On the sunny Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, Messman Doris Miller had served breakfast aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was collecting laundry when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes hit the ship.
In the deadly confusion, Miller reported to an officer, who told him to help move the ship’s mortally wounded captain off the bridge. Unable to move him far, Miller sheltered the captain behind the ship’s conning tower. Then another officer ordered Miller to pass ammunition to him as he started up one of the two abandoned anti-aircraft guns in front of the conning tower. Miller had not been trained to use the guns because, as a Black man in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned to serve the white officers. But while the officer was distracted, Miller began to fire one of the guns. He fired it until he ran out of ammunition. Then he helped to move injured sailors to safety before he and the other survivors abandoned the West Virginia, which sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
That night, America declared war on Japan. Japan declared war on America the next day, and four days later, on December 11, 1941, Italy and Germany both declared war on America. “The powers of the steel pact, Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, ever closely linked, participate from today on the side of heroic Japan against the United States of America,” Italian leader Benito Mussolini said. “We shall win.” Of course they would. Mussolini and Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, believed the mongrel Americans had been corrupted by Jews and “Negroes,” and could never conquer their own organized military machine.
The steel pact, as Mussolini called it, was the vanguard of his new political ideology. That ideology was called fascism, and he and Hitler thought it would destroy democracy once and for all.
Mussolini had been a socialist as a young man and had grown terribly frustrated at how hard it was to organize people. No matter how hard socialists tried, they seemed unable to convince ordinary people that they must rise up and take over the country’s means of production.
The efficiency of World War I inspired Mussolini. He gave up on socialism and developed a new political theory that rejected the equality that defined democracy. He came to believe that a few leaders must take a nation toward progress by directing the actions of the rest. These men must organize the people as they had been organized during wartime, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition and directing the economy so that businessmen and politicians worked together. And, logically, that select group of leaders would elevate a single man, who would become an all-powerful dictator. To weld their followers into an efficient machine, they demonized opponents into an "other" that their followers could hate.
Italy adopted fascism, and Mussolini inspired others, notably Germany's Hitler. Those leaders came to believe that their system was the ideology of the future, and they set out to destroy the messy, inefficient democracy that stood in their way.
America fought World War II to defend democracy from fascism. And while fascism preserved hierarchies in society, democracy called on all men as equals. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, more than 1.2 million were African American men and women, 500,000 were Latinos, and more than 550,000 Jews were part of the military. Among the many ethnic groups who fought, Native Americans served at a higher percentage than any other ethnic group—more than a third of able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 50 joined the service—and among those 25,000 soldiers were the men who developed the famous “Code Talk,” based in tribal languages, that codebreakers never cracked.
The American president at the time, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hammered home that the war was about the survival of democracy. Fascists insisted that they were moving their country forward fast and efficiently—claiming the trains ran on time, for example, although in reality they didn’t— but FDR constantly noted that the people in Italy and Germany were begging for food and shelter from the soldiers of democratic countries.
Ultimately, the struggle between fascism and democracy was the question of equality. Were all men really created equal as the Declaration of Independence said, or were some born to lead the rest, whom they held subservient to their will?
Democracy, FDR reminded Americans again and again, was the best possible government. Thanks to armies made up of men and women from all races and ethnicities—a mongrel population—the Allies won the war against fascism, and it seemed that democracy would dominate the world forever.
But as the impulse of WWII pushed Americans toward a more just and inclusive society after it, those determined not to share power warned their supporters that including people of color and women as equals in society would threaten their own liberty. Those reactionary leaders rode that fear into control of our government, and gradually they chipped away the laws that protected equality. Now, once again, democracy is under attack by those who believe some people are better than others.
The once-grand Republican Party has been captured by the right wing. It has lined up behind former president Donald Trump and his cronies, its true believers refusing to accept that a majority of Americans turned Trump out of office in 2020 and replaced him with a Democrat, President Joe Biden. They insist that it is not possible for a Democrat to have been legitimately elected and blame “voter fraud” for the result, although repeated recounts and inspections have proved the vote counts were accurate.
Some Republican lawmakers evidently believe the Big Lie that Trump won in 2020; others are going along with it out of opportunism or fear, but they are not speaking out to counter the lies poisoning our democracy. Even after January 6, when insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol and threatened the lives of our top lawmakers, 147 Republicans voted to challenge the election results. Now, 68% of Republicans think that Democrats “stole” the 2020 election.
Now, Republican lawmakers are silent as Republican-dominated legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws to make it harder for Black and Brown Americans, as well as others expected to back Democrats, to vote. Some of those states have taken the power to certify official votes away from nonpartisan officials and given it to Republicans. Had these laws been in place in 2020, Trump would almost certainly still be in office.
As we learn more about the events of January 6, it is clear that the former president and his inner circle corrupted the Department of Justice and possibly other parts of the government, launching a coup that came perilously close to success. And, as Barton Gellman details this week in The Atlantic, they are arranging the mechanics of our democracy to make sure that next time, they won’t fail. They will put in place an autocracy in which a powerful leader and his chosen loyalists make the rules under which the rest of us must live.
Will we permit the destruction of American democracy on our watch?
When America came under attack before, people like Doris Miller refused to let that happen. For all that American democracy still discriminated against him, it gave him room to stand up for the concept of human equality—and he laid down his life for it. Promoted to cook after the Navy sent him on a publicity tour, Miller was assigned to a new ship, the U.S.S. Liscome Bay, which was struck by a Japanese torpedo on November 24, 1943. It sank within minutes, taking two thirds of the crew, including Miller, with it.
I hear a lot these days about how American democracy is doomed and the reactionaries will win. Maybe. But the beauty of our system is that it gives us people like Doris Miller.
Even better, it makes us people like Doris Miller.
Written by Heather Cox Richardson, and cross-posted from her Substack newsletter. Go there to sign up for her daily posts.
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