for what became the heaviest
bombardment of civilians ever undertaken in any war: the aerial
attacks on German and Japanese cities. One might argue that this
popular support made it a "people's war." But if "people's
war" means a war of people against attack, a defensive war-if
it means a war fought for humane reasons instead of for the privileges
of an elite, a war against the few, not the many-then the tactics
of all-out aerial assault against the populations of Germany and
Japan destroy that notion.
Italy had bombed cities in the Ethiopian war; Italy and Germany
had bombed civilians in the Spanish Civil War; at the start of
World War II German planes dropped bombs on Rotterdam in Holland,
Coventry in England, and elsewhere. Roosevelt had described these
as "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience
These German bombings were very small compared with the British
and American bombings of German cities. In January 1943 the Allies
met at Casablanca and agreed on large-scale 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." And so, the saturation bombing
of German cities began- with thousand-plane raids on Cologne,
Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg. The English flew at night with no pretense
of aiming at "military" targets; the Americans flew
in the daytime and pretended precision, but bombing from high
altitudes made that impossible. The climax of this terror bombing
was the bombing of Dresden in early 1945, in which the tremendous
heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum into which fire leaped
swiftly in a great firestorm through the city. More than 100,000
died in Dresden. (Winston Churchill, in his wartime memoirs, confined
himself to this account of the incident: "We made a heavy
raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a center of communication
of Germany's Eastern Front.")
The bombing of Japanese cities continued the strategy of saturation
bombing to destroy civilian morale; one nighttime fire-bombing
of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. And then, on August 6, 1945, came
the lone American plane in the sky over Hiroshima, dropping the
first atomic bomb, leaving perhaps 100,000 Japanese dead, and
tens of thousands more slowly dying from radiation poisoning.
Twelve U.S. navy fliers in the Hiroshima city jail were killed
in the bombing, a fact that the U.S. government has never officially
acknowledged, according to historian Martin Sherwin (A World Destroyed).
Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city
of Nagasaki, with perhaps 50,000 killed.
The justification for these atrocities was that this would
end the war quickly, making unnecessary an invasion of Japan.
Such an invasion would cost a huge number of lives, the government
said-a million, according to Secretary of State Byrnes; half a
million, Truman claimed was the figure given him by General George
Marshall. (When the papers of the Manhattan Project-the project
to build the atom bomb-were released years later, they showed
that Marshall urged a warning to the Japanese about the bomb,
so people could be removed and only military targets hit.) These
estimates of invasion losses were not realistic, and seem to have
been pulled out of the air to justify bombings which, as their
effects became known, horrified more and more people. Japan, by
August 1945, was in desperate shape and ready to surrender. New
York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote, shortly after
The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic
position by the time the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender
was made on July 26.
Such then, was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and
Need we have done it? No one can, of course, be positive,
but the answer is almost certainly negative.
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, set up by the
War Department in 1944 to study the results of aerial attacks
in the war, interviewed hundreds of Japanese civilian and military
leaders after Japan surrendered, and reported just after the war:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported
by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it
is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945,
and in all probability prior to I November 1945, Japan would have
surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even
if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had
been planned or contemplated.
But could American leaders have known this in August 1945?
The answer is, clearly, yes. The Japanese code had been broken,
and Japan's messages were being intercepted- It was known the
Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on
peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had begun
talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself
had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting
to the end be considered On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori
Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: "Unconditional surrender
is the only obstacle to peace...." Martin Sherwin, after
an exhaustive study of the relevant historical documents, concludes:
"Having broken the Japanese code before the war, American
Intelligence was able to-and did-relay this message to the President,
but it had no effect whatever on efforts to bring the war to a
If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender-that
is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender,
that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place-the
Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.
Why did the United States not take that small step to save
both American and Japanese lives? Was it because too much money
and effort had been invested in the atomic bomb not to drop it?
General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described
Truman as a man on a toboggan, the momentum too great to stop
it. Or was it, as British scientist P. M. S. Blackett suggested
(Fear, War, and the Bomb), that the United States was anxious
to drop the bomb before the Russians entered the war against Japan?
The Russians had secretly agreed (they were officially not
at war with Japan) they would come into the war ninety days after
the end of the European war. That turned out to be May 8, and
so, on August 8, the Russians were due to declare war on Japan.
But by then the big bomb had been dropped, and the next day a
second one would be dropped on Nagasaki; the Japanese would surrender
to the United States, not the Russians, and the United States
would be the occupier of postwar Japan. In other words, Blackett
says, the dropping of the bomb was "the first major operation
of the cold diplomatic war with Russia...."
The victors were the Soviet Union and the United States (also
England, France and Nationalist China, but they were weak). Both
these countries now went to work-without swastikas, goose-stepping,
or officially declared racism, but under the cover of "socialism"
on one side, and "democracy" on the other, to carve
out their own empires of influence. They proceeded to share and
contest with one another the domination of the world, to build
military machines far greater than the Fascist countries had built,
to control the destinies of more countries than Hitler, Mussolini,
and Japan had been able to do. They also acted to control their
own populations, each country with its own techniques-crude in
the Soviet Union, sophisticated in the United States-to make their
The war not only put the United States in a position to dominate
much of the world; it created conditions for effective control
at home. The unemployment, the economic distress, and the consequent
turmoil that had marked the thirties, only partly relieved by
New Deal measures, had been pacified, overcome by the greater
turmoil of the war. The war brought higher prices for farmers,
higher wages, enough prosperity for enough of the population to
assure against the rebellions that so threatened the thirties.
As Lawrence Wittner writes, "The war rejuvenated American
capitalism." The biggest gains were in corporate profits,
which rose from $6.4 billion in 1940 to $10.8 billion in 1944.
But enough went to workers and farmers to make them feel the system
was doing well for them.
It was an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves
problems of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General
Electric Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation
that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the
military for "a permanent war economy."
That is what happened. When, right after the war, the American
public, war-weary, seemed to favor demobilization and disarmament
the Truman administration (Roosevelt had died in April 1945) worked
to create an atmosphere of crisis and cold war. True, the rivalry
with the Soviet Union was real-that country had come out of the
war with its economy wrecked and 20 million people dead, but was
making an astounding comeback, rebuilding its industry, regaining
military strength. The Truman administration, however, presented
the Soviet Union as not just a rival but an immediate threat.
In a series of moves abroad and at home, it established a
climate of fear-a hysteria about Communism-which would steeply
escalate the military budget and stimulate the economy with war-related
orders. This combination of policies would permit more aggressive
actions abroad, more repressive actions at home.
Revolutionary movements in Europe and Asia were described
to the American public as examples of Soviet expansionism-thus
recalling the indignation against Hitler's aggressions. In Greece,
which had been a right-wing monarchy and dictatorship before the
war, a popular left-wing National Liberation Front (the EAM) was
put down by a British army of intervention immediately after the
war. A right-wing dictatorship was restored. When opponents of
the regime were jailed, and trade union leaders removed, a left-wing
guerrilla movement began to grow against the regime, soon consisting
of 17,000 fighters, 50,000 active supporters, and perhaps 250,000
sympathizers, in a country of 7 million. Great Britain said it
could not handle the rebellion, and asked the United States to
come in. As a State Department officer said later: "Great
Britain had within the hour handed the job of world leadership
. . . to the United States." The United States responded
with the Truman Doctrine, the name given to a speech Truman gave
to Congress in the spring of 1947, in which he asked for $400
million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. Truman
said the U.S. must help "free peoples who are resisting attempted
subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
In fact, the biggest outside pressure was the United States. The
Greek rebels were getting some aid from Yugoslavia, but no aid
from the Soviet Union, which during the war had promised Churchill
a free hand in Greece if he would give the Soviet Union its way
in Rumania, Poland, Bulgaria. The Soviet Union, like the United
States, did not seem to be willing to help revolutions it could
Truman said the world "must choose between alternative
ways of life." One was based on "the will of the majority
. . . distinguished by free institutions"; the other was
based on "the will of a minority . . . terror and oppression
. . . the suppression of personal freedoms." Truman's adviser
Clark Clifford had suggested that in his message Truman connect
the intervention in Greece to something less rhetorical, more
practical-"the great natural resources of the Middle East"
(Clifford meant oil), but Truman didn't mention that.
The United States moved into the Greek civil war, not with
soldiers, but with weapons and military advisers. In the last
five months of 1947, 74,000 tons of military equipment were sent
by the United States to the right-wing government in Athens, including
artillery, dive bombers, and stocks of napalm. Two hundred and
fifty army officers, headed by General James Van Fleet, advised
the Greek army in the field. Van Fleet started a policy-standard
in dealing with popular insurrections- of forcibly removing thousands
of Greeks from their homes in the countryside, to try to isolate
the guerrillas, to remove the source of their support.
With that aid, the rebellion was defeated by 1949. United
States economic and military aid continued to the Greek government.
Investment capital from Esso, Dow Chemical, Chrysler, and other
U.S. corporations flowed into Greece. But illiteracy, poverty,
and starvation remained widespread there, with the country in
the hands of what Richard Barnet (Intervention and Revolution)
called "a particularly brutal and backward military dictatorship."
In China, a revolution was already under way when World War
II ended, led by a Communist movement with enormous mass support.
A Red Army, which had fought against the Japanese, now fought
to oust the corrupt dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, which was
supported by the United States. The United States by 1949, had
given $2 billion in aid to Chiang Kai-shek's forces, but, according
to the State Department's own White Paper on China, Chiang Kai-shek's
government had lost the confidence of its own troops and its own
people. In January 1949, Chinese Communist forces moved into Peking,
the civil war was over, and China was in the hands of a revolutionary
movement, the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient
country, to a people's government, independent of outside control.
The United States was trying, in the postwar decade, to create
a national consensus-excluding the radicals, who could not support
a foreign policy aimed at suppressing revolution-of conservatives
and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, around the policies of
cold war and anti-Communism. Such a coalition could best be created
by a liberal Democratic President, whose aggressive policy abroad
would be sup ported by conservatives, and whose welfare programs
at home (Truman's "Fair Deal") would be attractive to
liberals. If, in addition, liberals and traditional Democrats
could-the memory of the war was still fresh-support a foreign
policy against "aggression," the radical-liberal bloc
created by World War II would be broken up. And perhaps, if the
anti-Communist mood became strong enough, liberals could support
repressive moves at home which in ordinary times would be seen
as violating the liberal tradition of tolerance. In 1950, there
came an event that speeded the formation of the liberal-conservative
consensus-Truman's undeclared war in Korea.
Korea, occupied by Japan for thirty-five years, was liberated
from Japan after World War II and divided into North Korea, a
socialist dictatorship, part of the Soviet sphere of influence,
and South Korea, a right-wing dictatorship, in the American sphere.
There had been threats back and forth between the two Koreas,
and when on June 25, 1950, North Korean armies moved southward
across the 38th parallel in an invasion of South Korea, the United
Nations, dominated by the United States, asked its members to
help "repel the armed attack." Truman ordered the American
armed forces to help South Korea, and the American army became
the U.N. army. Truman said: "A return to the rule of force
in international affairs would have far-reaching effects. The
United States will continue to uphold the rule of law."
The United States' response to "the rule of force"
was to reduce Korea, North and South, to a shambles, in three
years of bombing and shelling. Napalm was dropped, and a BBC journalist
described the result:
In front of us a curious figure was standing, a little crouched,
legs straddled, arms held out from his sides. He had no eyes,
and the whole of his body, nearly all of which was visible through
tatters of burnt rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled
with yellow pus.... He had to stand because he was no longer covered
with a skin, but with a crust-like crackling which broke easily....
I thought of the hundreds of villages reduced to ash which I personally
had seen and realized the sort of casualty list which must be
mounting up along the Korean front.
Perhaps 2 million Koreans, North and South, were killed in
the Korean war, all in the name of opposing "the rule of
force." As for the rule of law Truman spoke about, the American
military moves seemed to go beyond that. The U.N. resolution had
called for action "to repel the armed attack and to restore
peace and security in the area." But the American armies,
after pushing the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel,
advanced all the way up through North Korea to the Yalu River,
on the border of China-which provoked the Chinese into entering
the war. The Chinese then swept southward and the war was stalemated
at the 38th parallel until peace negotiations restored, in 1953,
the old boundary between North and South.
The Korean war mobilized liberal opinion behind the war and
the President. It created the kind of coalition that was needed
to sustain a policy of intervention abroad, militarization of
the economy at home. This meant trouble for those who stayed outside
the coalition as radical critics. Alonzo Hamby noted (Beyond the
New Deal) that the Korean war was supported by The New Republic,
by The Nation, and by Henry Wallace (who in 1948 had run against
Truman on a left coalition Progressive party ticket). The liberals
didn't like Senator Joseph McCarthy (who hunted for Communists
everywhere, even among liberals), but the Korean war, as Hamby
says, "had given McCarthyism a new lease on life."
The left had become very influential in the hard times of
the thirties, and during the war against Fascism. The actual membership
of the Communist party was not large-fewer than 100,000 probably-but
it was a potent force in trade unions numbering millions of members,
in the arts, and among countless Americans who may have been led
by the failure of the capitalist system in the thirties to look
favorably on Communism and Socialism. Thus, if the Establishment,
after World War II, was to make capitalism more secure in the
country, and to build a consensus of support for the American
Empire, it had to weaken and isolate the left.
Two weeks after presenting to the country the Truman Doctrine
for Greece and Turkey, Truman issued, on March 22, 1947, Executive
Order 9835, initiating a program to search out any "infiltration
of disloyal persons" in the U.S. government. In their book
The Fifties, Douglas Miller and Marion Nowack comment:
Though Truman would later complain of the "great wave
of hysteria" sweeping the nation, his commitment to victory
over communism, to completely safeguarding the United States from
external and internal threats, was in large measure responsible
for creating that very hysteria. Between the launching of his
security program in March 1947 and December 1952, some 6.6 million
persons were investigated Not a single case of espionage was uncovered,
though about 500 persons were dismissed m dubious cases of "questionable
loyalty." All of this was conducted with secret evidence,
secret and often paid informers, and neither judge nor jury. Despite
the failure to find subversion, the broad scope of the official
Red hunt gave popular credence to the notion that the government
was riddled with spies. A conservative and fearful reaction coursed
the country. Americans became convinced of the need for absolute
security and the preservation of the established order.
World events right after the war made it easier to build up
public support for the anti-Communist crusade at home. In 1948,
the Communist party in Czechoslovakia ousted non-Communists from
the government and established their own rule. The Soviet Union
that year blockaded Berlin, which was a jointly occupied city
isolated inside the Soviet sphere of East Germany, forcing the
United States to airlift supplies into Berlin. In 1949, there
was the Communist victory in China, and in that year also, the
Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. In 1950 the Korean
war began. These were all portrayed to the public as signs of
a world Communist conspiracy.
Not as publicized as the Communist victories, but just as
disturbing to the American government, was the upsurge all over
the world of colonial peoples demanding independence. Revolutionary
movements were growing-in Indochina against the French; in Indonesia
against the Dutch; in the Philippines, armed rebellion against
the United States.
In Africa there were rumblings of discontent in the form of
strikes. Basil Davidson (Let Freedom Come) tells of the longest
recorded strike (160 days) in African history, of 19,000 railwaymen
in French West Africa in 1947, whose message to the governor general
showed the new mood of militancy: "Open your prisons, make
ready your machine guns and cannon. Nevertheless, at midnight
on 10 October, if our demands are not met, we declare the general
strike." The year before in South Africa, 100,000 gold mine
workers stopped work, demanding ten shillings (about $2.50) a
day in wages, the greatest strike in the history of South Africa,
and it took a military attack to get them back to work. In 1950,
in Kenya, there was a general strike against starvation wages.
So it was not just Soviet expansion that was threatening to
the United States government and to American business interests.
In fact, China, Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, represented
local Communist movements, not Russian fomentation. It was a general
wave of anti imperialist insurrection in the world, which would
require gigantic American effort to defeat: national unity for
militarization of the budget, for the suppression of domestic
opposition to such a foreign policy. Truman and the liberals in
Congress proceeded to try to create a new national unity for the
postwar years-with the executive order on loyalty oaths, Justice
Department prosecutions, and anti-Communist legislation.
In this atmosphere, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin could
go even further than Truman. Speaking to a Women's Republican
Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, in early 1950, he held up some
papers and shouted: "I have here in my hand a list of 205-a
list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as
being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are
still working and shaping policy in the State Department."
The next day, speaking in Salt Lake City, McCarthy claimed he
had a list of fifty-seven (the number kept changing) such Communists
in the State Department. Shortly afterward, he appeared on the
floor of the Senate with photostatic copies of about a hundred
dossiers from State Department loyalty files. The dossiers were
three years old, and most of the people were no longer with the
State Department, but McCarthy read from them anyway, inventing,
adding, and changing as he read. In one case, he changed the dossier's
description of "liberal" to "communistically inclined,"
in another form "active fellow traveler" to "active
Communist," and so on.
McCarthy kept on like this for the next few years. As chairman
of the Permanent Investigations Sub-Committee of a Senate Committee
on Government Operations, he investigated the State Department's
in formation program, its Voice of America, and its overseas libraries,
which included books by people McCarthy considered Communists.
The State Department reacted in panic, issuing a stream of directives
to its library centers across the world. Forty books were removed,
including The Selected Works of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Philip
Foner and The Children 's Hour by Lillian Hellman. Some books
McCarthy became bolder. In the spring of 1954 he began hearings
to investigate supposed subversives in the military. When he began
attacking generals for not being hard enough on suspected Communists,
he antagonized Republicans as well as Democrats, and in December
1954, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to censure him for "conduct
. . . unbecoming a Member of the United States Senate." The
censure resolution avoided criticizing McCarthy's anti-Communist
lies and exaggerations; it concentrated on minor matters-on his
refusal to appear before a Senate Subcommittee on Privileges and
Elections, and his abuse of an army general at his hearings.
At the very time the Senate was censuring McCarthy, Congress
was putting through a whole series of anti-Communist bills. Liberal
Hubert Humphrey introduced an amendment to one of them to make
the Communist party illegal, saying: "I do not intend to
be a half patriot.... Either Senators are for recognizing the
Communist Party for what it is, or they will continue to trip
over the niceties of legal technicalities and details."
The liberals in the government were themselves acting to exclude,
persecute, fire, and even imprison Communists. It was just that
McCarthy had gone too far, attacking not only Communists but liberals,
endangering that broad liberal-conservative coalition which was
considered essential. For instance, Lyndon Johnson, as Senate
minority leader, worked not only to pass the censure resolution
on McCarthy but also to keep it within the narrow bounds of "conduct
. . . unbecoming a Member of the United States Senate" rather
than questioning McCarthy's anti-Communism.
John F. Kennedy was cautious on the issue, didn't speak out
against McCarthy (he was absent when the censure vote was taken
and never said how he would have voted). McCarthy's insistence
that Communism had won in China because of softness on Communism
in the American government was close to Kennedy's own view, expressed
in the House of Representatives, January 1949, when the Chinese
Communists took over Peking. Kennedy said:
"Mr. Speaker, over this weekend we have learned the extent
of the disaster that has befallen China and the United States.
The responsibility for the failure of our foreign policy in the
Far East rests squarely with the White House and the Department
The continued insistence that aid would not be forthcoming unless
a coalition government with the Communists was formed, was a crippling
blow to the National Government.
So concerned were our diplomats and their advisers, the Lattimores
and the Fairbanks [both scholars in the field of Chinese history,
Owen Lattimore a favorite target of McCarthy, John Fairbank, a
Harvard professor], with the imperfection of the democratic system
in China after 20 years of war and the tales of corruption in
high places that they lost sight of our tremendous stake in a
"This House must now assume the responsibility of preventing
the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all of Asia."
When, in 1950, Republicans sponsored an Internal Security
Act for the registration of organizations found to be "Communist-action"
or "Communist-front," liberal Senators did not fight
that head-on. In stead, some of them, including Hubert Humphrey
and Herbert Lehman, proposed a substitute measure, the setting
up of detention centers (really, concentration camps) for suspected
subversives, who, when the President declared an "internal
security emergency," would be held without trial. The detention-camp
bill became not a substitute for, but an addition to, the Internal
Security Act, and the proposed camps were set up, ready for use.
(In 1968, a time of general disillusionment with anti-Communism,
this law was repealed.)
Truman's executive order on loyalty in 1947 required the Department
of Justice to draw up a list of organizations it decided were
"totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive . . . or
as seeking to alter the form of government of the United States
by unconstitutional means." Not only membership in, but also
"sympathetic association" with, any organization on
the Attorney General's list would be considered in determining
disloyalty. By 1954, there were hundreds of groups on this list,
including, besides the Communist party and the Ku Klux Klan, the
Chopin Cultural Center, the Cervantes Fraternal Society, the Committee
for the Negro in the Arts, the Committee for the Protection of
the Bill of Rights, the League of American Writers, the Nature
Friends of America, People's Drama, the Washington Bookshop Association,
and the Yugoslav Seaman's Club.
It was not McCarthy and the Republicans, but the liberal Democratic
Truman administration, whose Justice Department initiated a series
of prosecutions that intensified the nation's anti-Communist mood.
The most important of these was the prosecution of Julius and
Ethel Rosenberg in the summer of 1950.
In ... the early fifties, the House Un-American Activities
Committee was at its heyday, interrogating Americans about their
Communist connections, holding them in contempt if they refused
to answer, distributing millions of pamphlets to the American
public: "One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism"
("Where can Communists be found? Everywhere"). Liberals
often criticized the Committee, but in Congress, liberals and
conservatives alike voted to fund it year after year. By 1958,
only one member of the House of Representatives (James Roosevelt)
voted against giving it money. Although Truman criticized the
Committee, his own Attorney General had expressed, in 1950, the
same idea that motivated its investigations: "There are today
many Communists in America. They are everywhere-in factories,
offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private business-and
each carries in himself the germs of death for society."
Liberal intellectuals rode the anti-Communist bandwagon. Commentary
magazine denounced the Rosenbergs and their supporters. One of
Commentary's writers, Irving Kristol, asked in March 1952: "Do
we defend our rights by protecting Communists?" His answer:
It was Truman's Justice Department that prosecuted the leaders
of the Communist party under the Smith Act, charging them with
conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government
by force and violence. The evidence consisted mostly of the fact
that the Communists were distributing Marxist-Leninist literature,
which the prosecution contended called for violent revolution.
There was certainly not evidence of any immediate danger of violent
revolution by the Communist party. The Supreme Court decision
was given by Truman's appointee, Chief Justice Vinson. He stretched
the old doctrine of the "clear and present danger" by
saying there was a clear and present conspiracy to make a revolution
at some convenient time. And so, the top leadership of the Communist
party was put in prison/ and soon after, most of its organizers
Undoubtedly, there was success in the attempt to make the
general public fearful of Communists and ready to take drastic
actions against them-imprisonment at home, military action abroad.
The whole culture was permeated with anti-Communism. The large-circulation
magazines had articles like "How Communists Get That Way"
and "Communists Are After Your Child." The New York
Times in 1956 ran an editorial: "We would not knowingly employ
a Communist party member in the news or editorial departments
. . . because we would not trust E his ability to report the news
objectively or to comment on it honestly. . . ." An FBI informer's
story about his exploits as a Communist who became an FBI agent-"I
Led Three Lives"-was serialized in five hundred newspapers
and put on television. Hollywood movies had titles like I Married
a Communist and I Was a Communist for the FBI. Between 1948 and
1954, more than forty anti-Communist films came out of Hollywood.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union, set up specifically
to defend the liberties of Communists and all other political
groups, began to wilt in the cold war atmosphere. It had already
started in this direction back in 1940 when it expelled one of
its charter members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, because she was a
member of the Communist party. In the fifties, the ACLU was hesitant
to defend Corliss Lamont, its own board member, and Owen Lattimore,
when both were under attack. It was reluctant to defend publicly
the Communist leaders during the first Smith Act trial, and kept
completely out of the Rosenberg case, saying no civil liberties
issues were involved.
Young and old were taught that anti-Communism was heroic.
Three million copies were sold of the book by Mickey Spillane
published in 1951, One Lonely Night, in which the hero, Mike Hammer
says: "I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on
my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of
it.... They were Commies ... red sons-of-bitches who should have
died long ago...." A comic strip hero, Captain America, said:
"Beware, commies, spies, traitors, and foreign agents! Captain
America, with all loyal, free men behind him, is looking for you...."
And in the fifties, schoolchildren all over the country participated
in air raid drills in which a Soviet attack on America was signaled
by sirens: the children had to crouch under their desks until
it was "all clear."
It was an atmosphere in which the government could get mass support
for a policy of rearmament. The system, so shaken in the thirties,
had learned that war production could bring stability and high
profits. Truman's anti-Communism was attractive. The business
publication Steel had said in November 1946-even before the Truman
Doctrine- that Truman's policies gave "the firm assurance
that maintaining and building our preparations for war will be
big business in the United States for at least a considerable
That prediction turned out to be accurate. At the start of
1950, the total U.S. budget was about $40 billion, and the military
part of it was about $12 billion. But by 1955, the military part
alone was $40 billion out of a total of $62 billion.
In 1960, the military budget was $45.8 billion-49.7 percent
of the budget. That year John F. Kennedy was elected President,
and he immediately moved to increase military spending. In fourteen
months, the Kennedy administration added $9 billion to defense
funds, according to Edgar Bottome (The Balance of Terror).
By 1962, based on a series of invented scares about Soviet
military build-ups, a false "bomber gap" and a false
"missile gap," the United States had overwhelming nuclear
superiority. It had the equivalent, in nuclear weapons, of 1,500
Hiroshima-size atomic bombs, far more than enough to destroy every
major city in the world-the equivalent, in fact, of 10 pounds
of TNT for every man, woman, and child on earth. To deliver these
bombs, the United States had more than 50 intercontinental ballistic
missiles, 80 missiles on nuclear submarines, 90 missiles on stations
overseas, 1,700 bombers capable of reaching the Soviet Union,
300 fighter-bombers on aircraft carriers, able to carry atomic
weapons, and 1,000 land-based supersonic fighters able to carry
The Soviet Union was obviously behind-it had between fifty
and a hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles and fewer than
two hundred long-range bombers. But the U.S. budget kept mounting,
the hysteria kept growing, the profits of corporations getting
defense contracts multi plied, and employment and wages moved
ahead just enough to keep a substantial number of Americans dependent
on war industries for their living.
By 1970, the U.S. military budget was $80 billion and the
corporations involved in military production were making fortunes.
Two-thirds of the 40 billion spent on weapons systems was going
to twelve or fifteen giant industrial corporations, whose main
reason for existence was to fulfill government military contracts.
Senator Paul Douglass, an economist and chairman of the Joint
Economic Committee of the Senate, noted that "six-sevenths
of these contracts are not competitive. . . . In the alleged interest
of secrecy, the government picks a company and draws up a contract
in more or less secret negotiations."
C. Wright Mills, in his book of the fifties, The Power Elite.
counted the military as part of the top elite, along with politicians
and corporations. These elements were more and more intertwined.
A Senate report showed that the one hundred largest defense contractors,
who held 67.4 percent of the military contracts, employed more
than two thousand former high-ranking officers of the military.
The country was on a permanent war economy which had big pockets
of poverty, but there were enough people at work, making enough
money, to keep things quiet. The distribution of wealth was still
unequal. From 1944 to 1961, it had not changed much: the lowest
fifth of the families received 5 percent of all the income; the
highest fifth received 45 percent of all the income. In 1953,
1.6 percent of the adult population owned more than 80 percent
of the corporate stock and nearly 90 percent of the corporate
bonds. About 200 giant corporations out of 200,000 corporations
-- one tenth of 1 percent of all corporations --controlled about
60 percent of the manufacturing wealth of the nation.
History of the United States