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Program 22: World War II/Total War

Donald L. Miller

Brinkley: World War II is thought of as the "good war."

Miller: World War II is such an enormous theater. I mean, you've got all the big figures.

Brinkley: One of the geniuses of Franklin Roosevelt is that ability to articulate what we're fighting for. He gave the four freedoms speech. We're fighting for freedom from fear, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want. All. Everywhere in the world.

Narrator: "World War II" on A Biography of America.


[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: On the morning of December 7th, l941, a Japanese air armada attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, knocking out half the U.S. Navy in a few hours. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt went before a joint session of Congress and got a declaration of war against Japan, a country in the grip of maniacal war lords.

Roosevelt: A date which will live in infamy.

Miller: Three days later, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy declared war on the United States. That week, the European war that had begun with the Nazi invasion of Poland became a world war. It was already a total war, a war waged against innocent women and children, as well as men in arms.

It would be America's first experience with this kind of warfare. In the Civil War, Union Generals Grant and Sherman had carried the fight to the homes and farms of the South, but civilians were rarely fired upon, except, as at Vicksburg, when trapped with armies in a siege situation. In World War II, civilians were deliberately attacked.

Japanese and Germans marked the way in l937: the Japanese with the Rape of Nanking, and the Germans, in the Spanish Civil War, with the bombing of Guernica, an atrocity captured on canvas with terrifying power by Pablo Picasso. In the ancient city of Nanking, Japanese soldiers shot, stabbed, beheaded, hung, castrated, and raped tens of thousands of non-resisting men, women and children, in what has been called a "Hidden Holocaust."

The world war that followed, two years later, was fought with vindictive fury by both sides. As Roosevelt assured the American people: "The militarists of Berlin and Tokyo started this war but the massed, angered forces of common humanity will finish it." And they did, annihilating from the air over fifty German and Japanese cities before dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August l945. In ending the war in this way, the United States began a new era in history, as well as in warfare.

Humankind's powers of reason and capacity for irrationality remained unchanged on the eve of World War II. What changed was the technology of destruction: ships and tanks and planes of prodigious power, a cascade of destructive force culminating in the atomic bomb.

World War II would be the most terrible war, maybe the most terrible catastrophe, in the history of humanity. Over 50 million people died, most of them civilians. Six million of them killed in a Holocaust that had no direct connection to the fighting. And over 400,000 American servicemen lost their lives as well.

World War II is so enormous in its scope and savagery, it's almost impossible to imagine, let alone encompass in a short lecture. What follows is less a lecture than a memory book, a series of story-telling snapshots which try to capture the war and what it meant to ordinary Americans who experienced it. This is about what happened to an aroused democracy, the most powerful on earth, when it was forced to wage a war it didn't desire, but chose to fight, without let-up, to the finish.

[picture of U.S. troops on D-Day]

It's also a story that touched me personally. I was born too late to experience the war. But I grew up in a working class neighborhood of a Pennsylvania town in which nearly every young man served in the war, and dozens of women worked in war industries. My mother worked at Jacobs Aircraft, which produced parts for the planes for the air arm my father served in. And my grandfather worked in a steel mill that forged armaments for General George Patton's Army. That army swept across Europe and into Germany, where my Uncle John, serving as a GI in Patton's blitzkrieg, was captured as a prisoner of war. Before that, he had fought on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Except for those like him who saw combat, Americans didn't directly experience the plague of war. We weren't invaded as other combatants were; nor were our great cities turned to rubble. America was the only country in the world to grow fatter, more prosperous during the war. Yet Americans at home did suffer. I'm not talking about the enforced rationing of butter, coffee, or gasoline. Minor inconveniences. I'm talking about the greatest sacrifice a family can make: the loss of a loved one. Engraved in my mind is the living room of our neighbors, the Adamses, turned for many years after the war into a shrine for the boy who never came back.

My father was President of The Catholic War Veterans Post that was named after Francis Adams. And it's there at the bar, over a number of years, that I coaxed and pulled stories of the war out of veterans who wanted to forget.

Then I starting reading the memoirs of men who had been in battle. One of these men is E.B. Sledge -- Sledgehammer to his old Marine Corps buddies. Historian Studs Terkel interviewed Sledge for his fabulous book, The Good War.

Sledge had this to say, "My parents taught me the value of history. During my third day overseas, I thought I should write all this down for my family. We were told diaries were forbidden because if we were killed or captured, any diary might give the Japanese information. So I kept little notes which I slipped into the pages of my Gideon's New Testament."

Later, Sledge transformed these slips of paper into the most searing account of war, "With the Old Breed at Peleleiu and Okinawa."

There was a lot of censorship in World War II, both of the letters of American servicemen and of the dispatches of war correspondents like the legendary Ernie Pyle. The military didn't want the folks at home to know how terrible the war was. And Pyle and his colleagues wanted to contribute to the war by bolstering home front morale, not by twisting the truth, but by not telling everything. Or as the playwright Arthur Miller says of Pyle, by telling "as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting."

If memory and history are to be used for a better future, not simply to recreate the past, these stories, I think, are instructive. One problem historians have in re-creating the past is that readers know how it will turn out. So events often seem inevitable. But they're not. An Allied victory was not preordained. A thousand things could have gone wrong. Consider just one -- Nazi scientists, instead of ours, develop the atomic bomb.

[picture of U.S. P.O.W.s]

In the spring of l942, in fact, it looked like the Allies might lose the war. Hitler was master of continental Europe and his armies were threatening Cairo and the Suez Canal. And Japan's empire dwarfed Hitler's. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overran the United States forces in the Philippines, forcing commander Douglas MacArthur to evacuate to the South Pacific, leaving his men in grisly prisoner of war camps. Then in a series of a lightning-like strikes, the Japanese gained control of almost one-seventh of the earth's surface, all of it in Asia and the Pacific.

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