“They Died for Nothing”: America and the Myth of World War II

Our public memory of the Second World War we have inherited in the United States is a myth designed to propagate a political ideology.

The eightieth anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy during World War II has come and passed, and this will be the last commemoration for many veterans of that operation. Commentary on the yearly events held in France evinced a noticeably nostalgic quality; America’s victory in World War II and its memory might be one of the last bits of cultural heritage most Americans still share, albeit tenuously.

Reading this commentary made me think of something my father told me last year, after my grandfather passed away. My grandfather served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and used to regale my brother and me with war stories when we were children. Five years earlier, when they were discussing the subject of the soldiers who fought in World War II, my grandfather told my father that “they died for nothing.” The Myth of a Guilty N... Nock, Albert Jay Buy New $2.99 (as of 06:47 UTC - Details)

Do his words shock you? I admit to feeling shocked when my father told me this, but I shouldn’t have. Other veterans have voiced similar sentiments publicly. My grandfather, like my parents, had grown alarmed at the cultural direction of the country. Neither he nor they could comprehend something like “transgenderism.” If my grandfather thought for one moment that fighting in World War II meant creating a world where the president of the United States would accuse those Americans who voted for his opponents of being “fascists,” where such things as “gay marriage” and “pride month” exist, where pro-life activists are sent to prison for praying at abortion clinics, he never would have served in the first place.

Public memory is a complicated thing; views of the present can often affect our view of the past, and World War II is no exception in that regard. For most people, World War II is about as far back as history goes in their imaginations, the fons et origo of the country as they understand it. Most Americans view World War II as the “good war” because the Allies defeated a regime bent on world domination. They view the men who fought it as “the Greatest Generation,” whose “selflessness and acceptance of responsibility” the country holds in “reverential awe,” as one eulogy for D-Day put it. This is the World War II celebrated in so many Hollywood films, among them masterpieces. It is no wonder that this is the version of World War II most people know.

But the actual war is one thing and our memory is another. The Western Allies’ D-Day heroics notwithstanding, it was the Red Army that defeated the Nazis, not the Americans. (I cannot recall how often people have said to me “we’d all be speaking German right now if it wasn’t for the U.S. Army,” never having the courage to correct them.) And despite the moral wide gulf that separated the United States from Axis totalitarianism, the U.S. and its allies committed horrible acts that tend to get airbrushed out of the story: the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the use of the atom bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, not to mention the internment of ethnic Japanese citizens on the home front. All these violated principles which the Western Allies went to war to defend.

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” and propaganda shapes the memory of any conflict, even the “good war.” During WWII, there was a marked difference, for example, in how the ordinary soldier saw the conflict and how our government leaders understood it. The historian John Morton Blum noted years ago that when soldiers were interviewed they indicated that they often had neither heard of nor cared about official war aims. Mostly their wish was that of all soldiers in war time: to get back home. But as one official put it, among the rank and file there was “little idealism. Most regard the war as a job to be done and there is not much willingness to discuss what we are fighting for.”

Not so with Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers. They knew exactly what the war was about. They were mostly Progressives who saw the war as an ideological struggle and a referendum on liberal democracy. The rise of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes like the Nazis in the 1930s led many to question the viability of Western democracy. For FDR, the war pitted his “New Deal” liberalism, which he claimed would make the country a place where “no one would be left out,” versus Nazism and their racist, genocidal policies. As FDR put it, “freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain and keep those rights.” For them, the war was not merely a “job to be done” but an existential battle between good and evil. Fight the Good Fight: ... Marsh, Cory M. Buy New $9.97 (as of 10:07 UTC - Details)

What of the rest of the country? In 1940, most Americans—including the leadership of the Republican party—were still averse to foreign wars. But that changed when a Democrat-turned-Republican named Wendell Willkie won the Republican nomination. Willkie was a “Woodrow Wilson liberal” and ran on a platform practically indistinct from FDR. And Roosevelt trounced him in the election. Willkie is a forgotten figure today, but his run had far-reaching consequences because Willkie helped sell the internationalist vision of Roosevelt (whom he admired) even after his defeat.

In 1942, Willkie went on a world tour extolling a Wilsonian vision of international affairs to our allies, including the Soviets. A year later, he published a book based on his travels called One World, in which he urged readers to embrace a vision of humanity united by the impulse to “live and grow invigorated by independence and freedom.” The book, which proved controversial (critics said he was soft on communism, and Willkie espoused what we would now call globalism), sold nearly a million copies in the first month alone. It helped educated opinion shed its aversion to foreign wars and made liberalism—at least in foreign affairs—the dominant political philosophy of American elites.

This was a crucial turning point because the Allied victory cemented the idea that civilization, liberal democracy, and liberalism were all the same thing in the minds of liberals. As historian Alan Brinkley noted, it transformed “the nature of American liberalism” and led liberals to imagine “new possibilities for progress and social justice” while alerting them to “the importance of avoiding rigid and immutable norms and institutions.” Conversely, it “pushed fear of totalitarianism…to the center of liberal thought.” This meant liberals were now on the hunt for “illiberal” elements not only abroad but at home.

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