World War II Was the Seminal Event of the 20th Century

Roundup: Talking About History

Scott Galupo, in the Wash Times (May 21, 2004):

... The World War II Memorial, sober and sunk low in a long frame of elms, rests between the two structures that anchor the Mall.The monument to America's first great warrior, George Washington, towers over it on one side. The statue of America's great uniter, Abraham Lincoln, looks on from the other.

In such company, the location and initial look of the new memorial to those who fought in World War II had its doubters. It would trample on ground consecrated by the civil rights movement, some said. Its design smacked of imperialist architecture, others said.

The controversy, settled in granite and bronze, came down to this: Was World War II — the lives lost, the victories gained — a hinge event of American history, on par with the founding and the Civil War? Or not?

Historians say it was: The war transformed America, and, in turn, America transformed the world.

"World War II was the seminal event of the 20th century," says Victor Davis Hanson, military historian and classicist at the University of California in Fresno and author of "Carnage and Culture," a study of the military pre-eminence of Western civilization. "Quite literally, Western civilization as we know it hung by a thread — and was saved by the efforts of Americans."

"The totality of it is what made it unique for the American experience," says Edward J. Drea, a historian of World War II who lives in Fairfax. "It affected everyone, of every class."

From December 7, 1941, to Aug. 6, 1945, America spent 400,000 lives beating back German dictator Adolf Hitler's march across Europe and Japanese Emperor Hirohito's advance in the South Pacific.

Sixteen million Americans served during the war, fully 10 percent of the population at the time. The movement of so many young men and so much materiel radically reshaped our society.

The country literally was in flux, its industrial capacity energized like never before, its agrarian roots fading further from view. The population migrated northward and, drawn by a humming new industry centered on construction of aircraft, to California.

Global war demanded a rapid acceleration in the technology of weaponry and medicine. Mr. Drea, who focuses on the South Pacific theater in books such as "MacArthur's Ultra: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan," notes that the war led to wider use of malaria suppressants such as quinine and the insecticide DDT, which helped stop typhus epidemics.

The United States devoted all its energies to the war, rationing meat, sugar and metals on the home front.

A shortage of shellac, used to manufacture phonograph records, stunted the recording of new music. Short supplies of rubber and gasoline — and trains filled with soldiers — knocked touring musicians off the road. Popular bandleader Glenn Miller sent his own musicians packing to form the Army Air Force Band and died in 1944 when a military flight disappeared over the English Channel.

Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio and movie star Jimmy Stewart joined the war effort at the height of their careers by serving in the Army and Army Air Corps, respectively, and Mr. Stewart became a decorated pilot.

Up to 40 percent of the movies Hollywood cranked out between 1941 and 1945 propagandized for the war. Hum-phrey Bogart squared off against the Nazis in 1943's "Action in the North Atlantic"; Cary Grant captained a submarine in "Destination Tokyo" the same year; and future president Ronald Reagan teamed with Errol Flynn in 1942's "Desperate Journey."

Women flocked to jobs in the men's absence. Teenagers too young to fight also took jobs, setting in motion a new youth culture that would flourish as veterans and their wives created waves of new children for the next 20 years.

After vanquishing European fascism and Japanese militarism, the postwar nation assumed the leading role in defending the world against the other great poison of the 20th century, the menace of Stalin and expansionist Soviet communism.

"The self-destruction of Europe created the conditions for the ascendancy of the U.S. in world affairs," Mr. Hanson says, "and, tragically but necessarily, demanded a new responsibility to expend blood and treasure — immediately after our greatest sacrifice — to prevent the Soviet Union from capitalizing on the ruin of Europe."


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