Histories of World War II usually focus only on the details of troop movements and engagements, or on the evils of the Nazis and fascism, as if they arose in isolation and are an aberration of history confined to the early 20th Century. A broader look at the war is important to any discussion of whether it was a “good” war, but it’s also necessary to our understanding of how we decide which wars are “good” or “bad” today.

Howard Zinn, in his essay “Just and Unjust War” (originally published in Declarations of Independence and recently reprinted in The Zinn Reader) reviews some of the ignored or forgotten aspects of WWII and asks whether it really was a “just” war. His further goal is to understand whether our complacency in accepting that some wars can be “good” wars is behind our acceptance of U.S. policy makers’ decisions to bomb other countries today.

First, Zinn reviews evidence that the U.S. entered the war for imperialist reasons and to expand U.S. economic interests abroad, rather than to fight fascism. For example, while the U.S. government prohibited weapons sales to Italy after it invaded Ethiopia, the government still allowed U.S. companies to sell oil to Italy. During the Spanish Civil War, Roosevelt’s Neutrality Act, which prevented nations from providing aid to the Republican government of Spain, allowed the fascist side to prevail with direct support from Hitler and Mussolini. Nor did German invasions of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland produce any response from the U.S. government. One U.S. State Department official, James E. Miller, noted that “American aid certainly reinforced the hold of Fascism.”

Nor did the plight of European Jews draw notice from the U.S. government. In fact, in 1934, the State Department was instrumental in killing an early Senatorial resolution expressing “surprise and pain” at the German treatment of its Jewish population and asking for restoration of Jewish rights. During the height of Hitler’s extermination program in 1942 and 1943, the U.S. and British governments missed several opportunities to save the lives of Jews in occupied territories, not the least of which was the opportunity to bomb railroad lines leading to the death camps, especially the notorious Auschwitz.

Zinn quotes a Princeton historian, Arno Mayer, in his book “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken” regarding one of the most controversial aspects of the Holocaust. Mayer maintains that the war itself may have brought on the Final Solution. Not that Mayer’s motive is to remove blame from the Nazis, but he suggests that “frenzy of war acting on distorted minds” brought about the psychotic extermination of millions of people. He notes that Hitler’s early plans were for emigration, not extermination, and Raul Hilberg in his book on the Holocaust supports this: “From 1938 to 1940, Hitler made extraordinary and unusual attempts to bring about a vast emigration scheme … The Jews were not killed before the emigration policy was literally exhausted.” It didn’t help, of course, that western nations, including the U.S., refused to take large numbers of Jewish refugees.

At home, the war was greeted with enthusiasm by the bulk of Americans, yet a large number of dissidents emerged, in spite of a gung-ho government and press that bombarded Americans with pro-war propaganda. Many noted that the war was being fought to protect U.S. tin, oil, and rubber interests in Southeast Asia. Corporations and wealthy men made enormous fortunes during the war, while workers’ wages were frozen and pressure was put on labor unions not hold strikes. Nevertheless, 14,000 strikes involving 6 million workers occurred during the war, more than at any other time in U.S. history.

While Jews were being exterminated in Germany, minorities in the U.S. suffered harsh treatment, too. Black soldiers fought in the U.S. military, but were segregated into separate fighting units, and often given the worst and most dangerous assignments. Here are the words of one student, repeated by NAACP leader, Walter White: “The Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?”

An estimated 110,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children (three-fourths of them born in the U.S.) were imprisoned in internment camps in 1942, when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. All of them lost businesses, homes, property, and many lost elderly or ill family members while living in the camps under makeshift, prison-like conditions. Such treatment was not confined only to the U.S., however. In England, people with Germanic names (including many Jewish refugees) and people of Italian ancestry were also imprisoned.

WWII saw the birth of literally the worst aspect of modern warfare: the deliberate targeting and saturation bombing of civilian populations. Early in the war, Italy bombed civilians in Ethiopia, Japan targeted Chinese civilians, and Germany and Italy helped bomb civilian centers during the Spanish Civil War. But were the Allies any better? In fact, U.S. and British planes routinely targeted civilians in France, Germany, and Southeast Asia. The U.S. military’s official stance was that these towns were military centers and strategically important to crippling Germany’s war effort. These targets, however, included working class residential areas of industrial cities–killing the workers would prove as effective as bombing military installations, in the minds of Western policy makers.

Thousands of planes flew over Germany, France, Hungary, and other regions. British planes did night-time “area bombing,” while U.S. planes flew during the daytime, in a pretense of precision bombing. Zinn himself joined the Air Force in 1943 and trained as a gunner, then flew numerous bombing raids over Europe. He points out that during training, bombers flew over practice targets at an altitude of 4,000 feet and could drop a bomb within 20 feet of their intended target, but at 11,000 feet, their bombs were more likely to be 200 feet off target. During actual combat missions, bombers routinely flew at 30,000 feet and often missed their mark by a quarter of a mile. The sheer number of Allied planes and bombs deployed after the U.S. entered the war vastly outnumbered anything the Axis had deployed. The effects of this saturation bombing could be enormously and indiscriminately destructive, as accounts of the fire-bombing of Dresden attest.

But the damage wasn’t limited to Europe, as Zinn notes: “The policy of saturation bombing became even more brutal when B29s, which carried twice the bombload as the planes we flew in Europe, attacked Japanese cities with incendiaries, turning them into infernos.” In only one nighttime attack on Tokyo, 100,000 civilians were killed and over a million left homeless by massive fires. A line had been crossed; once civilian targets became acceptable, anything was possible–including the use of atomic weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Zinn eloquently sums up his essay with the following words: “The good cause in World War II was the defeat of fascism. And, in fact, it ended with that defeat: the corpse of Mussolini hanging in the public square in Milan; Hitler burned to death in his underground bunker; Tojo, captured and sentenced to death by an international tribunal. But forty million people were dead, and the elements of fascism–militarism, racism, imperialism, dictatorship, ferocious nationalism, and war–were still at large in the postwar world.

… The practical effect of declaring World War II just is not for that war, but for the wars that follow. And that effect has been a dangerous one, because the glow of rightness that accompanied that war has been transferred, by false analogy and emotional carryover, to other wars. To put it another way, perhaps the worst consequence of World War II is that it kept alive the idea that war could be just.

Looking at World War II in perspective, looking at the world it created and the terror that grips our century, should we not bury for all time the idea of just war?”

The above quotes are from “Just and Unjust War,” by Howard Zinn, reprinted in The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 632 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10012, 1997.