Zezima does an excellent job debunking many of the myths surrounding America’s involvement in World War II. This book, thankfully, begins to pick away at the historical monolith of warm fuzzies that Tom Brokaw (author of The Greatest Generation) and Steven Ambrose (the popular historian whose research has been faulty and guilty of plagiarization many times) have hammered at over and over again. WW II wasn’t purely good against evil. It was a war, like any other war; innocent people died and were used as pawns. Inhuman deeds were done on both sides. Zezima also accomplishes a lucid treatment of a complex situation, much like Howard Zinn. He gives a fair shake to not only the generals and ultra-powerful industrialists (who had the most to gain from this war), but also the working class (who had the most to lose, namely their lives). As stated in this book, by WW II’s end, 75,000 American troops were MIA (missing in action). Most of them were blown into unrecognizable chunks.
Zezima also has a good knack for looking at the wider picture. War is not just men in battle, nor strategists vying for power and property, but the ability to get nations of citizens foaming at the mouth. Enter the Creel Committee – the first government agency for outright propaganda in the U.S. Formed during WWI, it published seventy-five million books and pamphlets with one goal in mind: make war sound like a fantastic idea. During WWII, the publicity firm of Young and Rubicam was hired. They solidified that notions that best propaganda appealed to the emotions (not intellect), is understood by the “lower third” of the populous, and should never show photographs of dead U.S. soldiers (which is a large reason why the war in Vietnam lost favor with the American population). These propaganda models are still in effect today.
But, WWII was a war of democracy vs. fascism, right? That’s good, right? That’s a gross oversimplification. Here are a couple of the hundreds of transgressions that corporations hope you forget or have never caught wind of. Prescott Bush, grandfather of our current president, along with Union Banking Corp., raised fifty million dollars for the Nazis by selling German bonds to American investors from 1924-1936. They only confessed when the feds shut the enterprise down in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act. In 1933, Standard Oil of New York invested one million dollars in Germany for technology that turned soft coal into gasoline, that if Germany didn’t have, it couldn’t have declared a long, protracted war. Standard Oil also, well in to the war, up to 1942, honored chemical contracts that were directly responsible for the making of Zyklon-B, which was used in the concentration camps. Okay, so some corporations suck, but, overall, our side was good, right?
Just because the Nazis were bad doesn’t mean that America and its allies are beyond reproach. Dresden was the seventh largest city in Germany. It was being flooded with refugees and was a huge, largely unscathed target. In the context of war and strategy, I can understand – and not agree with – the idea of bombing. But Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister and war director, wanted to create a “new kind of weather” in Dresden, and had scientists develop new bombs built for maximum destruction of life and property. The rationale is that Churchill wanted to flex his arm so brutally that Stalin (our ally at the time) wouldn’t think that the rest of the allies were soft. Gasoline bombs (the predecessor to napalm) were dropped with conventional bombs from the bellies of over 2,000 airplanes for eighteen hours straight. The result was an enormous flame, eight miles wide. It created a firestorm. There were literally tornadoes of flame, which scattered pieces of victims up to fifteen miles away. Over 100,000 people were killed in less than twenty-four hours. Think of the town or city you live in, and even if you imagine, on the outside, several thousand troops occupying it, how can any side of a war kill 90,000 innocent people in a day and still be considered good? I don’t think it can.
Besides providing a rounded view of the ins and outs of WWII, I also appreciate Zezima’s thirst for details that haven’t been repeated over and over again. For instance, I didn’t know that on July 28, 1945, an American B-25 bomber ran into the EmpireStateBuilding, killing fourteen. Nor did I know that Cole Porter’s 1934 song “Mona Lisa” originally contained the lyrics, “You’re the tops, you’re Mussolini.” That’s fun stuff to know.
Zezima – aside from the occasional schoolyard taunts and name calling of established historians – does a great job of showing that, quite a few, if not all, of the levers of power and modes of rhetoric that were developed during WW II are still in place today. They’re glaringly obvious in America’s current wars and foreign policy. Although this is a book primarily about a war that happened over fifty years ago, it’s also a timeless reminder of how little nations have learned about compassion, how much they’ve learned that wars work to the top one percent’s advantage, and what they gain if the population at large remains ignorant to these facts. Highly recommended. –Todd (Soft Skull, 71 Bond St., Brooklyn, NY, 11217