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A Whatcom Voice from the Past

October-November 2012

U. S. at War

A Whatcom Voice from the Past

by Bob Keller

Bob Keller is a retired history professor who has worked on local Greenways campaigns. He currently serves on the boards of Whatcom Land Trust and the Dudley Foundation. His opinions here in no manner reflect policies and beliefs of those organizations.

Even after eleven years in Afghanistan, one of the longest military conflicts in American history, neither presidential candidate has called for the general public to make any personal sacrifices in that effort. For those of us who lived through World War II, such a contrast is striking. This difference leaps out from a letter written by my friend and neighbor, Mel Florence. His 1943 message to President Roosevelt challenges our current drift and lack of engagement.

Mel Florence was born in Bellingham on April 14, 1913. He lived on the city’s southside his entire life, first working at a cannery along Chuckanut Drive followed by decades at Pacific American Fisheries (PAF). A graduate of Fairhaven High School, he educated himself far beyond that level through extensive reading driven by a passion to achieve economic justice for laborers and the common man. To his mind, an organization called Technocracy provided the appropriate vehicle for achieving such goals. Technocrats believed that after rewarding an inventor of any new labor-saving device, excess profits resulting from use of the invention should flow to promote society’s general welfare, not just enrich large corporations.

During World War II Mel Florence worked as shipping and receiving agent at the PAF warehouse in Old Fairhaven. A year into that war he mailed a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s worth quoting entirely:

February 9, 1943

Dear Mr. President:

I am not a very important person (except perhaps on election day). Maybe I am being presumptuous in writing to you; however I feel certain that you are interested in just what I and others like to think of rationing, high taxes, wage and price ceiling and last but not least the proposed legislation calling for the conscription of man power.

No, Mr. President, we common people are not opposed to these things. You have several sons in the armed services so you can understand what I mean when I say that there is absolutely nothing that we will not do if it will bring our boys home a few days sooner.

Our only complaint is that this program doesn’t go far enough. If we are to be conscripted to run a machine, we feel the machine should be conscripted also. If man power is to be conscripted then we want Uncle Sam to be our boss and we want him to sign our pay check. In short we want “TOTAL CONSCRIPTION” of MEN, MACHINES, MATERIAL and MONEY. Put us all on the same basis as the armed forces. Take the profits and the overtime pay out of this war and let us fight and produce for our country.

Very sincerely yours,

M. L. Florence

1807 Mill Avenue

The President and the Congress did not accept Mel Florence’s advice, but neither did they take a path which our nation follows today: waging wars without an immediate cost to the vast majority of American citizens. Unless you are enlisted in the military, or belong to a military family, the Afghan Occupation extracts no suffering, no price, no hardships, no daily inconveniences. As we read of death and destruction far away, we perhaps may become disturbed, yet we proceed to live and function as if nothing serious is happening. We learn of human atrocities in Pakistan or wounded vets returning to Walter Reed Hospital, then we continue blithely about our business.

In 2003, instead of calling for “rationing, high taxes, wage and price ceilings,” we launched an invasion of Iraq with tax cuts and President Bush asking us to consume more. Instead of establishing a military draft, we fight current wars by paying Blackwater mercenaries $500, $600, or even $1,000 per day. Instead of raising our own World War II “victory gardens,” knitting socks, saving lard to make explosives, and rationing gasoline, we wander through Wal-Mart and Haggen’s without a thought about sacrifice and suffering. During World War II the United States stopped manufacturing automobiles. In the past decade we haven’t even stopped making RVs. Rhetoric about “supporting our troops” has mainly meant cheering them on, not giving up anything in our everyday lives. Out of sight, out of mind. True support would ensure that the war’s physically and emotionally wounded receive the best possible medical care with more than generous financial compensation drawn from painfully higher taxes. Have you heard Romney or Obama discuss that?

Mel Florence admired the folksinger Pete Seeger and no doubt had heard Seeger’s song “Deliver the Goods” (1942) promoting American efforts against Nazi Germany:

It’s gonna take everybody

to win this war.

The butcher and the baker

and the clerk in the store.

The guys who sail the ships

and the guys who run the trains,

And the farmer raisin’ wheat

upon the Kansas plains.

The butcher, the baker, the tinker

and the tailor

Will all work behind the soldier

and the sailor.

We’re workin’ in the city,

we’re workin’ in the woods.

And we’ll all work together

to deliver the goods.

Pete Seeger’s and Mel Florence’s America has disappeared. Although I miss my wonderful next-door neighbor of over twenty years, perhaps it’s best that Mel is not here to observe the moral decline of his nation. He died in Bellingham on October 9th, 2005.

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