We Are Still Living the Legacy of World War IIHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, historical memory, Marshall Plan, World War 2, Homefront
For our “Beyond the World War II We Know,” documenting lesser-known stories from the war, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, we asked the actor Tom Hanks to write about the complicated narrative of the conflict — and its aftermath.
In the spring of 1939 — “Before the War,” as folks of that generation would say — the New York World’s Fair began a gloriously naïve celebration of “Mankind’s Progress” and visions of America’s future. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the fair in a ceremony that was, no lie, broadcast on television. In fact, there were early versions of TVs on display at the fair, along with state-of-the-art railroad trains, airplanes, ocean liners, Crosley radios, a giant typewriter and the new Ford sedans fairgoers could drive themselves on the “Road of Tomorrow” — an upbeat adieu! to the Great Depression, to what was the first act of many American lives.
If you are a Boomer, born in, say, 1956, the adults you grew up around all framed their lives in a three-act structure, told like a biopic, narrated by an All-Knowing Chorus who bids us to, please, clear our minds of all we have seen and learned since 1945. To comprehend the full experience of World War II we must forget all we know.
In Act I (Before the War) most families did without — without enough food, without an extra pair of shoes, without going to a dentist. A father’s job, if he had one, might allow a life within modest means when modest means was an accomplishment. Act I was characterized by a quest for progress: huge dams were built; federal programs improved lives; mass communication was as simple as listening to a radio; and the art and technology of motion pictures provided a cheap but wonderful escape. At the same time, a child with a common cold could die of pneumonia in a few weeks.
Before the war, Americans faced one-thing-after-another-obstacles as the country was crippled by widespread poverty, overt racism and institutionalized discrimination. And yet, the 1939 fair proved that we the people remained bent on forming a more perfect union — and a better world.
Act II ended 75 years ago in a defining moment of unconditional surrender. Most of the victors are gone now, all those sailors and soldiers, airmen and nurses. Younger eyewitnesses to the war are passing on. Those of us alive now acknowledge, sadly, that Act III — After the War — which began before the ink was dry on the Articles of Surrender — will never end, not in any equal measure of satisfaction. Disinformation is now a weapon and a currency. Tyrants reign around the world. Wars are waged in stalemates. Seventy-five years ago, it seemed that a grand contract had been agreed upon by all the nations of the world, that our common efforts had created a common purpose, born of the horrible lessons learned in World War II.
The Times’s World War II project is, in part, about both Act II, the culmination of it, anyway, and Act III, the war’s endlessly complicated aftermath. There are too many actors competing for the role of that all-knowing Chorus. The cast of characters is far too large, for it includes everyone reading these words.
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