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Kilroy Was There | The Nation

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Kilroy Was There

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"A few"? As David Kennedy details, in the post-World War I decades, Americans had said "no" to the League of Nations, to the World Court, to free trade, to forgiveness of British and French war debts, to further unlimited immigration and to the "mistake" (as many came to consider it) of America's past participation in the Great War. As World War II impended, moreover, Congress passed five "neutrality" acts that, in practice, favored aggressors like Italy against Ethiopia and Japan against China. Even the later Lend-Lease Act, which Winston Churchill called "the most unsordid" in history, was preceded by the forced and ruthless sale of British assets in America to finance the necessary plant expansion.

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Tom Wicker
Tom Wicker was a reporter, Washington correspondent and political columnist for the New York Times from 1960 until his...

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"Isolationism may have been most pronounced in the landlocked Midwest," in prewar America, Kennedy concedes. But he insists that "Americans of both sexes, of all ages, religions and political persuasions, from all ethnic groups and all regions" shared attitudes that "bordered on disgust" toward Europe and the rest of a "wretchedly quarrelsome world." Internationalist or no, Roosevelt himself scuttled the London Economic Conference, abandoned the gold standard, sponsored New Deal acts that kept the US economy isolated (perhaps pardonably, in the Depression) and acquiesced in the further downsizing of what was then an army of only 140,000 men.

He was "at many points," Kennedy believes, "less the principled opponent of the isolationists than their willing captive," no doubt because FDR faced, as he told a friend in 1935, "a large, misinformed public opinion" and, as he wrote a diplomat at the time, "the wind everywhere blows against us." And after 1934, Kennedy's evidence suggests, American isolationism "hardened from mere indifference to the outside world into studied, active repudiation of anything" that smacked of international involvement.

Even after the Japanese in 1937 "mistakenly" bombed the Panay, a US warship anchored in the Yangtze River, a Fortune magazine poll found a majority of Americans favoring not retaliation but a pullout from China. That year 73 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll favored a constitutional amendment--only narrowly defeated in Congress--to require approval in a national referendum for any declaration of war on anybody for anything.

So isolationist and isolated behind its oceans was thirties America that it "simply did not figure" in Hitler's hegemonic calculations. As for the early signs of the Holocaust to come, Americans were not well informed but were even less concerned; a Fortune survey in 1938 (when unemployment was stratospheric) "showed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans were willing to raise immigration quotas to accommodate refugees."

Brokaw's book implicitly supports the "mythology" (as Kennedy calls it) that after Pearl Harbor young American men "step[ped] forward in unison to answer the trumpet's call." Nearly 2 million farm laborers and 4 million industrial workers sought and received draft deferments. Seventy thousand draft-age men declared themselves conscientious objectors. Owing to various forms of racial prejudice, 300,000 black men in the 1-A pool went undrafted.

Married men were exempt from the first draft calls, so an estimated 40 percent of 21-year-olds in late 1940 went to the altar within six weeks ("most" of these marriages, said Lewis Hershey, the once and future Selective Service director, "might have been for the purpose of evading the draft"). About 200,000 young men in the air corps cadet program never left home, and the Navy V-12 program sent droves of 17-year-olds, including me, to college for two years. By early 1944, only 161,000 pre-Pearl Harbor fathers had been conscripted; one couple, probably apocryphal, was said to have named a baby "Weatherstrip" because he kept his father out of the draft.

Although more than 16 million men and women served in all branches during the war, and one in five American families had at least one member in military service, the Army's decision to limit itself to ninety divisions meant that it was, in Kennedy's phrase, "scarcely...a mighty host"--only somewhat larger than the Japanese Army, somewhat smaller than the Wehrmacht and less than half the size of the Red Army that played a greater role in smashing Hitler.

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