Monday, March 31, 2008

On "Human Smoke"



I spent the weekend reading Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization ( Simon & Schuster, 2008). It is a fascinating book and I highy recommend reading it, though I do not agree with what Baker seems to be saying––a point that becomes express only in his Afterward, where he writes:

"This book ends on December 31, 1941. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive.

"Was it a 'good war'? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing. I've relied on newspaper articles, diaries, memos, memoirs, and public proclamations, each tied as much as possible to a particular date, because they helped me understand the grain of events better than secondary sources did."



He continues:

"I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett an other American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."

I'm not so sure. I find it difficult to believe that had we only further accomodated Hitler and the Japanese, we could have avoided World War II and the Holocaust. Although Baker does not expressly say this, he accumulates the evidence (and, essentially, only the evidence) to support such a conclusion. Largely missing from his book, for example, is any discussion of the The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, signed in Moscow in the early hours of August 24, 1939. The treaty included a secret protocol dividing the independent countries of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence, anticipating "territorial and political rearrangements" of these countries' territories. All were subsequently invaded, occupied, or forced to cede territory by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or both. The Pact remained in effect until June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The signing of the treaty goes unrecorded in the day-to-day narrative of Baker's book (it is obliquely referred to on page 129), and Baker's lack of attention to this crucial event does a great disservice to his book and his argument. The world looked profoundly different in England when Hitler and Stalin became allies in dividing eastern Europe in the early days of the war. And since the "legitimate aspirations" of the Japanese included the subjugation of all of the Far East under the "Co-prosperity Sphere" (think, The Rape of Nanking), it is difficult to imagine what actions the United States could have (or better, should have) taken to avoid confrontation with the Japanese. As for suggestions that Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor beforehand and deliberately let it proceed without warning--better historians than Baker (or certainly, me) have already refuted such claims.

Which is not to say that we could not have done a great deal differently; better and with far more compassion and urgency, particularly in our treatment of the Jewish refugees in the days prior to America's entry into the war.

Still, Human Smoke is a compelling piece of work--well worth reading; worth discussing.


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NOTE: The top photo shows Molotov signing the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

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