November 11, 2015

Home By Christmas! GIs Thwart War Plans In 1945


When the Second World War ended in mid-1945, the world was almost thrust into World War III. There was a section of the US ruling class and the military high command who weren't happy that the Soviet Union had played such a key role in defeating fascism and rolling up the Wehrmacht in Europe, that communists had led the underground resistance to German and Japanese occupation in country after country in Europe and Asia, and that around the world national liberation movements were vocally demanding independence and an end to colonial bondage. The ruling class and its military chiefs wanted to run the world, and they were ready to crush the pesky reds and foreigners who stood in the way.

They were stopped in their tracks.

It wasn't the Red Army of the Soviet Union that did it, or the fighters of the French maquis, or Mao Zedong's Eighth Route Army in China. It was US soldiers and sailors and other troops, who launched a mighty movement to be sent home. They had signed on to do a job, to stop the drive to fascist world domination by Hitler Germany and Italy and Japan, and they had helped do it.

The way they saw it, the job was done. But the brass was trying to keep the troops in Europe and Asia as an occupying army and a combat-ready invasion force. Unfortunately for them, many of the GIs were workers who had been involved in the giant wave of strikes that shook the US in the midst of the Great Depression in the late '30s. These disciplined collective struggles organized the mass production industries like auto, steel and rubber before the outbreak of war. The soldiers knew that back in the States, the winding down of the war had triggered a huge new strike wave which began in '44 and picked up steam in '45 to make up the ground lost during labor's no-strike pledge during the war.

The first to stand up were troops from the European Theater who had made it back to the US only to find that orders had been cut to send them to the West Coast where they were to take ship to Asia for occupation duty. On August 21, less than two weeks after VJ Day, 580 soldiers from the Army's 95th Division signed a protest telegram to the White House. The 97th Division hung banners from the trains taking them to California, proclaiming "We're Being Sold Down The River While Congress Vacations." On September 15, General Twaddle of the 95th, assembled his soldiers for orders on occupation duty. The Washington Post the next day reported "the boos from the soldiers were so prolonged and frequent that it took [General Twaddle] 40 minutes to deliver a 15 minute speech."

Families added their voices to the chorus. Congress was inundated with letters and telegrams, thousands every day, insisting that the troops come home and stay home. As fall turned to winter, some families sent baby booties to their congressmen, with a note which read "Be a good Santa Claus and release the fathers."

And the outcry rapidly spread to the troops overseas. Nelson Peery, a veteran revolutionary who was in a segregated Black unit in the Philippines in 1945, recalls (in his autobiographical Black Fire):

 "Perhaps it will never be known who coined the slogan 'Home by Christmas!' It was a perfect piece of agitation. This simple, understandable slogan was in the immediate interest of the troops and at the same time hit at the core of the generals' hopes of attacking the Soviet Union...

"It was painted on the latrines. It was scratched on the directional posts at the crossroads. It appeared as if by magic in the recreation rooms and the mess halls. Sometimes it was even painted on the screened-in officers' quarters."

When Christmas Day came, graffiti was no longer enough-4,000 soldiers marched in formation to the 21st Replacement Depot in Manila behind banners saying "We Want Ships!" Their panicked commander said, "You men forget you're not working for General Motors. You're in the army." On Guam, mass meetings called a hunger strike.

Halfway round the world, thousands of soldiers marched down the Champs Elysee in Paris on January 8 to rally in front of the US Embassy and shout "Get us home!" The next day in occupied Germany in Frankfurt am Main, speakers at a soldiers' demonstration telegraphed a message to Congress that said only "Are the brass-hats to be permitted to build empires?"

With Christmas past, things in the Philippines got hotter. A 156 man Soldier's Committee was elected in Manila to speak for 139,000 soldiers there, "all interested in going home." It issued leaflets which declared, "The State Department wants the army to back up its imperialism." The Soldier's Committee elected an eight man central committee which included Emil Mazey, a UAW local president who had played a leading role in the battle to unionize auto in the late '30s.

Declaring that "the continued stay of these millions of GIs in the armed forces can only serve the predatory interests of Wall Street," the soldiers' leadership asked the powerful United Auto Workers to present their demands of Congress. The UAW did, further fueling the "Bring Us Home" movement stateside.

With rebellion in the ranks turning political, discipline eroding and no sympathy on the home front, the ruling class and the military blinked. Orders to the Pacific were revoked and more vessels, everything up to ocean liners, were pressed into service to get the restive veterans home and demobilized. It was all the generals could do to keep enough troops to maintain the occupation of the conquered Axis powers.

The invasion of Iraq may not last long enough to produce a wave of rebellion in the military like the Vietnam War did, but even if it doesn't, there's a lot we can learn from the soldiers who organized the post-WWII Troops Home movement, back in the day.

Originally published in Freedom Road magazine #4.

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