A People's Read-a-long: Week 16

Welcome to Week 16 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and as someone who would rather read fiction, I'm still finding the pace a delightful way to sprinkle in some non-fiction. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is not a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check them all out here.)

My thoughts: Chapter 16, "A People's War?," focuses on World War II.  In this chapter Zinn addresses the notion that WWII was a people's war. Wars have been prominent in other chapters of this book, so it was interesting to explore if World War II was different. Were the people as united for the war privately as they were publicly?

I'm typically somewhat cynical, particularly when it comes to politics, and I initially  thought some of Zinn's cynicism was oversimplification:
"Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion or victims of persecution) was not minority rights, but national power."
While it is not disputed that the direct impetus to enter the war came from Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and likely that attack would have drawn the U.S. in at any point, the collective events and atrocities before the attack are still significant, and I wanted to think Zinn dismissed them too easily. By the end of the chapter, however, I was convinced. Ultimately, isn't war about not thinking of people equally? Is it possible to support  a war and not have an emotional disconnect? Roosevelt knew millions of Jews were being killed, but they weren't significant enough to enter the war for.

As someone who leans toward pacifism and isolationism, I struggle with these issues. The United States has failed to intervene when we've known thousands of people are being killed. As an increasing isolationist, I think there are strong arguments for not intervening, and the overwhelming domestic problems and soaring deficit are particularly compelling ones. I can justify not fighting those wars, but I cannot justify the wars we have chosen to fight. While part of me thinks World War II was a war worth fighting, it's harder to believe that knowing the reasons I would have fought for weren't the ones compelling our leaders to enter.

I have long been fascinated by conscientious objectors, and I would likely be one if our country ever made an equal, non-sexist military draft. In World War II, there were three times the number of C.O.'s as in World War I. Most startling: "of every six men in federal prison, one was there as a C.O." Perhaps even though this was worth fighting in some ways, it was so close to World War I that there was an understanding of the realities and atrocities of war.

Other startling statistics that shouldn't be startling: "one nighttime fire-bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. And then, on August 6, 1945, came the lone American plane in the sky over Hiroshima, dropping the first atomic bomb, leaving perhaps 100,000 Japanese dead, and tens of thousands more slowly dying from radiation poisoning." These attacks were devastating and unnecessary. As J. Muste said in 1941 "the problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?"

Something in this chapter struck a deep, emotional chord with me, and I cried as I read much of this chapter. It's the kind of chapter that takes my fascination with history and utterly depresses me because I lost more faith in humanity as I read it. The closer this book gets to the years of my life, the more sad it makes me at how far we haven't come. The chapter ended with the Cold War, which I studied extensively in school, and the Korean War. I think it's fitting I already planned to spend my day reading Toni Morrison's new novel, Home, about a black Korean War veteran and his difficult re-entry to racist society.

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week (or at all!) Keep up with the read-a-long hosts at Fizzy Thoughts and Life...with Books!

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  1. This does sound like an emotional chapter that struck a chord with you at a deep level. Sadly, I agree that we've not come so far since this war and knowing when to intervene and when to stay out are difficult decisions to make.

    I'm embarrassed to say that I've decided to drop out of my own readalong!! I'm just struggling with this book and not enjoying the process at all. I find myself ignoring it and losing track of when I'm supposed to post. I've enjoyed reading your posts and I think you are getting quite a bit out of this readalong. I hope you will continue as I look forward to reading your posts and seeing what you thought (which, sadly, I cannot say for the actual book.)

    1. Jenners--I'm actually glad to hear you're dropping out because it seems you haven't been enjoying it much at all. Life is too short to read books you don't really want to read. I'm still glad you started the read-a-long because I've been meaning to read this book for far too long and am really enjoying (even though apparently I'm the only one!)


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