by John Spritzler


September, 2003

The "Good War" story of World War II tells us that, despite their shortcomings, America's leaders were the good guys fighting the evil-doers. This is why President Bush equated Saddam Hussein with Hitler and equated critics of the war with Hitler's appeasers -- to rally Americans with the mythic appeal of the Good War.

But the Good War is more myth than truth. Unraveling it tells us something about how rulers use war to control their own people and to set ordinary people against each other, be they ordinary Americans and Iraqis or Americans and ordinary Germans and Japanese. President Roosevelt's main concern that led us into war was not to fight Fascism. Had this been his goal, he would have aided the valiant Spanish Republicans in their fight against Franco's Fascist revolt. FDR's main goal was to control the huge domestic challenge to capitalism occasioned by Depression-era labor upheaval. In the pre-war years American workers were waging a class war verging on civil war.

The 1934 West Coast longshoremen's strike, like many in other industries, struck panic in elite circles. The Los Angeles Times declared it to be an "insurrection" and a "revolt against organized government." FDR's NRA chief declared it a "civil war." By 1937 the wave of sit-down strikes led Michigan's Governor Murphy to warn that the state might have to use force to uphold the "structure of organized society." FDR used an oil embargo to provoke a Japanese attack on the US because he needed a nationalistic war. Americans were rallied to defend the country from "Krauts" and "Japs." Labor leaders proved their loyalty by pledging "No strikes" for the duration of the war and by trying to bring their members under control.

Fascist leaders led their nations into war to have a pretext for suppressing their own increasingly revolutionary workers. Most German and Japanese people during the war were anti-Fascist, though they were shamelessly portrayed here as the Fascist enemy. Hitler was not elected to power; when he ran for President in 1932 he gained only 36.8% of the vote. But President Hindenburg, under intense pressure from industrialists and the aristocracy, appointed Hitler Chancellor, because German leaders believed only Hitler and Nazi methods of suppression could prevent working class revolution. Once in power, Hitler arrested all labor leaders, dissolved the unions, and established 165 miniature concentration camps attached to major industrial firms, like the Folke-Wolfe aircraft factory, where "it took only a minor infraction, a lateness, an unjustified absence or an angry word for a worker to end up in a concentration camp." To justify these "security measures" and to guarantee social cohesion and stability, the Nazi state needed to be at war.

Japan's military and industrialist rulers launched a large-scale invasion of China in 1937 to secure much-needed coal and iron ore and to bring their own working class under control. Labor unrest with an anti-capitalist theme swept Japan in the 1920s and again in the '30s. Military and industrial leaders felt that "a great war would fundamentally strengthen the people and their nationalism," and weaken support for labor struggles.

Japan during WWII was a Fascist state in which workers' unions were dissolved. Japanese soldiers in China wrote many anti-war letters. One said, "We go to the front because they goad us... I don't think there is anyone here who truly willingly goes to battle." The Japan Times recently reported, "The army's staff headquarters was considering pulling troops out around this time due to the decline in their will to fight." Police records show widespread Japanese opposition to the emperor. In 1944 an official of Japan's "Special Higher Police" privately described the social situation as "like a stack of hay, ready to burst into flame at the touch of a match."

World leaders launched World War II to set working people of one country off to kill people of other nations rather than to settle accounts with their own rulers. Its real goal was to maintain elite control of society, at the cost of many millions of lives and untold human suffering. This is the true similarity between President Bush's "war against terrorism" and World War II.


John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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