Note: This is a slightly edited version of a blog post I wrote last year for the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor
On this day seventy years ago, Japanese military forces bombed Pearl Habor, leaving several thousand Americans killed or wounded. The greatest tragedy of Pearl Harbor is the Americans who died and their loved ones left to carry on. In response to this attack, millions of American soldiers put their lives on the line, and hundreds of thousands gave their lives. That is the second great tragedy. As I have discussed in previous blog posts, part of this tragedy is that some of the soldiers who served in the U.S. military were gay, black, and Native American, fighting for the freedom of others when it was denied to them. The recently deceased Frank Kameny is one such example. I first want to thank all World War II veterans for their service. In some ways, the U.S. reaction to Pearl Harbor had good results. Our nation played a decisive role in stopping Nazism and liberating those who suffered under the terror of the Third Reich. Absent our intervention, the world would likely be an even more terrifying place today. Indeed, it is hard to see how, by December 7, 1941, FDR could have avoided a world war. Yet in order to see how World War II became impossible or nearly impossible to avoid, we must go back all the way to the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant general, but he was also a belligerent racist and megalomaniac in the mode of Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Adolph Hitler. Among the lands that he conquered was what is now Germany. (Germany would not become a unified country until 1871.) This action imbued Germans with a long-lasting hatred for France that persisted long after Germany was freed from French rule. In fact, it was a major reason why Germany in the early 1900s wanted to fight a continental war in Europe and why World War I ended up taking place. The other reason that World War I took place was the military and trade alliances between various nations. Because of these alliances, what should have been a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary developed into a world war. And it was because of our desire to trade with members of the Allied Powers like Great Britain that made the United States enter World War I. Germany did not want us to trade with Britain, and rather than avoiding trade with nations that were at war (a wise policy, given that we had already fought the War of 1812 largely because we couldn’t stop trading with warring powers), Woodrow Wilson dug his heels into the sand. Thus, tensions ratcheted up, and the United States entered World War I. It was economic interest, not human rights, that led America to fight in World War I. How could it be otherwise, when Woodrow Wilson himself had blatantly disregarded the human rights of African Americans by allowing branches of the federal government to be re-segregated? In the end, the Allied Powers defeated Germany and forced a series of one-sided, humiliating restrictions on them. A German veteran of World War I, who had been savaged by mustard gas, was so furious at these recent events that he built up a political party that eventually seized control of the German government, ending the largely free to be you and me democracy that had recently came to power in the country. His name was Adolph Hitler. Hitler was a vile, evil man, even worse than Joseph Stalin. The crimes of the Third Reich cannot be understated. Yet it is also true that if Napoleon had left Germany alone in the first place, if Britain and the United States had not chosen to involve themselves in an unnecessary war, or if Germany had not been made Europe’s whipping boy after World War I, Hitler might have been merely some unhinged lunatic screaming from a street corner while people walked by shaking their heads with incredulity. The evidence suggests that Germans were, as a whole, no more susceptible to racist ideology than Americans. In fact, when black track star Jesse Owens competed in the Berlin Olympics, he described how the ovation he received there was the greatest of his life. He also said, “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” While Anti-Semitism played a role in building up public support for the Nazis in Germany, the nation’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers was also a factor. World War II was inevitable in 1941. But unlike the Civil War, which became impossible to avoid as soon as the ink on the Constitution dried, World War II could have been avoided if appropriate steps had been taken just ten or fifteen years before Pearl Harbor. Would Japan have dared attack if they had not had Hitler to rush to their aid? Unlikely. Japan’s industrial resources were just one-tenth of what America possessed. Attacking Pearl Harbor without the aid of the other Axis Powers would have suicidal. Furthermore, FDR and Winston Churchill did not fight World War II to save the foreign people being terrorized by Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini. Winston Churchill’s, shall we say, strained relationship with Ireland has received attention, but few know his role in South African Apartheid. Whatever else may be said about British colonial policy, the fact remains that the British government served as a bulwark for a time that prevented Afrikaners from implementing full-scale Apartheid. The more control the British lost over the colony, the worse things got for black South Africans. According to a 1994 article in The Independent, “The young Churchill, then Under-Secretary for the Colonies, had covered the South African war as a journalist and had been captured by – and escaped from – the Boers. His knowledge and influence in making the agreement after peace was signed was crucial. In a debate in July 1906 he called the peace treaty ‘the first real step taken to withdraw South African affairs from the arena of British party politics’. He argued passionately that the Afrikaners should be allowed self-rule, a self-rule which he admitted would mean that black Africans would be excluded from the vote.” Do we really believe that this same man would have expended so much of his country’s blood and treasure to save Jews in Nazi Germany? FDR was no better. Under his administration, New Deal agencies were segregated by race. When Republican Governor Phillip La Follete of Wisconsin asked that CCC camps in his state be integrated, Roosevelt’s Director of the CCC, Robert Fechner, refused his request. Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt’s own personal facility, was segregated by race. The United States military, while fighting the Nazis in Europe, remained racially segregated. The president also failed to publicly support a federal anti-lynching bill. How could FDR have been fighting a war against racial violence in Germany when he would not even take a firm stand against it in his own country? Lincoln’s motives for fighting the Civil War were also impure, but at least his war resulted in the ending of slavery here. He did not have the nerve to fight other countries for “freedom and democracy” while denying it to U.S. citizens. In fact, despite the tendency to view all isolationists from 1939-1941 as pro Nazi, some isolationists, such as Oswald Garrison Villard and Norman Thomas, were firmly against anti-Semitism and took much more liberal positions on racism than FDR. Furthermore, the civil liberties violations undertaken by Roosevelt in reaction to World War II were deadly. 110,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were found guilty of no law-breaking, were rounded up and placed in prison camps. Some of FDR’s civil liberties violations developed lives of their own. FDR used military tribunals, rather than civilian courts, to try enemy combatants. Sound familiar? Prior to Pearl Harbor, the president had responded to the growing Axis threat by favoring the creation of a military draft and HUAC, better known as the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, the draft forced young men to risk their lives against their will. As mentioned earlier, some of these draftees were forced to fight for a country that did not even give them equal rights. And HUAC harassed people for expressing controversial viewpoints. Yet both the draft and HUAC outlived the Axis Powers. Except for a couple short respites, America has constantly either required young men to serve in the military or register for the draft since the end of World War II, even though the United States has not declared war since the end of that conflict. And HUAC became the dreaded instrument used in the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. Today, we rightfully mourn the loss of life caused by Pearl Harbor and rightfully praise the downfall of the Axis Powers. We should also reflect on the belligerence from all sides that caused World War II, the minority groups whose rights were ignored while the United States waged the war, and the danger of “temporarily” sacrificing personal freedom during national emergencies.