Our Century: The Forties

Our Century: The Forties


Why Roosevelt Won

Despite the sly distortions that streamed over the air from the Lindberghs and the Lewises; despite the conversion of certain shaken liberals to the Willkie cause–despite these things, a great majority of the American people went quietly to the polls and used their own good judgement…. In a world sick with fear and discouragement that decision is a tonic.

–Editorial, November 9, 1940

The Shape Of Things

Casually, almost incidentally, the United States went to war with Germany and Italy last week Thursday. It all happened before lunch…. For so many months we had waded along the edges of the terrible flood that when we finally plunged in completely the mood of the country was almost one of nonchalance. “Well, now we’re in it,” people said smilingly.

Recruiting stations are now flooded…. The registration of women is under consideration. Enormous new taxes, outdoing the most reckless prophecies of our Wall Street Cassandras, are in preparation in Washington. We know today, after a week of war, that war will be no picnic.

–Editorial, December 20, 1941

“I could tell you that the sound of any woman’s voice heard here is like a pain in the heart–not a sharp pain, but a really beastly, nagging pain, provided you have time for that kind of pain,” the soldier said…

–Kaye Boyle, “Hotel Behind the Lines,” June 9, 1945

Few Vote for Fordism

One of the rules [of the Ford empire] is that there shall be no smoking anywhere within the 12,000 acres of the River Rouge domain…. It is a projection of [Henry] Ford’s personal asceticism. Smoking is prohibited in every nook and cranny of the place, including the foundry, where smoke and fire are always present, and the washrooms, where smoking could not possibly be harmful or dangerous…. There are no chairs,… [so] in the most highly mechanized production plant in the world men must squat on the floor to eat their lunch….When a chair and a cigarette emerge as the two most immediate desires of a River Rouge worker, one realizes why 97.4 per cent of Ford’s 78,000 employees leaped at the chance to tell him that they don’t like being treated as automatons.

–Rose M. Stein, Letter to the Editor, June 14, 1941

It is obvious that both the removal and the resettlement of loyal American citizens along with Japanese aliens have been badly bungled.

–Editorial, June 6, 1942

Stalingrad and Dieppe

Children in later days will read about Stalingrad as they do now about Thermopylae or Hastings or Waterloo. But only persons alive today can sense, even faintly, the reality of that fierce epic….

Stalingrad still holds out as this issue goes to press. And the agony of the Russian resistance begins to touch the nerves of men and women as nothing has done since the siege of Madrid…. The unremitting ferocity of the attack; the resistance of the Russians that persists beyond all imagining; the knowledge that if Stalingrad falls, much more than a battle is lost–all this has helped break down the emotional defenses of the watching world. Stalingrad has ceased to be the name of a steel town in the Volga valley; it is Manchester, Chicago, Kansas City. Its body-strewn yards are our own; its desperate, valiant people–are they as we? Could we fight so strongly, die so well? We may have a chance to find out. Especially if Stalingrad falls.

–Freda Kirchwey, September 26, 1942

For the Jews–Life or Death?

As I write, the morning papers carry a dispatch from Lisbon reporting that the “deadline”–the idiom was never more literal–has passed for the Jews of Hungary. It is approaching for the Jews of Bulgaria, where the Nazis yesterday set up a puppet regime.

I need not dwell upon the authenticated horrors of the Nazi internment camps and death chambers for Jews. That is not tragic but a kind of insane horror…. The tragic element in the fate of the Jews of Europe lies in the failure of their friends in the West to…fight as hard for the big words we use, for justice and for humanity, as the fanatic Nazi does for his master race or the fanatic Jap for his Emperor….

“Free ports” in Turkey are needed, but the Turks…are unwilling to do for Jewish refugees what we ourselves are still unwilling to do, that is, give them a temporary haven…. And the longer we delay the fewer Jews there will be left to rescue…. Between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000 European Jews have been killed since August, 1942, when the Nazi extermination campaign began….

It is a question of Mr. Roosevelt’s courage and good faith. All he is called upon to do, after all, is what Franco did months ago, yes, Franco. Franco established “free ports,” internment camps, months ago for refugees who fled across his border, refugees, let us remember, from his own ally and patron, Hitler.

–I.F. Stone, June 10, 1944

From the point of view of military strategy, $2,000,000,000 (the cost of the bomb and the cost of nine days of war) were never better spent. The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success: Allied leaders can rightly claim that the loss of life on both sides would have been many times greater if the atomic bomb had not been used and Japan had gone on fighting. There is no answer to this argument. The danger is that…the argument can be applied equally well in the future.

–Freda Kirchwey, August 18, 1945

In a period in which illusions of every kind are being destroyed the illusionist methods of art must also be renounced.

–Clement Greenberg, “Abstract Art,” April 15, 1944

The five great incendiary attacks on Japan’s chief cities are proof enough that the B-29…is fit to take its place as one of the most powerful weapons of the war. Flying out three hundred strong the Superfortresses…attacked Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya again…. [T]he use of the fearsome gasoline-jell M-69 incendiary in such large clusters can do nothing less than devastate a large area. (The bomb weighs six pounds, burns for eight to ten minutes at above 3,000 Fahrenheit, and clings “tenaciously to any surface.”…) This is…especially effective in cities where so many buildings house subassembly benches for war productions. Bombers won’t win the war against Japan, but the increased tempo of these attacks…will mean a much-softened enemy when the troops go in.

–Editorial, March 24, 1945

[The firebombing of Tokyo killed more civilians than any single military action in the war. It would have been ruled a war crime had the Allies not been the victors.]


Apparently “Casablanca,” which I must say I liked, is working up a rather serious reputation as a fine melodrama. Why? It is obviously an improvement on one of the world’s worst plays; but it is not such an improvement that that is obvious. Any doubters should review the lines of Claude Rains. Bogart, Henreid, Veidt, Lorre, Sakall, and a colored pianist whose name I forget were a lot of fun, and Ingrid Bergman was more than that…. Thanks to a friend, moreover, I can now quote two lines which I snickered at and then, I blush to say, forgot. One, Miss Bergman’s plea to her husband, takes the season’s prize for exposition: “Oh, Victor, please don’t go to the underground meeting tonight.” The other, more tender, is Miss Bergman’s too, just after she collapses on to the sofa with Humphrey Bogart: “From now on you’ll have to do the thinking for both of us, dear.”

–James Agee, February 20, 1943


In Shakespeare’s conception the essential quality of the Moor is his foreignness. He is the exotic character–so exotic as to bewitch, for all his denials, the innocent English–not Venetian–Desdemona. The stress upon his blackness points up his alien, not his racial, character. There is no particular reason why a Negro should not play Othello or, for that matter, why a Negro should. Color aside, Robeson is simply not the type. The exotic quality is missing.

–Margaret Marshall, on Paul Robeson’s Broadway debut as Othello, October 23, 1943

Ernie Pyle

Pyle, the most popular war correspondent for his accounts of the ordinary soldier, was killed by machine-gun fire on the Japanese island of Ieshima.

Though our victory in this war is better than our defeat, though there is a difference between the two sides that is essential, still what has to be done, the actual substance of the war is almost entirely evil. The sergeant says to Pyle about the replacements: “I know it ain’t my fault they get killed, and I do the best I can for them. But I’ve got so I feel like it’s me killing ’em instead of a German. I’ve got so I feel like a murderer.” For Pyle, to the end, killing was murder; but he saw the murderers die themselves.

His condemnation of war seems to the reader more nearly final than any other, because in him there is no exaggeration, no hysteria, no selection to make out a case, no merely personal emotion unrecognized as such; he has nothing to prove. He has written down all that is favorable or indifferent–his readers have noticed this most, the commonplace courage and endurance and affection of his soldiers; but after all this his condemnation is so complete, detailed, brought home to us so absolutely, that it is unforgettable and unarguable….

Is there any imaginable way in which the next quotation could be altered?

Our fighters moved on after the enemy, and those who did not fight, but moved in the wake of the battles, would not catch up for hours. There was nothing left behind but the remains–the lifeless debris, the sunshine and the flowers, and utter silence. An amateur who wandered in this vacuum at the rear of a battle had a terrible sense of loneliness. Everything was dead–the men, the machines, the animals–and he alone was left alive.

Randall Jarrell, May 19, 1945


We cannot bear to face our knowledge that the satisfaction of our desire for justice, which we confuse with our desire for vengeance, is impossible. And so we invent as a victim the most comprehensive image which our reason, however deranged, will permit us: the whole of a people and the descendants of that people; and count ourselves incomparably their superior because we stop short of the idea of annihilation.

–James Agee, on public reaction to Nazi atrocity films, and calls for a peace of vengeance, May 19, 1945

India Drifts Toward Civil War

Gandhi may wander around India preaching the cult of non-violence, the unity of India, and the gospel of forgiveness–verily a modern Buddha–but how many, though they may admire or even worship him, practice his teachings? It is no secret that private armies are being formed. Crude bombs, hand grenades, flame-throwers, and rifles, not to mention knives and swords, are coming into common use when riots break out…. India may still ride out the storm. But a storm there is bound to be.

Shiva Rao, May 31, 1947

Israel at First Glance

One of the wisest men in Israel, a man whose life has been spent in intimate association with Arabs and who had always believed in the possibility of close and understanding relations with them, told me his views had been forcibly changed by their behavior. “We will not take them back,” he said, “except perhaps in limited numbers. They have forfeited all claim on us. Those that have stayed shall have every right of a citizen of Israel; those that went, none.”

Freda Kirchwey, December 4, 1948

Communist betrayal of the struggle of the Greek people against fascism and exploitation, American support for the forces consolidating the same fascism and exploitation–that is the history of Greece during the past five years.

–Constantine Poulos, “Greece: Betrayal as Usual,” October 29, 1949

People…discover with relief that they are not outcasts, not psychopaths, not criminals, when they masturbate or enjoy other “abnormal” sexual outlets…. If this relief from tension and guilt can be bought for $6.50, it is a most happy accomplishment.

–Martin Gumpert, “The Kinsey Report,” May 1, 1948

The Grand Inquisition

If a Congressional committee can investigate ideas in the movies, it can investigate them in the press. The purpose is to terrorize all leftists, liberals, and intellectuals; to make them fearful in the film, the theater, the press, and any school of advanced ideas the Thomas committee can stigmatize as “red.”… [T]he committee is out to give the moguls of the industry no rest until they not only take from the screen what little liberal and social content it has, but turn to making films which would prepare the way for fascism at home and war abroad. There were two revealing moments in the producers’ testimony. Jack Warner, explaining the “subtle” methods of “red” screen writers, said, “They have the routine of the Indians and the colored folks. That is always their setup.” And when Louis B. Mayer said he was going to start making some “anti-Communist films promptly,” Thomas leaned forward with a grin and asked, “These hearings haven’t anything to do with the promptness, have they?”

–I.F. Stone, November 8, 1947

25 Years of American Sensuality

With every step in the breakdown of restraints business has become more irritating, sociability more difficult, and friendship more precarious…. Individuality seems eccentric, offensive, and is repressed. The result is that to be a friend is no different from being an acquaintance; to do business is no different from having a party; to act as host is no different from advertising and selling the latest facilities; to taste and enjoy is no different from squaring one’s mind with public opinion.

–Jacques Barzun, March 27, 1948

Asia’s Tito?

I asked Ho Chi Minh whether Viet Nam could “completely resist” the pulls of the cold war. He replied with a blunt “Yes!” He was equally positive that it was possible “to be neutral or semi-neutral” between the two great blocs, thus differing sharply from Mao Tse-tung. He admitted that the Chinese Communist victories represented “a shift in the Asian balance of power,” but, he added, “Viet Nam will always rely on its own strength.”…

“The Viet Nam Republic,” he continued, “will be ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.'”…

What, I asked, would be his reaction if the United States underwrote the Franco-Bao Dai military offensive against his forces? “We don’t like to suppose that the United States would sponsor French imperialism,” he replied; “that would be unwise and un-American.”

–Andrew Roth, September 9, 1949

What kind of cities do we want? Cities in which man is at home again–at home in an orderly and comely environment cut to the human measure.

–Lewis Mumford, “Cities Fit to Live In,” May 15, 1948

At the HUAC “confrontation” starring Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, the air was heavy with the ominous and ultimate charges of modern history: treason, espionage, and insanity.

–Thomas Sancton, “The Case of Alger Hiss,” September 4, 1948

A Triumph for Civil Disobedience

An organized resistance to the draft by America’s largest minority,…the enunciation of the civil-disobedience idea,…accounts for the issuance of the President’s executive order abolishing discrimination in the armed services….

It wasn’t until Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph and I laid down the civil-disobedience “ultimatum” that the [Senate Armed Services Committee] …came to life and seemed to realize that here was something new to contend with…. It can be said, unequivocally, that it startled white America more than any other “racial” event in many years, including the most brutal lynchings…. For, in that brief hour’s testimony, we informed the nation and the world that segregation was reaching an unbearable point. The response we received shows that Negroes are now ready, in 1948, to go beyond the discussion, petition and protest stage.

Grant Reynolds, August 28, 1948

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