David Brooks: High-Five Nation

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On Sunday evenings, my local NPR station airs old radio programs. A few weeks ago it broadcast the episode of the show “Command Performance” that aired the day World War II ended. “Command Performance” was a variety show that went out to the troops around the world.

On V-J Day, Frank Sinatra appeared, along with Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, Bette Davis, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity. And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.

“All anybody can do is thank God it’s over,” Bing Crosby, the show’s host, said. “Today our deep down feeling is one of humility,” he added.

Burgess Meredith came out to read a passage from Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent. Pyle had been killed just a few months before, but he had written an article anticipating what a victory would mean:

“We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud.”

This subdued sentiment seems to have been widespread during that season of triumph. On the day the Nazi regime fell, Hal Boyle of The Associated Press reported from the front lines, “The victory over Germany finds the average American soldier curiously unexcited. There is little exuberance, little enthusiasm and almost none of the whoop-it-up spirit with which hundreds of thousands of men looked forward to this event a year ago.”

The Dallas Morning News editorialized, “President Truman calls upon us to treat the event as a solemn occasion. Its momentousness and its gravity are past human comprehension.”

When you glimpse back on those days you see a people — even the rich and famous celebrities — who were overawed by the scope of the events around them. The war produced such monumental effects, and such rivers of blood, that the individual ego seemed petty in comparison. The problems of one or two little people, as the movie line had it, didn’t amount to a hill of beans...

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