World War II–the fight against totalitarianism, racism, fascism, and militarism around the world, to “step forward as a defender of helpless countries.” But Howard Zinn, being the cynic that he is, questions the real motive of American involvement. It’s fact that American involvement in the war began with Pearl Harbor, when we were attacked and our link to the Pacific economy was threatened. The country rallied behind the idea of fighting for liberty, justice, and democracy. But Zinn points to how well the United States was representing liberty, justice, and democracy within its own borders–the armed forces were still segregated and blacks were still discriminated against for jobs; the status of women was little better than that of the Fascist countries we were fighting; and anti-Japanese “hysteria,” as Zinn calls it, swept through the government. Zinn argues that American involvement in the war was more economic and more power-driven, despite this being a non-imperialistic war, than war propaganda of the time led the public to believe.
After reading the chapter on WWII and its immediate aftermath, I thought a great simultaneous read would be Tom Brokow’s The Greatest Generation. Zinn is incredibly pessimistic and one-sided in his criticisms of the country, but his research is also very convincing. I read this book and I start to hate America. The weakness, though, in this section covering 1941-1960 is that Zinn just goes on a diatribe about how WWII had motives other than the ones the public rallied behind and he leaves out the collective conscience of the public (which he usually thoroughly analyzes!). I learned from Zinn that America quickly developed a military economy because it proved profitable (which I did not realize since I was not alive in the fifties) but what was the mindset of the American people at the time? Whether or not they were pawns in the war games of government and big businesses, the war generation is usually highly regarded as self-sufficient and united behind a cause.
Then we get to the sixties and everything just seemed to explode. Social issues had reached boiling points in society–women’s rights, civil rights. Legislation that protected equal rights was not enforced. On top of the social unrest amongst the American public, the “Establishment” was tied up in international affairs. The Socialist and Communist movements across the globe–in Korea and the Soviet Union–threatened the Capitalistic society of the United States, and, as we know, the US got involved in foreign conflict to assert power and ensure continued international economic success. The Vietnam War and all its controversy seemed to be the culmination of all the conflict of the post-war era.
Now, before reading this, I am certain I could not tell you the reasons for US involvement in Vietnam (and I’m sure many would argue, “Yes, exactly!”). But even Zinn is brief in listing the reasons, and this man is not usually concise! One brief mention from a primary source states, “The countries of Southeast Asia produce rich exportable surpluses such as rice, rubber, teak, corn, tin, spices, oil, and many others..” But we all know the Vietnam conflict was presented to the public as a fight against Communism. No matter the reasons, I think this is one of the most fascinating eras of American history to read about. Massive protest and rejection of government, rule and order; critical opinion voiced loudly (very loudly); a rising suspicion of government and big business, and a strong belief in self.
And from what I gathered from the final chapter on the seventies, it sounded like an awful time of low morale and shitty government. The whole Vietnam affair made a joke of the United States, and those running the country strove to reassert American power at the expense of its people. The public was already distrustful of the government after Vietnam and political scandals like Watergate only reinforced this distrust. The American political system had been established–economy was key and the corporate class had the power.
“…to channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, the officially endorsed quiet gathering.” I think the point Zinn is trying to prove is that the ballot box doesn’t lead to change; action leads to change, violent or not.
“…In a capitalistic society…if work is not paid for, not given a money value, it is considered valueless.” The root of the issue with homemakers.
“What kind of government or society would spend millions of dollars to pick upon our bones, restore our ancestral life patterns, and protect our ancient remains from damage–while at the same time eating upon the flesh of our living People…?” Sid Mills, a Native American, October 13, 1968