The G.I. and Democracy

 

In commemoration of the Veterans Day holiday, today’s post will focus on the ideological battle between the forces of interventionism and isolationism in the post-First World War period, and efforts to create an educated American citizen-soldier during the Second World War.

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After the experience of the First World War, many influential politicians and opinion-shapers expressed skepticism over the benefits of American military intervention abroad. Although President Woodrow Wilson had been a chief instigator in the development of the League of Nations, isolationist Republicans had opposed American participation, claiming that membership might threaten national sovereignty and lock the United States into actions dictated by that body.

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Revelations concerning wartime propaganda campaigns and “fake news” atrocity stories from occupied Belgium created an atmosphere of skepticism in post-war America. Hollywood films dealing with the Great War in the 1930s, including All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Heroes for Sale (1933), and others, caused many Americans to question whether the war had actually made the world safe for democracy.

The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, (meeting between 1934 and 1936 and chaired by Republican Senator Gerald Nye), added to American cynicism towards those banking interests and arms manufacturers—or “merchants of death”—who were blamed for promoting and profiting from U.S. military intervention in the First World War.

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The publication in 1935 of War Is a Racket by Marine Corps Major General Smedley D. Butler lent credence to such cautionary advocates of American isolationism, and a spate of Neutrality Act legislation designed to keep America out of other nations’ conflicts. Alarmed by the Fascist, Nazi, and Japanese military aggression, during his second and third terms in office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt actively pushed back against isolationist and anti-interventionist sentiment.

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Downplaying domestic issues in his 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt advocated making America the “Arsenal of Democracy,” arguing that the Neutrality Acts actually aided and abetted Axis aggression and endangered American lives by preventing the nation from helping other democratic nations in their fight against fascism and militarism. Despite the vocal opposition of The America First Committee—(an anti-war pressure group created on September 4, 1940 and boasting of 800,000 dues-paying members at its height)—President Roosevelt managed to steer his Lend-Lease bill (providing aid to Britain and China) through Congress in March, 1941.

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 silenced virtually all of Roosevelt’s anti-interventionist critics, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom and appeasement advocate, Joseph Kennedy. Gerald Nye, Charles Lindbergh, and other prominent members of the America First Committee also fell silent as the group disbanded three days after the attack. With America once again at war, the President was determined that the G.I.s who enlisted, or were drafted, into the conflict knew what they were fighting for. Roosevelt was convinced that democracy depended on an educated and informed citizenry. While the Nazi and Fascist regimes depended on propaganda to forge and motivate armies of unquestioning automatons, American democracy required that the U.S. Armed Forces be informed and persuaded rather than “tricked” into taking up arms.

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Towards that end, the U.S. War Department funded documentary films by such acclaimed Hollywood directors as Frank Capra and John Ford, to explain “Why We Fight,” and why “The Negro Soldier” had a stake in the war’s outcome.

Even as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (the “G.I. Bill”) into law in 1944, pledging veterans unemployment compensation, vocational training, college education, and even federally-subsidized home mortgage or business loans on their return to civilian life, the War Department began publishing a series of educational pamphlets. Written by members of the American Historical Association, these pamphlets were designed to provoke discussion among the G.I.s on a wide variety of topics related to the war and the post-war world America aimed to create. Some titles include: “The Balkans,” “Our Russian ally,” “Australia: our neighbor “down under,” “What lies ahead for the Philippines?,” “Can war marriages be made to work?,” “Will the French Republic live again?,” “What will your town be like?,” “Will there be work for all?,” “Can we prevent future wars?,” and “What should be done with war criminals?”

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Rather than arguing a particular point of view, the pamphlets were designed to “provide factual information and balanced arguments as a basis for discussion of all sides of the question.” Provided to “information-education officers” and operators of Armed Forces Radio Service outlets, the pamphlets were intended to encourage discussion among the G.I.s rather than stifle them or overawe them with foregone conclusions. The pamphlets included color-illustrated covers, and often included photographic, cartoon, and pictorial illustrations. One pamphlet, titled “What is propaganda?,” and featuring Donald Duck on its cover, tried to explain the difference between persuasion and propaganda in order to “inoculate our citizens against the effects desired by the enemies of democracy.”

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Another pamphlet reflected on FDR’s “Good Neighbor” foreign policy initiatives, and supplied discussion leaders with facts, possible talking points, and even suggestions for further reading on the subject matter.

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Yet another pamphlet looked to the future, and provided G.I.s with ideas to consider when deciding “Shall I build a house after the war?”

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~ by "The Chief" on November 9, 2017.

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