Teaching History, War and Class 

Paul Gilmore

In the years before the destruction of the World Trade Centers we witnessed the creation of a national World War II nostalgia machine that rivals that of the white Southerners' Confederate Heritage industry. Perhaps it has not been apparent to everyone, but these memory factories have been working at full speed for several years now churning out ever more profitable "rememberings" of the Big One. After a few "50th Anniversary of --" successes, the machinery suffered some glitches at the Smithsonian Institution. It seems somebody had let some historians in the room and they proceeded to muck up the works by producing history. The ensuing Enola Gay "controversy" seems to have convinced our cultural gatekeepers that our history cannot be trusted to historians, and that things would be better all-around if we just handed this stuff over to the dream factories in Hollywood and the myth-makers at the major cable and network TV news organizations. 

This new-and-improved, streamlined WWII nostalgia machine came fully on line with the release of Saving Private Ryan, and every year the factory has stamped out new models without even retooling! The once trickling revenue streams from the selling of our past have become torrents. From Tom Brokaw's "book," The Greatest Generation, to this past summer's Pearl Harbor, to historian Stephen Ambrose's collaboration with Tom Hanks and other Hollywood patriots in HBO's Band of Brothers, we have seen the packaging and commodification of history beyond the wildest dreams of Ken Burns' measly PBS ventures. These folks demonstrate some savvy niche marketing skills too; their offerings match up nicely with GM's demographic categories. Is not The Greatest Generation obviously meant for the Oldsmobile crowd? The sporty and youthful Pearl Harbor has Pontiac written all over it. And Saving Private Ryan is nothing if not a Chevy. 

From its inception in the early 1990s, this cultural obsession with WWII was intertwined with the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union no more, a rational person may have expected at least a moment of national stock-taking -- an honest accounting of our recent past uncluttered by the defensive mythologies of Cold War ideology. But this potentially fruitful moment was lost in the parallel anniversary celebrations of WWII. Our leaders, in their self-congratulations over the fall of the Eastern Bloc, wrapped themselves and the nation in nostalgic memories of WWII. Our infotainment ministry drafted the memories of sacrifice in the "Good War" into service against a searching history of the Cold War that followed. It all has a certain symmetry to it -- like bookends. The victory celebrations sit there on our collective history bookshelf, framing the last fifty years so nicely that nobody much wants to touch the actual books anymore, for fear of damaging the display. More importantly, despite the fall of the "evil empire," the US still has its New World Order to protect and extend, and historical mythology is a very useful tool to further those ends. So, for the last ten years, instead of history, we got a parade of triumphalism. The historical experience of the struggle against fascism -- its massive toll in human life -- has been diluted, de-historicized, re-packaged, and sold at enormous profit as a mass-produced spectacle glorifying The Nation -- I cannot think of a better tribute to Hitler, or worse insult to those who fought him. 

I mention all of this by way of introduction to the point that we are viewing the current crisis through the prism of this recent WWII celebration. The glaring white light of the present has been refracted into a Technicolor package of fictional past -- "our" Pearl Harbor. The suicide attacks on the WTC were so cinematic, and Congress and television talking heads so quick to make analogies to Pearl Harbor, that for a moment it seemed like the most cynical publicity stunt in history. Instead of placing corporate products in the movies, the geniuses in the studios were placing their product, Pearl Harbor, in the news to boost lagging late-summer ticket sales. To use some corporate-speak, the "synergies" between the news division and the entertainment division -- between commodity and reality -- had already been explored extensively by Tom Brokaw for the past couple of years, as he nightly plugged The Greatest Generation, a profit generator for both Brokaw and NBC, as "news." 

The blurred lines between the communication of historical knowledge and the exchange of entertainment commodities may strike some as trivial, but in those blurred lines I think we see the intellectual disarming of citizens. While on the one hand, we are encouraged to view "America's New War" through the prism of a freshly re-mythologized story of World War II, we are, on the other hand, admonished to ignore all history before September 11th. The nostalgia machine's products fit seamlessly into this project. They offer history as a combination of trivial detail (vintage 1941 uniforms, perfect replicas of Japanese fighter planes) and simplistic moral lessons about good and evil, and national solidarity. Ordinary people do not act in these renditions; they fulfill destinies. The stories are not histories, but spectacular timeless fables. 

As a teacher and historian, I am greatly disturbed by these developments. Since September 11, students and others have asked me, as if following a script, if I thought their "generation" was capable of making the sacrifices that the "greatest generation" had. Are we unified enough? Are we good enough to defeat The Enemy? These are the questions our recent experience with history has taught us to ask. To many people, history offers little in the way of understanding, critique, or (horrors!) a tool for active participation in decisions. Their experiences as consumers of the past have trained them well in their roles as consumers of the present, consumers of the destinies that others have laid out for them. But what do we expect when this has been the cultural drumbeat of the past decade? As Tom Brokaw says of his greatest generation, "They didn't complain." The implication here is that, of course, neither will we. 

In recent weeks, this language of uncomplaining unity and sacrifice has entered the discourse surrounding the so-called war on terrorism. I must say it has a forced sound to it. But forced or not, this call for unity and sacrifice is already taking its cues from those nostalgic recollections of WWII. Just this morning, a story on NPR from Springfield, Missouri explicitly made the comparison between WWII and now, and the interviewees dutifully voiced their willingness to live up to the example of their implanted memories. Some of this has descended to the level of just plain pathetic, as when one interviewee solemnly declared how many thousands of dollars he had spent in his patriotic effort to keep the economy afloat in our nation's time of need. Talk about synergy! Perhaps he will complete the circuit by spending all his money on war movies. 

At the risk of seeming cold, let us leave aside for this article the connections between the nostalgia machine and the enormous toll the people of Afghanistan are paying for the protection of "our interests" in their neighborhood. I want to argue that this constant rhetorical connection to a particular narrative of selfless sacrifice on the home front in World War II is dangerous not only for the people of Afghanistan, but also for the rights and hard won gains of workers here in the United States. It seems that some folks are using the good will and unity of the American people in the face of massive death at the WTC to try to force through their own reactionary political agendas. They equate the "war on terrorism" with WWII and argue for an equal level of sacrifice, which translates into an acquiescence to their agenda. The implications of this are obvious and ominousthe endless war on terrorism means eternal sacrifice. 

We have seen this already when the Minnesota public workers went on strike in the weeks following the attacks. Jesse Ventura called in the National Guard to, as the news reports put it, "help out," in public facilities. In defense of calling in the National Guard, veterans administrator Pam Barrows, in a Minnesota Public Radio interview immediately appealed to the emergency, saying that now when the nation is pulling together following the terrorist attacks, it is not the time to strike. To Barrows, the workers shouldn't have struck because "Our world changed on September 11th. And with the economic downturn, the fact that we're basically at war - I just was extremely disappointed that something wasn't worked out." 

How a war in Afghanistan in any way bears on the issues of a public employee dispute in Minnesota is beyond me, but there it is. Minnesota's governor, Jesse Ventura, also intimated that striking at this moment was somehow anti-American; of course Ventura is against the public employees' right to strike anyway. It is, he says, "a philosophical viewpoint I have." Ventura's public relations efforts to tie the strike to the war by calling in the National Guard to scab, especially to work in veterans facilities, strikes me as a particularly cynical ploy. Publicity stunt or no, this action should have been condemned in no uncertain terms. But the PR campaign seemed to work; a poll found that over half of respondents felt it was "wrong for state employees to be on strike now." The strikers went back to work after two weeks with, as far as I could tell, merely face-saving gains (Asking for 5% and offered 3%, one union settled for 3.5%). No one I read suggested that perhaps the state of Minnesota, in this time of war, ought show some patriotic solidarity with its employees and give in to their demands. 

Just a few decades ago, after thousands upon thousands of strikes and job actions over the course of a century and more, the US government officially recognized the rights of workers to organize and strike. One would think workers would be wary of an institution so late to the game. Since then, the folks at all levels of government seem to be of the belief that they "gave" workers the right to strike and therefore have the right to take it away. I hate to speculate, but I would say that a great many workers think this as well. Even in the best of times, the failure of workers to recognize their own inalienable power to shape their world by refusing to shape the world spells serious trouble, but these are not the best of times. 

How can teachers of history address this problem? Well, I think a large part of the problem comes from the way teachers themselves have approached the latest wave of WWII nostalgia. I must admit that although I never embraced the cultural memory machine, I felt somewhat ambivalent; after all, these movies and books exposed people to history, right? That must be good. We have accepted it without much critique. But such productions encourage us to be consumers of history, not makers of it. This is not only an abdication of our responsibilities to present needs, but also a disservice to our students' counterparts in the past, who despite admonitions of their leaders (and probably their history teachers) made their own history. In times of peace, when all this seems more or less academic, it is all quite easy to dismiss, but in times of war (perhaps especially phantom wars like this one), when one hears stories of kids lining up to enlist and bloodthirsty calls for a crusade in the Middle East, it is not an exaggeration to say that it becomes a matter of life and death. 

Here, perhaps some history of WWII is instructive as an antidote to our leaders' scornful (and worse) reactions to those who would have the nerve to continue their demands for a just and democratic world in a time of declared national emergency. I think it is safe to say that in World War II, the language of patriotism and unity was at a much higher pitch than it is even today. Then, like now, workers were urged to sacrifice for the common good. And sacrifice they did; they left their homes and moved to cities to work in factories; they rationed their food and other essentials; they worked harder than ever before; and they went to war and died by the hundreds of thousands. Were they unified? Indeed, people were unified like never before in wartime. World War II was undoubtedly the United States' most popular war. 

But let's not go too far here. The United States was not the fictional fascist world of the nostalgia machine's dreams; it was not a mass of individuals submitting themselves to the service of the nation. Government leaders called for unity and equality of sacrifice in World War II, but what those words would mean was fought out on the ground. And in that fight other words were used; like goon, stooge, toady, and war profiteer. Within a world of shrill patriotism, many people still demanded a just world and dared to think that that was what they were fighting for. Because while millions made selfless sacrifices, some were making sacrifices of others. 

This fight over the meaning of war-time sacrifice was also a fight over the shape of the post-war world at home. This was a constant struggle during WWII. One of the most important moments in this struggle began in the cold of late December 1942, among a group of anthracite coal miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Organized labor, as represented by the CIO and the AFL, had agreed to a No Strike Pledge for the duration of the war, but miners in Pennsylvania chafed under these restrictions and they revolted. Their strike began as a wildcat over, of all things, an increase in dues, but it also quickly came to challenge the national bargaining structure set up by the National War Labor Board. 

In the early months of the war, workers suffered from a rising cost of living and progressively more dangerous working conditions. Meanwhile, the government had set wage and price policies that ensured enormous profits for corporations while capping workers' wage raises to halt inflation. A particular sore point was the Little Steel Formula. This referred to a July 1942 deal brokered by the NWLB between the Little Steel companies and the United Steel Workers which basically capped raises for the duration of the war in return for the union's right to receive a closed shop. This became the precedent by which the NWLB would make future decisions. Here is the rhetoric of equal sacrifice in action. As patriotic dollar-a-year men of corporate America reaped the profits of government contracts often filled in new government-built plants (paid for in large part by the subscription to war bonds by workers), every effort by unions to increase workers' pay would be ridiculed as unpatriotic and greedy. And when workers themselves demanded more pay and more power on the shop floor, union leaders were expected to patriotically discipline them. John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, summed up the sham of the Little Steel Formula and its appeal to patriotism as "a policy . . . that fattens industry and starves labor, and then call[s] upon labor patriotically to starve." 

Lewis was no saint; he quickly crushed the leadership of the wildcat strikes in the Pennsylvania coal fields. But he recognized that he could not control his membership forever; the miners demanded better pay and they would have it. Here too, we see the reality of wartime sacrifice. Their cost of living in some areas had doubled, while the operators were making huge profits. And in their efforts to produce more coal, the miners in 1943 suffered a casualty rate that was higher than that of the US armed forces (many of whom, of course, were miners as well). Lewis also recognized that the power of the CIO and AFL laborites who now had a "seat at the table," helping direct the economic affairs of the nation, rested with the very thing they had traded to get that seat -- the strike. Lewis had no particular faith in government action, and neither did the miners. 

Some 416,000 coal miners officially struck four times in 1943. Some 200,000 struck in several unauthorized wildcats. And these were no public worker strikes in Minnesota, either; they were strikes in a key war industry in the middle of the biggest war ever. Again, here is the reality of WWII unity. Each time they struck, the union had negotiated agreements with the coal operators only to have those agreements rejected by the NWLB. Each time they struck, the President and Congress and the Press howled that they were being held hostage by an arrogant labor boss who was duping his members into undermining the war effort. FDR even had troops seize the mines and threatened to draft strikers and use more troops to mine the coal. Lewis famously retorted that "you cannot mine coal with bayonets," and he was right. He came back with more too -- hardly the words of patriotic unitythe strikes, claimed Lewis were "the unanimous protest of men who were tired of serving as guinea pigs for Washington's campus theorists, and sick of sabotage and double crossing." 

In the end, the coal miners won, not through the efforts of their representatives in government, but through their own solidarity -- their refusal to work. Through various mechanisms they got a nearly 30% raise, obliterating the Little Steel Formula. Despite all the blather about aiding the enemy, these strikes never threatened the nation's supply of coal. In fact, the strikes amounted to twelve lost days, and the miners produced 590 million tons in 1943, a record. The miners of 1943 had a hand in their own history; they helped define the meaning of wartime sacrifice. They did not wait for some benevolent government or corporate agency to define it for them and feed it to them. They ignored the name-calling from those who profited from their misery. They rejected the agenda of reactionaries. They called them profiteers and worse. And they won. But more than that, the struggles of the miners in 1943 inspired others to do the same. Workers all over the country refused to abdicate to their bosses and the government their power over the meaning of patriotism and solidarity and sacrifice. In 1943, there were 3,700 strikes, and in 1944, a record-setting 5,000 strikes. Did this mean that these workers supported Hitler? Such a question is absurd. 

So to bring it back to today and our current crisis, what is to be done? All of us, history teachers especially, need to engage in an important political project -- reclaiming our history. Right now, we need a knowledge of history to help us make history. This is not just about helping ourselves or our students become smarter, more well-rounded people (although that's nice). Instead, this is about stopping a viciously reactionary agenda at home, as right now, in the name of patriotism, our leaders are pouring billions into the airline and insurance industries and planning much more. This is also about stopping a bombing campaign in Afghanistan, and a long, nebulous, phantom war in the near future that will wrap itself in those warm memories of WWII greatness. Right now, as we are hypnotized by the waving flags and the calls for unity and nationalism, capital, that flagless, state-less, disintegrator of all, is securing its domination of ever larger areas of the world. Mark Twain wrote a long time ago of the big lie; the national lie; the "lie of silent assertion"; the never-spoken lie that says that nothing is happening that people of conscience should be duty bound to try to stop. I feel like our leaders are stockpiling such lies right now, readying themselves for an onslaught against perhaps a fourth of the world's population that we will be asked to ignore. Our leaders are well-practiced at doing this, and sadly, so are we. But historical knowledge can help us; it says the lie and then refutes it. History offers citizens a tool to participate in decision-making -- to be active, democratic citizens. This is the danger of history and the reason why people worked so hard to fix the early nostalgia machinery. Active citizens do not consume "freedom and democracy;" they build democracies, exercise freedoms, and they shape history.


Next Article

Return to Rouge Forum index