For lovers of history and their elderly relatives
August 29, 2016 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Was "Fighting the Nazis/Japanese was a mistake" really a thing in the post-war years? Details inside.

In the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), three vets come home from the war, one of them a sailor who lost his hands when his ship went down at sea. One day, while that sailor is at a lunch counter waiting for his buddy, he encounters another man eating lunch and reading the paper. This man strikes up a conversation with the vet and we soon find out that this man thinks that it was a mistake to fight Germany and Japan, "we were fighting the wrong guys." The sailor gets upset at the idea that he and his fellow vets were all "suckers" and a fight ensues after the sailor rips off a flag pin the man is wearing on his lapel.

In the late forties, MGM came out with Battleground, a film about a squad of men in the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe. On Christmas, a bunch of the guys are huddled around the hood of a jeep where a chaplain has set up a cross for Christmas services. The chaplain opens with some remarks about how he's there for all the guys, not just Christians and then he gets into his pep talk about why the war needs fighting and how appeasement is bad. He talks about people at home may eventually forget, but the men who did the fighting never will and they should, "never let anyone tell you you were suckers for fighting the fascists."

My question:
I've seen The Best Years of Our Lives many times and I just always assumed that guy at the lunch counter was there as sort of a plot point/anti-war type thrown in to show the kind of society into which the veterans were struggling to reintegrate. But then I watched Battleground the other day and the chaplain's speech really interested me as its message was more or less the same as The Best Years of Our Lives.

Was this really a thing in the post-war years? Leaving aside the growing threat from the Soviet Union and communism in general, was the general idea that the United State shouldn't have fought Germany and Japan and got suckered into it really prominent enough to merit refutation in two Hollywood films of the era? Or was this just Hollywood being Hollywood? Thanks.
posted by Fukiyama to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not sure it was a really big thing, but I know from a lot of recent reading on the Hollywood Blacklist and early Cold War/red scare that the politics of the war changed very quickly after it was over. In 1944-1945 it was considered patriotic to be against fascism, whereas by 1947 the government was investigating the very same people they'd hired to make anti-fascist propaganda.

Also, there were plenty of people in the US who always felt this way, even during the war. There was a segment of the population who were anti-interventionist, which included people we see now as fascist sympathizers such as Charles Lindbergh.

Not only that, during the late 30s before the US was officially in the war, Americans who organized and raised awareness against Hitler and fascism were considered tin-foil hat wearers at best and communists at worst. There were Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for being "prematurely anti-fascist", for example. I've also run into some statements by HUAC members in the late 40s like (paraphrasing) "we were fighting the wrong enemy".

It's a polite fiction that all Americans were universally against the Nazis and then stayed on the "Never Again" bandwagon permanently thereafter.
posted by Sara C. at 3:07 PM on August 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

Charlie Chaplin, for instance, came under suspicion by the FBI for his "premature" anti-fascist positions, as expressed most famously in The Great Dictator.

The post-WWII rejiggering of alliances was dramatic and bound to leave some people feeling disillusioned.
posted by praemunire at 3:15 PM on August 29, 2016

Best answer: Non-Interventionism (and isolationism) was/is* a thing, yes. The US was officially neutral at the start of the war (though the wheels were already turning long before Pearl Harbor). And there was not an especially strong sentiment of "fascism is bad, we gotta do something!", hence our late entry into the war. There were factions that were pro-German and anti-British, as well as some grassroots sentiment of "it's not our borders, why spend our money and send our troops?" That's where that idea of "suckers" came from, as unfair as it was to the actual troops on the ground.

And in the late- and post-war years, there was a good bit of bitterness. Socially, the war caused extraordinary upheaval in the US (consider all the women, Black men, and poor white men who were now skilled tradespersons, some of them with college tuition in their pockets, competing for "good" jobs). We have better words for it now, but it wasn't like nobody noticed how damaged the men who survived were, and how much their families suffered (not to mention the families where the men didn't survive). The Red Scare had conveniently clotheslined the labor unions (to the benefit of the same people who made their millions on the war) during the ramp-up to the war, so these men came home to basically an alien economy.

We have definitely been sold a postwar repackaging that we Saved The Day From Mean Old Mister Hitler and all that, but I don't think most people really thought about it like that at the time. Most people aren't thrilled about going to war, in the moment, when it's their own necks on the line.

*Consider: many of the arguments against Clinton in the primaries was that she is too Interventionist.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:23 PM on August 29, 2016 [9 favorites]

Postscript: and there's rabbitholes out there about how a lot of people figured whatever the Germans wanted to do to Europe et cetera (as in, Jews and the Polish and other Eastern Europeans, cough cough) was their business not ours and fair play if they could pull it off. The Japanese, on the other hand, first off not being white like the Germans and then attacking us on our own soil...that was a different conversation.

But that is a very gross rabbithole.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:16 PM on August 29, 2016

Best answer: My dad is in his late 70's and remembers hearing the older relatives debate this when he was a little boy in the early 1940s. Remember, WWI only ended about 20 years previously. The depression had just happened. A lot of people were deeply suspicious of the idea of going to war. America is a country with fantastic natural resources, and a perfectly good ocean on either side insulating us from the world's craziness. Why get involved? We still hear echoes of this old debate today when people talk about how the USA shouldn't be the world's policeman.

It's easy to forget that Hitler was once just another politician, not the symbol of pure evil that he is to our generation. My great-grandparents were sending money to poor relatives in Germany. From their perspective, it was far from clear that going to war was The Right Thing to do. Somebody was going to make a lot of money from the coming war, and people were really suspicious that war was just going to line somebody else's pockets.

The America First Committee was a group fighting to keep the US out of the war, and it was pretty big. This is an interesting article from the WaPo about connections between Donald Trump's "America First" slogan and the America First movement before WWII. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the 1960's, I think of "anti-war" as automatically meaning "left-wing." But there was a big strain of anti-war sentiment pre WWII that was pretty darn right-wing.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:24 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies so far. Regarding prewar movements like Lindburgh and America First and Hitler not being the boogeyman we know him to be today, I'm familiar with it all. I'm looking for postwar specifically.

Lyn Never, thank you for your reply.

Sara C., thank you for your reply as well; one thing:
In 1944-1945 it was considered patriotic to be against fascism, whereas by 1947 the government was investigating the very same people they'd hired to make anti-fascist propaganda.
Are you saying that anyone who was anti-fascist after the war due to the changing international situation was assumed to be a communist or at least a fellow traveler? Or do you mean people who just had communist leanings to begin with? Since obviously anti-fascist war movies starring the Nazis and the Japanese as the bad guys never went out of style.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:15 PM on August 29, 2016

Well, for instance, Thomas Mann was hounded out of the United States for being "one of the world's most noted Communists" after spending many years in exile in the U.S. in public opposition to fascism. He was, uh, not.
posted by praemunire at 8:42 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm referring to specific people who were hired to work on anti-fascist propaganda during the war who, just a few years later, got blacklisted for making those very films because anti-fascist sentiment quickly became a synonym for communism.
posted by Sara C. at 11:01 PM on August 29, 2016

I'm looking for postwar specifically.

I guess the point of my anecdote is that the anti-interventionist arguments persisted long after the war was won.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:43 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: America had a relatively light WW2. If you never heard a shot fired in anger (and the overwhelming majority of those in uniform did not), if you enjoyed the benefits of the GI bill, if you saw the pictures of the camps, it was easy to see the whole thing as a Good War.

If you lost your hands, your job, your intended, and thought about how a large part of Europe and China were now less free than before the war, you might have a different perspective. Such people existed, but America was less a grievance society then than it is now. Other than the movies you mention, the only other Hollywood discussion came in an episode of Hawaii Five-0 in which a former POW maimed by the Japanese is forced to deal with modern Japanese visitors. I imagine the subject is not big box office.

As someone who grew up in the shadow of the 1960's, I think of "anti-war" as automatically meaning "left-wing." But there was a big strain of anti-war sentiment pre WWII that was pretty darn right-wing.

True enough, there were the John T. Flynn's of this world. On the other hand, Dalton Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun as an antiwar screed in 1938. (He pulled it not when Russia (with Germany) invaded Poland, not when Germany declared war on the US, but when Germany invaded Russia. Make of that what you will.)

But you also have to bear in mind also just how Godawful WWI had been. For Americans in the Depression, watching Europe go through it all over again was hardly encouraging. Fool me once....

Whither antiwar today? I would note that is largely a libertarian/paleoconservative site.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:36 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

The podcast You Must Remember This just did an extensive set of episodes on the Hollywood black list Sara C. is talking about - you might be interested. It does talk a lot about the shift in attitude from anti-Nazi to anti-fascist to you must be a communist!
posted by ChuraChura at 6:45 AM on August 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the links and the info everyone. I'm going to close this.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:58 PM on August 30, 2016

(Of course, Germany invaded Russia before Pearl Harbor. The point remains, Trumbo did his 180 in response to outside interests, not to direct threats to America.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:36 PM on September 7, 2016

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