Remarks in Cedar Rapids on November 11, 2023
Henry Nicholas John Gunther was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to parents who had immigrated from Germany. In September 1917 he was drafted to help kill Germans. The world’s first modern war propaganda campaign was underway. It was a hard sales pitch for war, including if you said the wrong thing you’d go to prison. Henry wrote home from Europe to describe how horrible the war was and to encourage others to avoid being drafted. Well, his letter was censored and he was demoted. After that, he told his buddies that he would prove himself. He would prove how much he hated and was willing to murder the right group of people. As the deadline of 11:00 a.m. approached on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the war was scheduled to end. The armistice had been signed early in the morning, but with 11:00 chosen as quitting time, allowing an extra 11,000 people to be killed, wounded, or go missing. I would say for no good reason, but wouldn’t want you to think that the millions killed before that morning had been for some good reason. As the clock ticked down, Henry got up, against orders, and bravely charged with his bayonet toward two German machine guns. The Germans were aware of the Armistice and tried to wave him off. What was the point? But Henry kept approaching and shooting. When he got close, a short burst of machine gun fire ended his life at 10:59 a.m. Henry was given his rank back because he had done the proper thing. If he’d come home and done it in a bowling alley it would have been the improper thing. He was not given his life back, and we label him the last man to die in World War I, even though World War I continued for weeks in Africa, and even though the so-called Spanish flu that came out of the war would kill as many as the bullets and the gas, and even though many of the veteran suicides were yet to come, and even though farmers would go on being killed by unexploded ordinance indefinitely, and even though deaths caused by needless hunger, poverty, and deprivation of proper medicine would continue, and even though the peace agreement would eventually be concocted in such a way as to practically guarantee and in fact elicit predictions of the continuation of the war in what we call World War II, and even though the military industrial complex was now slouching determinedly toward Washington to be born.
The moment of ending the Great War was supposed to end all war, and it kicked off a world-wide celebration of joy and of the restoration of some semblance of sanity. It became a time of silence, of bell ringing, of remembering, and of dedicating oneself to actually ending all war. That was what Armistice Day was. It was not a celebration of war or of those who participate in war, but of the moment a war had ended — and a remembrance and mourning of those war has destroyed. Congress passed an Armistice Day resolution in 1926 calling for “exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding … inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.” Later, Congress added that November 11th was to be “a day dedicated to the cause of world peace.” That lasted until the holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
Veterans Day is no longer, for most people in the United States, a day to cheer the ending of war or even to aspire to its abolition. Veterans Day is not even a day on which to mourn the dead or to question why suicide is the top killer of U.S. troops or why so many veterans have no houses. Veterans Day is not generally advertised as a pro-war celebration. But chapters of Veterans For Peace are banned in some small and major cities, year after year, from participating in Veterans Day parades, on the grounds that they oppose war. Veterans Day parades and events in many cities praise war, and virtually all praise participation in war. Almost all Veterans Day events are nationalistic. Few promote “friendly relations with all other peoples” or work toward the establishment of “world peace.”
Jane Addams and her colleagues not only predicted in 1919 that a second world war would come, but also detailed what would need to be changed about the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in order to avoid it — and launched a global peace organization to advocate toward that end. The famous 14 points promoted by President Woodrow Wilson were largely lost in the Treaty of Versailles, replaced by brutal punishment and humiliation for Germany. Addams warned that this would lead to another war.
The British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1919 in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, “If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.”
Thorstein Veblen, in a highly critical review of Keynes’ book, also predicted the Treaty of Versailles leading to more war, though he understood the basis of the treaty to be animosity toward the Soviet Union, against which, it should be noted, the United States and allied nations were fighting a war in 1919 that rarely shows up in U.S. history books but which every Russian knows about to this day. Veblen believed that reparations could have easily been taken from wealthy German property owners without imposing suffering on all of German society, but that the primary goal of those making the treaty had been to uphold property rights and to use Germany as a force against the communist Soviet Union.
Woodrow Wilson had promised “peace without victory,” but, in the treaty negotiations, given in to French and British vengeance toward Germany. Afterwards, he predicted World War II unless the United States joined the League of Nations. Veblen thinks Wilson didn’t cave in and compromise at the treaty negotiations, but rather prioritized enmity toward the Soviet Union. I think the British did that, but that Wilson’s is a stranger story.
Wilson began by forcefully arguing against vindictive punishment of Germany, but was struck down by the so-called Spanish flu, was weakened severely, spoke as though delusional, and quickly agreed to abandon much of what he had promised the world. It was called the Spanish flu because, although it probably came from U.S. military bases to the European war, Spain allowed its newspapers to write about unpleasant news, whereas the U.S. and other nations did not allow such liberties. But the ridiculously named Spanish flu had infected the White House.
The previous fall, on September 28, 1918, Philadelphia had held a massive pro-war parade that included flu-infected troops just back from the war. Doctors had warned against it, but politicians had announced that nothing would go wrong if everyone refrained from coughing, sneezing, and spitting. Raise your hand if you think ever person in a giant crowd refrained from coughing, sneezing, and spitting. The flu spread. Wilson got it. He didn’t do what he might have done in Paris. It’s not inconceivable that WWII could have been avoided had a parade in Philadelphia been avoided.
That may sound crazy, but the parade in Philadelphia was just one stupid thing in an ocean of stupid things that didn’t have to be done. Nobody could have predicted World War II as a result of that parade, but such a prediction was possible and in fact made about many other of the unnecessary and foolish actions in the years between the wars.
Ferdinand Foch, a Frenchman, was Supreme Allied Commander. He was very disappointed with the Treaty of Versailles. “This is not peace,” he supposedly exclaimed. “It is an armistice for 20 years.” World War II began 20 years and 65 days later. Foch’s concern was not that Germany was punished too severely. Foch wanted Germany’s territory limited on the west by the Rhine River.
With widespread agreement that all governments would arm and prepare for more wars, predicting that Germany would be embittered by too much punishment or that too little punishment could allow Germany to launch a new attack were both safe predictions. With the ideas of prosperity without armament, the rule of law without violence, and humanity without tribalism still so marginal, Foch’s prediction made as much sense as Jane Addams’.
The Treaty of Versailles was only one thing among many that did not have to happen. The people of Germany did not have to allow the rise of Nazism. Nations and businesses around the world did not have to fund and encourage the rise of Nazism. Scientists and governments did not have to inspire the Nazi ideology. Governments did not have to prefer armaments to the rule of law, and did not have to wink at German outrages while encouraging a German attack on the Soviet Union. A major change to any one of these factors would have prevented WWII in Europe.
It’s not as though nobody tried for peace. The peace movement of the 1920s in the United States and Europe was larger, stronger, and more mainstream than ever before or since. In 1927-28 a hot-tempered Republican from Minnesota named Frank who privately cursed pacifists managed to persuade nearly every country on earth to ban war. He had been moved to do so, against his will, by a global demand for peace and a U.S. partnership with France created through illegal diplomacy by peace activists. The driving force in achieving this historic breakthrough was a remarkably unified, strategic, and relentless U.S. peace movement with its strongest support in the Midwest; its strongest leaders professors, lawyers, and university presidents; its voices in Washington, D.C., those of Republican senators from Idaho and Kansas; its views welcomed and promoted by newspapers, churches, and women’s groups all over the country; and its determination unaltered by a decade of defeats and divisions.
The movement depended in large part on the new political power of female voters. The effort might have failed had Charles Lindbergh not flown an airplane across an ocean, or Henry Cabot Lodge not died, or had other efforts toward peace and disarmament not been dismal failures. But public pressure made this step, or something like it, almost inevitable. And when it succeeded — although the outlawing of war was never fully implemented in accordance with the plans of its visionaries — much of the world believed war had been made illegal. Frank Kellogg got his name on the Kellogg-Briand Pact and a Nobel Peace Prize, his remains in the National Cathedral in Washington, and a major street in St. Paul, Minnesota named for him — a street on which you cannot find a single person who doesn’t guess the street is named after a cereal company.
Wars were, in fact, halted and prevented. And when, nonetheless, wars continued and a second world war engulfed the globe, that catastrophe was followed by the trials of men accused of the brand new crime of making war, as well as by global adoption of the United Nations Charter, a document owing much to its prewar predecessor while still falling short of the ideals of what in the 1920s was called the Outlawry movement. In fact the Kellogg-Briand Pact had banned all war. The UN Charter legalized any war labeled defensive or authorized by the UN — making few if any wars legal, but allowing most people to falsely believe that most wars are legal.
Prior to Kellogg-Briand, both sides of a war were legal. Atrocities committed during wars were almost always legal. The conquest of territory was legal. Burning and looting and pillaging were legal. The seizing of other nations as colonies was legal. The motivation for colonies to try to free themselves was weak because they were likely to be seized by some other nation if they broke free from their current oppressor. Economic sanctions by neutral nations were not legal, though joining in a war could be. And making trade agreements under the threat of war was perfectly legal and acceptable, as was starting another war if such a coerced agreement was violated. The year 1928 became the dividing line for determining which conquests were legal and which not. War became a crime, while economic sanctions became law enforcement.
We don’t talk much about how the world wanted peace before World War II, or how easily it could have been had through a wiser ending of World War I; or about how Nazism drew on U.S. inspiration for eugenics, segregation, concentration camps, poison gas, public relations, and one-armed salutes; or about how U.S. corporations armed Nazi Germany through the war; or about how the U.S. military hired many top Nazis at the end of the war; or about the fact that Japan tried to surrender prior to the nuclear bombings; or about the reality that there was major resistance to the war in the United States; or about the fact so thoroughly erased by Hollywood that the Soviets did the vast bulk of defeating the Germans — and that the U.S. public at the time knew what the Soviets were doing, which created a momentary break in two centuries of hostility to Russia in U.S. politics.
Above anything else, we actively work at not knowing that the world’s governments, for openly bigoted reasons, refused to take the Jews, that the British blockade prevented their evacuation, and that appeals by peace activists to the U.S. and British governments to rescue the Jews were rejected in favor of focusing entirely on the war.
If you were to listen to people justifying WWII today, and using WWII to justify the subsequent 75 years of wars and war preparations, the first thing you would expect to find in reading about what WWII actually was would be a war motivated by the need to save Jews from mass murder. There would be old photographs of posters with Uncle Sam pointing his finger, saying “I want you to save the Jews!”
In reality, the U.S. and British governments engaged for years in massive propaganda campaigns to build war support but never made any mention of saving Jews. And we know enough about internal governmental discussions to know that saving Jews (or anyone else) was not a secret motivation kept hidden from antisemitic publics (and if it had been, how democratic would that have been in the great battle for democracy?). The simple truth is that the most popular justification for WWII wasn’t invented until after WWII.
U.S. immigration policy, crafted largely by antisemitic eugenicists such as Harry Laughlin — themselves sources of inspiration to Nazi eugenicists — severely limited the admission of Jews into the United States before and during World War II.
The policy of Nazi Germany for years was to pursue the expulsion of the Jews, not their murder. The world’s governments held public conferences to discuss who would accept the Jews, and those governments — for open and shamelessly antisemitic reasons — refused to accept the Nazis’ future victims. Hitler openly trumpeted this refusal as agreement with his bigotry and as encouragement to escalate it.
In Évian-les-Baines, France, in July 1938, an early international effort was made, or at least feigned, to alleviate something more common in recent decades: a refugee crisis. The crisis was the Nazi treatment of Jews. The representatives of 32 nations and 63 organizations, plus some 200 journalists covering the event, were well aware of the Nazis’ desire to expel all Jews from Germany and Austria, and somewhat aware that the fate that awaited them if not expelled was likely going to be death. The decision of the conference was essentially to leave the Jews to their fate. (Only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic increased their immigration quotas.)
Australian delegate T. W. White said, without asking the native people of Australia: “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
The dictator of the Dominican Republic viewed Jews as racially desirable, as bringing whiteness to a land with many people of African descent. Land was set aside for 100,000 Jews, but fewer than 1,000 ever arrived.
Hitler had said when the Évian Conference had been proposed: “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
Following the conference, in November of 1938, Hitler escalated his attacks on Jews with Kristallnacht or Crystal Night — a nighttime state-organized riot, destroying and burning Jewish shops and synagogues, during which 25,000 people were sent off to concentration camps. Speaking on January 30, 1939, Hitler claimed justification for his actions from the outcome of the Évian Conference:
“It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to aiding them — which is surely, in view of its attitude, an obvious duty. The arguments that are brought up as excuses for not helping them actually speak for us Germans and Italians. For this is what they say:
“1. ‘We,’ that is the democracies, ‘are not in a position to take in the Jews.’ Yet in these empires there are not even ten people to the square kilometer. While Germany, with her 135 inhabitants to the square kilometer, is supposed to have room for them!
“2. They assure us: We cannot take them unless Germany is prepared to allow them a certain amount of capital to bring with them as immigrants.”
The problem at Évian was, sadly, not ignorance of the Nazi agenda, but failure to prioritize preventing it, just as we are not now in any way excusably ignorant of genocide in Gaza. This remained a problem through the course of the war. It was a problem found in both politicians and in the public at large.
Five days after Crystal Night, President Franklin Roosevelt said he was recalling the ambassador to Germany and that public opinion had been “deeply shocked.” He did not use the word “Jews.” A reporter asked if anywhere on earth might accept many Jews from Germany. “No,” said Roosevelt. “The time is not ripe for that.” Another reporter asked if Roosevelt would relax immigration restrictions for Jewish refugees. “That is not in contemplation,” the president responded. Roosevelt refused to support the child refugee bill in 1939, which would have allowed 20,000 Jews under the age of 14 to enter the United States, and it never came out of committee.
While many in the United States, as elsewhere, tried heroically to rescue Jews from the Nazis, including by volunteering to take them in, majority opinion was never with them. In July 1940, Adolf Eichmann, a major planner of the holocaust, intended to send all Jews to Madagascar, which now belonged to Germany, France having been occupied. The ships would need to wait only until the British, which now meant Winston Churchill, ended their blockade. That day never came.
British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden met on March 27, 1943, in Washington, D.C., with Rabbi Stephen Wise and Joseph M. Proskauer, a prominent attorney and former New York State Supreme Court Justice who was then serving as President of the American Jewish Committee. Wise and Proskauer proposed approaching Hitler to evacuate the Jews. Eden dismissed the idea as “fantastically impossible.” But the very same day, according to the U.S. State Department, Eden told Secretary of State Cordell Hull something different:
“Hull raised the question of the 60 or 70 thousand Jews that are in Bulgaria and are threatened with extermination unless we could get them out and, very urgently, pressed Eden for an answer to the problem. Eden replied that the whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and that we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on any such offer and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.”
Churchill agreed. “Even were we to obtain permission to withdraw all the Jews,” he wrote in reply to one pleading letter, “transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.” Not enough shipping and transport? At the battle of Dunkirk, the British had evacuated nearly 340,000 men in just nine days. The U.S. Air Force had many thousands of new planes. During even a brief armistice, the U.S. and British could have airlifted and transported huge numbers of refugees to safety.
Not everyone was too busy fighting a war. Particularly from late 1942 on, many in the United States and Britain demanded that something be done. On March 23, 1943, the Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded with the House of Lords to assist the Jews of Europe. So, the British government proposed to the U.S. government another public conference at which to discuss what might be done to evacuate Jews from neutral nations. But the British Foreign Office feared that the Nazis might cooperate in such plans despite never being asked to, writing: “There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.”
The concern here was not with saving lives so much as with avoiding the embarrassment and inconvenience of saving lives.
In the end, those left alive in the concentration camps were liberated — though in many cases not very quickly, not as anything resembling a top priority. Some prisoners were kept in horrible concentration camps at least up through September of 1946. General George Patton urged that nobody should “believe that the Displaced person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.” President Harry Truman admitted at that time that “we apparently treat the Jews the same way as the Nazis did, with the sole exception that we do not kill them.”
Of course, even were that not an exaggeration, not killing people is a very important exception. The United States had fascist tendencies but did not succumb to them as Germany did. But neither was there any all-out capital-R Resistance crusade to save those threatened by fascism — not on the part of the U.S. government, not on the part of the U.S. mainstream.
World War II is the root source of today’s U.S. culture in every way, so naturally we know next to nothing accurate about it. To take one example of thousands, few of us know that the war on cancer came from the war in the town of Santa Claus.
Bari is a lovely Southern Italian port city with a cathedral where Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is buried. But Santa being dead is far from the worst revelation from Bari’s history. Bari forces us to remember that during World War II, the U.S. government invested heavily in researching and manufacturing chemical weapons. In fact, even prior to U.S. entry into WWII, it was providing Britain with huge quantities of chemical weapons.
These weapons were supposedly not to be used until the Germans used theirs first; and they were not used. But they ran the risk of accelerating a chemical arms race, of kickstarting a chemical arms war, and of causing horrendous suffering through accidental mishap. That last bit happened, most horribly in Bari, and most of the suffering and death may lie ahead of us.
When the U.S. and British militaries moved into Italy, they brought their chemical weapons supplies with them. On December 2, 1943, the port of Bari was packed with ships, and those ships were packed with the tools of war, ranging from hospital equipment to mustard gas. Unbeknownst to most people in Bari, civilians and military alike, one ship, the John Harvey, was holding 2,000 100-lb mustard gas bombs plus 700 cases of 100-lb white phosphorous bombs. Other ships held oil.
German planes bombed the harbor. Ships exploded. Some part of the John Harvey apparently exploded and hurled some of its chemical bombs into the sky, raining mustard gas onto the water and neighboring ships, and the ship sank. Had the whole ship exploded or the wind been blowing toward shore, the disaster could have been far worse than it was. It was bad.
Those who knew of the mustard gas said not a word, apparently valuing secrecy or obedience above the lives of those rescued from the water. People who should have been quickly washed off, because they’d been soaked in a mix of water, oil, and mustard gas, were warmed with blankets and left to marinate. Others departed on ships and would not wash for days. Many who survived would not be alerted to the mustard gas for decades. Many did not survive. Many more suffered terribly. In the first hours or days or weeks or months people could have been helped by knowledge of the problem, but were left to their agony and death.
Even as it became undeniable that the victims packed into every nearby hospital had suffered from chemical weapons, British authorities tried to blame the German planes for a chemical attack, thereby heightening the risk of jumpstarting a chemical war. U.S. doctor Stewart Alexander investigated, found the truth, and cabled both FDR and Churchill. Churchill responded by ordering everyone to lie, all medical records to be altered, not a word to be spoken. The motivation for all the lying was, as it usually is, to avoid looking bad. It was not to keep a secret from the German government. The Germans had sent down a diver and found part of a U.S. bomb. They not only knew what had happened, but accelerated their chemical weapons work in response, and announced exactly what had happened on the radio, mocking the Allies for dying from their own chemical weapons.
Lessons learned did not include the dangers of stockpiling chemical weapons in areas being bombed. Churchill and Roosevelt proceeded to do just that in England. Lessons learned did not include the dangers of secrecy and lying. Eisenhower knowingly lied in his 1948 memoir that there had been no casualties at Bari. Churchill knowingly lied in his 1951 memoir that there had been no chemical weapons accident at all. Lessons learned did not include the danger of filling ships with weapons and packing them into Bari’s harbor. On April 9, 1945, another U.S. ship, the Charles Henderson, exploded while its cargo of bombs and ammunition was being unloaded, killing 56 crew members and 317 dock workers. Lessons learned certainly did not include the danger of poisoning the earth with weaponry. For a couple of years, following WWII, there were dozens of cases reported of mustard gas poisoning, after fishing nets dislodged bombs from the sunken John Harvey. Then, in 1947, a seven-year cleanup operation began that recovered, according to one account, “some two thousand mustard gas canisters. . . . They were carefully transferred to a barge, which was towed out to sea and sunk. . . . A stray canister still occasionally emerges from the mud and causes injuries.”
Oh, well, as long as they got most of them and it was done “carefully.” The little problem remains that the world is not infinite, that life depends on the sea into which these particular chemical weapons were towed and sunk, and into which far vaster quantities were as well, all over the earth. The problem remains that the chemical weapons last longer than the casings that contain them. What an Italian professor called “a time bomb at the bottom of Bari harbor” is now a time bomb at the bottom of the earth’s harbor.
The little incident at Bari in 1943, in several ways similar to and worse than the one in 1941 at Pearl Harbor, but far less useful in propagandistic terms (nobody celebrates Bari Day five days before Pearl Harbor Day), may have most of its destruction still in the future.
Lessons learned supposedly do include something significant, namely a new approach to “battling” cancer. The U.S. military doctor who investigated Bari, Stewart Alexander, quickly noticed that the extreme exposure suffered by Bari victims suppressed white blood cell division, and wondered what this could do for victims of cancer, a disease involving out-of-control cell growth. Alexander didn’t need Bari for that discovery, for at least a few reasons. First, he had been on the path toward the same discovery while working on chemical weapons at Edgewood Arsenal in 1942 but been ordered to ignore possible medical innovations in order to focus exclusively on possible weapons developments. Second, similar discoveries had been made at the time of World War I, including by Edward and Helen Krumbhaar at the University of Pennsylvania — not 75 miles from Edgewood. Third, other scientists, including Milton Charles Winternitz, Louis S. Goodman, and Alfred Gilman Sr., at Yale, were developing similar theories during WWII but not sharing what they were up to because of military secrecy.
Bari may not have been needed to cure cancer, but it did cause cancer. U.S. and British military personnel, as well as Italian residents, in some cases never learned or learned decades later what the source of their ailments likely was, and those ailments included cancer.
On the morning after the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, a press conference was held at the top of the General Motors building in Manhattan to announce a war on cancer. From the start, its language was that of war. The nuclear bomb was held up as an example of the glorious wonders that science and massive funding could combine to create. The cure for cancer was to be the next glorious wonder along the same lines. Killing Japanese people and killing cancer cells were parallel achievements. Of course, the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their creation and testing, just like in Bari, resulted in the creation of a great deal of cancer, just as the weaponry of war has done at an increasing rate for decades since, with victims in places like parts of Iraq suffering far higher cancer rates than Hiroshima.
The story of the early decades of the war on cancer is one of slow and stubborn insistence on pursuing dead-ends while constantly predicting imminent victory, very much in the pattern of the war on Vietnam, the war on Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, etc. In 1948, the New York Times described an expansion in the war on cancer as a “C-Day Landing.” In 1953, in one example of many, the Washington Post declared “Cancer Cure Near.” Leading doctors told the media it was no longer a question of if, but when, cancer would be cured.
This war on cancer has not been without achievements. Death rates for various types of cancer have dropped significantly. But cases of cancer have increased significantly. The idea of ceasing to pollute ecosystems, ceasing to manufacture weapons, ceasing to haul poisons “out to sea,” has never had the attraction of a “war,” never generated pink-clad marches, never won the funding of the oligarchs.
It didn’t have to be this way. Much of the early funding for a war on cancer came from people trying to paper over the shame of their weapons dealing. But it was exclusively the shame of U.S. corporations having built weapons for the Nazis. They had nothing but pride in having simultaneously built weapons for the U.S. government. So, moving away from war did not enter into their calculations.
A key funder of cancer research was Alfred Sloan, whose company, General Motors, had built weaponry for the Nazis right through the war, including with forced labor. It’s popular to point out that GM’s Opel built parts for the planes that bombed London. The same planes bombed the ships in the harbor of Bari. The corporate approach to research, development, and manufacturing that had built those planes, and all of GM’s products, was now to be applied to curing cancer, thereby vindicating GM and its approach to the world. Unfortunately, the industrialization, extractivism, pollution, exploitation, and destruction that all took off globally during WWII and have never eased up, have been a great boon for the spread of cancer.
A key fundraiser and promoter of the war on cancer, who literally compared cancer to Nazis (and vice versa) was Cornelius Packard “Dusty” Rhoads. He drew on the reports from Bari and from Yale to create a whole industry in pursuit of a new approach to cancer: chemotherapy. This was the same Rhoads who had written a note in 1932 advocating the extermination of Puerto Ricans and declaring them to be “even lower than the Italians.” He claimed to have killed 8 Puerto Ricans, to have transplanted cancer into several more, and to have found that physicians took delight in abusing and torturing Puerto Ricans on whom they experimented. This was supposedly the less offensive of two notes known to a later investigation, but generated a scandal that revives every generation or so. In 1949 Time Magazine put Rhoads on its cover as “Cancer Fighter.” In 1950, Puerto Ricans purportedly motivated by Rhoads’ letter, very nearly succeeded in assassinating President Harry Truman in Washington, D.C.
There are ways in which World War II has not ended. It remains the single most common topic of U.S. infotainment. The bases and troops have never come home from Germany or Japan. The incredible military spending has never gone away. The innovation of taxing ordinary people for their work has never gone away. The delusion that war can be justified has never gone away. And the United States has bombed Germany every year since World War II, if the explosion of a bomb that had not yet exploded since being dropped from a U.S. airplane during the war constitutes bombing Germany. There are still over 100,000 yet-to-explode U.S. and British bombs from World War II lying hidden in the ground in Germany.”
Nowadays, on both sides of the war in Ukraine, you can find advocates for using just one little — not too much bigger than Hiroshima’s — nuclear bomb in order to show people what it is, thereby preventing their use. Now, let me ask this question. Raise your hand if when you were taught to drive a car they showed you how to avoid getting into a horrible crash by smashing a big truck into your car. They didn’t have to, right? Because you’re not a blithering idiot. You can understand words, and videos, and photographs? So, why must we assume complete idiocy in times of war fever, just because people are paid so much for it? Using a nuclear weapon is very likely to result in using huge numbers of nuclear weapons. And using any large number of nuclear weapons is very likely to create a nuclear winter in which crops fail and starvation takes the survivors. It’s not that World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. It will never be fought. The millions of science fiction movies you can watch in which the weaponry of war has advanced a thousand-fold but the nincompoop heroes get in fist fights every few minutes do not depict a possible reality. We have had tremendous luck avoiding just the accidental launching of a nuclear apocalypse. We have repeatedly been saved by the refusal of a single person to do the proper thing and obey orders. We won’t always have some stubborn Russian sailor to yank us all out of the fire.
We have a choice now between nonexistence and nonviolence. There is an opportunity in the wonderful protests of the genocide in Gaza. The opportunity lies in some people having understood that both sides of a war are evil, that the enemy should not be whichever side you’ve been conditioned to hate, that the enemy should be war itself. If that thinking is followed through. If we recognize the need to abolish all wars, all militaries, and all weapons of apocalyptic destruction, we may just avoid World War III. But we need a culture that wants that, which means we need a culture that ceases celebrating the U.S. military’s dozens of war holidays including Veterans Day and instead restores the meaning and the joy and the mourning and the sadness and the understanding and the wisdom of Armistice Day.