Posts filed under World War II

Governments wage wars against people, not against “regimes”

Here’s something from a recent go-around at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog between me and Ilya Somin. The topic of the post was actually May Day, and most of the discussion is rightly about that, but in one eddy of the conversation, Somin decided to say this:

If the wrongs of the US were on anything like the same scale as those of communist regimes, this would indeed be a good suggestion. In the real world, it’s obviously not - especially since many of the US’ “endless wars” actually were against brutal totalitarian regimes… .

Which is just really too much. I replied:

Shame how all those dead civilians kept getting in the way of the brutal totalitarian regimes the U.S. government was fighting wars against.

U.S. bomber wings show up over Tokyo, planning to firebomb a “brutal totalitarian regime,” and somehow instead they end up killing 100,000 men, women and children in a single night, who were not part of the regime and had no control over it. They show up over Hiroshima, and in Nagasaki, expecting to drop atomic bombs on a “brutal totalitarian regime,” and somehow instead they end up dropping them on cities of hundreds of thousands of people, wiping out about a quarter million civilians in the process over the course of just over 72 hours. Years later, the U.S. government comes to Viet Nam, intending to wage war against a brutal totalitarian regime, and somehow by the time they leave, the brutal totalitarian regime is still flourishing there, but 4,000,000 other Vietnamese no longer are. A man with less perspective might think that this sort of thing was a sign that the U.S. government, like every other government, doesn’t actually wage war against “regimes;” rather that it wages wars on countries and peoples who inevitably become the overwhelming majority of the victims of the war. Perhaps this was done in the hopes that by doing it, they might somehow get at the regime hiding behind those people in those countries. If so, then the question of justice here certainly turns on something more than just the quality of the ends for which these megamurdering means were deliberately chosen.

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Countereconomics on the shopfloor

So lately I’ve been reading through a cache of syndicalist and autonomist booklets that I picked up a couple years ago from a NEFACker friend of mine who was soon to move out of Vegas. Partly for my own edutainment, but also because I am doing some prep work for possibly introducing a sort of Little Libertarian Labor Library to the ALL Distro.[1] Anyway, here’s a really interest passage I ran across in a booklet edition of Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers — a talk by the Detroit auto-worker and autonomist Marxist Martin Glaberman — on the difference between asking workers to vote on an issue and asking them to strike over it, taking as an example the internal conflicts over the union bosses’ no-strike pledge during World War II.

One of the things I want to start with, because it does provide a framework, and is not simply an event from the past, is something I did some work on a number of years ago about auto workers in the United States during World War II, the kinds of struggles that went on on the shop floor, within the union, between the workers and the government, a complex reality. What it revolved around was the struggle against the no-strike pledge in the UAW When the United States entered World War II, virtually all of America’s labor leaders graciously granted in the name of their members a pledge not to strike at all during the war.

In the first months of the war, the first year, there was an actual drop off in strikes. The end of 1941 through 1942 was a period that put a finish to the late thirties, the massive organizational drives, the sit-down strikes, the violence, all the things that created the big industrial unions. The job hadn’t been entirely done. Ford wasn’t organized until early 1941. Little Steel wasn’t organized, unionized, until the war was well under way, and so on.

Gradually, however, as the war went on, the number of strikes, (by definition all of them were wildcats, all of them were illegal under union contracts and under union constitutions) began to escalate until by the end of the war, the number of workers on strike exceeded anything in past American labor history. What was distinct about the UAW wasn’t just that the wildcat strikes were larger in number and more militant, but the fact that something took place which made it possible to make a certain kind of record. It was the only union in which, because there were still two competing caucuses, leaving rank and file workers a certain amount of democratic leeway to press for their point of view, an actual formal debate and vote took place on the question of the no-strike pledge.

A small, so-called rank and file, caucus was organized late in 1943 and early 1944, to begin a campaign around a number of issues, but the central issue was the repeal of the no-strike pledge. … So[2] they proceeded to have a referendum. This referendum was in some respects the classic sociological survey. Everyone got a postcard ballot. Errors, cheating, etc. were really kept to a minimum. Everyone on the commission thought that it was as fair as you get in an organization of a million or more members. It took several months to do. When the vote was finally in, the membership of the UAW had voted about two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge.

The conclusion any decent sociologist would draw is that autoworkers on the whole thought that patriotism was a little bit more important than class interests, that they supported the war rather than class struggle and strikes, etc. There was a little problem, however, and this is why this is such a fascinating historical experience. The problem was that at the very same time that the vote was going on, in which workers voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge, a majority of autoworkers struck ….

To visualize it is fairly simple: you’re not voting on the shop floor; you get this postcard, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, you’re listening to the radio news with the casualty reports from Europe and the Pacific and you think, yes, we really should have a no-strike pledge, we’ve got to support our boys. Then you go to work the next day and your machine breaks down and the foreman says, Don’t stand around, grab a broom and sweep up, and you tell him to go to hell because it’s not your job and the foreman says he’s going to give you time off and the next thing you know, the department walks out. … The reality is that in a war which was probably the most popular war that America took part in, workers in fact, if not in their minds or in theory, said that given the choice between supporting the war or supporting our interests and class struggle, we take class struggle.

— Martin Glaberman, Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers (1993?)

Glaberman puts this out as a distinction between what workers say in their minds or in theory and what they say or do in fact. I’m not sure that’s right — doesn’t the story about the foreman involve the workers’ mind and beliefs just as much as the story about the kitchen table? — but I think the most important thing here is Glaberman’s attention to the context at the point of decision, and how that shapes what kind of decision a worker thinks of herself as making. Not just the outcome of the choice, but really the topic, whether the worker is asked to make some kind of political choice about what she ought, in some general and detached sense, she ought to value (isn’t Patriotism important?), or she finds herself making an engaged, personal choice about what’s happening — what’s being done — to her and her fellow workers right now, on the margin. There is a lesson here for counter-economists.

Freedom is not something you vote on. It’s something you struggle for. And what’s far more important than trying to figure out how to get people to endorse the right ideology, or, worse, the least-bad set of policies and candidates to each other across the kitchen table, is figuring out how you and your neighbors can best cooperate with each other, practice solidarity and withdraw from maintaining and collaborating with the state. People who would never respond to a smaller-government candidate or a libertarian ideological pitch often will act very differently when you open up opportunities to support grassroots alternatives and withdraw from the day-to-day inhumanities of war taxes, regulations, police, prisons, borders, and the state-supported and state-supporting corporate capitalist economy. Meanwhile, those who talk all day about changing votes, and building parties to more effectively capture a few more votes here and there, and have nothing else to offer, are wasting time, resources, and organizing energy on efforts that are not merely futile, but in fact actively lethal to any hope of motivating and coordinating effective practical action.

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  1. [1] The basic idea: L4 would encompass some of the material we already have (Chaplin’s General Strike, Carson’s Ethics of Labor Struggle) and a lot of new and classic material, with new titles published at regular intervals, all with the basic underlying goal of (1) providing some decent labor-oriented materials for ALL locals, and (2) providing a decent source (mostly, currently, lacking) for IWW local organizing committees and other radical labor efforts to find some decently produced, low-cost booklet-style materials for lit drops and outreach tables, beyond just the IW, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, and the relatively expensive books you can purchase through GHQ.
  2. [2] [After an inconclusive floor debate in convention. —RG]

One of these years

From Tom H. Hastings, The Invisible King, at truthout (2011-01-17):

You watch. Over the weekend and on Monday, the Hallmarked memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be sanitized and blackwashed until he is no more than a sentimental husk hoping that little children of all races will one day be able to play together. Then you’ll see shots of just that, as if to indicate, “Well, thanks, that’s all done, nice historical figure. Bye.” One of these years, they will probably launch the USS Martin Luther King Jr., a spanking new destroyer, or perhaps they will name a class of drone aircraft the “MLK Ground Dominators.”

But I am sure that if Dr. King were alive today, he would agree with all of my political objectives, including especially the most violent parts of my foreign policy agenda and all of my most accommodating moral compromises with the political status quo.

As a historical note on the rest of the article, King, SNCC, and other activists in the Freedom Movement certainly innovated and developed the understanding of nonviolent resistance beyond what Gandhi had done. But I don’t think it’s quite fair to Gandhi to say that he volunteered to help the British or stood aside without objection during Britain’s wars. Perhaps this is a fair summary of his attitude toward the Boer War, the Bambatha uprising, and World War I. But Gandhi’s thought was evolving throughout his life, too, and he later said that it was what he saw during the Bambatha war that really brought home the horrors of war and the need for a different approach. It is, in any case, not at all an accurate description of Gandhi’s attitude during World War II. It was in the midst of World War II that he drafted the Quit India resolution and called for non-cooperation with the British war effort. He also routinely criticized the Allied war effort as trying to defeat the Nazis by becoming as ruthless as they were. As a result, he spent 1942-1944 in prison, along with most of the rest of the Indian National Congress leadership, specifically for criticizing and calling for resistance against the War.

65 years. 240,000 souls.

Here's Harry S. Truman, looking awfully proud of his damn self.

We won the race of discovery against the Germans….

Sixty-five years ago today:

Harry S. Truman, August 9, 1945.

Truman described Hiroshima, a port city of some 300,000 people, a military base, and then said, That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. About 85% of the people killed in Hiroshima were civilians — about 140,000 people, more than half of all the people living in the city. Meanwhile, on the same day that President Harry Truman recorded this message, at 11:02am, on August 9, 1945, the United States Army Air Forces, acting on Truman’s orders, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, an industrial center and seaside resort town. About 240,000 people were killed, all told, by these two deliberate atomic bombings of civilian centers.

What else is there to say on a day like today?

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The audio clip above is from a recording of President Harry S. Truman’s radio report on the Potsdam conference, recorded by CBS on August 9, 1945 in the White House. The song linked to above is a recording of Oppenheimer (1997), by the British composer Jocelyn Pook. The voice that you hear at the beginning is Robert Oppenheimer, in an interview many years after the war, talking about his thoughts at the Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the history of the world, on July 16th, 1945.

Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II.

Cyril Joad, a philosopher who was writing a book called Journey Through the War Mind, had a talk with his pacifist friend D. Joad asked D. whether D. thought Chamberlain should have negotiated with Hitler after Hitler’s peace offer. Yes, of course, said D.: Wars should never be begun, and as soon as they were begun, they should be stopped. D. then listed off many war evils: the physical and moral mutilation, the intolerance, the public lying, the enthronement of the mob. He quoted from the text of Chamberlain’s refusal—that by discussing peace with Hitler, Britain would forfeit her honor and abandon her claim that international disputes should be settled by discussion and not by force. Our claim is, you see, D. told Joad, that international disputes are not to be settled by force, and this claim we propose to make good by settling an international dispute by force. We are fighting to show that you cannot, or at least must not, impose your will upon other people by violence. Which made no sense.

Once a war has started, D. said, the only thing to do is to get it stopped as soon as possible. Consequently I should negotiate with Hitler.

Joad said: Ah, but you couldn’t negotiate with Hitler because you couldn’t trust him—Hitler would break any agreement as soon as it benefited him to do so.

Suppose you were right, D. said—suppose that Hitler violated the peace agreement and England had to go back to war. What had they lost? If the worst comes to the worst, we can always begin the killing again. Even a day of peace was a day of peace. Joad found he had no ready answer to that.


Cyril Joad talked about the war with another acquaintance, Mrs. C., a vigorous Tory. War was natural and unavoidable, said Mrs. C. The Germans weren’t human—they were brute blond perverted morons.

Joad asked C. what she would do with Germany, and a light came into her eyes.

I would make a real Carthaginian peace, she told Joad. Raze their cities to the ground, plough up the land and sow it afterwards with salt; and I would kill off one out of every five German women, so that they stopped breeding so many little Huns.

Mrs. C.’s ideas were shared by others, Joad had noticed; he’d recently read a letter to the editor about Germany in London’s News Chronicle: Quite frankly, said the letter, I would annihilate every living thing, man, woman, and child, beast, bird and insect; in fact, I would not leave a blade of grass growing even; Germany should be laid more desolate than the Sahara desert, if I could have my way.

The longer the war lasted, Joad believed, the more this kind of viciousness would multiply: Already Joad wrote, Mr. Churchill was reviving the appellation Huns.

— Nicholson Baker (2008), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. ISBN 1-4165-7246-5. 154–155