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Jason Lefkowitz

The sad part is that even though the war in Europe dominates America's collective memory of WW2, what we remember isn't even really the war in Europe that was actually fought.

Ask an American sometime who did more to defeat the Germans in World War II: us or the Russians. Obviously the Russians did. The scale of their sacrifice still boggles the mind. Something like one out of every two or three people killed in World War II was Russian. The defeat of the Nazi empire started at Stalingrad.

But the narrative that has taken root in the American mind is that it started on D-Day -- that we essentially beat the Germans on our own, with a little assistance from some Canadians and Englishmen we brought along for comic relief. The Russians figure in our narrative hardly at all.

Partly this is due to nationalism -- people always feel the loss of a single countryman more keenly than they feel the loss of a million foreigners -- and partly it's due to our concerted Cold War effort to purge our memories of our wartime alliance. But it's a real blind spot, and one that I would argue has real world effects even today -- it's no coincidence that the worst we-can-rid-the-world-of-evil-all-by-ourselves impulses of our modern era came just as a cultural revival of our memories of the war in Europe was cresting. The same year that Saving Private Ryan was released, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act; HBO was airing Band of Brothers as George Bush planned his response to the 9/11 attacks. It's not surprising that a nation convinced that it had once remade the world on its own would feel that it could do it again.

El Jefe

Great essay (and a good response from Jason: we write the Aussies, the polyglot British imperial forces in India/Burma, and Chinese and Korean guerillas of all stripes out of the Pacific story as well.) I'll leave them alone in some ways, I guess, with a really impressionistic (probably rambling!) reply.

It's this: it's fascinating to me that Lance is as right as he is, given how many people the Pacific war *did* effect. *All* of our WWII-vet presidents were Pacific veterans. Jack and the boat; Nixon and the poker match; Lyndon and his ginned-up medals riding sidecar on Pacific bombing runs; Ford who, bless his clumsy socks, got the bejeezus blasted out of his ship by kamikazes several times and was our first really hardened combat vet in the White House since Truman, and before that Teddy Roosevelt; Bush the Elder and his torpedo bomber. Carter got out of Annapolis just too late for the festivities but as a tin can driver (submariner) he would've been bound for the Pacific where most of our subs made their living. It affected families too: I had one grandfather at Pearl for the duration as a radio operator while my paternal grandfather, an engineer, no sooner had a rare beer on V-E Day (he was a fusty old lower-middle-class Southern Baptist bigot, a charming grandfather and good with kids, but those other things too in a run of trumps) than he got to spend an extra year in the service rebuilding infrastructure in the Philippines. My wife's granddad, a three-war Air Force officer, flew Lightings against the Zeroes and Bettys in the Aleutians and New Guinea before he was shipped back to run a flight school in Texas and met her grandmother, recently widowed from the love of her life by bombing runs over Japan. My childhood best friend's grandfather (this was the Seventies) was killed in the Pacific aboard those very brave and dangerous ships that make such unsatisfying games for little warrior boys unless you're in the bathtub.

In popular culture, too: two of the most experienced combat vets in the movies not named Jimmy Stewart (who got the marquee job bombing Nazis), Lee Marvin and Eddie Albert, were Pacific men, a marine and a Coast Guard landing-craft pilot decorated for going back multiple times to pull wounded off the murderous fiasco of the Tarawa beachhead, both made iconic war movies -- about the European theater. (And then you've got James Garner, a twice-wounded infantryman from forgotten Korea, making his WWII bones with "Americanization of Emily" and "THirty-Six Hours" where he does no less than save D-Day. Europe again.) Rod Serling, a fightingest Unitarian liberal if ever there was, who brought parable back to post Playhouse-90 TV, was a paratrooper in the Philippines where he was badly wounded, and wrote one of his best (and most controversial) Twilight Zones about the need to move beyond that drive to wipe out the Other that both sides exhibited with gusto in the Pacific. (Not just in veiled terms, either -- with a Japanese and an American war vet thrown into one of his twilit scenarios.) Shoot, Don Adams had filming interrupted for "Get Smart" from time to time by the malaria he picked up in the same regimental combat team as Serling.

All this and at the same time Lance is quite right. It was also a brutal, practical conflict -- in that amoral way of the business of war where you make the other side bleed faster, hurt worse, grieve more hopelessly, just 'cause then you will win -- in which both sides convinced themselves of the inferiority of the other. My father still remembers that what he considered only really Christian thing about his Southern Baptist upbringing was his Sunday school teacher, a small, fit, tidy salesman who'd been the Browning Automatic Rifleman with his marine squad all the way from Pelelieu to Okinawa. The first person dad ever heard talk about how brutal both sides were willing to be to each other, and how much it was necessary to find a way to admit that, and try to reconcile out of that admission rather than sweeping it aside. For a Southern war vet the old boy wasn't much for Vietnam, either. Wonder why.


I don't agree with the premise. My father was in the Army in Europe during WW II, so I obviously have a more direct connection with that theater, but in my own mind, both theaters are very much present. I think most people, say 20 years younger than me (whose fathers were probably in Vietnam rather than Europe or the Pacific), don't really have much of an idea of either theater. I once worked with a reporter not much younger than me who didn't know which countries were on which side in WW II. I think that's more characteristic of the general awareness of WW II than anything about where the war was fought.

I suspect that very few people realize that when the war ended in Europe, many of the American troops in Europe were expected to ship out to the Pacific in short order. My father said that's what he thought he would end up doing. I think the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender came as a real relief to him and a whole hell of a lot of veterans of the European theater.

As for what the US did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what's the real difference between that and what we did to Tokyo or Dresden? Is it worse to kill so many with one bomb rather than many?

My father's generation is almost gone, and it won't be all that long before I'm gone, too. In not too many decades, there won't be anyone alive who knew anyone who fought in WW II. And so then it will become a history lesson, like WW I, the Civil War and every other war the US has fought.


Another way to look at what has been forgotten, is that we started fighting in the European Theater in 42 by invading North Africa, then onto Sicily and Italy. You think the horrendous battles in the Pacific are lost to history, how many people know we went into NA and were fighting in Italy until 45.

FWIW my dad and two uncles were WW2 vets who fought in North Africa, Italy and France/Germany, so i do feel a strong connection to that time. When i watch Band of Brother's i can't help but see my dad and uncles.There is nifty WW2 museum in NOLA, that i visited last year. They had a jeep and 37 mm anti tank gun on display, neither of which are dramatic or impressive in themselves ,although the Jeep is a deserved icon. However i know my dad spent the war in one of those jeep, earned a medal for driving like mad while under fire in one of those jeeps and learned how to fire that gun. I must have looked at those things for a half an hour and took pictures from every freaking angle. That was powerful stuff.


"And on television there were two popular series set in World War II."

My first reaction was "Hogan's Heroes" (a Bing Crosby Production!) followed by "Rat Patrol." I was at the young end of the demographics at the time.


Great post -- thanks. Here in Canada, we fought in both theatres (and why do we use the term "theatres" for where a war is being fought?) and the word "cannon-fodder" seems to apply to both -- one of the mostly-forgotten scandals of Canadian history is how our 2,000 soldiers were left to "defend" Hong Kong in 1941, because Canadian leaders were trying to impress the British -- as a result 500 died either in the battle or later as POWs; while in Europe in 1942, it was Canadian soldiers who fought and died at Dieppe.
The smartest thing Jean Chretien ever did for us was NOT to go to Iraq...


Good thought provoking post. I did want to add that a phenomenal book that links to many of these points is Cyrptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. One of the best books ever and makes the point that holocausts occurred in the Pacific theater as well. I agree wholeheartedly that the aftermath of the Pacific theater is much harder to deal with. I was unexpectedly brought to tears a couple years ago when my daughter, then 8, came to me with a book call 1000 paper cranes. It had something to do with a young girl trying to get a memorial made at Hiroshima. Of course my daughter wanted to know what happened there, and apparently the school hadn't liked to just come out and say it either. Having to explain about your country dropping an atom bomb and killing hundreds of thousands in one go to an innocent girl with Japanese friends was devestating.


I don't want to harp, but I still don't see how what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is any worse than what happened to other cities like Tokyo and Dresden. According to most estimates, one firebombing raid on Tokyo caused more immediate deaths than either of the atomic bombs, and the death toll in Dresden from the one infamous raid was about half the death toll at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The fact is that the conventional allied bombing campaign killed many, many more civilians than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. It's more useful to discuss the justification for the conventional bombing campaign than the justification for using the atomic bombs. In my view, the use of the A-bomb was more easily justified than the use of firebombs. In fact, if the A-bombs had not been used, I think it's reasonable to assume that there would have been a very long and thorough firebombing campaign of virtually all Japanese urban centers prior to an allied invasion. Any way you look at it, WW II upped the ante for war.


I meant to give an estimate for the Hiroshima death toll: between 90,000 and 170,000 within four months. At Nagasaki, the toll was between 88,000 and 100,000 within four months. Compare this to about 100,000 immediate (immediately only - not including later deaths as the H-N toll does) for one of many firebombing raids over Tokyo.

Ken Muldrew

The cold war; four decades of fear, mistrust, paranoia, and half the world perched on an insane knife-edge with mutual annihilation waiting in the abyss, was not waged over the fear of incendiary bombing campaigns. Nor did Condi Rice invoke the spectre of a big gasoline fire as the big lie intended to trick Americans into invading Iraq. It was the mushroom cloud, and only the mushroom cloud, that struck terror into the hearts of Americans.

So what was done at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn't really much by the standards of WWII, as Mark points out (and therefore not an outrageous evil committed by the US against the Japanese), but it was an assault of staggering proportions on our humanity, committed by humans. Inevitable, of course, given who we are. But most of us wish we were a little better, so it's still nice to imagine ourselves as a species that didn't have to do things like that.

Jason Lefkowitz

"I don't want to harp, but I still don't see how what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is any worse than what happened to other cities like Tokyo and Dresden."

They were worse not in terms of the casualties the atomic bombs inflicted -- which, as you accurately note, were less than those inflicted by the major firebombing raids -- as in the sense of the future they pointed to.

It took hundreds of airplanes and thousands of bombs to do what we did to Tokyo and Dresden. Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated that the same havoc could now be wreaked by one plane and one bomb -- which meant that those same hundreds of planes it previously took to raze one city could now raze hundreds.

In other words, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first time human beings had to seriously contend with the idea that they now had the resources at hand to effectively end life on earth, if they chose to do so.

Anne D.

I agree with Stingraylady, this is a thought provoking post. El Jefe and Jason Leftkowitz's comments were also the same. I, like chachabowl, thought of Hogan's Heroes first when Lance mentioned TV shows. Jason has a succinct perspective in the difference between the Dresden and Hiroshima bombings.


Jason, I think you assume too much knowledge and foresight on the part of the developers and users of the first atomic bombs. You are judging them ("the first time human beings had to seriously contend with the idea that they now had the resources at hand to effectively end life on earth, if they chose to do so") on the basis of present day capabilities and knowledge, not on the basis of what they knew and what they could do.

I think the most important thing to consider about the H-N bombings is not that they portended the potential end of the world, but that once we used them we have never used them again. These infant bombs were the only existing atomic bombs, so we couldn't use any more right away. Once we humans made thousands of them and the means to deliver them efficiently anywhere in the world, we have never used them again, not once in more than a half century. When has something like that ever happened in human history? A new, powerful weapon not used by choice? Never before or since.

But have humans continued to use the same types of weapons used to bomb Tokyo, Dresden, Berlin, and London, not to mention plenty of Polish, Russian and Chinese cities? Of course. And we have continued to develop new ways to kill and destroy, and we continue to use every single one of them. All except the nuclear weapons. Maybe the actual use of these weapons and the demonstration of their power was necessary to keep us from using them again. And if it saved thousands of both Allied and Japanese lives that would have been lost in an invasion, then so much the better.

El Jefe

Two comments:


I spent much of the last decade writing and editing big chunks of textbooks; worked my way backwards from college-level towards middle school. (I save rambling for my own prose ;) I'd like to port your last two grafs into each of them as the clearest affirmative argument for "why the Bomb changed everything" I've read, period. And that includes some publishers you've very much heard of, some of whom are even very good at what they do.

El Jefe

I'm going to end up turning around and picking apart details, yours is the clearest and most reasonable basic argument for both using the bomb and for its ironic legacy so far. The most plausible argument for the morally hideous decision to drop the bombs was their consequence at the highest levels of Japanese command. And working the logic on that just makes it hard to get up in the morning. In a concentrated way, it broke the political power of the growing fundamentalist death cult in the militarized Japanese state. (The one-word answer to "is there such a thing as fundamentalist animism?" is "Kamikaze.") Those guys looked at the (leaving radiation effects out, which you really can't do, but still) measurably more murderous fire-bombings and said "bring it on," ready to die in flame and glory for Amersatsu's chosen islands or prove they were worthy of divine intervention. They were way down the path German philosophers call "the flight forward," doubling down on crazy because they're determined not to have been wrong about earlier choices and beliefs. (Not so different from trying to bomb a concentrated, homogeneous, ancient island culture with a tribal outlook on the larger world into submission, but we'll skip that. And by tribe I don't mean primitive, I mean "Us vs. All Them.") Nagasaki cracked that hold. Perhaps the only other thing that would have, and the other viable strategy to my mind, was blockading the islands while the Allies rolled up Japanese presence in China and SE Asia. But driving civilians to the edge of cannibalism and poisoning them with radiation for a generation doesn't go down well either way. We get to be guilty come what may.
The trouble is that then, since it worked, we start to presume we must have been right and, in being right, we must somehow have been good. Were we on the better side in that war? Yes, almost in spite of ourselves, and sometimes we even did good things like back liberation movements across Asia (until some of them became inconveniently communist.) But we did things that require genuine -- divine -- forgiveness, things in no way right even by their consequence. What makes that even more fun to digest is the other side was every bit as vile as the decisions we made, and our choices just made them crack first. Reality sucks sometimes. Well, often.
(Also, while I suspect the "we've done worse" argument held with the policy-makers, most of the scientists over about twenty-five were scared ****less of what they were uncorking. They were old enough to have lurched from stable old ether theory into the crazyland of quantum, so they weren't sure at all just what would come out of that split before it happened.)

The broader thing I wanted to go at was the decision never to use the bomb again. That really depended on two things. Thing One was people, quite specific people who in a break with my dislike for great-man history really had huge consequences by their choices. First Eisenhower, who at least twice told the certifiably wackadoodle Dulles brothers what to do with the "demonstration bombings" they wanted at Dien Bien Phu and in the Straits of Taiwan. Second a collection -- the elder Kennedy boys, Kruschev, and Anatoly Dobynin -- who between them headed off war over Cuba, where other personnel (Nixon and Brezhnev, I'm looking at your early-'60s selves) probably would have pissing-contested their way into a general war ended with the Button. And later on, once his goes-to-China acumen had faded into angry paranoia, a cabal of Kissinger, Schlesinger (the SecDef) and Haig agreed to stall or ignore any directives from Nixon about nuclear gamesmanship with Moscow or dropping the Bomb on North Vietnam. Add in the Soviet colonel who refused to turn his key at a bogus U.S. launch report in '78 plus a few others and we get the rosy retrospect of no further wartime explosions of nuclear weapons. So, yes, over time strong pressures and saner heads evolved the notion that "just" using the Bomb was madness, but that was very contingent and accidents damned near tripped it up.

Thing Two, what made it madness, was MAD, and Mutually Assured Destruction relied on a very specific weapon: the intercontinental ballistic missile. A Fiery Peace in the Cold War is a great read. And in its argument quite right. The U.S. Air Force in particular, led by its godfather Curtis LeMay wanted The Bomb to stay a bomb, dropped from planes. This would let you *really* bomb somebody into the Stone Age at your discretion, and make his pet Air Force (hived from the Army with pressure from himself and political allies who believed in the Strategic Bombing Surveys' most optimistic results) the dominant arm of the military. But then you might just use them like "regular" weapons, and your enemy might build enough high-quality fighters with the new anti-aircraft missiles to think he could survive your bombing strike and win a nuclear war with retaliation. The ICBM, on the other hand, would always get through, was hard to kill in its hardened silos or hidden submarines (yes, those are SLBMs before someone nitpicks), and launched too fast for you to think about stopping. Stalemate saved the world, and for much of the first fifteen years of the nuclear age it wasn't the preferred policy option.

Where are we now? Well, we spent the last decade acting on that great line from "The Peacemaker": "I'm not worried about the man who wants a dozen bombs; I'm terrified of the man who only wants one." Trouble with that is, while we were off chasing the one, a whole bunch of people have watched and decided having half a dozen bombs is a great way to keep the hyperpower U.S.'s nose out of your business. On a broader scale, nukes are what have kept the post-1945 world multipolar. The superpowers had their balance of terror, China made its superpower bones with the Bomb backed by vast population and resources, Britain and France traded empire for nukes, and Israel pursued the "Sampson option." India's followed suit, and I firmly expect Brazil, who have disavowed nukes up till now, will be floating a nuclear-tipped sub or two (the dreadnoughts of the age) inside twenty years because they have the second-largest population in the Americas by a long chalk, lots of resources, and a healthier economy than ours. You also have countries who figure "we have five bombs, which doesn't endanger the world, but will let us turn Hated Neighbor X into glass and glowing embers," not to mention existing powers who plan to respond to "the man who only wants one" with three or four warheads over the bow of their state sponsor. Time, multipolarity, and perhaps even distance from Nagasaki, are making the nuclear balance less stable not more.

Ralph H.

Wherever did you get the idea that PT-109 was in the Blackett Strait so that the crew could drink? In _Reckless Youth_, Nigel Hamilton's excellent account of the young JFK's rise to prominence, you can read a solid account of Kennedy's six-month tour in the Solomon Islands, where he served with competence and courage. The operation that resulted in the loss of the PT-109 was ill-conceived but JFK appeared to have done about as well as he could and was certainly the victim of bad luck.


Ralph, it's just something I've always "known." I thought JFK and his crew were relaxing after that mission. I'm not sure where I picked it up. Certainly not from reading PT-109 when I was a kid. I'm thinking it may be from Gary Willis' The Kennedy Imprisonment. But it's been a very long time since I've read it or any JFK biography. I took the paragraph out though. Thanks for setting the record straight.

Jason Lefkowitz

El Jefe: Feel free! I'm honored :-D

Jason Lefkowitz
Jason, I think you assume too much knowledge and foresight on the part of the developers and users of the first atomic bombs.

"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that one way or another." -- J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965 NBC News interview


Yeah, but that was Oppenheimer. He had a flair for the flamboyant. But seriously, some of the scientists there had some fear that the detonation would ignite the nitrogen in the atmosphere and destroy the Earth then and there. I think they didn't have a good grasp of chemistry, but, sure, there was some recognition of the profundity of what they were doing. There was also a tremendous feeling of relief because of the long, hard road they had just traveled, without even knowing that the bomb would actually work. But I doubt they had any idea of the sheer magnitude of the nuclear arsenals or the quick, long reach of ICBMs to come.


Back to the post, I think popular culture had oriented itself more towards the European war during the conflict itself, due not only to American's natural cultural orientation towards Europe and the roots of immigration but that the build-up to war in Europe was much more in the consciousness of the public over a course of 5 years or so, plus two years of actual war before our entry accompanied by a great extended public debate about our role. America Firsters, Wilke, Lindbergh, Ford, the slow tension of watching a malignant central power very publicly expanding its holdings bite by bite. Also, It must have felt the obvious replaying of a script from 20 years previously, with many of the same locations and many big names like Patton and George Marshall having made names for themselves in WWI.

Other than those connected to the US project in the Philippines and some headlines about Nanking, I don't the the average American had much reason to think about strategy being played out in the Pacific prior to war, and I don't think many Americans realized the likelihood of war once a martial Japan was blocked of oil and rubber; most were genuinely surprised to find themselves at war with Japan. Not so with Germany.

By the time the 70s came round when I was a kid (the grandson of a Battle of the Bulge combat medic), I think the Pacific Theatre was referenced more often in popular culture, like Baa Baa Black Sheep and Tora! Tora! Tora! . Those of us who built model airplanes were as up on the Pacific war as European war, not least because of Zeros, Wildcats, Hellcats, Corsairs, and Douglass Dive Bombers.

But the alien nature of ground war in the Pacific would never have gone away. The physical distances, suicidal charges, kamikazes, Bataan Death March, pow beheadings and starvation, the death to real estate ratio, and the all but race war aspect of combat all serve to keep this war one from another world. When I was a kid the Book Of The Month Club selection "Goodbye, Darkeness, " William Manchester's memoir/history of revisiting the Pacific war in his older years came to the house, I devoured it. It was the first honest account of war I had seen. The unglorious feeling of killing a man for the first time, the fate of bodies and smell of death, the youthful fire of marines versus the hauntings of the same people as older men, and the alien nature of that war.

Interestingly, I think more good literature and memoirs came out of the Pacific war than the European war. Examples include novels The Naked and The Dead, Empire of the Sun, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line; and memoirs With The Old Breed, A Helmet For A Pillow (both sources for HBO's series), Goodbye Darkness, and God Isn't Here. And of course John Ford learned his film craft in the Pacific.


I am, in fact, currently preparing a lecture on the post-atomic-bomb developments, and I have to second El Jefe's point that not using the atomic bomb again was far from assured. Yes, there was a massive upsurge in political activism by atomic scientists to prevent a world-wide catastrophe, but their efforts were fairly short-lived, and didn't do much practically to change policy, though they did succeed in scaring the general public.

All you have to do is see the continued interest in developing and testing more advanced nuclear weaponry to raise questions about how reluctant people were to use such things after the first two. This was also an era that, at least before radioactivity and fallout became appreciated for the long-term dangers they are, speculated on the possibility of using small-scale nukes in combat situations and promoted the idea of the "peaceful atom" - notably harnessing atomic explosions for things like terra-forming. The atomic age was a mixture of fear, exhilaration and astonishing ignorance, all manipulated by the media and various political actors for their own agendas; it was not a moment of sudden enlightenment and subsequent thoughtful restraint.

(If you're interested, the source book I'm pulling from is Paul Boyer's By the Bomb's Early Light - fascinating reading.)


Great post and thread. Thanks.


The Typepad profile ID's aren't working the way they're supposed to. Got a good comment from someone whose ID is all garbled. Here's the comment:

One consideration I don't see mentioned is regional area. In the Intermountain west a large number of men joined the Marine Corp. The Navy was a second choice with the Army being a distant third it seemed. As a consequence of this people seemed much more in touch with the War in the Pacific. That's where their family members were fighting. Of thirteen uncles, eleven were Marines and two were Navy. I grew up knowing where Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and especially, Iwo were. Europe was the place that distant and unknown. There were also relocation camps such as Minidoka that kept Japanese and Japan in more general awareness.

If this is yours, please drop me a note and I'll put in proper attribution.

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