Making the World Safe for Capitalism
Saving Private Power by Michael Zezima
Published by Soft Skull Press, N.Y.
Reviewed by David Cogswell
This review appeared in The American Book Review
Historical perspective, every schoolboy learns, is the clarity of perception that can be achieved when the dust of events settles and historians can look back without the prejudices, passions, deceptions and vested interests of the time.
At the 50th anniversary of the war, a wave of World War II nostalgia appeared, typified by Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation." These exercises in mass marketing embrace nostalgically the jingoistic attitudes that were once used to stir a population to mobilize for war. "Saving Private Power" (a play on the Spielberg title) by Michael Zezima is evidence that a new historical paradigm may be emerging as the 20th century recedes into the past.
The people of the 21st century face a different world than that of the 1940s. It is common today to speak of a global economy, but World War II is portrayed in the popular media in mythic terms: a heroic tale of good guys versus bad guys, the good and just prevailing over evil, and so forth. Stories of heroism have their value and their own kind of truth, but Zezima adopts a coldly analytical attitude toward the War, with no excuses. Seen from the standpoint of global economic and political movements, the war appears in a different light from the simplistic view that was characteristic of war propaganda and still colors contemporary views of World War II.
Marx's essential contribution was his use of economics as a tool for the analysis of history. Modern journalists know well that the surest way to cut to the core of a political situation is to sidestep its rhetoric and "follow the money." Looking at World War II in terms of economic interests yields a much more subtly shaded canvas than the picture created to promote patriotism. Zezima portrays the war as a conflict between the major world powers for the biggest share of world production, raw materials, workers and industries.
Following that line of inquiry, it becomes clear that fascism - roughly defined by militaristic aggressiveness in quest of territorial expansion and conquest, economic growth fueled by war production, tightly concentrated capital, and oppression of labor unions and minorities -- was not strictly a product of Germany, but was an international phenomenon. The money to rebuild the shattered German economy after World War I could not have come only from within. The investment in the German arms buildup was international, including a healthy participation by American financiers. There was also a great deal of ideological sympathy toward the Nazis in America among major business leaders.
Fascism in Italy, Japan and Spain is not a matter of controversy. Nazi collaboration within France and even among the Swiss has been publicly recognized. But within the United States, any questioning of the purity of the nation in its battle for freedom and democracy is a social taboo. Fascistic elements in the United States are usually discussed only in terms of fringe movements that had little or no effect on the mainstream. The extent to which giants of American business supported the arming of the Nazis with their money and their mouths is rarely considered. The Nazi sympathies of some of America's great names have been swept under the rug, but are clearly part of the historical record if the blind spots of prejudice can be wiped away.
In his insistence on cutting through the barriers held in place by the reverent, Zezima unmasks a number of American icons. American hero Charles Lindbergh, for example, was a big fan the Nazis. He visited with top Nazi brass at the personal invitation of General Goering, who impressed him with a review of the German air force. Lindbergh urged Americans to leave the Nazis in peace to pursue their wars in their own ways. He said Hitler was "undoubtedly a great man" who had helped to make Germany "in many ways the most interesting nation in the world." Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels considered Lindbergh an intimate ally, as reflected in his diary entries: "The isolationists are very active. Colonel Lindbergh is sticking stubbornly and with great courage to his old opinions. A man of honor!" Then two weeks later: "Lindbergh has written a really spirited letter to Roosevelt. He is the president's toughest opponent. He asked us not to give him too much prominence, since this could harm him. We have proceeded accordingly."
Henry Ford was another big supporter of Nazism. He adopted an Aryan-only policy in his German plants before Nazi law required it. His own newspaper The Dearborn Independent was passionately anti-Semitic. In 1920, a series of 92 articles began with the headline: "The International Jew: The World's Problem." It included an installment called "The Jewish Associates of Benedict Arnold." In 1938, on Ford's 75th birthday, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle by the Fuhrer himself, who kept a picture of Ford beside his desk and considered him the leader of "the growing fascist movement in America." Also investing in Germany in the 1920s were General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Texaco, International Harvester, ITT and IBM. Many companies continued operations during the war.
George W. Bush's grandfather Prescott Bush and great grandfather George Herbert Walker funneled at least $50 million into the Nazi war effort selling Nazi war bonds as directors of the Union Bank of New York, which was owned by the investment company Brown Brothers Harriman (as in Averill Harriman). Union Bank was finally closed down under the Trading With the Enemy Act in October, 1942.
Zezima suspends the presumption that World War II was "The Good War" and explores the notion that in many ways it wasn't. He zeroes in on a number of unpleasant facts about the war.
The book is broken into sections that examine five specific beliefs that are part of the core belief system of many Americans: World War II was "good"; World War II was inevitable; the allies fought to liberate the death camps; the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise; only the axis nations committed war crimes; the atomic bombs dropped on Japan were necessary; and World War II was fought to end fascism. In conclusion, Zezima examines the social effect of the idea itself that the war was good, or that war itself is good.
Given the progression from the early 20th century when most countries were governed by kings or their equivalent, to today when few kings remain, World War II may be seen as part of a larger movement that spread the democratic form of government widely around the world. But with the bias of wartime propaganda removed, it may be seen that the elements of fascism and authoritarianism also took root during that movement in history and left their mark on the postwar world. If Americans shield themselves from knowledge of the darker side of their own history, they cannot be prepared to ward off such evils in the future. In the postwar world, political atrocities have not ceased, they they are only obscured from view, submerged in a flood of media images.
Zezima will no doubt encounter a great deal of resistance against his case. Such deeply disturbing contentions are rarely welcomed, especially in a culture whose political leaders routinely refer to it as "the greatest civilization in the history of the world." But it offers a worthwhile alternative to the standard -- and tired -- views of World War II.
Saving Private Power by Michael Zezima is published by Soft Skull Press, N.Y.
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