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Peace Offensive

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WW Déjà Vu
The contemporary resonance of ‘Human Smoke.’

A few of the anecdotes recounted in Human Smoke (the publication of which happened to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq) may feel uncomfortably familiar to modern readers.

The Congresswoman Who Spoke Her Mind:
“Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, voted against declaring war on Germany. It was April 6, 1917 ...“‘I want to stand by my country,’ Rankin said. ‘But I cannot vote for war.’ … ‘I felt,’ she said later, ‘that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it.’”

Mission Accomplished:
“Churchill told General Wavell to mount a general offensive in Iraq. General Wavell contested the order—there weren’t enough troops, he said, and there were other countries to consider …Churchill countermanded him, whereupon Wavell sent a warning … ‘The political repercussions will be incalculable.’” Churchill told him to stop worrying and “‘break into Baghdad, even with quite small forces,’” to install a friendly government. When the attack went badly, Churchill’s under-secretary lamented: “‘Are we really going to be beaten by Iraquis [sic]?!’ ”

Smoking Gun:
“Hitler often claimed, said Roosevelt, that he had no designs on the Americas. But Roosevelt had evidence to the contrary. ‘I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government,’ he said … ‘This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself.’ … A reporter asked to see the secret German map. Roosevelt said he couldn’t show it, for fear of compromising his source. A reporter asked where the map was. Roosevelt said it was in some basket on his desk. The map did not, in fact, show Hitler’s plan to partition South America and conquer the Western Hemisphere. It showed routes in South America flown by American airplanes.… It was a British forgery.”

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker.
Simon & Schuster. 566 pages. $30.


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