Wednesday, January 26, 2022

World War II at Home

 Rockport History Book Club

Boy Scouts Collecting Scrap Metal, 1943

World War II at Home

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Wednesday, January 26, 2022. World War II at Home.  World War II raged from the jungles of Burma to the steppes of Russia, all over the world.  But this is a look at the Home Front, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to children collecting tin cans and lead toothpaste tubes, paper and even jars of grease for “The War Effort”. It includes the movement of many thousands of Black Americans from menial jobs in the South to better paying jobs in the North, working in defense plants.  Millions of women also joined the work force as men went to fight overseas. Also, how Hollywood helped with patriotic films and propaganda cartoons, as well as War Bond drives. [Proposed by Cindy Grove].

Elizabeth D. Samet, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021. 356 pp.

            In remarks to an “America First” rally in GeorgiaFlorida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz told a cheering crowd “we have an obligation” to take up arms against Silicon Valley companies that he believes are “suppressing” right-wing voices on their platforms. Gaetz called America First the “most powerful” movement in American political history. This was in May 2021.

            Author Elizabeth Samet uses the Trump-supporting congressman’s words to summarize her examination of “The Good War”, and the “American amnesia” about the war.

            Samet has been an English professor at the United States Military Academy since 1997, and she is the daughter of a World War II veteran.  In her research for this book her research included watching a ton of WWII-era movies.

            Tom Brokaw published “The Greatest Generation” in 1974, and Samet is merciless in ripping through the “gauzy mythology” of Brokaw and any other writer who dares to brag about “the greatest generation” or “the last Good war.” She recalls a speech that then-President Trump made in 2019 at Normandy. Listeners welcomed the speech as evidence that Trump was becoming a “dignified statesman”, but Samet called it a jumble of platitudes lifted from speeches by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lincoln and a Civil War hymn.

            Our recollection of WWII today starts with the attack on Pearl Harbor and how America rose immediately to mobilize, with industry shifting from producing automobiles to bombers, tanks and fighter planes.  Samet reminds us of the significant opposition to war by the “America First” people, leading Republicans, the German-American Bund, many business leaders and citizens of the Midwest, centered in Chicago. She calls to mind what is now called the “flyover” part of the country, ignored by those on both coasts.

            Before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, there were many American voices urging America to ignore the scenes of Hitler marching through Europe, bombing and strafing and killing.  “Not our problem”…. “keep out of it” they urged. Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest who broadcast a right-wing, anti-Roosevelt message weekly to listeners all across America, wielded strong influence, especially in the middle of America.

            After Pearl Harbor, there was our declaration of war, and sentiment in America swung toward entering the war and defeating Japan and Germany. Voices continued to speak out against the war.  As a boy of 8 in 1942, my memory of the war as I saw it in Port Arthur, Texas was of strong support for “the War Effort”.  However, we largely overlooked Hitler’s drive to exterminate the Jews. 

            Samet watched many movies from the 1930s on into the 1950s in her research, and she describes how these films shaped how we saw the war, how we supported it, how we learned to hate the enemy, how the war affected us, both during and after. She continually compares America’s rear-view of the Civil War to our view of World War II and afterward.

            Samet saves her best for the picture of race in America. Starting with a speech by Frederick Douglass in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” she provides story after story of how Blacks were called to serve in the war, assigned to segregated, menial jobs, not trusted to combat assignments, commanded by white officers, with Jim Crow at every point. Northern Black soldiers were surprised by the violent racism they encountered in the South; most Blacks were delighted to find far less racism in Europe.  

            Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, tells of a speech by President Harry Truman.  “Right after World War II, religious and racial intolerance began to show up just as it did in 1919,” he said.  “There were a good many incidents of violence and friction, but two of them in particular made a very deep impression on me. One was when a Negro veteran, still wearing this country's uniform, was arrested, and beaten and blinded.”

            “Truman was referring to decorated veteran Sergeant Isaac Woodard, who was on a bus on his way home from Georgia in February 1946, when he told a bus driver not to be rude to him because “I’m a man, just like you.” In South Carolina, the driver called the police, who pulled Woodard into an alley, beat him, then arrested him and threw him in jail, where that night the police chief plunged a nightstick into Woodard’s eyes, permanently blinding him. The next day, a local judge found Woodard guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him $50. The state declined to prosecute the police chief, and when the federal government did—it had jurisdiction because Woodard was in uniform—the people in the courtroom applauded when the jury acquitted him, even though he had admitted he had blinded the sergeant.

Sgt. Isaac Woodard, beaten and blinded,1946

            “Two months after the attack on Woodard, the Supreme Court decided that all-white primaries were unconstitutional, and Black people prepared to vote in Georgia’s July primaries.

            “Songwriters, radio announcers, and news media covered the cases, showing Americans what it meant to live in states in which law enforcement and lawmakers could do as they pleased. When an old friend wrote to Truman to beg him to stop pushing a federal law to protect Black rights, Truman responded: “I know you haven’t thought this thing through and that you do not know the facts. I am happy, however, that you wrote me because it gives me a chance to tell you what the facts are.”

            “When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.”

            “When a Mayor and City Marshal can take a…Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out…his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.”

            “In his speech in Harlem, Truman explained that “[i]t is the duty of the State and local government to prevent such tragedies.” But, as he said in 1947, the federal government must “show the way.” We need not only “protection of the people against the Government, but protection of the people by the Government.”

            “Truman’s conversion came in the very early years of the Civil Rights Movement, which would soon become an intellectual, social, economic, and political movement conceived of and carried on by Black and Brown people and their allies in ways he could not have imagined in the 1940s.

            “But Truman laid a foundation for what came later. He recognized that a one-party state is not a democracy, that it enables the worst of us to torture and kill while the rest live in fear, and that ‘[t]he Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.’”

            That was true in 1946, and it is just as true today.

            Americans at home lived through World War II: Many made tremendous sacrifices, particularly in the loss of family members overseas. Many did their best to help the “war effort”, working in jobs that produced the tanks, planes, and weapons to fight and win the war. Our memory should honor that effort and those sacrifices, but it must also remember the white supremacy and prejudice against Jews and other ethnic minorities, and those who sought to enrich themselves under the guise of “the war effort”.


Sam Coulbourn



Landing of Pedro Cabral in future Brazil, 1500. Painting by Oscar da Silva, 1922.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022. History of South America. South America has a rich history, from Incas and other indigenous peoples to colonization by Spanish, Portuguese, and other European nations, onward to monarchy in Argentina, slavery, and struggling democracies. It’s the history of Machu Pichu, exploration and exploitation of the Amazon, Simon Bolivar, Pedro Cabral, Juan Peron, Hugo Chavez, Augusto Pinochet, The Falklands War, Shining Path.  Select any period, any nation or group, and let us learn together. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

A Dangerous Stir


Wednesday, March 30, 2022.  Reconstruction, 1865-77 Abraham Lincoln had a clear picture of what should be done after the end of the War Between the States, but his assassination meant that Andrew Johnson, the Democrat who succeeded him, would be President. Read about this dangerous, murderous time in our history as we sought to regain the 11 Confederate States in the Union.  Read about the growth of white supremacist organizations, and the different ways that America handled the end of slavery, and welcoming (?) millions of newly freed Africans to America.  [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Trials of historical significance. Read about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (1945-46), or the Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951), Burning of the Reichstag trial (1933), or the Trial of Galileo Galilei (1633), Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms, (1521) (not what it sounds like), the Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato (399 BC), or many more. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]



Henry Ford

 Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Immigrants to America who have made a difference. Read and tell us the story of an immigrant to the U.S. who has brought a wondrous addition to his/her new nation. Perhaps the newcomers started a family of creative Americans; perhaps they themselves made important advances. Look at Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin, Audrey Hepburn, Chinua Achebe, Cary Grant, Irving Berlin, Nikola Tesla, more. [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith.]


Lincoln Assassination

Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Assassinations and executions of leaders. Read the stories of how famous people were assassinated and what came after. From modern times--- Anwar Sadat, Olaf Palme, Yitzhak Rabin, Aldo Moro, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, or Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, or Franz Ferdinand, King of Albania, Nicholas II of Russia, or earlier-- Henry VI, James III, Henry III, Julius Caesar. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]


Ironclad USS Monitor, 1862

Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Game changing maritime inventions. Read about the days of ships propelled by sail, oars, coal or oil, paddle wheelers, steam engines, or warships like dreadnought, submarines, aircraft carriers, or torpedoes, propellers, chronometers, sextants, etc. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]


Wednesday, July 27, 2022.   How Should We Deal With China?  Let's dig into the history of China and try to learn how the United States should approach China, in terms of human rights, trade policy, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Global Warming, Nuclear Weapon Proliferation, autonomous weapons, public health, and much more.  We are tremendously interdependent: should we continue to view China as an Opponent? [Proposed by Walt Frederick]