December 7, 2019
On the sunny Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, Messman Doris Miller had served breakfast aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was collecting laundry when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes hit the ship. In the deadly confusion, Miller reported to an officer, who told him to help move the ship’s mortally wounded captain off the bridge. Unable to move him far, Miller sheltered the captain behind the ship’s conning tower. Then another officer ordered Miller to pass ammunition to him as he started up one of the two abandoned anti-aircraft guns in front of the conning tower. Miller had not been trained to use the guns because, as a black man, his naval assignment was to serve the white officers. But while the officer was distracted, Miller began to fire one of the guns. He fired it until he ran out of ammunition. Then he helped to move injured sailors to safety before he and the other survivors abandoned the West Virginia, which sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
That night, America declared war on Japan. Japan declared war on America the next day, and four days later, on December 11, 1941, Italy and Germany both declared war on America. “The powers of the steel pact, Fascist Italy and Nationalist Socialist Germany, ever closely linked, participate from today on the side of heroic Japan against the United States of America,” Italian leader Benito Mussolini said. “We shall win.” Of course they would. Mussolini and Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, believed the mongrel Americans had been corrupted by Jews and “Negroes,” and could never conquer their own organized military machine.
The steel pact, as Mussolini called it, was the vanguard of his new political ideology. That ideology was called fascism, and he and Hitler thought would destroy democracy once and for all.
Mussolini had been a socialist as a young man and had grown terribly frustrated at how hard it was to organize people. No matter how hard socialists tried, they seemed unable to convince ordinary people that they must rise up and take over the country’s means of production.
The efficiency of World War One inspired Mussolini. He gave up on socialism and developed a new political theory that rejected the equality that defined democracy. He came to believe that a few leaders must take a nation toward progress by directing the actions of the rest. These men must organize the people as they had been during wartime, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition and directing the economy so that business and politicians worked together. And, logically, that select group of leaders would elevate a single man, who would become an all-powerful dictator. To weld their followers into an efficient machine, they demonized opponents into an "other" that their followers could hate.
This system of government was called "fascism," after the Latin word "fasces," which were a bundle of sticks bound together. The idea is that each stick can be easily broken alone, but as a bundle are unbreakable. (It was a common symbol: in fact, Lincoln's hand rests on fasces in the statue at the Lincoln Memorial.) Italy adopted fascism, and Mussolini inspired others, notably Germany's Adolf Hitler. Those leaders came to believe that their system was the ideology of the future, and they set out to destroy the messy, inefficient democracy that stood in their way.
America fought World War Two to defend democracy from fascism. And while fascism preserved hierarchies in society, democracy called on all men as equals. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, more than 1.2 million were African American men and women, 500,000 were Latinos, and more than 550,000 Jews were part of the military. Among the many ethnic groups who fought, Native Americans served at a higher percentage than any other ethnic group—more than a third of able-bodied men from 18-50 joined the service—and among those 25,000 soldiers were the men who developed the famous “Code Talk,” based in tribal languages, that Hitler’s codebreakers never cracked.
The American president at the time, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hammered home that the war was about the survival of democracy. Fascists insisted that they were moving their country forward fast and efficiently—claiming the trains ran on time, for example, although in reality they didn’t— but FDR constantly noted that the people in Italy and Germany were begging for food and shelter from the soldiers of democratic countries.
Ultimately, the struggle between fascism and democracy was the question of equality. Were all men really created equal, or were some born to lead the rest, whom they held subservient to their will?
Based in the principle that all men are created equal, democracy, FDR reminded Americans again and again, was the best possible government. Thanks to armies made up of men and women from all races and ethnicities—a mongrel population-- the Allies won the war against fascism, and it seemed that democracy would dominate the world forever.
But as the impulse of WWII pushed Americans toward a more just and inclusive society after it, those determined not to share power warned their supporters that including people of color and women as equals in society would threaten their own liberty. Those reactionary leaders rode that fear into control of our government, and now, once again, democracy is under attack by those who believe some people are better than others.
In June 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that democracy is obsolete. He believes that a few oligarchs should run the world while the rest of us do as we are told, and he is doing his best to destroy both American democracy and the international structures, like NATO, that hold it in place. The interests of reactionary American leaders and Russian president Putin run parallel. Astonishingly, that affinity has recently come out into the open. Some of our leaders are publicly echoing Putin’s propaganda, apparently willing to work with him to undermine the principles on which our nation rests so long as it means they can stay in power.
Will we permit the destruction of American democracy on our watch?
When America came under attack before, people like Doris Miller refused to let that happen. For all that American democracy still discriminated against him, it gave him room to stand up for the concept of human equality. He did so until 1943, when he laid down his life for it. Promoted to cook after the Navy sent him on a publicity tour, Miller was assigned to a new ship, the U. S. S. Liscome Bay, which was struck by a Japanese torpedo on November 24, 1943. It sank in minutes, taking two-thirds of the crew, including Miller, with it.
I hear a lot these days about how American democracy is doomed and the oligarchs will win. Maybe. But the beauty of our system is that it gives us people like Doris Miller.
Even better, it makes us people like Doris Miller.