Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any [equal time period] in the history of man.
-----U.S. War Department on the 1945 firebombings of Japan
One of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.
-----Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, a key aide to General MacArthur, commenting on the firebombings
As Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII FDR should have gone down in history as a war criminal. Fortunately for his legacy, the Allies framed their Nuremberg indictment to exclude crimes committed by the winning side, thus establishing the principle that a lost war is the only real crime.
But let us judge for ourselves. In March, 1945 hundreds of U.S. B-29s bombarded Tokyo’s tightly-bunched wooden houses with fwo-foot-long napalm sticks. Almost instantly canals began to boil, buildings burst into flame, streets ignited into canyons of fire. The huge sheets of fire leaped from building to building, swelling into a molten tidal wave that turned live people into blazing matchsticks. While the hapless victims fruitlessly leaped into boiling ponds, the planes dropped bombs on them and napalmed the water. Thousands of Japanese civilians were incinerated without ever making it out of their wooden shelters.
Buffeted by an immense turbulence, U.S. bombing crews vomited from air-sickness and the nauseating stench attending the mass cremation on the ground. Somewhere between eighty and one hundred thousand civilians were “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” in the words of General Curtis LeMay, mastermind of the new strategy of fiery extermination. An observation plane radioed LeMay with the good news: “Target completely slight . . . All Tokyo visible in the glare. Total success.”
Thus did FDR embrace the ethics of extermination. At Hamburg, Dresden, and finally Tokyo, Allied planes tendered the West’s unconditional moral surrender, burning hundreds of thousands of civilians alive in incendiary raids that surpassed all known records for mass killing. And for what it’s worth, U.S. plans for mass cremation of civilians were drawn up before Pearl Harbor. In November 1941 U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall called on his staff to prepare plans for "general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities." The justification was clearly revealed two months later when Admiral Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote an internal memo stating that "in fighting with Japanese savages all previously accepted rules of warfare must be abandoned."
Abandoned they were.
Labor and the New Deal
An aristocrat who inherited early, the code phrases of national loyalty and the open shop came easily to FDR. After American Legionnaires lynched a Wobbly lumberjack in 1919, he praised their murderous efforts to prevent unionization: “I particularly wanted to make this visit to Centralia. I regard it as a pilgrimage to the very graves of the martyred members of the American Legion who here gave their lives in the sacred cause of Americanism. Their death . . . aroused the patriotic people of our great nation to the task of ridding this land of the alien anarchist, the criminal syndicalist and all similar anti-Americanisms.”
In point of fact, the Wobblies were as American as apple pie, and proved themselves indispensable in the fight for free speech and other basic human rights denied to generations of American workers. And what made syndicalists “alien,” “criminal,” and “anti-American” in Roosevelt’s eyes was their determination to put workers in charge of the productive machinery that made modern life possible, thus establishing a true democracy. For FDR, this was a nightmare to be avoided, not a legitimate aspiration in need of fulfillment.
The problem with FDR’s approach to class relations was that he sought to harness workers to the capitalist system, not liberate them from it. He delegated government authority to experts dedicated to controlling them and retaining power in the business class. Though sincere in his efforts to ameliorate the worst symptoms of the profit system, he did so only in order to stabilize class exploitation and prevent stronger measures from being undertaken by angry workers determined to find a cure for the cyclical booms, busts, panics, and crashes that had imposed untold misery on millions of workers for generations. For example, the Wagner Act was designed to reverse labor's radical direction and restore passivity and continuous production by institutionalizing the authority of conservative labor leaders over the rank and file. (Note: “labor boss” is an oxymoron). The intent was to channel worker militancy into legalistic procedure and away from sit-down strikes. In general, FDR's labor laws sought to make labor "responsible" by inducing its leaders to become dependent on state and corporate support that could later be contracted or withdrawn.
Similarly, federal relief was implemented to cool off mass protest, limit violent upheaval, and banish the threat of revolution. Wherever organized labor was strong, the New Deal offered concessions, but where it was weak it declined to help; and when militant protest abated, aid was sharply cut, imposing suffering worse than any since the Crash.
New Deal reforms did go well beyond prior legislation, but they never contemplated far-reaching changes in the system that had crashed into disaster. The Roosevelt Administration's reforms called not for a realignment of classes, but for industry cooperation in implementing government-directed reforms. As a result, men were paid to rake leaves and build mausoleums but not to work idle machines so they could produce the means to feed and clothe themselves. Only massive public enterprise could have moved the U.S. fully into the era of social democracy, but the New Deal shunned social planning and rejected government responsibility for full employment in favor of high joblessness and unemployment insurance. Charity for workers and entitlement for the corporations that held them down continued to be the operative values.
While alleviating but a fraction of the agony the working class was forced to endure, the New Deal proved a boon for private industry. Drawn heavily from the ranks of big business, the "code authorities" of the National Recovery Administration restricted production and set prices that benefited major corporations at the expense of their smaller rivals, while priming the production pump by funneling torrents of public cash into the hands of financial elites. In nine years the Reconstruction Finance Insurance Corporation extended big business $15 billion in loans.
The federal housing program awarded subsidies to construction firms and insured the loans of mortgage bankers. Agricultural price supports and production cutbacks aided large producers while displacing tenant farmers and sharecroppers when federal acreage rental programs withdrew lands from cultivation. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided subsistence jobs for just 250,000 of the 15 million people out of work. The Works Project Administration sporadically employed 9 million people at wages below the norm in private industry. Of twelve million people working for less than 40 cents an hour, only half a million benefited from the minimum wage law - just over 4% of them. The Social Security Act covered but half the population and offered no medical insurance or protection against pre-retirement illness. Welfare programs were funded not by a wealth tax, but by regressive payroll and sales taxes.
Furthermore, it was not the New Deal, but the massive war orders of the 1940s that lifted the economy out of Depression. And when researchers finally bothered to check, they found that income inequality had persisted nearly unchanged through the Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman years.
As President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt had readily assumed the white man’s burden without apparent pangs of conscience, helping suppress revolution in Mexico and assisting the Marine occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He was convinced that such imperial forays civilized the “backward” countries, which, in Haiti’s case, constituted helping people he regarded as “little more than primitive savages.” He declined to comment on the civilizing effects of slave labor on the corvee or the thousands of Haitian deaths resulting from the U.S. occupation overall, but when Marine Corps Major Smedley Butler machine-gunned fifty-one Haitians to death at Fort Riviere, he let his actions speak for him: he made sure Butler got a Congressional Medal of Honor for it. Meanwhile, regarding his own role in the occupation, he bragged, “I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself, and if I do say it, I think it was a pretty good constitution.”
On the domestic racial front, Roosevelt appointed a Klansman to the Supreme Court and resolutely refused to tackle the uniquely American barbarism of lynching that had killed thousands of American blacks dating back to Reconstruction. Lynchings were festive community ceremonies announced via radio and newspaper in which mobs of men, women, and children worked themselves into a bloodlust watching a black victim being slowly tortured to death. Following ritual cremation, the mobs would sift through smoldering embers in search of souvenirs - a charred piece of flesh, a tooth fragment, a blackened bone. This longstanding American tradition proved useful to Adolf Hitler, who boasted that Germany treated Jews better than the U.S. treated blacks.
In 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt joined a growing movement of opposition to lynching, but her husband would not speak out against the horrific custom. In the fall of 1933 he he was asked at several press conferences to comment on three lynchings that occurred within weeks of each other, but each time FDR replied, “no comment.” His silence on the matter provoked the Philadelphia Tribune to ask, in October 1933, how the president of the U.S. could get an honorary degree from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, while remaining mute on the lynching that occurred just hours before in Princess Anne County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. George Armwood, the 24-year-old victim, was stripped naked, tortured, and hung, after which his corpse was dragged half a mile on Main Street to a bonfire in the middle of the street. FDR did not condemn lynching until weeks later when two white men were seized from a jail and hung in San Jose, California. But he continued to withhold support for the Wagner-Costigan anti-lynching bill, which was backed by long lists of mayors, governors, ministers, journalists, writers, artists, college presidents, along with the National Council of Jewish Women, the YWCA, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the ACLU, the Writer’s League Against Lynching, and other groups representing millions of Americans. Fearing that Congressional Dixiecrats might torpedo all his legislative proposals, he flatly refused to “challenge the Southern leadership of his party.” But as Walter White of the NAACP noted, violent groups were being strengthened all over the country, including the KKK, “Nazi, Fascist, and other reactionary groups, who are so bitterly fighting the President’s recovery program.” In short, FDR’s silence was emboldening those most opposed to the New Deal.
The Costigan bill was withdrawn in the face of an almost unanimous white South whose Congressional representatives were prepared to filibuster the legislation for months. Walter White wrote to FDR: “It is my belief that the utterly shameless filibuster could not have withstood the pressure of public opinion had you spoken out against it.” Meanwhile, the Des Moines Register mockingly reminded Roosevelt of his 1932 campaign statement that the federal government has an obligation to help the desperately needy: “When the next mob dances in the light of flames about a stake in the south, that declaration of high duty and intent will be a ghostly wisp of smoke, drifting off toward the heavens.”
It should not come as a surprise that FDR refused to desegregate the U.S. military.
Democracy and Fascism
Had FDR had any interest in a war between democracy and fascism, assistance to the Spanish anarchists who put down General Franco's insurrection would have been high on his priority list. It wasn't.
Proclaiming himself the “Savior of Christianity” against “Godless Bolshevism,” Franco rose against the Spanish republic in July 1936, joined by top army officers, Moorish mercenaries, and fascist troops supplied by Mussolini and Hitler. He promised to abolish the republic, establish totalitarian rule, revoke land reform, outlaw unions, and restore the feudal estates of the grandees, so that 20,000 landowners could once again rule over 28,000,000 unwilling subjects.
The socialist-liberal government in Madrid vacilated, unable to accept the coup, but unwilling to arm the working class against it. Anarchist workers took matters into their own hands, breaking into government arsenals to overwhelm Franco’s garrisons in Madrid, Valencia, Albacete, Bilbao, Barcelona and myriad small towns, denying the Nationalists power throughout the country. Only in Morocco did they retain control.
In succeeding months a remarkable and largely spontaneous social revolution blossomed over much of republican Spain. Primarily anarchist-led, and based on three generations of experimentation, it had no "revolutionary vanguard" but nevertheless effected a far-reaching social transformation. Peasant assemblies and workers’ committees established a new society, taking direct control of factories, fields, harbors, villages, even hotels and restaurants. New techniques of self-management dispensed with bosses and eliminated dividends, as producers’ collectives mechanized and rationalized production across the board. Prices fell and production boomed while scattered enterprises were drawn together in mutual aid, commercial structures were simplified, and new social projects for children, the elderly, the disabled, workers, and the infirm were advanced and implemented. In some areas money was eliminated and the necessities of life were allocated according to need. Security was provided by armed workers patrolling the streets and a volunteer militia of elected commanders whose rank conferred no social, material, or symbolic privileges. The revolution remained independent of the central government in Madrid: outside the trade unions there was no effective authority at all.
Indulging illusions of "neutrality," the Roosevelt Administration indirectly aided the Nationalists, imposing an arms embargo on the legal Spanish government while Hitler and Mussolini poured in weapons and soldiers to Franco. Meanwhile, in violation of its contracts with the Republic, Texaco shipped oil to Franco instead of Madrid: five American tankers on the high seas at the time of the Generals' revolt were diverted, the first of millions of dollars in oil the Generalissimo would receive on credit, all with the permission of the Roosevelt State Department. In addition, Washington urged the Martin Aircraft Company not to honor an agreement to supply aircraft to the Republic made prior to the revolution, and pressured Mexico not to ship war materials purchased in the U.S. to Spanish republicans. On the other hand, the State Department announced that American exporters were perfectly within their rights in landing supplies in Spanish ports under Franco's control.
After FDR pushed the Neutrality Act through Congress in January 1937, Franco thanked him for behaving like a "true gentleman," and praised his Spanish policy as “a gesture we Nationalists shall never forget.” The Spanish people, whose promising revolution was drowned in blood (with approximately a million Spanish lives lost between 1936 and 1939) and succeeded by four decades of Franco’s dictatorship (a government the Roosevelt Administration immediately recognized), weren’t likely to forget it either.
Turning to Germany, FDR resolutely refused to fight Nazism until Germany declared war on the United States in the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor - almost nine years after Hitler came to power. It took nearly another year before U.S. troops saw their first action against the Germans in North Africa.
A major factor contributing to this conspicuously long period of non-confrontation is the fact that FDR and U.S. leaders in general viewed the rise of fascism sympathetically. The extreme nationalism characteristic of fascist regimes welcomed Western economic penetration and persecuted labor and the political left to the point of eradication, an agenda that U.S. state managers and wealthy American investors found to be a proper antidote to "excessive democracy," that is, almost any democracy at all. For his part, FDR preferred fascism to any variety of socialism or robust social democracy, largely equating these social forms with Bolshevik heresy. Therefore, it is not really surprising that for years he approved Hitler as a "moderate" who represented order, anti-Communism, and a favorable investment climate, a welcome obstacle to any possibility of radicalization of the allegedly unthinking masses.
FDR’s preference for Hitler, rather than the radical left, was shared by the U.S. corporate class in general. This is evidenced by the fact that U.S. investment shot up in Germany while the Nazis rose to power, despite the Depression and Germany's default on nearly all of its commercial and government loans. Commerce Department reports indicate that U.S. investment in Germany increased 48.5% between 1929 and 1940, while declining sharply everywhere else on the continent. Moreover, many U.S. companies traded with Germany right through the war years - with Washington's support - even when slave labor was involved. Allied pilots were instructed not to bomb factories in Germany owned by U.S. firms, a policy that in at least one case provided a convenient bomb shelter for German civilians.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany William Dodd's repeated warnings that Hitler's munitions factories were booming on the strength of U.S. raw materials shipments went unheeded. Dodd's loathing of the Third Reich only led to his replacement by Hugh Wilson in 1938, a man much more acceptable to Nazi leaders. Both FDR and his close confidant Sumner Welles praised the Munich capitulation that allowed Hitler to dismember Czechoslovakia, with Welles waxing optimistic about the prospects for a just international order that the accords presumably opened up. Furthermore, official U.S. belief in Hitler's benign intentions continued post-Munich. Writing of Sumner Welles' diplomatic tour of Europe in February 1940, British Permanent Under-Secretary of State Alexander Cadogan wrote: "We had the distinct impression that Welles had in mind an outline for peace which would not require elimination of Herr Hitler's Nazi regime." In April 1941 - nineteen months after the German invasion of Poland - George Kennan wrote from his diplomatic post in Berlin that the Nazis had no desire to "see other people suffer under German rule," and were "most anxious that their new subjects should be happy in their care."
U.S. support for Italian fascism was even more enthusiastic. As the Depression provoked massive civil and political unrest in Europe, Mussolini became a hero in the U.S. for straitjacketing class conflict with armed Blackshirt terrorism while erecting a highly authoritarian investor's paradise. With loans pouring in from the House of Morgan, the Italian dictator increased public debt, slashed social welfare spending, abolished unions, strikes, and the 8-hour day, boosted unemployment and bankruptcy, weakened the lira, and kept Italian wages among the lowest in Europe. As these policies were being carried out, FDR praised Mussolini (in a letter to a friend) as "that admirable Italian gentleman."
Meanwhile, FDR’s Ambassador to Italy William Philips was "greatly impressed by the efforts of Mussolini to improve the condition of the masses" and found "much evidence" to support the Fascist conviction that "they represent a true democracy in as much as the welfare of the people is their principal objective." Philips regarded Mussolini's achievements as "astounding . . . a source of constant amazement," and sang hosannas to his "great human qualities." The Roosevelt State Department hailed his "magnificent" attainments in conquering Ethiopia and praised Fascism for having "brought order out of chaos, discipline out of license, and solvency out of bankruptcy." As late as 1939 FDR rated Italian fascism "of great importance to the world [although] still in the experimental stage."
The crimes of Japanese “fascism” did not initially pose an obstacle to good relations with the Roosevelt Administration either. Before Pearl Harbor much of the American business community and many government officials rejected the idea that Japan was an aggressive power in the Pacific. FDR’s Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew explained in a 1939 Tokyo speech that the U.S. objected not to Japan's human rights policy but rather to its imposition of "a system of closed economy . . . [which] depriv[ed] Americans of their long-established rights in China." Market access, not systematic brutality, was the grievance, so Grew omitted mention of incidental matters like Japan's invasion of Manchuria, the orgy of rape and murder that killed over 140,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking, and occupation policies that would ultimately cause the death of millions more by starvation and disease.
Furthermore, the Pacific War no more represented a contest between democracy and fascism than the war in Europe did. Neither the British nor the U.S. had ever entertained democracy for Asian peoples and FDR's idea of a cure for Japanese imperialism was to eliminate Japan’s congenital "barbarism" by crossbreeding Japanese with "docile" Pacific Islanders. Meanwhile, the notoriously brutal and corrupt Chiang Kai-shek remained a staunch U.S. ally throughout the war. As British historian Christopher Thorne observes, "if the term 'fascist' is to be employed in a non-European context for the 1930s, to no regime is it more appropriate to attach it than that of the Kuomintang in China."
In spite of the democratic rhetoric employed for strategic reasons, a racist attitude permeated the entire U.S. war in the Pacific. U.S. troops committed atrocities in the field similar to those carried out a generation later in Vietnam, with press coverage depicting the Japanese as monkeys, rats, and lice who deserved whatever they got. What they got was succinctly summarized by war correspondent Edgar L. Jones: "We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off enemy wounded, tossed the dying in a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers."
What historian Gabriel Kolko calls the "problem of the left" made it impossible for the Roosevelt Administration to embrace a genuinely anti-fascist ethic. The problem of the left was that European anti-fascist resistance movements were led by socialists, social democrats, and Communists, whose convictions clashed with Anglo-American hegemonic designs. As British historian Basil Davidson explains, the wartime collapse of traditional ruling groups and fascist collaborators yielded a situation where "large and serious resistance came and could only come under left-wing leadership and inspiration . . . the self-sacrifice and vision required to begin an effective resistance, and then rally others to the same cause, were found only among radicals and revolutionaries." These, in turn, were mostly men and women who "followed the hope and vision of a radical democracy." As South African Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts warned Winston Churchill after the fall of Mussolini, "with politics let loose among those peoples, we may have a wave of disorder and wholesale Communism set going all over those parts of Europe." Communism meant not domination by Moscow but the ascendancy of popular movements dedicated to collective social designs, which placed fundamental human needs ahead of private gain. For capitalists, nothing can be placed ahead of profit.
Thus it is not really surprising that FDR's favorable treatment of fascism continued in the wake of successive Allied victories on the battlefield. In 1942 in North Africa the U.S. installed in power Admiral Jean Darlan, a Nazi collaborator. Darlan allowed the Nazis to use Vichy airports in Syria and route resupply aid to Rommel via Tunisia. He enforced laws barring Jews from the professions, denying them education, and preventing them from buying property. But French generals who extended aid to Hitler lived in splendor, surrounded by illiterate masses ground down by poverty.
In 1943, with an Allied victory certain, the Italian Fascist Grand Council, led by Ethiopian war hero Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, deposed Mussolini and appealed to Roosevelt and Churchill for aid in preventing an imminent working class revolution. They got it and Badoglio was put in power. Meanwhile, in France FDR contemplated another deal with Vichy leader Henri Petain, but was unwilling to collaborate with the French Resistance.
In 1944, the Allies entered Rome to find armed partisans waving revolutionary banners and running their own government. They confiscated their weapons, put them in jail, and threatened them with the firing squad. Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, small groups of militant partisans who had driven out half a dozen German divisions were governing themselves and promising "the radical reconstruction of the political, moral and social life of our country." The U.S. dispersed the resistance and turned civil administration back to the fascists. In the Philippines former Vice President Sergio Osmena landed with General MacArthur on Leyte and issued a statement exonerating Filipinos who had collaborated with the Japanese. MacArthur set about putting the collaborationist police in the service of the U.S. and began reversing a peasant based social revolution.
In truth, FDR’s strategy in WWII was not to risk everything on behalf of democracy, but rather, to let others fight fascism. As he once confided to his son, the U.S. was trying to function as "reserves" while the Soviets exhausted themselves holding off the Nazi onslaught, after which Washington was to deliver the coup de grace, which is very much how things turned out. According to Roosevelt scholar Warren Kimball, "aid to the Soviet Union became a presidential priority" only on the assumption that Red Army victories would obviate the need for U.S. troops to fight a ground war in Europe. Senator Harry Truman went even further, stating after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 that the U.S. should strive to bring about the two countries' mutual annihilation: "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible."
In short, FDR did nothing to stop American firms from bankrolling Mussolini and continuing to ship him oil even after he invaded Ethiopia in clouds of mustard gas. He helped Franco into power by imposing a unilateral arms embargo on republican Spain, complained of Japan's closed door rather than its massive atrocities in China, refused to join the U.S.S.R. in a united front against Nazism until far too late, failed to prosecute the major firms trading with the Axis all through the war, and installed or helped install fascist collaborators in the wake of one military victory after another (North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Korea, the Philippines, etc.) Finally, in a war effort that many Americans take to be a human rights crusade against Germany's vicious treatment of Jews, he sent segregated troops into battle, dispatched 120,000 Japanese to concentration camps, and adopted wholesale extermination of civilians as a routine tactic of war.
That's no hero.
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