Lessons of the Post–WWII Soldiers’ Movement: the Strikes of 1945–46

The five years after the end of the Second World War were some of the stormiest years ever seen in the United States. The entire nation had been mobilized for war—millions of workers were drafted into the military, and millions more were employed in the newly created arms plants. The State set up hundreds of specialized committees to regulate everything from food rationing to enforcing the reactionary “No Strike Pledge,” which was held in place partly by the influence of the Communist Party and the Stalinist-dominated unions as well as by the leadership of the AFL and CIO. This “No Strike Pledge” flew in the face of the newly created Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) but yet was supported by the “statesman”-like leadership over the will of the millions of workers of the CIO, with the help of the Stalinists.

By 1944, a year before the war even ended, the fruits of the CIO-Stalinist pact with the government paid off—mass layoffs were rippling through the new arms industries, with as many as 300,000 being sacked at a time. The CIO News headline of April 2, 1945 declared the leadership’s policy: “It’s Industrial Peace for the Post-War Period!” While the CIO leaders wished for a new labor-government treaty to ensure a modest pay raise, the Communist Party still criminally exhorted the workers to support the “No Strike Pledge” for an indefinate period. However, the American working class replied with a mass strike movement that affected every industry in every part of the country.

1937, the birth year of the CIO and considered the time of the biggest strike movement in the US, saw 4,740 strikes involving 1,861,000 workers. In 1945, at the end of the war, there were 4,750 strikes mobilizing 3,470,000 workers. 1946 saw 4,985 strikes with 4,600,000 workers. At the center of the 1945–46 strike movement was the UAW and the General Motors workers, who had succeeded in shutting all GM plants down during this period. The GM workers were also the main sector that organized a City-Wide Strike Committee in Detroit, a soviet in embryo. Millions more struck in the years 1947–49, mainly the mining and railroad workers. Contrary to schoolbook histories of the modern US, the Second World War and the “New Deal” did not solve a single problem of the “Depression Era”; it only intensified them. The stationing of occupation forces all around the globe; the draft; food and fuel rationing; the drawing of millions of women into the factories; the criminal policies of the Communist Party and the CIO; and the militant class spirit developed during the mass struggles of the 30s, all added fuel to the fire of the workers’ reaction at the end of the war.

The class struggles of this period are generally not known of by most people, despite being the zenith of the movement begun in this country in the 30s, before being abruptly cut across by the postwar economic boom of 1950–73. The postwar strike wave could possibly have moved the class struggle in the United States forward to an even greater degree if it had not been for the combination of a new economic boom, betrayal by their leaders, and by the wave of repression by the state. However, this period is very rich with lessons for today’s labor movement. One of the most interesting was the movement of the soldiers, marines, and sailors at the end of the war, whose actions and ideas were of a degree not seen in this country since. This soldiers’ movement is extremely interesting at present given that Bush II is dragging the American workers into another imperialist war. It is a glimpse of what the soldiers can do once they’ve been given an example by their brothers in the industrial army.

“Are the brass-hats to be permitted to build empires?”

By V-J Day in 1945, the US military was spread all over the globe, from Germany to Japan, and from Italy to the Phillipines. The number of the soldiers in the US Army was second only to that of the Red Army, its new “Cold War foe.” The friendly meeting of US and Soviet troops on the Elbe River quickly turned into a defensive posture as “The Big Three,“ Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, met in Potsdam to make a new barbaric division of Germany, Central Europe, and the Balkans. In Asia, US troops occupied Japan, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, and southern Korea, while the USSR occupied northern Korea and Manchuria, and Mao’s “communist” peasant armies went on the offensive against the Chinese Nationalists. The defeat of German and Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism didn’t necessarily mean that peace was at hand. The imperialists of Western Europe and the US would never forgive the Russian workers for 1917, no matter how the far the Stalinist counterrevolution moved the USSR away from workers’ democracy and genuine socialism. In 1945, the armies of British and American imperialism directly faced the forces of the Soviet Union, and Washington and London undoubtedly wanted to finish the October Revolution off. Unfortunately for Churchill and Roosevelt, the workers in uniform under their command had a different idea.

Despite the War Department’s insinuations to the soldiers that they would return home after the fighting had ceased, many were instead sent into duty as occupation forces. Washington DC had nearly a million soldiers and sailors spread over the world at its disposal in 1945. In Japan the Marines enforced General MacArthur’s administration of the island. In Hong Kong and Shanghai, Marines guarded British-owned railways and Western shipping. In Europe the Army backed up the puppet West German state. For workers who had enlisted out of hatred of fascism, occupation duty was unacceptable.

The White House, Congress, and the War Department from V-J Day onward were flooded daily with letters and petitions from soldiers and their families. The soldiers resented first and foremost the “Point-Score system.” This system was very similar to the seniority system in the workplace, the longer a soldier served and the more combat he saw, he earned more “points.” Once a soldier had earned enough “points” he was supposed to be released out of the Army. However, at the war’s end the Army was attempting to retain the highest number of men possible for occupation. In fact, the Army moved whole divisions across the globe from Europe to Asia specifically for occupation duty, despite the fact that the majority of the soldiers of those divisions were more than eligible to be released.

The soldiers being sent from Europe to Asia reacted immediately. On August 21 the White House acknowledged the receipt of telegram signed by 580 soldiers of the combat-hardened 95th Division, at the time stationed in Mississippi. Troops of the 97th Division, on their way to the Pacific Coast, stretched signs over their trains saying “We’re Being Sold Down the River While Congress Vacations.” On September 15, 1945, the commander of the 95th Division, General Twaddle, addressed his soldiers on the necessity of their being sent for occupation duty. A report to the Washington Post of the same day stated “the boos from the soldiers were so prolonged and frequent that it took [General Twaddle] 40 minutes to deliver a 15-minute speech.” Mass meetings of soldiers’ families and wives sent even greater numbers of petitions and telegrams to Congress demanding, “We want our boys home!“ Senator Elbert D. Thomas, the chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, describing the incessant demands, said, “Constituents are on their necks day and night. The pressure is unbelievable. Mail from wives, mothers and sweethearts demanding that their men be brought home is running to almost 100,000 letters daily.” The soldiers didn’t limit themselves to banners on trains and petitions—they soon moved to the example of the GM workers with the use of strikes, marches, rallies, and the formation of Soldiers’ Committees.

During the war, many of the soldiers supported the “No-Strike Pledge because, like many, they had been deceived into believing that it was necessary to defeat Hitler and Mussolini. They had not supported the workers who had struck during the war. After V-J Day this sentiment changed almost immediately. Veterans who returned home were conspicuous in nearly every Labor Day march and on the strike pickets, in their uniforms. Returning union soldiers in Detroit assisted the UAW “Flying Squads” of blue-capped and blue-shirted workers who moved from picket to picket bringing food and provisions as well as protecting the picket lines from assailants, which rarely happened because of their presence. In Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York, veterans marched on the state capitols to demand acceptance of striker’s demands.

Overseas, the soldiers began to take more concerted action. On Christmas Day 1945, 4,000 soldiers in Manila marched to the 21st Replacement Depot with a banner at their head saying, “We Want Ships!” The soldiers in Manila demonstrated twice more, serving as an example to the troops stationed elsewhere. In Guam, more mass meetings sprung up, and 3,500 soldiers engaged in a hunger strike against demobilization “slowdowns.” More mass meetings followed, as well as marches and petitions by the soldiers stranded by the Army on that tiny island.

A resolution adopted by soldiers stationed in Seoul, Korea, on January 10, 1946, stated, “We cannot understand the War Department’s insistence on keeping an oversized peacetime army overseas under present conditions.” In Korea, the War Department’s insistence was most likely the desire to keep the soldiers in striking distance of China and Manchuria, but like the US soldiers everywhere at the time these troops in Korea would have been absolutely unwilling to go on an offensive, especially against a country characterized to them as an ally!

On January 8, thousands of soldiers in Paris marched down the Champs Élysées to rally in front of the US Embassy to shout, “Get us home!” The next day in Frankfurt am Main, speakers at a soldiers’ demonstration stated that their commanding general was “too scared to face us here.” They then cabled a message to Congress that said only “Are the brass-hats to be permitted to build empires?” The New York daily PM on January 13 reported this from Nuremburg: “The fact is the GIs have strike fever. Almost every soldier you talk to is full of resentment, humiliation and anger. He acts exactly as workers have acted and by doing so drew the GI’s criticism in the past . . . But now the shoe is on the other foot. The GIs now feel they have a legitimate gripe against their employers.”

By January 1946, several Soldier’s Committees had sprung up, most notably in Manila, the committee there representing 139,000 soldiers in the Phillipines. This committee asked the UAW to present its demands to Congress, which it did. The soldier’ actions drew official AFL and CIO support. The Stalinists, however, still followed the most reactionary line. The December 23, 1945 Worker, the Communist Party’s Sunday paper, editorialized, “Americans wanted their boys home now, except those essential to occupation.” President Truman or General Eisenhower couldn’t have said it any better! The Stalinists still followed their narrow, reactionary line all the way from the days of the Stalinist Third International (which was disbanded in 1943), even two years after it was dead!

“America’s New War”

After February 1946 the activity of the soldiers died down, largely because the “brass hats” realized that their forces were in no mood to fight, and thus sped up demobilization. Unfortunately, there is not much information on how the soldiers behaved after this time, except that they fell back in line by mid-year 1946. Art Preis’ 1964 book, Labor’s Giant Step—Twenty Years of the CIO, which provided most of the information in this article, deals with the topic in only four pages. As he says on page 274, “The story of these Bring Us Home’ demonstrations awaits its historian. Their tremendous scope and effect have not been recounted in the official histories—for obvious reasons.” Preis’ book is an excellent history of the American industrial labor movement, especially the chapter “American Labor’s Greatest Upsurge.”

From the zenith of the strike struggles of 1945 and early 1946, the strike movement decreased but was still strong among the mine and railway workers. By 1950, the strike movement had been buried in the postwar boom, created by the opening of the world market to US imperialism as the markets of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Arab world were completely opened because of the destruction the war had done to the European imperialist countries. Capitalist industry entered its last boom, the conditions of which actually made capitalism seem progressive—a worker could get a stable job for life, a house, cars, and their children could get a complete education, what’s called “the American dream.” However, since the mid-70s “the American dream” has been just that—a dream. Since 1975, real wages have steadily fallen, whole industries have been decimated, and the standard of living, health care, and education is much lower than that of Western Europe and Japan. Also missing is the relative “peace” of 1950–75. Nearly everything that the American workers fought for in the 1930s and 1940s is gone, replaced with mass layoffs, privatization, and war.

Today Bush and his corporate advisers have plunged the world into another war. US workers will be drafted into uniform to fight and die for the rights of Exxon, Mobil, and Shell to tap the oil and gas fields of Central Asia, and then to pay $1.50/gallon for that same gas at home. Getting the workers to fight Osama bin Laden will not have as lasting an effect as fighting Adolph Hitler, since it is widely thought in different ways that the barbarity of September 11 itself was brought on by US foreign policy. The workers will soon see through the screen of war propaganda and understand the real interests behind “America’s New War.” The workers drafted into uniform will literally be on the front lines of this struggle, and the example of their great-grandfathers should shed light upon their militant traditions, which today’s soldiers will have to rediscover. And, after this “New War,” there will not be any boom or any return to the “American dream.” The way forward will have to be discovered by the American workers and soldiers. They will have to carry the example of their forbearers a few steps farther—they will have to overturn the corporate ruling committee called the Federal Government and replace it with a government of Soldiers’ and Workers’ committees with a conscious party of Marxists guiding it and at its head. The Russian workers and soldiers did that nearly a century ago, there isn’t any reason the American workers and soldiers cannot do so alongside the workers of the world.

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