A greatest-hits collection of oral history and first-person accounts, containing little new materal but sprinkled with gems.
The New Press editorial director Favreau (co-editor: Remembering Slavery, 1998) writes that, prior to his death, Howard Zinn urged the publisher to assemble this collection, which, like Zinn’s many People’s Histories, provide an alternative, bottoms-up, less-triumphalist view of America that has provoked controversy but whose focus on individuals and the downtrodden has entered the mainstream. Zinn’s radicalism is modestly in evidence here, although World War II tended to trump political beliefs. The old master, Studs Terkel, distills half-a-dozen of the best narratives from otherwise inarticulate participants, plus a scientist who muses without guilt about building the atomic bomb. Several memoir excerpts deliver a more sophisticated view. Historian Eric Hobsbawm spent the war in Britain as an enlisted man, often bored, maintaining his pre-war communist connections while paying little attention to party directives. American black radical Nelson Peery describes a nasty encounter with Japanese troops in one section, an equally nasty race riot in another. Primo Levi revisits Auschwitz after 40 years. A few interviews and statements written in the heat of the moment (a pacifist defends his beliefs, scientists denounce nuclear weapons) have lost their sting. Readers will probably enjoy the last essay most: An ex-refugee from Europe describes the incomprehensible (to Americans) nightmare of “lacking proper documents” and then his delight in arriving in prosperous postwar United States as a teenager, where no one cared about papers.
Plenty of memoirs, autobiographies and oral histories cover this period in richer detail, but anyone who skims this book will find plenty of opportunities to stop and read more carefully.