In 1937, China was invaded by the Japanese Empire, aligned with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the “Anti-Comintern Pact.” The Japanese imperialists slaughtered entire villages, tortured and raped captives, and committed all kinds of atrocities. To commit these atrocities, they were armed with loans from Wall Street banks.
After years of official neutrality, in 1941 Washington found itself at war with the European fascists and Japanese imperialists.
A group of young air pilots from the United States heard about Japan’s atrocities in China, and knew that they must do something. They went to China to fight alongside the people against the invaders.
Though the US wasn’t yet at war with Japan, these young men were volunteers. They could be flying planes to defend US ships in the Pacific, instead they chose instead to defend Chinese farms and villages. The “American Volunteer Group” painted sharks on the sides of their airplanes, and worked with the armies of the Chinese people to destroy over 300 Japanese aircraft. They called themselves the “Flying Tigers.”
“As an important part of the World War against fascism, the American Volunteer Group fought shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese military and made a brilliant achievement,” Chinese Consul General Yuan Nansheng declared at the ceremony.
The “American Volunteer Group” members were not the only people from the United States to join the fight against fascism before the country entered World War II. During the late 1930s, another group of young American volunteers had gone to Spain to fight alongside the Republican forces against Franco’s fascists. This group was called the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” and included primarily members of the United States Young Communist League.
Though it is long forgotten, there was a time when people in the United States viewed international politics very differently. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, on the streets of New York City and San Francisco, on the tenant farms of Alabama, and in the cornfields of Kansas, there was love for the Russian and the Chinese people. In addition, there was hatred for fascist thugs and brownshirts, and for the Wall Street billionaires who funded them.
Many people in the US believe that the “my country right or wrong” chauvinism and the dominant hostility that is regularly whipped up against Russia and China are permanent features of society. History proves this to be a misconception. Though suppressed and almost purged from public memory, there was a time when the prevailing views in US society were those of anti-imperialism, compassion, internationalism, and concern for the fate of humanity.
In the “Great Depression” of the 1930s, an upsurge involving millions of people resulted in a very different tone in US governmental policy and common political rhetoric. The entire world was affected.
A Mass Uprising of The People
When the US economy crashed in 1929, many were suddenly destitute. People were not able to fall back on unemployment insurance, social security, the food stamp program, and many other forms of economic relief that now exist.
While a few Wall Street stock traders chose to commit suicide in response to the economic crash of 1929, millions in the working class chose to fight back.
The Hunger Marches of 1930-1934 involved hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers and their families. They fought bailiffs when a family was being evicted. They burst open food warehouses to feed hungry children. They stormed into the halls of Congress screaming, “Work or Wages Now!”
In 1934, the unemployed were joined by industrial workers. Dockworkers in San Francisco, coal truck drivers in Minneapolis, and Auto-Lite workers in Toledo shut down their cities with general strikes. Textile workers throughout the South also took strike action.
The slogans: “Don’t Starve, Fight!” and “A Revolutionary Way Out of the Crisis!” inspired millions to take action. The Soviet Union, booming economically and becoming an industrial power, was an inspiration to many US workers. Taking direction from the Communist International in Moscow, the US Communist Party was at the center of these struggles.
In 1936, the majority of the billionaires and bankers wanted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be defeated in the Presidential election. At a rally in Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt proclaimed, “I welcome their hatred!” Wall Street was lined up against him — but the industrial workers, the unemployed, the poor farmers, and the African-American community all stood behind him.
President Roosevelt won the loyalty of the US public by creating the Works Progress Administration. This federal program, created by executive order, returned millions of unemployed people to work. Roosevelt also signed the Wagner Act, making the right of workers to form unions a Federal Law.
Roosevelt defeated an attempted fascist coup d’état, when Marine Corps General Smedley Butler exposed it. Roosevelt also recognized and established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union.
Eventually the United States went to war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. As the war raged, Hollywood movies like “Mission to Moscow,” “Gung Ho,” and “The North Star” presented the war as a fight between humanity and inhumanity. These films portrayed the people of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s Eighth Route Army in China as heroes. The fascist brownshirt mobs and the bankers who incited them were considered “enemies of America.”
As the war closed, Vice President Henry Wallace denounced the term “American Century,” urging instead “A Century for the Common Man” once peace was won. In a famous speech of that title, he portrayed the fight against the Nazis as part of the struggle against greed and capitalism itself. The Vice President of the United States hailed the Soviet Union, and envisioned a postwar world with “economic rights” for all people, where “no nation has the God-given right to exploit other nations.”
Rejecting Racism and Fascism
The unemployment councils of the early 1930s were racially integrated. Black workers and white workers fought the bailiffs and sheriffs together. The San Francisco General Strike of 1934 was successful because it had the support of the African-American community. As a result of this historic strike, the first Black workers were hired to work on the West Coast docks.
It was in the progressive upsurges of this period that some of the greatest African-American freedom fighters emerged. Paul Robeson, a famed actor and musician, became a well-known ally of progressive struggles. The African-American poet Langston Hughes performed at many progressive and revolutionary gatherings. Richard Wright composed his powerful anti-racist novel “Native Son” while in the midst of revolutionary anti-capitalist activism in Chicago.
The forces that marched demanding unemployment insurance, and in support of striking workers, also marched to free the Scottsboro Nine, a group of young African-American men falsely accused of rape. Rallies to free the Scottsboro Nine also took place in Berlin, Paris, and Moscow.
In 1935, hundreds of thousands of workers, both Black and white, marched against fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They denounced the US government for not taking action, and cheered for the anti-colonial resistance fighters in Libya.
In the struggle to beat back the rise in populist, anti-Wall street sentiments, the billionaires did their best to foment racism. The hope was that impoverished whites would turn their anger on Black and Latino workers. The efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, the Silver Legion of America, the German-American Bund, and other fascist groups that were funded by Wall Street did not succeed.
Vito Marcantonio, who represented Harlem in the US Congress, pushed for an anti-lynching bill to halt the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. The base of activists who fought during the Great Depression saw the struggle against racism as linked to the struggle for jobs and decent wages. They loudly denounced Roosevelt for refusing to take action against Jim Crow and lynching.
A Contrast and Challenge For Our Times
It is no surprise that the history of progressive struggles and selflessness against injustice has been hidden. In current times, the US government is currently aligned with fascists in Ukraine, and propping up the brutal crimes of President Petro Poroshenko and his murderous “Right Sector” thugs.
Washington has been funding the takfiri insurgents who seek to overthrow the Syrian Arab Republic. Washington works with the Venezuelan opposition that burns buildings and assassinates elected officials. The US aligns itself with the Mujahedeen e-Khalq terrorists who seek to destabilize and destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On November 15th, a conference is planned called “Global Maidan,” where pro-Poroshenko forces will plot their next acts of terrorism, inspired by the fascist mobs of Ukraine. This conference, with a producer of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” as a featured speaker, will take place on the Lower East Side of New York City.
And while Washington is funding Nazis and terrorists, the US public is being riled up to hate the peoples of Russia and China. Hoping to cause unrest throughout China, the US government promotes the unpopular Hong Kong protests. False portraits of Russian society, designed to incite hatred and pro-war sentiments, are shown to TV viewers. Economic sanctions are leveled against Russia for daring to oppose the fascist coup in Ukraine. The criminal US blockade of Cuba continues, even after 23 UN resolutions condemning it.
While the US government spreads war and chaos around the world, the people at home are seeing the rise of a low-wage police state. Police are terrorizing people everywhere, shooting them down without penalty. Government officials are listening in on our phone calls. The social safety net is being gutted and abolished.
Short-term low-wage jobs, massive debt, and unemployment are the future of the next generation.
Government officials and US media try to present current policies as consistent with the country’s past. It is true that horrific crimes, racism, and colonialism are part of US history. But that history is not purely a story of slaveholders, lynchers, racist settlers who slaughtered native people, and the rule of corrupt bankers and bosses.
Alongside the many atrocious crimes, there is a history of forces that opposed them. Figures like Reverend Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or John Brown, who took up arms against slavery, need to be rediscovered, along with names like Lucy Parsons, William Z. Foster, and Angelo Herndon.
Since long before the founding of the US, there has been a tradition of resistance and popular struggle. In the 1930s, these struggles were decisive in the fight against fascism and the establishment of popular economic reforms. In the 1960s, these struggles helped to end the Vietnam War and Jim Crow segregation.
In the Second World War, people in the US saw the Chinese and Russian peoples as their friends. Together they defeated a monstrous foe.
At the ceremony in San Francisco, the Chinese leaders did a favor to people in the United States. They reminded us of a different time. They reminded us that hate, war, and greed are not the only aspects of the American identity.
Struggles are once again breaking out, and there is a potential to change the dangerous direction US society is currently headed. It was the involvement of millions of people that forced Roosevelt to take the actions he did, and ensured that the US did not join Italy and Germany in becoming a fascist state.
In current times, the actions of ordinary, everyday people in the United States could become vitally important. By honoring the Flying Tigers, the Chinese government has shown the people of the US not only their own forgotten past – but also what they can aspire to in the 21st Century.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.