Blogs > HNN > James Munves: Review of Army GI, Pacifist CO: The WWII Letters of Frank & Albert Dietrich, ed. by Scott Bennett (Fordham University Press)

Feb 18, 2007 8:56 pm

James Munves: Review of Army GI, Pacifist CO: The WWII Letters of Frank & Albert Dietrich, ed. by Scott Bennett (Fordham University Press)

James Munves served in the European Theater of Operations in WWII as an infantryman in the Third Army. He is the author of “A Short Illustrated History of the United States,” and “Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence” plus a novel, “Andes Rising.” His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker Magazine.

This book should interest anyone exploring American attitudes toward participation in the Second World War. The GI letters of Frank Dietrich describe the usual travels and travails of service in various parts of the U.S., followed by his faithful wife, as well as perceptive comments on the Philippines in 1945, after the Japanese withdrawal and preceding Hiroshima. Frank served in the Army Air Corps but his justifications for serving lack the interest of Albert Dietrich’s for not serving. Among other things, the letters of his conscientious objector brother Albert offer a first hand glimpse of the difficulties in achieving CO status and, once status was granted, his existence as a CO.

Born in 1914 into a middle-class Pittsburgh family, the identical twins arrived at different perspectives on the war, probably because Frank visited a pen pal in Nazi Germany in the 1930s where, among other things, he attended a speech by the vicious hater Julius Streicher. Frank saw WWII as a “good war,” whereas to Albert it was just another useless armed conflict. The brothers graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in social work and had barely embarked on their careers by the time of Pearl Harbor. Their English mother had inculcated in them a love of classical music and the “finer things of life” and their letters show the difficulties of nurturing those interests in army and CO camps. From February 1942 until April 1945, Frank served at various bases in the U.S., mostly as an instructor in radio repair. In May 1943, he married a young woman he met while serving in Gallup, New Mexico, and there followed the need to find places to live and eventual absentee parenthood. Although seldom able to see each other, the brothers maintained a lively correspondence with Frank, who provided a strong endorsement of his brother’s pacifist views in a letter to the Selective Service Appeals Board that may very well have decided matters in Albert’s favor.

Albert’s letter of 11 June 1942, written when his status remained uncertain and prison loomed, sums up his objection to serving in the armed forces: ”I know that no good whatsoever will come out of this war. It is mass murder of the very worst kind and it is unthinkable for me as an intelligent human being to participate in it . . .I am positive that my going to prison is a far greater humanitarian act than were I to go out to the Pacific somewhere and murder one or a dozen Japanese young men.”

Albert endured the disapproval of his family but also found support in surprising places. He was hardly immune to the irrational patriotism of wartime; at one point writing that he would volunteer as a parachute fire fighter to show he was not a coward. Frank, on he other hand, safely in uniform, and in a job basically remote from danger, never entertained such thoughts. His introduction to the horrors of war came in Luzon. “Now about Manila. Honestly, the devastation and destruction is positively staggering. I don’t think I saw a single downtown building intact except the Cathedral. In the residential districts, home after home is in shambles.” (Frank to his wife, Chris, May 1945.) Unlike many of his fellow GIs, Frank made friends with local Filipinos on their own terms, fishing in streams and accepting their hospitality.

It’s sad now to revisit the mindset of those who experienced FDR and his New Deal. Albert, who appears more hardheaded than his brother, wrote this in June 1940, when France was defeated. Listening to the Republican National Convention (which nominated Wendell Willkie), he wrote: “We are in for a reaction and it will come both from the Democrats and the Republicans. It will take a world leader to gather the world out of the chaos in which it spins.”

The book is dedicated: “For Frank, Christine, Albert and Mary – the Dietrich branch of the “greatest generation” who fought for freedom and democracy on the home front and overseas.” Tom Brokaw, a TV commentator invented the appellation “greatest generation.” I find it nauseating. The “greatest generation” put off their uniforms and did what every generation has done before them, leaving the world as wicked and uncaring as before.

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Scott H Bennett - 2/21/2007

I don’t agree with James Munves that the phrase “greatest generation” is “nauseating”; however, despite my use of the phrase in the dedication, I agree that the term is problematic. So I thank Mr. Munves for raising a provocative point and spurring me to elaborate. In this book, my argument does not focus on whether or not we should use “greatest generation”—most Americans do; rather, my point is that if we use the phrase, COs should be included. As an historian of pacifism, my use of the phrase was, in part, an attempt to find common language with an audience interested in WW2 and military history; in my experience, this audience often knows little about pacifism and conscientious objectors (CO), but is curious and open-minded about the subject. The following passage from the Introduction (pp. 45-46) conveys my intent:

“World War II GIs have been justly celebrated. According to Tom Brokaw, the citizen soldiers comprising “the greatest generation” withstood the Great Depression, won the “Good War,” and reformed postwar America. In the process, they preserved—and advanced—liberty, democracy, and progress at home and abroad. Less known and uncelebrated, 18,000 COs [conscientious objectors] refused military service during World War II. Instead, they underwent prison terms or, like Albert, performed alternative civilian work in CPS [Civilian Public Service]. Unlike some radical pacifists, Albert did not engage in nonviolent direct action to protest the shortcomings of CPS, conscription, or racial discrimination. But, in CPS, he did participate in the MCC’s [Mennonite Central Committee] foreign relief training program; he did volunteer for wartime and postwar overseas relief work with the MCC and UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration]; and he did oppose Jim Crow and advocate nonviolent action to advance civil rights. In addition, by risking prison to honor conscience, Albert honored his own peaceful convictions, demonstrated personal integrity, and strengthened the civil liberties and human rights tradition in America.
“No less than the citizen soldiers celebrated by Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose, COs fought for freedom, democracy, and social justice on the homefront and overseas during and following the Second World War. They too are part of “the greatest generation.” Unlike GIs, however, COs have been largely forgotten….
“Both Frank R. Dietrich and Albert G. Dietrich–one through military service and the other through conscientious objection—promoted American–indeed global–ideals during World War II.”

--Scott Bennett