David M. Kennedy

It’s Been Dark Before, Part I

VTR Date: December 6, 2001

Guest: Kennedy, David M.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David M. Kennedy
Title: “It’s Been Dark Before” Part I
VTR: 12/6/2001

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, thoroughly a devotee of the news…an American…or sorts both by professional training and preference. And I don’t believe I’ve ever before encountered a lesson about our past told as tautly or as well, as when in the aftermath of September 11th’s terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. My guest today wrote in The New York Times: “Adrift in a sea of troubles, the United States seems in danger of being removed from its own historical identity”. Well, David M. Kennedy is the distinguished Professor of History at Stamford University whose wonderfully evocative Oxford University Press Book “Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945” won the Pulitzer Prize for history. And I hope he won’t feel today that I stretch the doctrine of…to far in quoting at length his Times piece, assuring us that as it’s heading reads, “It’s been dark before. For at least some Americans,” Professor Kennedy writes, “can still remember the teeming anxieties that plagued the United States after the assault on Pearl Harbor. Popular culture recollects a people resolute and energized in the wake of the Japanese surprise attack. But indeed the mood of America in the weeks following December 7, 1941 was baffled, frightened, and grim. The Nazis has already conquered most of Western Europe. They seemed all but certain to bring the Soviet Union to its knees within weeks, even days. The chilling reality was that Churchill faced the galling prospect of acquiescence of Germany’s mastery over Europe and Japanese hegemony in Asia. As most of the senior American military command gloomily, but not unreasonably, predicted. Hitler’s blitzkrieg tactics had caught the world flatfooted. The…mechanized attacks had forced a supposedly formidable France to capitulate within a few inglorious weeks. The warlords in Tokyo appeared ready to make good on their promise to turn the Pacific into a Japanese lake. Small wonder that panic seized the West Coast in January of 1941, an expectation of immanent Japanese bombardment and even invasion. Radio stations went off the air, lest their signals serve as navigational beacons to enemy aircraft. Jumpy officials moved the Rose Bowl game out of harm’s way, from Pasadena to North Carolina. Supposedly disloyal Japanese Americans were accused of hatching diabolical plots to poison water supplies and blow up electrical generating plants. A prominent newspaper columnist demanded the incarceration of the entire Japanese American community in California and the hell with habeas corpus, the dark wish that soon came true.

Apprehension gripped the Eastern Seaboard as well as German U-Boats in early 1942 began the wholesale sinking of American ships off the Atlantic coast before the horrified eyes of spectators on the shore. Submarine predation in subsequent months nearly choked off the convoys of food and war materiel to Britain. Teams of German saboteurs came ashore in Florida and New York.”
Professor Kennedy sums up “a bleaker, more hopeless picture is hard to imagine”. Yet we know how that story ended. And yes, it’s true that we know how the story ended, but I must ask my guest today, whether it wasn’t in great caution that so few Americans know how it began, and that indeed, it’s been dark before. We don’t know that much about our history, do we?

KENNEDY: Well, we’ll never know as much about our history as professional historians, as aficionados like you and I might wish. But this is one lesson that has been surely swamped in general Congressionaltory moods in popular culture in this country about World War II that we have somehow been ignorant of or unable to recognize just how flatfootedly unprepared this country was for the scale and kind of conflict that it was sucked into so dramatically on December 7th, 1941.

HEFFNER: Did the reaction to this Times piece indicate that?

KENNEDY: Well, many people who read the piece of that generation wrote me or got in touch with me and thanked me for the reminder. Others presumably somewhat younger without that memory expressed surprise. Some even expressed a little bit of outrage that they were reminded that the country could be in such a state of unpreparedness in such a critical moment.

HEFFNER: You know the, the, ah…perhaps lack of historical knowledge amused me in the illustration here and I didn’t read it, that a section of your piece, “Hitler’s blitzkrieg tactics had caught the world flatfooted”…The Times had taken upon itself a parenthetical statement to explain what “blitzkrieg” meant.

KENNEDY: Well, actually, that wasn’t The Times, that was the original author.

HEFFNER: Did…do that?

KENNEDY: Yes, because I did not have sufficient confidence that everyone would understand the German term, which of course means “lightening war”. And it was the name given by journalists, actually to this tactic of very mechanized fast moving warfare that the Germans…in which the Germans were such great innovators in World War II. But that tactic, the tactic, the blitzkrieg, in 1940, 1939, 40, 41, when the Germans first launched it, was seen as some kind of revolution in warfare and even Winston Churchill, such a keen student of military doctrine and history is he, says right out in his memoirs that he was flummoxed and flabbergasted at the military consequence of a fast moving body of armory. He never anticipated this. The Germans used a mix of armory and infantry in whole new ways. So it caught my attention as I tried to think of some elements of comparison between World War II and our present situation. Just as the tactic of commercial…the hijacking of commercial airliners and using them as weapons as in the events of September 11th, of course, was an innovation of kinds, so too was blitzkrieg. So too was the Pacific theater in World War II was the Japanese development way before we got up to it, the new technology of the aircraft carrier. So in 1941, 1942 we were confronted in both theaters, both the European and the Pacific theaters. Absolutely revolutionary doctrines for war-fighting, for which we were rather willfully unprepared.

HEFFNER: But it’s not only the generals who were preparing to fight the last war. All of us.

KENNEDY: Well, yes, there is some room for argument about that one, I think. That is the old maxim, that generals are always prepared to fight the last war. The great exception to that, in the case of World War II, I think, and here I think American military and political leaders get some credit for it, is the development of air power. As early as the 1920s and certainly by the 1930s, the senior officers in the United States Army in particular, Bill Mitchell being a prime example, who are trying to find ways to fight the next battle, wherever it might be. They don’t foresee World War II, in precise terms. They’re trying to find ways to avoid the bloodletting of trench warfare that was so costly of human life in World War I and the device they hit on was this new technology of the airplane. The United States and Britain are the two countries that invest heavily in developing, again, a new doctrine of warfare which is the long-range de-penetration strategic bomber, the B-17, and the B-24, eventually the successor the aircraft that ends World War II by dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that is the B-29. So in some sense, at some level at least, among American planners, there was recognition that the next war, which they couldn’t see in detail to repeat, but the next war would have to be fought by different means in aircraft. The aircraft was a new technology they utilized.

HEFFNER: Can you extrapolate from that experience, the Billy Mitchell experience, what our military leaders understand about the next war now?

KENNEDY: Well, I think we can only extrapolate with difficulty. As I am fond of saying, even the most assiduous students of the past can’t see very far into the future. I think that’s just the limitation, the human limitation we have to face. But it’s striking to a degree that in the present crisis, the crisis since September 11th the response that we have made has looked like conventional warfare. Even though we are told daily by our leadership, and we remind ourselves that this is a highly unconventional situation and can’t be fought by traditional means and so on, the bulk of what we see today looks like conventional war, aircraft, the attacks on Afghanistan, the introduction of ground troops after…from the air, unformed forces in the field. There may be other things going on, but what we’ve mainly seen from this point looks like conventional war. So up to this point, at least, it does look as if, in terms of our response so far, we are fighting like the last war, in a sense. We’re fighting by conventional means.

HEFFNER: You talked about Billy Mitchell, talking about the rising interest in air power in the 20s, turning to the 30s, and just before the war. How do you evaluate Franklin Roosevelt’s understanding of what we were going to need, then what he did about it, in terms of military power?

KENNEDY: Well, I, I give, give credit to Roosevelt on a lot of fronts, actually, in many different dimensions, for me, he was quite a visionary leader. I don’t but the traditional conventional wisdom that he was an opportunistic pragmatist who would simply grab for whatever solution was at hand. I think he had a very keen sense of where history had deposited him and this country by the 1930s and what needed to be done to make this country secure and safe against the threat of future economic crisis and threat from abroad. On the particular dimension of war-fighting doctrine, Roosevelt, in fact, was a great patron of air power. And he endorsed the decision that was made by the American military in the early 1930s, actually even before he was president. But he endorsed it when he became president, to let out a design competition for a de-penetration strategic bomber, a competition that was eventually won by the Boeing Aircraft Company. And the B-17 bomber, the first prototypes for the B-17 actually flew as early as 1935, and Roosevelt, from the beginning, consistently supported the development of a large, strategic air arm. So the origins of the air-fighting doctrine that remains to this day, this country’s regnant doctrine, the way we prefer to fight a war if possible, is from the air, with weapons we call “stand-off weapons”, weapons that can be fired from a great distance and to great effect, weapons that are sparing of American lives, but nevertheless deliver a powerful blow against the enemy. That doctrine really was hatched after World War I with a number of theorists of air-power, not all in this country, incidentally. It was embraced by the American military in the 1930s if not sooner. Franklin Roosevelt gave his powerful support to it. It’s why the principle means that this country used to fight World War II was air power. We fight from the air in Europe beginning in August of 1942. August 17th, 1942 is the date of the first B-17 attack on the Nazi occupied Europe, its attack on Rouen in France, Nazi-occupied France. D-Day comes almost two years later, the great battle that we think marks our major intervention in the war, but in fact, most of the duration of the war in Europe the principle means by which we carried the battle to our German adversary was not on the ground front, but on the air front.

HEFFNER: Do you think that was an effective front for us?

KENNEDY: Well, there was great controversy at the time. You might way there was inter-service debate between the proponents of air-power and the proponents of traditional ground warfare, as to which, as to what mix of these two types of battles might be more effective. And because of the irresolution of that debate, this country created an outfit called the United States Strategic Bombing Survey which consisted of teams of experts: economists, psychologists, sociologists, and so on, industrial specialists who followed the advancing troops across the Rhine right into Germany in late ’44, early ’45, and tried to assess as swiftly and effectively as they could just what was the contribution of airpower to the ultimate victory.

HEFFNER: And the final assessment?

KENNEDY: The final assessment in Europe was quite ambiguous. They didn’t, they could not come to a firm conclusion. But…

HEFFNER: Which was a surprise wasn’t it?

KENNEDY: Well, it was a great surprise to the theorists of airpower who were, who had a vested interest in proving that strategic aerial warfare was not simply another weapon but was THE war-winning weapon. It was a revolutionary system of war-fighting that could change the nature of warfare itself.

HEFFNER: Would you say not just to the theorists, but to the Americans who sat back and watched?

KENNEDY: Oh, yes, absolutely, but when the question went unresolved in the European…even after the findings and investigations of the survey, then the great site, the venue, the locus of it shifted to the Pacific theater and to Japan. That’s, in the longer run you might say, much of the significance of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. It brought the war to a final conclusion in Asia as well as in Europe. Part of the significance of that is that this became a trump card in the hands of the proponents of air power. That they were able to prove on the Japanese case that airpower, and essentially airpower alone in the last days and weeks of the war had brought Japan to its knees. Not that…of course, they had the added bonus, you might say…it wasn’t air power pure and simple, it was air power with the introduction of this awesome new weapon, the atomic bomb.

HEFFNER: You describe so well the, the notification to Harry Truman sitting with the other world leaders, that it had worked. Ah, what about FDR? Had he been aware of the closeness of the development of the bomb, an effective working bomb?

KENNEDY: Well, the bomb’s effectiveness, or that fact that we would have a workable weapon was not known, of course, until July of 1945…

HEFFNER: After he had died.

KENNEDY: …after Roosevelt was dead. But there was reason…he had reason to be optimistic about the success of the Manhattan project. He knew it was progressing more or less on schedule. So there was reason to be hopeful, that this country would have this weapon in hand in time to be useful in the current war. I’d say parenthetically, that there is NO reason to presume that he would NOT have used the weapon against Germany had it been developed in time.

HEFFNER: Of course, that’s the question I wanted to ask you. Was there any sense of the dimension of the damage that would be done in any compunction?

KENNEDY: Much of the military and scientific discussion of the bomb and its being developed, curiously enough, in retrospect, focused largely on the blast effect of the bomb, and only kind of incidentally on the radiation effect. There…as I read the record at least, there did not seem to be a primary focus on the radiation damage that this kind of weapon would inflict. We are now aware of that sort of thing, as we were made to be, after investigation on the ground, the consequence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Roosevelt certainly understood that this was a qualitatively different kind of weapon, that it held the promise of changing the nature of warfare and indeed of changing the nature of relationships among nations across the board. Precisely what diplomatic and political use he intended to make of the bomb is not at all clear. The record simply does not speak to us with the kind of clarity we would wish. He knew it was a trump card and he repeatedly said to his very small circle of intimate advisors who knew about it, notably Henry Stimpson, that at some point, he wanted to bring…he wanted to put this card on the table, particularly in his relationship with the Soviet Union. But precisely how he was going to play that hand we don’t know.

HEFFNER: Let me go back a bit to something you said about Roosevelt the theorist, the praise you have for his insight and his foresight in his thinking about military matters. You dismiss the idea as if it were a negative, as if it were pejorative, that he was a pragmatist. He was essentially…I’m interested in why you do that.

KENNEDY: Well I do…(laughter)…I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative to be a pragmatist. I use the term in the sense that is often used colloquially about him, that he had no systematic ideas, that he had no deep social or political philosophy. I don’t believe that’s true, particularly in the dimension of domestic social economic reform. I believe it’s clear from the record of Roosevelt’s correspondence and speeches dating from the 1920s that he understood that the great cumulative forces of history had brought this country, as it had engaged in this great historical development we know as the industrial revolution to a point where the free and unfettered workings of laissez-faire pre-market capitalism simply had to be tamed and contained in ways to contain the volatilities and prevent excessive damage to the human beings that were swept up in it. This was his agenda and his program from the time he sought the presidency in 1932. And though, to be sure, there’s a lot of apparent contradictory moves in the early New Deal era, the overall objective of making this country safer economically and hopefully protecting individuals from the volatilities of a completely unregulated free market system. That’s a central goal, I think, that was clearly in focus from the beginning.

HEFFNER: How then, do we find that there ARE so many people that are dismissive? They quote Walter Lippmann, they go on to his whispering in this ear and in that ear and being ultimately, the word you used before, was opportunist.

KENNEDY: Yes, well, you referenced Walter Lippmann, who called Roosevelt a kind of amiable boy scout. A famous…in the ’32 presidential campaign said something to the effect that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a very genial man who didn’t have any particular qualifications for the office, but who would very much like to be president, a sentence that’s been quoted endlessly as representing Lippmann’s mis-estimation or underestimation of him. Why does this picture persist in our memory of him as an unsystematic opportunist? I’m not exactly sure. I think part of it had to do with the sheer quantity of things that he initiated in the 1930s, not all of them successfully, particularly with the kind of pell-mell frantic search for an instrument that could overcome or end the Depression in 1933 in a hundred days. The initiatives of that period do appear to be helter-skelter. Ah, so I think that image has persisted, a very strong and narrative image. It’s easy to see how it inhabits people’s consciousness. But I believe, as I’m trying to argue in my book, that if you look at the New Deal as a whole, its overall objectives are consistent, its overall achievement is clear.

HEFFNER: And your evaluation ultimately, finally?

KENNEDY: Of the new deal?


KENNEDY: I think it was an extremely positive and indeed necessary development in American history and in some ways the New Deal in some ways merely brought the United States as a society into a line with the kinds of political accommodations with the Industrial Revolution that every Western industrial society by that time had largely accomplished.

HEFFNER: How do we find so often people dismissing the accomplishments of the New Deal in terms of the economical situation in this country until the war began to change our economic situation?

KENNEDY: Well, the answer to that is actually simple. It’s because the New Deal spectacularly failed to accomplish what we might say is the single most urgent objective, and that was ending the Depression. While failing to end the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt in fact, put in place a structure of durable reforms and institutions that still shape the economic, social, political, and cultural landscape that we still live in today. Suffice it to say that Social Security is a perfect example, I suppose. But none of his policies until World War II came along succeeded in lifting the pall of Depression from this country. The unemployment rate averaged 17% per year in the first eight years of the two Roosevelt administrations. It’s strictly on grounds of economic policy. That was a rather conspicuous failure, but that failure could solve the economic crisis of the Depression. I think it also underwrote, or made possible the political achievements like the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, the Banking Act, and so on and so forth.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting you list things that one could look at in the recent history of the United States and say “My goodness, those things are being challenged”. Those are the very things, not in their essence, but on some level are being challenged today.

KENNEDY: Well, I think among the reasons the New Deal…what we call the New Deal comes along so late in our history when other societies had embraced ways to take some of the risk and insecurity out of free-market capitalism…among the reasons that happened so late in our history is because historically, going way back to the eighteenth century if not before, we’ve been a society that has been very suspicious of power and especially very suspicious of investing power in the central or federal government. We do these kinds of things later than other peoples. We do them by and large in a more attenuated and limited way. Our welfare state has historically been much smaller than exists in the societies with which we usually compare ourselves. A prime example of that would be our inability right now in the present day to provide universal health care coverage, while all the other Western societies have long found ways in which to do that. So we remain suspicious of power. The great American historian Henry Adams that suspicion of power in whatever form it presented itself was the taproot of American political reflex. I think there’s a deep truth to that.

HEFFNER: And when you think there’s a deep truth to that do you applaud?

KENNEDY: Well, I, I, I think it’s possible that I clap with one hand!

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KENNEDY: I think there’s something healthy about the suspicion of power. I do think at times we’re over-suspicious or paranoid suspicious about it. It prevents us from using the instrument of government to address issues that…most other societies have found ways to use that instrument intelligently and unfortunately we have difficulty with that.

HEFFNER: You say intelligently and well, I presume you mean.

KENNEDY: Well, the history of the last two or three decades reminds us that some of our sister societies in the North Atlantic community especially, have had difficulty sustaining the kind of measures of social provision that I’m talking about. Some of them have backed away from them a bit. So it’s perhaps a reminder that some of our deep seated cultural skepticisms about these matters may be somewhat well placed.

HEFFNER: Which indicates to me that there are many more questions I want to ask of you but our time is up right now. If you’ll stay where you are, we’ll do another program, because I do want to ask you about power again.


HEFFNER: Thanks, Professor Kennedy, for joining me today.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Meanwhile, as old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The Bluestein Family Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Garfinkle-Minard Foundation; The Center for Educational Outreach & Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University; The Commonwealth Fund; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.