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Monday, October 24, 2016

He wanted to start a race war.

That, you will recall, was what authorities say white supremacist Dylann Roof had in mind when he shot up a storied African-American church in June. It might have surprised him to learn that we’ve already had a race war.

No, that’s not how one typically thinks of World War II, but it takes only a cursory consideration of that war’s causes and effects to make the case. Germany killed 6 million Jews and rampaged through Poland and the Soviet Union because it considered Jews and Slavs subhuman. The Japanese stormed through China and other Asian outposts in the conviction that they were a superior people and that Americans, as a decadent and mongrel people, could do nothing about it.

Meantime, this country was busy imprisoning 120,000 of its citizens of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps and plunging into a war against racial hatred with a Jim Crow military. The American war effort was undermined repeatedly by race riots — whites attacking blacks at a shipyard in Mobile, white servicemen beating up Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, to name two examples.

So no, it is not a stretch to call that war a race war.

It ended on August 15, 1945. V-J — Victory over Japan — Day was when the surrender was announced, the day of blissfully drunken revelry from Times Square in New York to Market Street in San Francisco. But for all practical purposes, the war had actually ended nine days before — 70 years ago Thursday — in a noiseless flash of light over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One person who survived — as least 60,000 people would not — described it as a “sheet of sun.”

The destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb — Nagasaki followed three days later — did not just end the war. It also ushered in a new era: the nuclear age. To those of us who were children then, nuclear power was what turned Peter Parker into a human spider and that lizard into Godzilla.

It was also what air-raid sirens were screaming about when the teacher told you to get down under your desk, hands clasped behind your neck. We called them “drop drills.” No one ever explained to us how putting an inch of laminated particle board between you and a nuclear explosion might save you. None of us ever thought to ask. We simply accepted it, went to school alongside this most terrifying legacy of the great race war, and thought nothing of it.

The world has seen plenty of race wars — meaning tribalistic violence — before and since 1945. Ask the Armenians, the Tutsis, the Darfurians. Ask the Congolese, the Cambodians, the Herero. Ask the Cherokee. The childish urge of the human species to divide itself and destroy itself has splashed oceans of blood across the history of the world.

The difference 70 years ago was the scope of the thing — and that spectacular ending. For the first time, our species now had the ability to destroy itself. We were still driven by the same childish urge. Only now, we were children playing with matches.

This is the fearsome reality that has shadowed my generation down seven decades, from schoolchildren doing drop drills to grandparents watching grandchildren play in the park. And the idea that we might someday forge peace among the warring factions of the planet, find a way to help our kind overcome tribal hatred before it’s too late, has perhaps come to seem idealistic, visionary, naïve, a tired ’60s holdover, a song John Lennon once sang that’s nice to listen to but not at all realistic.

Maybe it’s all those things.

Though 70 years after a flash of soundless light blasted away 60,000 lives, you have to wonder what better options we’ve got. But then, I’m biased.

You see, I have grandchildren playing in the park.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Artūrs Gedvillo via Flickr

  • Allan Richardson

    During the Great Depression and the Great Race War, President Roosevelt, egged on by his wife, took the first “baby steps” to get Jim Crow out of the military. To start with, the Pentagon was built to serve as a temporary office for the administrative needs of the military he knew we would need to win the war. Did the WTC bombers know that the groundbreaking of the Pentagon was on September 11, 1941, and plan their attack for its 60th anniversary? At any rate, since the building was not built in Washington, DC, but on federal land in the state of Virginia, FDR was told that, according to Virginia law at that time, if there were going to be any Negroes (the “polite” N-word of the day) in the building, they would have to have segregated restrooms and water fountains. But the President overruled Virginia law and had what was possibly the first desegregated bathroom facilities in the South (apparently, the first in Virginia that we know of).

    Although racist ideology held that African Americans were intellectually not equipped to handle more than the menial tasks of soldiering (the ones they had done, as slaves, in the Confederate armies), and the poor education given them as children made this true to some extent, causing the military to put most black service members into cleanup or logistical jobs (moving ammunition, for example, not only menial but in some cases dangerous), the Roosevelt administration did create some segregated units in which black recruits were able to serve in skilled positions, such as the Tuskegee Airmen for example. And they were commissioned as OFFICERS, although the Army was careful not to put them in command of white soldiers during the war.

    After the war, President Truman ordered the entire military to be desegregated at once, and dealt with the backlash created thereby. The one area in which he and his party failed at that time was in not extending the GI Bill education and house purchase benefits to blacks, and allowing the FHA to practice redlining. Of course, at that time, the votes of Dixiecrat members of Congress, the ones whose ideological descendants would become Republicans, were needed to get those bills passed at all. Figuring that benefits for some were better than benefits for none, the Democratic leadership caved on those programs. Years later, in the 1960s, these benefits were extended to Americans of all races who qualified for them.

    In all, FDR fought fascism and racism twice: first, in the Depression years, to stop our own home grown fascist oligarchy from taking over the government (with some help from Marine General Smedley Butler, who was approached about leading a military coup to replace Roosevelt with someone of their liking, and who blew the whistle on the plot rather than join it); and then in the war years, defeating Hitler and his allies. But the same people ideologically, in some (Bush) cases the same FAMILIES, are back, and who knows which anti-Smedleys they may succeed in recruiting to their cause. Not that they have needed a military coup YET.