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H. Bruce Franklin is a retired literature professor and the author of numerous books of criticism. He is also a leftist and an anti-imperialist. He was a founding member of the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, an ROTC undergraduate and an officer in the United States Air Force. While in the air force, he was a navigator on planes under the command of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The primary task of the command was to conduct reconnaissance of the Soviet Union. This surveillance often involved violating Soviet air space and then denying such violations had occurred. Franklin was a navigator on planes designed to refuel bombers and other such aircraft during their missions. His time in the military and what he saw while under its command were crucial to his becoming an antiwar activist when he got out.
Franklin’s most recent book, Crash Course: From the Cold War to the Forever War, is part biography, part political analysis, and part history. The latter element is informed by Franklin’s personal biography and includes the also-mentioned analysis. While describing his early life as a true believer in the myth of US democracy and the nation’s overall goodness, Franklin details memories of events in his childhood that led him to believe this story. As a child growing up during World War Two, he followed the victories of US forces, cheering on their march towards victory. In his telling, he recalls the emotions he felt when US bombers dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the emotions were not of anguish but of celebration. Following his sharing of childhood emotions, Franklin then takes on the various justifications for those bombings, challenging and ultimately destroying each one. Woven into his recollections of his youth are memories of the heroic role played by Soviet forces in the defeat of the Nazi armies. Once again putting on his historian’s hat, he then proceeds to describe the recasting of the Soviets as an enemy almost immediately after World War Two ended.
As far as Franklin was concerned at the time, the Soviets had become the enemy. Like many other US citizens, he bled red, white and blue, never questioning the foreign policy of Washington and always willing to do what was asked of him to serve the Empire. So, he joined ROTC, became an Air Force officer, and did as he was told. It wasn’t until some time in the mid 1950s that Franklin and his wife—along with millions of other US residents—began to wonder about the truth of the American myths. Crucial to their questioning was a growing awareness of the legal racial apartheid then accepted by almost all white-skinned US residents. The civil rights movement was expanding its reach and influence, causing many otherwise liberal white folks to examine their role in maintaining that apartheid. Some, like Franklin and his wife, began to realize that the discrepancy between the professed faith of equality and freedom for all and the blatant repression of African-Americans was not only immoral, it was unsustainable. History tells us this realization along with the activism of Black Americans would cause the wall of white supremacy to crack. Today’s news also tells us that wall is not yet completely destroyed.
After his stint with the military was over, Franklin went on to more studies, ultimately ending up as a faculty member at Stanford University. It was during his time at Stanford that Franklin and his partner in politics and life, Jane Franklin, moved politically from antiwar progressives to revolutionary Marxists. Their activism and Bruce’s professorial career took them to Europe and the East Coast. Their speeches, writings and protests drew the attention of US and local law enforcement agencies involved in the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. After a particularly intense period of harassment that included the filing of false charges against Franklin and the ultimate loss of his position at Stanford, the Franklins moved to New Jersey when Bruce was offered a position at Rutgers University’s Newark campus.
There is so much to this book. Franklin’s insights into the mentality of the US during the Cold War based on his work re-fueling SAC bombers and his belief (at the time) in the policies of Washington provide the histories one has read regarding the period with a personal perspective. That perspective does more to explain the nature of propaganda in the nuclear age than anything else I can currently recall. His description of the political journey he and his partner took is specific to a time and place, but is also one taken by many others before and since. As noted earlier in this review, Crash Course is both a memoir and a history. Franklin’s mastery of the craft of writing has created a book where each element enhances the essential nature of the other. The story he tells here describes not only an epoch in the history of a nation and an individual, but also the consciousness that created that history.