In Chapter 16 of A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn accuses the US of fighting a people's war but not truly adhering to the values it stated as a reason for going to war....

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pohnpei397's profile pic

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As with most parts of Zinn's book, I think there is an element of truth in Chapter 16, but that it caricatures US actions and ignores the ways in which those actions really did adhere to the values held by the US.

For example, Zinn argues that the US was, in WWII, run by a racist elite for its own economic interests.  It is, of course, true that there was a significant racist element in US society and in US actions.  However, it is hard to argue that US actions were driven largely by racist and/or economic motives.  If that were the case, why did the US act so benevolently towards Germany and Japan after the war?  If that were the case, why did the US give the Philippines its independence?

There is much to criticize about US actions and I would never argue that the US lived up to all of its ideals in this war.  At the same time, however, I think that it is just as skewed to argue as Zinn does that there was no moral difference between the US on the one hand and the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists on the other.

seaofknowledge's profile pic

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In Chapter 16 of A People's History of the United States, the author describes the contradictory actions of the US government regarding the officially stated reason to enter World War II. The author believes that World War II was erroneously thought to be a people's war by the American public but it was not. He gives examples of the numerous times the American government became involved in the internal matters of other governments, changed sides depending on the circumstances and reacted only when its national interests were at stake. What the author means to say, in short, is that the US government makes its decisions because they appear to be favorable to national interests at that time, including the decision to go to war. According to Zinn, the US did not enter World War II to rid the world of fascism and the prosecution of innocents by Nazi Germany, but to further its interests in the world. 

When such an argument is evaluated, it can only be an opinion at best, just as the argument itself is the author's opinion. We may or may not agree with him in light of our understanding of the facts and developments at the time. It is probably safe to say however that a government that has decided to go to war must gain the popular public support to make it possible. For this reason, it is not unheard of for governments to state different reasons and goals for war to the public than is the reality. The true reasons for entering a war become apparent after the war is over and the public, as well as experts and politicians, can review the developments in hindsight.

For example, after the US invasion of Iraq, it was expressed by some that the true reason to invade Iraq was not weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as was stated before the invasion took place. After WMDs were not discovered in Iraq, other possible causes for invading the country began to emerge.

Similarly, other causes for entering World War II may have emerged after the war was over and the incidents that led the US to enter the conflict are reviewed. It is not untrue that the US government has often acted contrary to its stated ideals and worldview in its official dealings and relations with other countries. Many examples are given in Chapter 16 of A People's History of the United States. It is also true that when such decisions were made, there were important incidents that made Americans feel unsafe. Pearl Harbor was of course a strong reason before World War II. Before the US entered World War I, American deaths due to the destruction of a British ship by Germany and secret plans about Mexico and US territories encouraged the US to enter the war. The US invasion of Iraq was strongly encouraged by the events of September 11. So perhaps it is not wrong to think that both national interest and ideals such as liberty were at play in the US decision to enter the Second World War.


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