Sunday, April 29, 2012

Civil Rights, White House Intimacy, and Other WW II Thoughts To Ponder Today

As I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time I'm constantly thinking about how things were 70 years ago compared to today.  A few things that stood out in the last 100 pages.

1.  Civil Rights Issues  - clearly things are much changed today, but there are still people infected by racism.  It's not as blatant nor as widespread as this book reminds us.  Back then Eleanor was pushing her husband to have the Navy open more than mess positions to black sailors.  There was strong resistance by the Navy to FDR's request for the Navy to review ways to bring black seaman into more than mess jobs.
"Two weeks later, the board reported back, concluding in no uncertain terms "that members of the colored race be accepted only in messman branch."  The rationale once again was the intimate nature of life on a ship.  "Men on board ship live in particularly close association, in their messes one man sits beside another, their hammocks or bunks are close together, in their common tasks they work side by side . . . How many white men would choose that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, in mess be of another race?"

But FDR didn't accept this and demanded further study.  He was backed by popular pressure.

Through February and March 1942 every black newspaper carried the story of black mess man Dorie Miller, whose heroic exploits on the bridge of his battleship at Pearl Harbor earned him the Navy Cross.  The example of Miller's heroism became a principal weapon in the battle to end discrimination in the navy.  Here was a high-school dropout who raced through flaming oil to carry his captain to safety.  Seizing a machine gun left beside a dead gunner, Miller, without any weapons training began to fire at the oncoming Japanese planes, downing one or maybe two of the enemy aircraft.  Only after his ammunition was exhausted, the ship sinking rapidly, did he finally obey the order to abandon ship.    
Although Miller's acts of heroism were mentioned in the first navy dispatches, he was referred to simply as "an unidentified Negro messman."  The navy, it seems, did not want the first hero of the war to be a black man.  That honor was reserved for West Point graduate Colin Kelly, who perished three days later.  When Miller's name was finally released in March, the result of a determined effort by the Pittsburgh Courier, bills were introduced to accord him the Congressional Medal of Honor, and schools and parks were given his name.  But "the greatest honor that could be paid mess attendant Dorie Miller,"  the NAACP argued, "would be for the U.S. Navy to abolish restrictions against Negro enlistments at once."  (329-330)

The new policy allowed for Negroes to enlist in other positions, but only as long as training and the units remained segregated.  It was a start.

Japanese internment was a less positive effect of the war.  Despite Eleanor's pleas, FDR followed the united front of West Coast politicians and the military to evacuate Japanese Americans into internment camps.  (I'd note that I had Japanese American classmates in elementary, junior high, and high school who had been born in these camps.)
Though the Army's West Coast commander, General John De Witt, admitted that nothing had actually been proved, he proceeded, in a tortured twist of logic to argue that "the very fact that no sabotage has taken place is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action  will be taken." (p. 321)

Born in Seattle, Washington, Nakashima was the third son of Japanese parents who had been in the United States since 1901.  His father was an editor, his oldest brother an architect, his middle brother a doctor.    Yet all three brothers and their parents were forced to leave flourishing careers behind and spend their days amid the suffocating smell of horse manure in a stall that was only eighteen feet wide by twenty-one feet long.
"The senselessness of all of the inactive manpower,"  Nakashima observed.  "Electricians, plumbers, draftsmen, mechanics, carpenters, painters, farmers - every trade - men who are able and willing to do all they can to lick the Axis . . ." (p. 323)

"Originally," Eleanor wrote, the Japanese immigrants "were much needed on ranches and on large truck and fruit farms but as they came in greater numbers, people began to discover that they were not only convenient workers, they were also competitors in the labor field, and the people of California began to be afraid."  Though Japanese-owned farms occupied only 1 percent of the cultivated land in California, they produced nearly 40 percent of the total California crop.  One pressure group, the Grower Shipper Association, blatantly admitted wanting to get rid of the Japanese for selfish reasons:  "We might as well be honest," they said, openly coveting the rich farmland of the Japanese. (p. 321)
That's a pretty amazing statistic (40%).  I've emailed Richard Lingeman, the author of the book cited, Don't You Know There's a War On?, to double check.  [UPDATE April 10:40am:  Mr. Lingeman emailed back, "The only relevant quote in my book is:  'they [Japanese Americans] had specialized in vegetable farming, raising more than one-third of the total California crop.'" We can see here how things can easily get distorted.  First we go from "more than one-third" (33.3%) to "almost 40 percent."  Another problem is that Goodwin first talks about Japanese working on truck and fruit farms.  Then she's talking about them owning 1 percent of the cultivated land.  Does that include grains and other crops?  Because Lingeman's data are only for vegetable farming. Goodwin's had a plagiarism controversy in the past.  If one took Goodwin here as a source and reworded it a bit to change the meaning a little more, you can see how the truth can get stretched.]

2.  Close Quarters in the White House

I'm not sure how they do things now, but Roosevelt had a lot of his officials sleeping at the White House and sometimes when guests came they slept their too.  Churchill lived there on several extended visits.  It seems that the intimacy of staying at someone's home - even if it is the White House - allows for much closer relationships.  In one scene, Goodwin has FDR coming into Churchill's room as he walking, fully nude, out of the bath.  Churchill responds by saying that nothing his hidden between the prime minister and the president.

Perhaps this was the legacy of FDR's wealthy upbringing in which guests visiting his Hyde Park home stayed in the many extra rooms for days or longer.  It struck me as an interesting aspect that probably bears greater scrutiny.  Was this common then?  When did it end?  Was it unique to the war years?  What other presidents practiced this sort of hospitality?

3.  Productivity and Creativity

During the war there was a shift from the production of domestic items to war items of amazing proportions and consequences.  On a lighter level first.
. . . manufacturing concerns of every imaginable type were moving to concert old plants to the productions of weapons.  A merry-go-round factory was using its plant to fashion gun mounts.  A corset factory was making grenade belts.  A manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats.  A famous New York Toy concern was making compasses.  A pinball-machine maker was turning out armor-piercing shells.  Despite continuing shortages of raw materials in 1942 would  witness the greatest expansion of production in the nation's history. p.  (p. 316)
Ford, GM, and Chrysler were turning out aircraft, tanks, and weapons.  Steel man, Henry Kaiser, took over shipbuilding.  All of them began to turn out products in record numbers.

At the time of the president's visit [September 1942], tanks were rolling off the assembly lines at Chrysler, Cadillac, and fifteen other plants at the phenomenal rate of nearly four thousand a month.  This extraordinary level of achievement an best be understood by recognizing that Germany, the previous world leader in tank production, was currently producing at a rate of four thousand a year.  In September, Hitler announced a major expansion in Germany's tank production.  The goal he set - eight hundred tanks per month - was less than 15 percent of Roosevelt's objective for 1943!  (p. 363)
 "Under Kaiser's leadership, the average time to deliver a ship was cut from 355 days in 1940 to 194 days in 1941 to 60 days in early 1942" (p. 318)
Women and, to a lesser extent  blacks, came into factory jobs and won the grudging respect of the male supervisors who opposed them at first.  

4.  The President's Ability to Call On People's Patriotism 

Silk and rubber - but not girdles

Rubber sources had been taken over by the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia and so there was a great push to limit the purchase of tires, where 80% of US rubber was used.  An attempt to limit rubber in women's girdles was quickly abandoned when it met with massive resistance.  Gasoline was limited, not because it was short supply, but because reduced driving would reduce the demand for rubber tires.  A two week period was set aside in to collect rubber in June 1942.
The response was overwhelming.  In the course of two weeks, the nation's stockpile was increased by more than four hundred tons, the average contribution was almost seven pounds for each man, woman, or child. (pp. 357-8)
 Rationing was also begun on the grounds that basic goods shouldn't simply be available to the wealthy.  Everyone was guaranteed a base level amount.

To a large extent this was brought about by the president's ability at his fireside chat radio programs to inspire the public to support the war and to make sacrifices.

A sharp contrast to today where most people hardly know that a war is going on and are happy to let those involved do all the sacrificing.

5.  A good dose of vitriol aimed at the Roosevelts

It wasn't all warm and fuzzy in face of the enemy.   Roosevelt's stretching of government authority in price ceilings, rationing, and pressuring auto plants to switch to war production caused a great deal of hostility.  So did Eleanor Roosevelt's strong support of rights for blacks and support for women in factories. 

Enough for now.  But if I'm going to blog AND get this book finished, you're going to get book reports.  And it's a good book, worth reporting on. 

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