Years after the WWII, Admiral Gene Larocque, who had served for years in the navy and been bombed at Pearl Harbor, shared these thoughts with the great people’s historian and radio pioneer, Studs Terkel.
-From Voices of A People’s History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
In the summer of ’41 I asked to be sent to Pearl Harbor, The Pacific fleet was there and it sounded romantic. I was attached to the U.S.S. MacDonough when the Japanese attacked. We got under way about ten o’clock looking for the Japanese fleet. It’s lucky we didn’t find them; they would probably have sunk us. I spent the whole war in the Pacific, four years.
At first I thought the U.S. Army Air Corps was accidentally bombing us. We were so proud, so vain, and so ignorant of Japanese capability. It never entered our consciousness that they’d have the temerity to attack us. We knew the Japanese didn’t see well, especially at night—we knew this as a matter of fact. We knew they couldn’t build good weapons, they made junky equipment, they just imitated us. All we had to do was get out there and sink ’em. It turns out they could see better than we could and their torpedoes, unlike ours, worked.
We’d thought they were little brown men and we were the great big white men. They were of a lesser species. The Germans were well known as tremendous fighters and builders, whereas the Japanese would be a pushover. We used nuclear weapons on these little brown men. We talked about using them in Vietnam. We talked about using our military force to get our oil in the Middle East from a son of dark-skinned people. I never hear about us using the military to get our oil from Canada. We still think we’re a great super-race.
It took a long rime to realize how good these fellows were. We couldn’t believe it. One time I was down in a South Pacific atoll that we’d captured. There were still a few Japanese ships in the harbor. We ran into two Japanese who hanged themselves right in front of us rather than be captured. We hated them during the war. They were Japs. They were subhuman.
I hated the boredom of four years in the Pacific even though I had been in thirteen battle engagements, had sunk a submarine, and was the first man ashore in the landing at Roi. In that four years, I thought, What a hell of a waste of a man’s life. I lost a lot of friends. I had the task of telling my roommate’s parents about our last days together. You lose limbs, sight, part of your life— for what? Old men send young men to war. Flags, banners, and patriotic sayings.
I stayed in the navy because I believed the United States could really make the world safe for democracy. I went around to high schools in uniform, telling the kids that I thought war was stupid, to ignore all this baloney that shows up in poetry and novels and movies about gallantry and heroism and beauty. I told them it’s just a miserable, ugly business.
After the war, we were the most powerful nation in the world. Our breadbasket was full. We enjoyed being the big shots. We were running the world. We were the only major country that wasn’t devastated. France, Britain, Italy, Germany had all felt it. The Soviet Union, our big ally, was on its knees. Twenty million dead.
We are unique in the world, a nation of thirty million war veterans. We’re the only country in the world that’s been fighting a war since 1940. Count the wars— Korea, Vietnam— count the years. We have built up in our body politic a group of old men who look upon military service as a noble adventure. It was the big excitement of their lives and they’d like to see young people come along and share that excitement. We are unique.
We’ve always gone somewhere else to fight our wars, so we’ve not really learned about its horror. Seventy percent of our military budget is to fight somewhere else.
We’ve institutionalized militarism. This came out of World War Two. In 1947, we passed the National Security Act. You can’t find that term—national security—in any literature before that year. It created the Department of Defense. Up till that time, when you appropriated money for the War Department, you knew it was for war and you could see it clearly. Now it’s for the Department of Defense. Everybody’s for defense. Otherwise you’re considered unpatriotic. So there’s absolutely no limit to the money you must give to it. So they’ve captured all the Christians: the right of self-defense. Even the “just war” thing can be wrapped into it.
We never had a Joint Chiefs of Staff before. In World War Two, there was a loose coalition, but there was no institution. It gave us the National Security Council. It gave us the CIA, that is able to spy on you and me this very moment. For the first time in the history of man, a country has divided up the world into military districts. No nation in the world has done that before or has done it since. They have a military solution for everything that happens in their area. They write up contingency plans—a euphemism for war plans. General Bernie Rogers has intelligence, has logistics, has airplanes, has people, has an international staff. There is not one U.S. ambassador in Europe who makes any significant move without checking with Bernie Rogers. He’s the most important man in Europe and he has tenure. You can’t fire him.
Our military runs our foreign policy. The State Department simply goes around and tidies up the messes the military makes. The State Department has become the lackey of the Pentagon. Before World War Two, this never happened. You had a War Department, you had a Navy Department. Only if there was a war did they step up front. The ultimate control was civilian. World War Two changed all this.
I don’t think I’ve changed. I was a good ship captain. I was tough. I worked like the devil to see that my ship and my men were the best. I loved the sea and still do. I think the United States has changed. It got away from the idea of trying to settle differences by peaceful means. Since World War Two, we began to use military force to get what we wanted in the world. That’s what military is all about. Not long ago, the Pentagon proudly announced that the U.S. had used military force 215 times to achieve its international goals since World War Two. The Pentagon likes that: military force to carry out national will. Of course, there are nuclear weapons now.
Nuclear weapons have become the conventional weapons. We seriously considered using them in Vietnam. I was in the Pentagon myself crying to decide what targets we could use. We explored every way we could to win that war, believe me. We just couldn’t find a good enough target. We were not concerned about the opprobrium attached to the use of nuclear weapons.
I was in Vietnam. I saw the senseless waste of human beings. I saw this bunch of marines come off this air-conditioned ship. Nothing was too good for our sailors, soldiers, and marines. We send ’em ashore as gung ho young nineteen-year-old husky nice-looking kids and bring ’em back in black rubber body bags. There are a few little pieces left over, some entrails and limbs that don’t fit in the bags. Then you take a fire hose and you hose down the deck and push that stuff over the side.
I myself volunteered to go to Vietnam and fight. I didn’t question whether it was in the nation’s interest. I was a professional naval officer and there was a war. I hope as we get older, we get smarter. You could argue World War Two had to be fought. Hitler had to be stopped. Unfortunately, we translate it unchanged to the situation today. I met some Russians during World War Two, officers from ships. They looked to me like human beings. I had been burned before, having been taught to hate the Japanese with such fervor. I saw no good reason, at that point, to hate the Russians, who I knew had fought valiantly in World War Two.
I think they want to be accepted as a world power and perhaps spread their hegemony around the world. I think we have to compete with communism wherever it appears. Our mistake is trying to stem it with guns. It alienates the very people we’re crying to win over. The Russians really have influence only in the buffer areas around their country. They’ve been a flop in other countries. Yet the Russian bear determines just about everything we do. I wonder how much of my whole life and my generation has been influenced to hate the Russians. Even when I didn’t even know where it was. I remember a Tom Swift book when I was thirteen: beware the Russian bear.
World War Two has warped our view of how we look at things today. We see things in terms of that war, which in a sense was a good war. But the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.
For about twenty years after the war, I couldn’t look at any film on World War Two. It brought back memories that I didn’t want to keep around. I hated to see how they glorified war. In all those films, people get blown up with their clothes and fall gracefully to the ground. You don’t see anybody being blown apart. You don’t see arms and legs and mutilated bodies. You see only an antiseptic, clean, neat way to die gloriously. I hate it when they say, “He gave his life for his country.” Nobody gives their life for anything. We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them. They don’t die for the honor and glory of their country. We kill them.
—Admiral Gene Larocque Speaks to Studs Terkel About “The Good War” (1985). In Studs Terkel, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon, 1984; New York New Press, 1997), pp. 189-93.
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