Memorial a lasting tribute to heroes who saved the world and changed it
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.”
Other reverberations were no less significant, from the invention of modern Japan to the reconstruction of Europe, unprecedented acts of statecraft both.
A broad American middle class arose at home, elevated by the GI Bill of Rights and linked, eventually, by a new interstate highway system and the commercial airline industry.
American GIs helped saved the world, and those who survived came home still young men, in their early 20s. They were just getting started.
In the 59 postwar years during which the Mall had no World War II memorial, modern America itself was their legacy.
The good war
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said he “slept the sleep of the saved” after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A reluctant America, with all its potential industrial might and manpower, finally would tip the balance in the Allies’ favor.
Yet Arnold Krammer, a history professor at Texas A&M University, says it was no sure thing. After World War I, America, isolationist in outlook, dramatically scaled back its standing army and produced little in the way of new weaponry.
“We were unprepared,” Mr. Krammer says. “The American military had 183,000 men and 488 machine guns in 1940.”
Mr. Drea says, “It wasn’t inevitable; no one knew what would happen.”
The number of American conscripts would bloom to 8 million, culled from what Mr. Krammer calls, in a slightly irreverent tweaking of NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s tribute book, “the bored generation.”
“They were coming out of the Great Depression,” Mr. Krammer says. “Here was an opportunity for excitement. It was a chance for most boys to see what the rest of the world looked like. We were, after all, quite a rural country, no matter how many people lived in big cities.”
“We were still boys; that’s the crazy thing,” says M.D. Elevitch, 79, a native of Duluth, Minn., who fought in the 94th Division under Gen. George S. Patton. A volume of his correspondence, “Dog Tags Yapping: The WWII Letters of a Combat GI,” was published last month.
“I was totally innocent, inhibited,” Mr. Elevitch recalls.
Still, he adds, in words that might epitomize the mood of the country, “We knew right from the beginning what we needed to do.”
Peter Kuznick, a historian of the 20th century at American University, actively opposed the Vietnam War and remains a fierce critic of nuclear weapons. World War II, he says, is nonetheless unimpeachable.
“If there’s ever been a war in history in which one can identify good guys and bad guys, it’s World War II,” Mr. Kuznick says.
Mr. Drea adds: “There was never a direct [foreign] threat to the survival of the republic before. At Pearl Harbor, there sure seemed to be one.”
Japan’s surprise attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor mobilized a “sleeping giant,” in Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s prophetic phrase.
“It felt to people at the time that this was a great war,” Mr. Kuznick says. “It had to be won, and they were willing to sacrifice.”
‘A giant step’
The approximately 400,000 U.S. troops killed in World War II are second only to the 620,000 of the Civil War, in which, of course, there was no foreign enemy.
Mr. Elevitch was wounded by mortar fragments, his lungs taking in blood, and he underwent an emergency operation in a tent on a German battlefield. Like many other veterans, he did not speak of his experiences for decades. He broke his silence with a short story, “The Finger,” published in 1989 and inspired by the sight of a disembodied digit.
Reticent and scarred by battle, the soldiers came home feeling purposeful, at the least with a hopeful drive to “go on with our lives,” Mr. Elevitch says. “We had a sense of confidence if we survived.”
“In some communities,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in a 1942 “fireside chat” heard on radio, “employers dislike to employ women. In others they are reluctant to hire Negroes. … We can no longer afford to indulge such prejudices and practices.”
Practically and morally, the war forced a re-examination of the treatment of blacks in America.
Actor Ossie Davis, 86, who served as a surgical technician in the Army Medical Corps in Liberia, remembers segregated accommodations at the Army hospital there. Black servicemen protested, and the arrangements eventually changed.
“The minute we came back, there was a feeling in the country that racism was a horrible disease and we had to move fast to get rid of it,” says Mr. Davis, who will emcee the National Memorial Day Concert May 30 on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
Roosevelt in 1941 had issued Executive Order 8802, a significant forerunner of the Civil Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry and in government jobs.
“We took a giant step toward civil rights,” Mr. Krammer says.
Two years after the war ended, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, changing the face of the country’s most popular sport. A year later, President Truman ended segregation in the military and the civil service with another executive order.
Women go to work
The war also drew women into the work force as a practical necessity.
Historian David M. Kennedy, in his book “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” notes that “three-quarters of all women of working age were ‘at home’ as the war began.”
By war’s end, about 19 million were in the work force, nearly 1 million of them here in Washington.
Filmmaker Leslie Sewell’s “Government Girls,” showing May 30 at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, interviews several of those women, who worked in jobs from clerking to code breaking.
“They changed Washington a lot, and they changed the whole idea of women’s equality in work,” Ms. Sewell says. “It also opened the door for black women. All of a sudden, they were able to become secretaries and administrative assistants and on up the ladder.”
Though such women were planting the seeds for permanent changes, they weren’t aware of it then; their focus was on winning the war. When it ended in 1945, many left the work force.
“They say, ‘The war was everything, and we were doing our part to help the guys who were fighting overseas,’ ” Ms. Sewell says.
“It seems so strange to people who didn’t live through it, who can’t appreciate the enormity of the effort,” Mr. Drea says of America’s determination to see World War II through to victory.
Americans, by and large, were united in purpose and passion. The nation won great victories in Europe and the South Pacific. The war generation’s reward was prosperity: college degrees paid for by the federal government; higher salaries; new homes in the suburbs outfitted with modern appliances.
Events didn’t stop churning, however.
Mr. Kennedy writes of the year 1948: “The Russians had just exploded their own atomic bomb, and the Communists had recently taken power in China. Somehow the good war had not settled things to the degree that Roosevelt had promised.”
Today, World War II seems distant to, and perhaps unappreciated by, the children and grandchildren of the war generation.
Mr. Hanson, the military historian, worries about how the war is taught in schools: with laserlike focus on the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the internment of Japanese in the United States, to the neglect of climactic battles.
“Very little actual military history is being taught,” he says, “and, thus, most of our youth know only the social or cultural consequences of the war but almost nothing about the war itself.
“A very sad development, given the amazing sacrifices and skill shown by an entire generation of Americans.”
Even after the battles at the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945), where 19,000 U.S. troops died in the Ardennes forest of the German-Belgian border, and at the island of Okinawa (April-June 1945), where 13,000 died fighting the Japanese — even after these staggering losses, which came at a time when the country was being told the war was almost over, the American public, already tested by a long Depression, didn’t falter.
Has the nation lost the energy — the singleness of purpose, the resolve, the willingness to sacrifice — that marked the World War II era?
“None of us knows,” Mr. Hanson says. “We are in year three of the so-called war on terror, so I suppose we shall soon find out.”