Narrative: the Crusade

Last week I urged you all to challenge the “accepted narrative” of World War II, to come up with things you used to believe about the war that no longer hold water.

I received some great answers! Some of you used to think the western Allies won the war all by themselves and tended to downplay the massive contributions of the Soviet Union. Others used to believe that strategic bombing was a fairly low-cost and easy way of bringing Germany to its knees. Still others now question the notion that the veterans who returned after 1945 slid back into their civilian lives smoothly and easily and had little trouble readjusting. And some of you used to think that most Frenchmen fought in the Resistance.

Oh, well.

Today, informed students of the war would question each and every one of these once-accepted “truths.” The point is not to laugh at how naïve we once were, or to enjoy a cheap laugh at the expense of the French, but merely to point out that the “narrative” about a given event has a way of hardening early on, and can be very difficult to break.

It is easy to see how it happens. With regards to the “Missing Soviet” narrative, for example, the 1950s saw the Cold War and U.S. anti-communism in full flower, and few people were in much of a mood to credit Stalin with helping to defeat Hitler, or to recall the in-convenient truth that just a few short years ago Washington and Moscow had been on the same side.

Since you were all so forthcoming with your confessions, let me give one of my own, another part of the traditional narrative that I once swallowed whole, but no longer believe. It is the notion of World War II as “the great crusade.” General Eisenhower enshrined the idea in the title to his memoirs (Crusade in Europe), and by and large it’s still the way we perceive the war.

Calling it a “crusade” sets a high bar. A crusade is, after all, a consecrated undertaking. The warrior embarks on the adventure not for power or personal aggrandizement, but rather because it is God’s will. He willingly risks life and limb for a higher cause; indeed, he follows Christ on the “way of the cross,” the literal meaning of the term.

Certainly, no sane person will deny that beating Hitler was the classic definition of A Good Thing. But if U.S. participation in the war was a “crusade” against evil, we certainly took our time getting involved. World War II lasted for seven campaigning seasons from 1939 to 1945, inclusive, and American forces missed the first three. Indeed, Germany’s best chance at victory had probably come and gone before U.S. troops even joined the fighting. When we finally got into World War II, it wasn’t by choice, which would seem to be one prerequisite for a “crusade,” but because we got bombed (by the Japanese) and had war declared upon us (by the Germans). And once we did get involved, military necessity impelled us to do a lot of very unpleasant things: indiscriminate use of firepower, massive aerial bombing of densely populated urban areas, and—in the most truly horrific expression of war’s destructive power—even a couple of atomic bombs.

I’m not trying to second-guess strategic decisions that were made under pressure a long time ago or to try our forebears by our supposedly more “enlightened” modern standards. I know why we dropped the atom bomb; I explain it to my students all the time. It’s just that the longer I study World War II the more I realize how horrible it was, and I’m uncomfortable dignifying anything that horrible as a “crusade.”

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27 Responses

  1. Phil

    All seem to forget that Russia and Germany started WW2 when THEY BOTH invaded Poland, I do agree that we took our time, but the American people did not want to be involved in yet another European war. However we were already in a shooting war with some loss of American lives….
    My question would be why we spent 4 years fighting Fascism; Imperialism and Nazism and then turn around and hand 1/2 the world to Communism.

    • Woody Tanaka

      Who said we handed anyone anything or that it was ours to hand?? The Communists were going to be in Eastern Europe whether we liked it or not, and, once August ’45 came around without Japanese capitulation, they were going to be in East Asia, well. Not really much the US could have done about it (politically or militarily.)

      And we were fighitng Fascism and Nazism, for sure, but Imperialism?? No. We were fine with Imperialism (in India, the Philipeans, Indo-China, e.g.) It was only Imperialism by Asians that we seemed to have a problem with.

  2. Ralph Ramirez

    Yes, WWII may not have been a crusade in the strictest terms, but “what we think is what we believe”, and that is why most Americans view and will continue to view WWII as a great crusade.
    I have read the actual communiques and have researched the thinking about U.S. carpet bombing of Germany and Japan and how ineffective it was against Germany and Japan, but in contect, the Atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of allied and Japanese lives. 80,000 was the estimate for the number for American casualties that did not happen, in just the first invasion force and estimates of over a million Japanese would have died as a result of invasion of their home country. So yes, the atomic bombs were inhumane on the one hand but a lifesaver on both sides for it’s use. The war ended more quickly and both sides were saved more body bags.

    • Woody Tanaka

      Hasegawa, I think, makes a good case for the bombs not having the “lifesaving” effect you propose, but being, rather, a unique method that simply repeated the existed destruction of Tokyo, and not a reason to capitulate.

  3. Ethan S. Rafuse

    Talk about myths that need to be corrected!. . . .We did NOT “hand” 1/2 the world to Communism. First, it was not “half the world”. Second, and more importantly, it was not ours to “hand”. The Red Army and Soviets earned what they got with their blood. Indeed, we actually got a hell of a good deal at the much-maligned Yalta Conference. The Soviets did all the bleeding for Berlin (and the vast majority of it in the war in Europe as a whole) and then had to hand us half the city and continent.

    One reason it is important to take on the myths of the Second World War is so we can accurately understand what came afterward. You cannot truly understand the course and outcome of the Cold War without appreciating just how crippled the Soviets were coming out of the Second World War and how relatively unscathed the United States was. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Soviet Union began falling apart in the 1970s, the point when the generation that had been decimated in the 1930s and 1940s would have been reaching the age where they would begin assuming leadership in the country.

    Great blog, Rob.

  4. Bernard Gilroy

    >> I’m uncomfortable dignifying anything that horrible as a “crusade.”

    Then I think you need to expand your knowledge of the _actual_ Crusades, during which all sides comitted some horrific acts. WW II’s scale was unprecedented; its brutality was not.

  5. bobe

    The more i understand WWII the more i come to know that the truth is a big casualty of that war.
    Seems like to lie is better option than say the truth, or to be
    When you said it took so long to get involved, it is true and ZHUKOV agrees with that, by the time of D day Germany was on the defensive and in OPERATION BAGRATION they suffered colossal losses, and there are no mention of those catastrophic losses on both sides numbering millions, it was so brutal and HITLER was there helping the soviets defeat the german armies, making all the wrong decisions, from KURSK in 1943 until 1944 . The level of tragedy in WWII was such but we have to learn it by ourselves,and

    course now i will get stoned by the politically correct crowd when i am trying just to get the facts straight.I believe history should be as factual as possible i have collection of british publication
    about WWI and one example naval battle of JUTLAND both sides wrote about that same battle and both came to different conclusions, the germans believed that they won it and so the british, to me seemed like a tactical victory for germany but the british replied that german navy after that encounter never left their bases in larger numbers again. It is difficult to comment about an issue without being tagged as a NAZI supporter.The propaganda at war time was almost the same all over , but now the war is over and we need some facts instead of propaganda.Stalin had a pact with the germans before shifting alliances, CHURCHILL was aware of that, Roosevelt had some admiration to STALIN, and gave him more help than he should get, so where is the CRUSADE against EVIL in 1939 and 1940 and 1941 that is good question to ask students. LOL

  6. Cary Fernelius

    It absolutely was a crusade. We didn’t suffer 1/2 million casualties just to get back at them for Pearl Harbor. We took down dictatorships and replaced them with democrasies. We didn’t take their land, nor steal their treasure. We freed them. Even the midevil crusades took land, we didn’t. Now if what we did in Europe wasn’t a crusade – then a true crusade has never taken place in history.

    • bobe

      Took down dictatorships and replaced them with democracy? Soviet Union became democracy? When? I missed that episode .
      USA was allied with the most brutal/ oppressive regime in history, it was a marriage of convenience , STALIN despite all the help he got from USA/BRITAIN he built so many tanks after war in EUROPE was over for what? To conquer EUROPE, why he didn’t do it ? Because he had already all the blueprint of american ATOMIC BOMB in his hands, he was skeptical about if it was going to work, he waited, he saw it worked, he was glad he didn’t take FRANCE and took millions of prisoners(americans and britains),anyway he once said when asked why not advance besides BERLIN, with “WHO IS GOING TO FEED OUR ARMIES’ or also implied is there won’t be food for all the millions of prisoners too.
      If you want to call it crusade then we have to add another crusades, the german crusade against the bolsheviques which got help from more than 30 countries, you can see on YOUTUBE that some soviet countries received the germans as liberators (LATVIA, ESTONIA,UKRAINE,etc.)
      Or the bolshevique crusade against the NAZI invaders.
      Lets laugh, WWII a crusader’s war.

      • Cary Fernelius

        The episodes you did miss are Germany(dictatorship, now democracy, and Japan, now democracy).

    • Woody Tanaka

      Oh, it was no crusade. We went to war against the Japanese because they attacked us and, more importantly, threatened Western hegemony in East Asia and we went to war against the Germans because they threatened the existing social order in Europe.

  7. David M.

    The fairy tale I’m most embarrassed about buying into is what wonderful leaders people such as Generals Patton and Mark Clark and Admiral Halsey were. Patton was responsible for more tankers dying than the Germans. Clark should have been arrested and tried for his role in the attack on the Rapido and Halsey was so predictable that the Japanese easily decoyed him away from the Battle of Leyte. In my opinion he is personally responsible for the sinking of the U.S. ships that were sent to the bottom in that battle. If he had remained in position he could have come to the aide of Taffy 3. He is also largely responsible for the overlong delay in attempting to rescue the survivors. I suppose our Government needed heroes to compete with the like of Rommel. They could have chosen better.

  8. Bart

    I continue to hear even today about how WWII was “the good war”. The Allies had to do horrible things to win and did not behave like the Hollywood movies. Fire bombing entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. The USA in their films like to criticize how the Nazi’s considered themselves the master race, yet in the USA there was still racism, “Jim Crow” laws, segregation and terrible discrimination to anyone who was not considered “White”. The Whites considered themselves the master race.

    No doubt the Soviet contributed much to the war, but they were Allied with the Nazi’s when the war began. The USSR was only fighting because the Axis invaded them. I also wonder if the Soviets could have survived or won on the Eastern front without all the Allied aid they received.

  9. Tony Robertson

    David M. – Don’t forget MacArthur. Losing half his air force in a matter of minutes, hours after news of Pearl Harbor. Leaving behind tons of rice and foodstocks in the retreat to Bataan. Slighting the US Navy and Marines, and Australians, over petty inter-service and inter-allied jealousies. Credit for most of his successes should more properly have gone to his able subordinates – Krueger, Eichelberger, Kenney, Kincaid, Blamey, etc.

    This continued in Korea five years later. Inchon was a bold gamble that paid off, but the strategic dividends were squandered in the headlong, haphazard dash to the Yalu.

  10. paul penrod

    I would consider it a crusade since the US went above and beyond what was expected. Even though Germany had declared war on the US, all that the American military was required to do was to keep its sealanes clear of U-boats, and no more.Our increased lend lease support to Britain, Russia and ri the Free French, as well as the strategic bomber offensive, the elimination of Germany’s continental allies-Vichy France, Fascist Italy, and the final dual invasions of France-Overlord and Dragoon, constituted this above and beyond. There would be no half measures taken, and the US realized that a ruthles enemy could only be defeated by ruthlessness in kind. As for Stalin and the USSR one detail is seldom discussed. How much in the way of foodstuffs did we supply to them during the war. The Russians did an admirable job of relocating and reconstructing their industries west of the Urals, bt scant little can be grown their and with their best agricultural lands occupied, somone had to compensate for their loss-methinks it was us!!

  11. Petra

    Glad for The Bomb. It likely saved my grandfather’s life. And had he not lived…

    • Mike H.

      Amen, Petra. It undoubtedly saved many thousands (if not millions) of lives on both sides…and prevented a scenario of “North Japan and South Japan”, with the intervention of Joe Stalin’s Red Army. And as bad as Nukes were, they were really nowhere as destructive and casualty-producing as the incindiary raids over Tokyo, Osaka, Yokosuka, etc.

      • Woody Tanaka

        Given that the Japanese surrendered because, with the entry of the Soviets into the war (which would have happened regardless of whether, or how, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed), the Japanese had no avenues to gain anything through a negotiated peace, leaving capitulation the only option, the notion that a “North Japan/South Japan” is nothing more than a fantasy without any historical potentiality at all.

        But you are right about the destructive force of the attacks on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being comparable raids on the people in the other Japanese cities, which begs the question of why anyone would believe that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would made the difference to the Japanese Government. If they’ve already endured the destruction of Tokyo and the other cities, what would it matter that two more were destroyed, or how they were destroyed?? They knew they had no ability to stop the USAAF from destroying what they wanted in Japan, regardless of the method by which the Americans chose to do it, which undercuts the notion that the A bombs caused the capitulation.

  12. Dave T

    By definition a crusade is a vigorous and dedicated action or movement in favour of a cause. During WWII the cause was the removal of two militeristic regimes (GER & JPN) whose goal it was to take control of the world. It does not necessarily mean it has to be a pleasant undertaking. The brutality and destruction level should not be a determinent of the usage of the term. The original Crusades, which gave us the term, where as brutal and destructive for their times as was WWII in its time.

    Also, the fact that we delayed entering the war until provoked, to me, has little meaning. Once we were committed we did what had to be done. Granted, some of it very ugly. Rooting out evil has never been a clean task. Those who did the fighting and making the decisions of what to do, faced some extremely difficult decisions. I am sure that they had qualms about what they did. They did the best they could with what they knew and had available.

    • Woody Tanaka

      Japan had no interest in taking control of the world. They were merely trying to play the white man’s imperial game in Asia. Had they been given the political respect commesurate with their economic and military power from the 20’s to 40’s, it is possible they might not have gone down the path they did.

  13. John Henry

    3 big myths I grew up with about WWII (Born in 1947)

    1) That the Germans were right wing. Wrong, they were socialists. National Socialists.

    2) That Germany attacked us. In reality they showed extreme forbearance in not attacking us until Dec 1942. Even though:

    We were providing arms, essentially for free, to their enemies.

    We gave Britain a number of destroyers

    We were flying air patrols over the North Atlantic shipping routes and providing submarine infor to the Brits who used it to sink German subs.

    We were bombing German subs from US aircraft

    We were depth charging German subs from our destroyers such as the James, Geer and Kearny

    We occupied Iceland freeing up 4-5 British divisions to go fight Germans.

    FDR issued a shoot on sight order for US ships to fire first on any German warship.

    And so on….

    All BEFORE Germany declared war on us in Dec 42 or before we declared war on Germany.

    You might provide a link in the article to the German Declaration of War which detailed the reasons they declared war on us. Here it is:

    We were certainly in the fight with US resources including US blood throughout most of the years you say we were sitting it out.

    My big question is why? What was our interest in defeating Germany? They were no threat to us. We had bailed out Europe once before (for no real good reason). Why did we need to bail them out again?

    3) That 6 million were murdered in the camps. Wrong. It was closer to 12 million. It was 6mm Jews but the other 6mm seldom get mentioned. Not even in our National Holocaust Museum paid for largely with taxpayer dollars.

    Perhaps saving some of those 12mm was a good reason for us to get into the war. But that is not why we did, is it?

    John Henry

    • Patrick Miano

      On December 8, 1941 (not 1942), the United States declared war on Japan, but not on Italy or Germany. Those two nations declared war on us first. Only then did we declare war on them. In every war, there are neutrals, and there are neutrals. The Germans had occasional border skirmishes with the Swiss and the Swedes, but showed “great forbearance” with them as well. with typical German realpolitik, they did what was practical and expedient. Making war on the USSR and the USA were no doubt Hitler’s greatest blunders, but I have no doubt Stalin would have eventually attacked him no matter what. As for us, it would have been far better for him to maintain the status quo. After all, the USSR did not declare war on Japan until late in 1945.

    • Woody Tanaka

      “1) That the Germans were right wing. Wrong, they were socialists. National Socialists.”

      There were socialists in early days of the movement, but they were cast off fairly early, definately before they took power.

      Calling them “right wing” is lazy, because a revolutionary nationalist movement simply doesn’t fit in the left-right political spectrum. But to insist that they were socialists because of a PR move in the early days (the DAP added “Nationalsozialistische” as a way of trying to attract both nationalists and socialists, not out of any notion that the name reflect the group’s principles and goals) is nonsense. If you are going to force them onto the spectrum, they can be called right-wing, because that is where we put nationalists, which they undoubtedly were.

  14. Tony Robertson

    I think the National Holocaust Museum actually does devote space and resources to other, non-Jewish victims – the Roma, homosexuals, communists, etc. I recall seeing exhibits on this when I visited it in 2003.

    An interesting read on American assistance to besieged and bombarded Britain before Pearl Harbor is the book “Nineteen Weeks”. It covers the period between the fall of France and the US election of 1940.

    I don’t think we give enough attention to just how much the fall of France (and the subsequent Battle of Britain and expanded U-boat operations in the Atlantic) rattled the US gov’t. It brought on the peacetime draft, the federalization of the Nat’l Guard, and the expansions of the Navy and Army Air Force.

  15. John Henry

    My understanding, having looked into this 8-10 years ago is that the museum basically says that there were some others murdered in the camps without getting into the horror of the numbers. It basically whitewashed them in favor of presenting the people murdered in the camps as overwhelmingly Jewish.

    I guess in your note above the 3 million non-Jewish Poles are the etc? There were also about 3mm Polish Jews. Close to 6mm Poles murdered in total.

    John Henry

    (The above comments will likely brand me as a National Socialist or sympathizer.)

    • bobe

      Any mention about UKRAINE genocide? or the baltic countries genocides? or the German genocide at the end of war?
      Any mention of soviets burning alive thousands of german officers and prisoners and wounded people?
      I think genocide as we know it it is very selective, all we hear it is that JEWISH genocide(that was horrible but orders came directly from HITLER’S desk), when there was much more going on in WWII.
      WWI had atrocities but WWII surpassed that in much larger scale.

  16. John Henry

    That last came off as a bit snarky in tone.

    My apologies. While I do stand by the substance of what I said, I did not intend snark.

    John Henry


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