Lawrence S. Wittner: Review of "The United States and the Second World War," edited by G. Kurt Piehler and Sidney Pash (Fordham, 2010)





Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (Tennessee).

Wars are frequently glamourized in American popular thought, but none more than World War II. This “Good War,” fought by “The Greatest Generation,” has much to commend it to Americans. It provided unusually villainous enemies, a regenerated U.S. economy, and the satisfaction of total victory on the battlefield. It was even accompanied by some remarkably progressive public policies -- taxes on excess corporate profits, the bolstering of workers’ rights to collective bargaining, executive action against racial and religious discrimination, and the encouragement of women’s entry into the paid workforce. Of course, there were some less appealing aspects of World War II as well -- not only the Nazi concentration camps that sent millions to their doom, but the slaughter of more than 60 million people (including over 400,000 U.S. soldiers), the internment of some 110,000 residents of the United States (mostly U.S. citizens) whose only “crime” was their Japanese ancestry, and the targeting of civilian populations for aerial bombardment, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the beginning of the postwar nuclear arms race. Overall, however, Americans have come away with a rather positive impression of this most destructive war in human history.

Historians, whose business it is to provide the truth about the past, tend to present a more nuanced picture of the Second World War. Although their practice of historical objectivity opens them up at times to denunciations from self-professed “patriots,” especially the loud-mouthed political frothers on television and in politics who wrap themselves in the flag, it is both more accurate and, ultimately, a lot more interesting.

A case in point is The United States and the Second World War, a collection of eleven scholarly articles on key aspects of the war, written by historians and edited by Professors G. Kurt Piehler (Florida State University) and Sidney Pash (Fayetteville State University). Well-argued and heavily-researched, these historical studies do, as the book’s subtitle promises, present us with “new perspectives” on a conflict that continues to be well worth studying.

J. Garry Clifford and Robert H. Ferrell highlight President Franklin Roosevelt’s remarkable caution and procrastination when it came to confronting the issue of convoying merchant ships across the Atlantic in 1941. By contrast, scrutinizing the emerging Pacific War of the 1930s, Pash emphasizes that U.S. containment policy toward Japan was rather consistent and successful -- at least until 1941, when U.S. officials adopted a considerably harder line, leading the Japanese government to conclude that it had no alternative to war. For his part, Justin Hart partially rehabilitates the reputation and significance of the oft-derided Office of War Information, while Ann Pfau reminds us of a deep-seated anxiety brought on by the war: the fear, on the home front and abroad, that American women would not remain sexually faithful to their boyfriends and husbands in the armed forces.

Some of the points made in these articles will surprise many Americans. Nicholas Molnar, for example, provides powerful evidence that the allegedly war-winning Sherman tank was actually a death trap for its hapless crews, at least when pitted against the technologically superior German Panther tank. Similarly, Barbara Brooks Tomlin reveals that, despite the vast potential power of naval gunfire support at Normandy, it was not very effective, especially at Omaha Beach, where U.S. invasion forces were cut down en masse by the well-entrenched German defenders. Probably the least known of this book’s many revelations is the important part that American pacifists played in the war. As Scott Bennett shows, many thousands of America’s wartime conscientious objectors played heroic roles not only overseas as combat medics, but at home fighting forest fires, working as aides in mental hospitals, voluntarily undergoing dangerous medical experiments to help develop new vaccines, and challenging racial segregation.

Other articles, though less dramatic, tell important, often neglected stories. Piehler notes the beginning of attempts to record the history of war as related by the soldiers themselves. Mark Snell recounts the role of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Normandy invasion. Looking at the wartime recommendations of nongovernmental foreign policy experts from Allied nations, Yutaka Sasaki underscores the sharp differences among them over postwar policy toward Japan. Finally, Rieko Asai explores the changing content of post-1945 Hiroshima Day ceremonies.

This rich anthology was compiled to honor John Chambers, the distinguished Rutgers University historian, and all of the contributors were either students or colleagues of his. A prolific scholar, Chambers is highly-regarded for his writing on both war and peace issues. His many works include To Raise an Army (for which he received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History) and The Oxford Companion to American Military History. In addition, he is a former president of the Conference on Peace Research in History (now the Peace History Society), an affiliate of the American Historical Association.

Like Chambers and the writers featured in this book, good historians have much to tell us about war and peace. If we pay more attention to their writings and less to the political rant featured in the mass media, we can learn a great deal.


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