The Library of Congress World War II Companion
By Margaret E. Wagner, Linda Barrett Osborne, Susan Reyburn, and the Staff of the Library of Congress. Edited and with an introduction by David M. Kennedy. 1008 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2007. $45.
Call this hefty tome World War II: The Director’s Cut and you’ve got the idea. The Second World War was, after all, the biggest war ever, and any single volume that claims to be its “companion” has a nearly infinite universe of topics to weigh in on. What’s outstanding about this effort is how, in one thousand pages, a team of historians and researchers from the Library of Congress provides a remarkably comprehensive picture of World War II. Think of it as our tax dollars at work—good work.
The Companion offers a broad-based treatment of the war, lots of extra features, even “lost footage”—episodes that went unnoticed at the time or were buried in the history books. The timeline is even super-sized. The Companion unfolds not only a thorough analysis of the war’s short-term background, from the Treaty of Versailles (1919) to the Spanish civil war (1936–39), but also through informative context dating to Japan’s Meiji restoration (1868), the American Civil War (1861–65), and the Russian Revolution (1917).
This expansive compendium of World War II goes beyond a standard narrative of military operations. It’s all here: the war’s impact on American women and racial minorities, from Rosie the Riveter to the Navajo code talkers to the Port Chicago mutiny; the increasing importance of the medium of film to wartime propaganda, with Hollywood churning movies out of “Fort Roach,” the army’s studio in Los Angeles, and Frank Capra explaining Why We Fight; detailed statistical tables for industrial and agricultural production; the crucial question of labor relations; and the expansion of the U.S. government to meet wartime needs and oversee national mobilization. The heroism of America’s black widow spiders, whose tough silk threads formed the crosshairs on thousands of Allied gun sights, finally gets its due here, as does the attempt to enlist bats (described as “combats”) to release bombs over Japan.
The authors succeed in integrating this mass of material into a single useful volume. But that doesn’t mean it’s problem-free.
The Companion’s main squeeze is the United States, so some aspects of the war in which the American role was marginal—the Sino-Japanese War, for example— are missing in action. And there is a jarring tendency to insert sidebars of interesting material into unrelated discussions: a survey of the injustices of the segregated military (with separate blood banks for “white” and “black” blood) seems shoehorned into a section on United States strategy. For a tome with this sort of conceptual sprawl, however, these are quibbles.
That leaves two more glaring flaws.
First, as they dig for every possible angle, the authors not only elbow military operations to the side, they underserve them. The de-emphasis starts in the introduction by esteemed historian David M. Kennedy, who describes the world wars as “gigantic contests of attrition” whose “outcomes were largely determined by the sheer size of armies—and increasingly, economics.” Certainly a plausible perspective, but it also shapes the Companion’s entire endeavor. Why provide a detailed discussion of this or that campaign if World War II was simply a contest of numbers and production— and thus, almost inevitably, an Allied victory? And so the book’s descriptions of actual operations barely pass muster. If you want to know how the Wehrmacht wound up in Paris, you aren’t going to find out here. Operation Crusader, the first great counteroffensive of the British Eighth Army against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, is reduced to “a month-long series of armored clashes that took a heavy toll on both sides.” A volume that unearths so much juicy arcana might have worked more diligently to show how campaigns were won and lost.
Second, and more damning, the wartime controversies that have swirled around virtually every aspect of this conflict—from Oval Office debates on grand strategy to tactical choices made by squad leaders in the jungles of Guadalcanal—are almost completely absent. The Italian campaign, subject of bitter dispute ever since it was planned and fought, appears here as something that just…happened. You wouldn’t know from this book that there has long been heated argument in this country over the use of atomic bombs against Japan. World War II was total warfare, a vast, complex clash of armed forces, civilians, economies, political systems, entire cultures—and responsible people disagreed about how best to conduct it even at the time. Rendering it without controversy does nothing to help us understand it.
So let’s say this is a terrific book—until the shooting starts. For that, try Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Crammed with political, social, and economic details, it contains serious military and operational analysis by one of the world’s leading authorities. And at twelve hundred–plus pages it, too, makes a fitting World War II “companion.”
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.