World War II started (in Europe) 70 years ago today.
There are two sorts of people in the USA today. A tiny minority who are very interested in military history and know a lot about World War II, and a vast majority who can barely even tell you who was in it (“was that the one with Hitler?”), when it occurred (“the Seventies?”), or what it was about, or even who won (“Japan?”). American children whom I talk to are apparently taught two things and two things only about our participation in World War II: (1) The Japanese Americans were imprisoned, and that was racist and wrong, and (2) we dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and that was racist and wrong. Some know about the Holocaust. College age youth are taught that the war was an exercise in American imperialism, meant to spread expoitative capitalism across the world, and that it is a myth that the GIs went to Europe to liberate the conquered countries or to bring democracy and freedom. Even depictions that are not entirely negative, such as Saving Private Ryan, depict the war solely as a personal tragedy and pointless death and destruction, and not about anything, and certainly not about anything good or admirable. Fed exclusively on this diet for over a generation, we now have a population that sees the war in this way.
This is precisely what Pres. Reagan warned us about:
We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom–freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs [protection]. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important–why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.
Reagan was right. I have gone beyond being distressed about all this to being fatalistically resigned. With historical memory either non-existent or actively corrupted, those of us who care about these things will have to preserve the record as best we can.
At The Corner (updated here) they are asking people to list their favorite books on World War II. This is a good idea, and I solicit your suggestions in the comments. The Boyz readership always suggests something I have not heard of already. Please list two or three favorites, in the comments. I could spend all day doing this, but I will abide by my own rule, and limit myself to three.
The best one-volume history is Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. The book is long and dense but it covers everything and does a good job of showing how it all fit together. Weinberg’s field of expertise is the German archives before and during the war. He has a remarkably deep as well as broad knowledge of the war. When I am asked to recommend one book that covers the whole war, this is it.
An excellent short book on the American war effort is Kent R. Greenfield, American Strategy in World War II: A Reconsideration. This is a reliable source to understand American strategy, what it was, how it was chosen, and why it worked. The book started as a series of lectures, which is often a sign of a book that will be brief, clear and to the point. It is an older book, from 1963, but nothing in it appears to have been outdated by later scholarship. Greenfield was one of the official historians of the U.S. Army’s war effort, so he brings an extraordinary level of knowledge to this book.
The two prior books give the Olympian overview. There are many, many worthy war memoirs. One I like very much is So Few Got Through: Gordon Highlanders with the 51st Division From Normandy to the Baltic by Martin Lindsay. Lindsay was a battalion commander who saw his fellow officers and soldiers consumed in the campaign, driving from Normandy to Germany. We think of World War I as a furnace that consumed lives. The campaign in Northwestern Europe did the same, at a similar rate, but (1) it was much shorter, (2) it was a war of movement rather than static trench combat, and (3) it was unambiguously successful. So we remember it differently. Lindsay shows an army growing in skill and confidence against an increasingly desperate and overwhelmed foe, yet one that is being ground down by constant exposure to combat. Lindsay was a good writer, and he gives a plain and clear picture of his experiences.
(David Foster did a post about the beginning of World War II in 2007.)
UPDATE: Michael Barone weighed in, via email: “I agree wholeheartedly on Weinberg–the best single book on the war. How about John Lukacs’s Five Days in May, on how Churchill prevented Halifax from making peace with Hitler?” Mr. Barone goes on to say “By the way, I’ve met Professor Weinberg a couple of times. Very gracious, full of facts. He was born and raised in northern Germany, left in 1939 with his parents for Britain at about age 10. Later served in USArmy in postwar Germany. A great American story.”
We seem to be getting a consensus on the Weinberg book. I also agree that Five Days in London: May 1940 is an excellent — and moving — book.
UPDATE II: A good example of the contemporary academic attitude toward the American war effort in World War II, one of a limitless supply, can be found in a recent review of A.J. Liebling’s World War II Writings. The reviewer refers to “the rather hackneyed (and chauvinistically outdated) idea that freedom-loving Americans saved the world from authoritarian Prussian types in Germany” and assures us that “[t]he idea that freedom-loving Americans fought to rid the world of tyranny is as outdated as a Willy’s jeep … .” I am not making this stuff up. This is typical of what is presented by the people now teaching American college students. (BTW, A much better, more insightful and knowledgeable review of this (very good) book can be found on the Michigan War Studies Review book review page, here.)
UPDATE III: Zenpundit weighs in with some facts from the front, which are worth more than my hearsay impressions. Very much worth reading.