Whenever any debate on social media about the ethics of “punching Nazis” comes up, I often think of a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s classic film about three American veterans making a difficult transition to civilian life after the Second World War. Fred Derry, a working class man who received a battlefield commission in France and spent the war as an officer, is back working at his old low-status job as a “soda jerk” (sort of the 1940s version of a Starbucks barrista). A middle-aged man in a suit comes in, orders a sandwich and sits down. Derry’s friend Homer Parrish, who lost his hands after his ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, sits down next to him. While Derry is competently, but unenthusiastically attending to them both, the middle-aged man, having noticed Fred’s disfigured arms, takes the opportunity to strike up a conversation about the war. We quickly realize that he’s an “America Firster,” a Nazi and an antisemite masquerading as a common sense critic of American militarism. After Derry notices that his friend is visibly upset, he orders the America Firster to leave, but Homer Parrish isn’t finished. He follows the man to the counter and rips a small American flag pin off the lapel of his jacket as if to say “you don’t have the right to wear that flag you traitor.” There’s a shoving match, and Fred, an athletic man who survived the war without a scratch, leaps over the counter and clocks the America Firster in the jaw, sending him sprawling out onto a glass counter, which crashes beneath his weight.
When I saw this film as a teenager, my sympathies were actually with the America Firster. He was leaving the drug store, after all. Homer did get into his space, and Fred did wildly overreact. Mostly I was reading the scene through the lens of the Vietnam War. After growing up listening to my father and his friends denounce hippies and pacifists, I was ready to take the America Firster at his word, that he was simply a common sense critic of American militarism. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the American consensus against Nazism seemed so rock solid that it was hard to imagine anything else. If it was one we we could all agree about it’s that Nazis deserved to be punched. But I should have known better. In 1985, Pat Buchanan had already persuaded Ronald Reagan to give a speech at the German cemetery at Bitburg, where he declared men who served in the Waffen SS were “victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Anticommunism, even American anticommunism, has always had a strong fascist and antisemitic quality to it. Indeed, not only did the United States get fully into the war in Western Europe at the absurdly late date of 1944, there was really never any guarantee that it would join the fight against Hitler at all. When the America Firster in The Best Years of Our Lives denounces “those radicals in Washington” he’s very specifically referring to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. When he talks about the “reds and the limies who manipulated us into fighting on the wrong side” he never comes out and says “the Jews” but anybody in 1946 would have known what he was talking about.
Now, in 2017, we have a white supremacist President, Nazis marching in the streets of the great university town of Charlottesville, and even people on the left “debating” about whether or not we should punch Nazis. A lot of it has to do with the conservatism Ronald Reagan mainstreamed in the 1980s. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom fought the Nazis as conservative powers. Franklin Roosevelt, of course, was famously liberal. Even Churchill did not govern as a conservative, but, instead, as the leader of a coalition that was dominated by the Labor Party, who quickly threw him out after the war was over, and installed a government that passed a comprehensive system of public healthcare. That liberal, anti-fascist consensus is gone, and I am actually old enough to see it as a radical transformation of American society. We’ve gone from a world where even a popular president like Ronald Reagan was quickly denounced for going to Bitburg to a world where even people like the great radical journalist Chris Hedges draw up bogus moral equivalencies between anti-fascists and fascists. The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film because it captures how fragile that consensus was all along. If Derry overreacts to the America Firster trying to bait his friend Homer Parrish into an argument, then it’s because Derry, once a glamorous air force officer, but now confronted with the brutality of the American class system, is perhaps wondering himself if was all worth the trouble. Did Homer Parrish leave both his hands at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for nothing? Did the America Firster have a point after all?
When it came time to act, however, Fred Derry didn’t hesitate. Derry was no radical leftist, but when he had to chose between keeping his job or standing up for his friend and punching a Nazi, he didn’t have to think twice about it. He chose punching the Nazi.