Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Birthday Speech 2015: WWII A 'Good War'?

The following is a speech Jay Hauben made at a small birthday party 
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1994-041-07, Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum.jpg
Dresden after the bombing raid

I was born 74 years ago on May 9, 1941.  On my fourth birthday, 70 years ago today, there was a big street fair. But it was not my birthday that was celebrated. It was May 9, 1945. Nazi Germany had unconditionally surrendered. The people in my neighborhood were celebrating the end of the war in Europe. It was VE Day. My memory is that when I asked what was happening, I was told "the War is over". But then again in August there was another celebration. Again I was told the war is over. That was VJ Day, the end of the war with Japan August 15, 1945. I tell you this to show my earliest memories were of celebrations because a war was over. Living in the US, I think I did not know what war was, but at four I knew that the end of war was something to celebrate.

Years later I heard this was a "good war. If we had not won we would be living under fascism." I want to tell you a few stories how I came to understand that WWII was not a good war for most people of the world. No side in the war can be excused.

Skipping some years, in 1960 when I was a freshman at college, I took a mandatory Health and Hygiene course. Near the end of the semester, the professor asked did we notice that the US military took very few Japanese prisoners of war in WWII. He asked if any of us know why. Then he told us that he had been a US Marine fighting in the Pacific. The orders were to kill all Japanese even those who surrender. No resources should be wasted taking them prisoner. I do not remember if he apologized or just left us with this shock.

In 1967, I went to Germany to learn a little of the German language. On an outing we were taken to the Buchenwald concentration/extermination camp. The enormity of the Nazi disregard for human life, the sheer horror of what happened there struck very deep in me. When the course was over, I went on a tour which included Dresden. This was 1967 and much of that city had yet to be rebuilt. I saw a model and photographs of what Dresden had been like with major cultural structures like the Frauenkirche, the Semperoper, the Zwinger Palace and the city's medieval Altstadt. These had been destroyed beginning on the night of Feb 13 when 1200 US and British planes dropped high explosives intended to rupture water mains and blow off roofs, doors, and windows to create an air flow to feed the fires caused by the tons of incendiary bombs that followed. The inner city was destroyed and eventually about 25,000 fatalities were accounted for. Why, I asked myself, would the US and Britain destroy Dresden's architectural culture and residences especially when the war was almost over and Dresden was crowded with refugees fleeing westward?

Later I read an essay by C.P. Snow entitled Science and Government. Snow had been in charge of selecting scientific personnel for war research for the wartime British government. He told a Harvard audience in 1960 that without less secrecy and more democracy there will be more policies like the 1942 British policy about Britain's contribution to WWII. In Snow's words, that policy was that RAF "bombing must be directed essentially against German working-class homes. Middle-class houses have too much space around them, and so are bound to waste bombs; factories and 'military objectives' . . . were much too difficult to find and hit."[i]  The US joined in that policy in Europe and together, the British and US Air forces killed over 300,000 German civilians, injured maybe 780,000 more; destroyed 3,600,000 dwellings causing 7,500,000 people to be homeless.

Some British scientists had argued against the policy to use military resources against civilian rather than military targets. That opposition was squashed and marginalized. Those holding such critical views were labeled as defeatists. Use of the air force for bombing of civilians became a matter of faith within the Churchill government.

After the firebombing of Dresden, it is recorded that Churchill began to worry that there would be nothing of value left worth occupying. He wrote in the first draft of a top secret letter, "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… I [now] feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive."[ii]

Studying about the US and British policy of demoralizing the German people by destroying their homes and lives, I began to wonder if that was not very different from the Nazi policy of terrorizing the same people into supporting the war by humiliating and murdering all their Jewish neighbors. I think it is proper to ask, was the destruction of Dresden any less a crime than the exterminations in Buchenwald?"

In 1979, I moved to Michigan. There I met some of the workers who had made the Great Flint Sit-down Strike in 1936-37 and help build the United Auto Workers Union. It can be found in their newspaper, The Searchlight, some of what these auto workers understood about WWII. Influenced by the working class tradition of Eugene Debs, who had opposed US involvement in WWI, the pages of The Searchlight echoed with criticisms of supporting big business in their wars. One of the many poems that appeared in the newspapers pages had this line[iii]:
 . . .
    The war was fought, the war was won
     By those who made and used the gun
     But all the spoils went to the few
     Who beat the drum and waved the flag
     And used the printed page to brag
     Of how they'd made the world anew.

Such sentiments were also expressed in letters from serviceman condemning the war. Such sentiments appeared during the Korean War as well.

During WWII, Flint autoworkers threatened to strike despite the national unions' no strike pledge if conditions continued to deteriorate during the war. They argued that the fight against fascism must start at home. For these workers the war was not their war. They did not express a fear of foreign fascism, so much as domestic.

In 2001, just after 9/11, I was in Berlin for a conference. We met a native Berlin and we became friends. He told me that in the early 1930s his grandfather sensed that the growing strength of the right wing portended a disaster for Germany. His grandfather started to help Germans go underground or leave Germany. The Gestapo caught my friend's father and uncle. His uncle was executed but his father escaped to the East. My friend's mother went crazy from that news. So at age 6 or 7, he stayed with his grandfather and acted as a courier. My friend told me of his whole life opposing fascism but also doing science. He was for me a clue of the resistance to Nazism within Germany. Since then I have learned of other acts of resistance and defiance under the Nazis including networks of people in Berlin who hid and helped perhaps 1500 Jews to stay alive and live through WWII in Berlin. I also came across examples of resistance in Norway and also in Greece and Yugoslavia and France. There were 40,000 conscientious objectors in the US and groups like the Woman's International League for Peace and Freedom which opposed US entry into WWII as did the majority of Americans until Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, the war was portrayed in the US as a war of defense.

When I asked some of my Chinese friends their opinions about WWII, one wrote back that war is evil and unnatural but self defense is necessary and natural. The Japanese military attacked China in 1931. For 15 years Chinese people resisted Japanese aggression in the face of indiscriminate bombings of Shanghai, Nanjing, and Chongking, massacres, and systematic brutalities including the forced conscription of comfort women and suppression campaigns against rural resistance. All of my friends who answered me said they hate war but take pride in the roles their family members played in defending themselves, their families and China from Japanese efforts to incorporate part of China into its empire.

Similarly Russians everywhere celebrate today May 9 because the Russian and Soviet people's resistance broke the back of German imperialism. The tragedy of 20 to 40 million deaths cannot be undone, but the Russian and former Soviet peoples know they stopped the effort for a Nazi Empire in Europe. My reading of history is that it was their sacrifices that saved Europe.

In 2007, I was in West Pomerania in northeast Germany. The friend I was visiting introduced me to his grandmother. She had lived in East Pomerania until she was 17 years old. In March 1945 the Soviet forces were approaching Kolberg near where she lived. 70,000 refugees fleeing the war and 40,000 troops were evacuated by the German navy. I had heard she was on the second ship. We asked her to tell us about what happened. Still crying 62 years later she told us the first ship was sunk by enemy fire with the loss of all those people. I learned later that her ship aimed to unload the refugees in the harbor of Swinemünde, but had to halt, because allied airplanes were spotted. She then witnessed the carpet-bombardment from the ship. When it was over perhaps 20,000 people in Swinemünde were dead. She then left the ship and saw the consequences of the bombardment. No wonder she was crying.

My friend's grandmother was just one of tens of millions of people who never saw their home land again. Some fled for their lives during the war. After the war, others were forced to relocate when the victors redrew the borders.

Bringing this up to date, I recently attended a number of events related to nuclear disarmament. Some of these events were attended also by people who came from Japan including some who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their message was the world should not let it happen again. They told of the horrors and suffering of the 200,000 people who died immediately or in the first year and of the early death and lifelong physical or mental suffering for which the US government has never apologized. In America we have been told they had to suffer or die so the war could be shorter and American lives could be saved.

I looked into that argument about shortening the war by bombing cities. I found that it was being made in 1945 for eight months before the two A-bombs were dropped. Starting with the appointment of General Curtis LeMay as commander of the XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas, it became US strategy that the US Air Force would kill Japanese civilians until the Japanese government would surrender.

On the night of March 9-10, 1945 the US Air Force launched an attack on a central district in Tokyo. 279 bombers dropped 1900 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs like napalm and jellied gasoline. Returning pilots reported that the wooden and paper houses caught fire like a forest of pine trees. Survivors on the ground reported seeing people ablaze like match sticks. The streets were rivers of fire. Both US and Japanese official figures put the toll at 100,000 deaths in 6 hours and the complete destruction of 16 square miles of Tokyo. For comparison the whole of Manhattan is 22.7 square miles. The raid was possible because the Japanese military no longer
had the capacity to defend its cities from such air attacks.

That incendiary raid was followed by more than100 more destroying homes and people and infrastructure in the 66 largest cities in Japan. In all, of the 21 million people living in those cities, maybe eight million were made homeless. In six months every city in Japan was firebombed except for five including Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto. In July 1945 the Japanese government requested the Soviet Union to mediate an end to the war. The US government insisted on unconditional surrender.[iv] No mediation was possible. In August the US dropped it’s A-Bombs on two of the three remaining unbombed cities and the SU entered the war against Japan with 1.7 million troops rushing toward Manchuria and Korea to confront the 1.2 million Japanese troops defending what remained of the Japanese Empire on the Asian mainland. Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 15. That was VE Day. The war was over.

Why did the US government and military adopt destruction of the Japanese urban population as the strategy for defeating Japanese imperialism? General Curtis LeMay, the architect of strategic bombing ideology said that he wanted Tokyo “burned down—wiped right off the map”. "If the war is shortened by a single day, the attack will have served its purpose."[v] The US Strategic Bombing Survey explained that it was “either to bring overwhelming pressure on her to surrender, or to reduce her capability of resisting invasion. . . . [by destroying] the basic economic and social fabric of the country.”[vi] The explanation often given is that it would "save American lives". But so would have a blockade and siege of Japan which was the historical weapon for achieving surrender. War had changed. No longer was it military versus military. Technology had been developed that allowed for a new warfare. The new unquestionable warfare would be mass destruction of cities and people and crops and infrastructure especially from the air. But a myth was necessary to make such destruction palatable to the world's people and to all sense of human solidarity and compassion. Conceal the deliberate annihilation of noncombatants as collateral damage, or as a sacrifice to save "our" lives.

The systematic British and US and German and Japanese bombing and killing of noncombatants in the course of the destruction of cities and villages and commercial ships must be added to the list of the horrific legacies of WWII that includes Nazi genocide and a host of Japanese war crimes against Asian peoples. The UN Charter and the 1949 Geneva Accord which require the protection of civilians in the time of war have proven to be only a weak or phony defense against what has become the character of warfare introduced by WWII.

WWII did help many colonial peoples move toward their independence with the glaring exception of Korea. And cold peace is better than hot war. But for me from my study I see Hitler and Roosevelt and Churchill and even Stalin and their governments all responsible for the end of any concern for non combatants and the ushering in of a world I am not happy with. Even though the world was saved from Nazi dominance, it is dominated by another hegemonic power. I agree with C.P. Snow. The world suffers from the failure so far for any people to have democratic control over their so called leaders. So the fight must continue.

The brave Soviet people and the resistance fighters and partisans in all countries are with whom I am happy to share my birthday and celebrate.

Was WWII a "Good War"?  May conclusion is it was not.

[i] C.P. Snow, Science and Government, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1960, p.48.
[ii]  Source 3a, TOP SECRET, PRIME MINISTER’S PERSONAL TELEGRAM SERIAL No D.83/5 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/heroesvillains/transcript/g1cs3s3t.htm
[iii] See The Story of the Searchlight: The Voice of the Chevrolet Worker by Ronda Hauben, Flint, MI, 1987, p.14, http://www.ais.org/~jrh/searchlight/Searchlight.html
[iv] See The attempts by the Japanese government to surrender, July 1945 http://www.fpp.co.uk/History/Churchill/Japan_surrender_attempts/July_1945.html
[v] The New York Times, as quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtis_LeMay
[vi] United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report (Pacific War) (Washington: US GPO, 1946), Vol 1, p. 16, as quoted in Mark Selden, "A Forgotten Holocaust: US Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities and the American Way of War from World War II to Iraq",
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