Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization is Nicholson Baker’s history of the lead-up to World War II and the United States’ involvement in it. Rather than provide a continuous, blow-by-blow account of things, Baker uses hundreds of brief news items, averaging perhaps half a page in length. These range from 1892 to the end of 1941 (the vast majority of the book deals with the thirties and forties). As Baker recounts a wide assortment of events, he has several questions in mind. As he states in the afterword (p. 473): “Was [World War II] a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?” Ultimately, Baker challenges World War II as the exemplar of just war.
Baker’s prose is engaging. He quotes whenever possible, and doesn’t editorialize much. The brevity of his entries keeps the book moving at a fast pace. Baker draws heavily from newspapers, diaries, memoirs and public statements, and ties each news item to a specific date. This helps keep the material honest.
A lot of what Baker focuses on reveals another side of World War II, one many Americans aren’t familiar with. Baker works to show that World War II did quite a lot more harm than it did good. Nevertheless, he at no time sympathizes with the Nazis – he accurately portrays how terrible they could be. Baker explores the warmongering side of Roosevelt and Churchill as well as Hitler. There is a side of the U.S. and Britain that he is keen to show, and some of the things these nations did might amount to shocking revelations for many people. World War II was brought about, to a great degree, by that great confluence of warmongers:
-The United States sold arms to Germany and Japan in the 1930s.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with a great many other Americans and citizens of the world, was blatantly anti-Semitic.
-Before the Holocaust, Germany spent years trying to ship the Jews out. Nobody, including the United States, would take them. While this does not mitigate the horrors the Nazis perpetrated, it is alarming that by and large the rest of the world didn’t care what happened to the Jews. Certainly this helped cultivate the environment for the Holocaust.
-The British blockaded continental Europe, and would not allow food shipments through, even food intended for starving citizens of occupied France. Herbert Hoover, the much-reviled, erstwhile president, fought tooth and nail for the food shipments.
-For years, Roosevelt taunted and provoked Japan, hoping to lure them into striking first, so that he could bring the United States into the war without reneging on his campaign promises to keep the country out of war.
-Bombing, a major war strategy for both sides, was notoriously imprecise. An unbelievably small percentage of bombs hit their intended targets. Additionally, both Germany and Britain deliberately, purposely and repeatedly bombed civilian targets.
Human Smoke is recommended to those with an interest in World War II, and to those who believe World War II was a just war, or that it was fought according to the criteria of just war by any nation.