The history of the United States is filled with contradictions and ironies. I am reminded of them often. The latest reminder comes from a novel, Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, also author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Mercury Pictures, a minor Hollywood film studio, is struggling to survive in the summer 1941. Art Feldman, its head, is making a movie about the propaganda successes of fascism, but censors want to gut the work because the film, still in the days of America First isolationism, is encouraging the country to get involved in the European war. Riots ensue when it is shown on December 6, but, of course, the picture is a hit the next day. Not much subaudition is necessary to grasp the irony–seeing the need to thwart Hitler was deemed un-American before the Pearl Harbor bombs, and Marra reminds us that the epithet “a premature antifascist” would be uttered without apparent irony for decades after the war’s conclusion. (And, of course, the term antifascist has not disappeared as an epithet.)

          Mercury Pictures also presents a sample of the fraught world of Chinese Americans during that time. Henry Lu, a native Los Angeleno, is an actor who can only get movie work playing Japanese villains, and, even though Japan had brutally invaded China in the 1930s, Lu, like others of Chinese descent in America, was in constant danger from “real” Americans who might mistake him for a Japanese national once we entered the war. (I remember a newsreel I saw as a kid that was shot shortly after Pearl Harbor. An Asian man had pinned to his shirt a sign that said, “I am Chinese and a loyal American.” It made me feel sad and reminded me of a different newsreel from Germany where people stood being mocked and abused with placards hanging from their necks reading, “I am a dirty Jew.”)

          Marra does mention the irony of the United States rounding up citizens to put them in places that had more than a whiff of concentration camps, and that many other Americans benefited from the internments by taking the well-tended farms and other lands of the Japanese Americans. But long before the removals of the Japanese Americans, many American states made no distinction between the Chinese and Japanese in forbidding Asian non-citizens from owning land. While many may know that the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese Americans, two decades before Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld Washington state’s Alien Land Law, which prohibited Asians from owning property. Only after World War II, perhaps as a result of fighting the Nazis but perhaps also because our Cold War enemy struck propaganda gold in pointing out our racial hypocrisies, did property restrictions start to fade, although I have read that the Washington Alien Land Law was in effect until 1966.

          Mercury Pictures Presents shows America getting into its own propaganda business after it entered the war, but at least at the beginning, the war mongers had their standards and proclaimed that only real combat footage would be used. They quickly learned that the results often seemed to lack verisimilitude and soon began to weave together combat films with reenactments to produce a result that seemed real for the audiences. And, of course, the flag raising at Iwo Jima came to mind.

          Through the character of Maria Lagana, Marra presents another irony of American history. Lagana was born in Rome where her father was a leftist lawyer opposing the emerging fascist government. He is convicted of subversive crimes and sentenced to confino. He is sent to a remote town where he is not imprisoned behind bars but is confined to a small geographic space. He can move around this limited area, but he cannot leave it, much like a dog in a yard with an invisible fence. While he is confined, Maria and her mother escape from Italy and settle in Los Angeles where Maria eventually becomes an important figure in Mercury Pictures. Although by the time America enters the war Maria has spent most of her life in California and is a loyal American, she is classified as an enemy alien. I had not known that one of the consequences of such a designation was that Maria could not travel beyond five miles from her residence. She, who had fled Mussolini, was confined just as her father was for opposing Mussolini.

          While Lagana may have been a fictional character, she represents a major irony of the Hollywood studios of the era. While the films they produced helped define America and Americanism to America and the world, many of the major studio figures were refugees from the tyrannies of Europe who would become “enemy aliens” when we entered the war. One of them in the novel was a Berlin-born woman who built miniatures for the movies. She is sent to the Utah desert to help with a project I had not heard of before but was real. [While often I do not know whether to trust the history depicted in a work of historical fiction, I trust Marra in Mercury Pictures Presents. Besides the usual acknowledgements, Marra also presents a bibliography of three or four dozen history books, as well as other material, he used to form his narrative.] On the Dugway Proving Grounds, the Army built a simulation of a Berlin neighborhood as accurately as it could in order to test out the best way to start a firestorm in the German city. According to us, we were fighting a moral war against evil, but we sometimes used morally questionable methods to fight the war, and that included firebombing civilians. The proposed bombing of Berlin had additional ironies; the plan was to decimate a working-class neighborhood because the buildings were closer together there than in middle- and upper-class sections of the city even though the targeted neighborhood had been one of leftists who had opposed the rise of Hitler. I don’t think we ever did firebomb the Prussian capital, but we did firebomb Dresden, as Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse Five. And before the atomic bombs, we had firebombed Tokyo, with its highly flammable structures, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians. (Malcom Gladwell in The Bomber Mafia presents some of the World War II debates about the morality of different bombing strategies.)

(continued November 30)

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