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Writing World War II: A Student’s Guide

By Sylvie Murray, with commentary by Robert D. Johnston. 208 pp. Hill and Wang, 2011. $15.95

This slim book could make an awful lot of people mad. And that’s a good thing. Author Sylvie Murray’s target is the mythology growing like barnacles around popular history. Its epitome is the “Greatest Generation” ancestor worship popularized by Tom Brokaw, spun out of Hollywood melodramas often far removed from the gritty textures of real life during wartime. After two generations of continuous crises, it’s no surprise that Americans look to our greatest triumphs for inspiration and comfort. But do Brokaw & Co. substitute feel-good history for understanding who we actually were—and are?

Like countless historians before her, Murray points out that We the People have never marched to the same beat in war or peace.Millions of diverse Americans embraced one of the many distinct branches of isolationism for lots of different reasons. Even after the United States was in the war, many felt it was very far away and unreal and acted accordingly.

Others—more than we’d like to think—saw a main chance and played angles to grab it: democracy’s arsenal hummed right along, but there was a fair amount of bumbling and chicanery, and labor unrest inspired by race and gender disputes, wage and price controls, and so on. Black and gray markets sprang up to fill consumer gaps. The government’s propaganda campaigns shifted to bloodier images as the war dragged on, Americans lost interest and grumbled, and war-bond sales slumped. With V-E Day, the mood hardened: despite the Pacific War’s escalating costs in blood and materiel, manufacturers pushed to switch back to civilian goods. Life in the wartime United States— mercifully insulated from the carnage suffusing more than half the planet—was not really so different from life here and now.

This is Murray’s larger theme: To exclude this complex history from our textbooks and our popular imagination and embrace a comforting myth is self-defeating. By elevating our parents and grandparents into plaster saints, we lose the chance to profit from debating their options, choices, motives, and results— to discover, in the fog of our time, how we can glean hope and understanding from their experiences.

Murray tackles this task with provocative candor. She demonstrates that our past is a moving target, and understanding comes from constantly unearthing, interpreting, and reinterpreting evidence—and arguing over the results. To illustrate, the book’s groups of essays (“Before Pearl Harbor,”“To ‘Create a Will to Win,’” and “Experience of War”) are followed by another historian’s balancing, often negative critique of Murray’s work. This admirable experiment is aimed at college undergrads, but any history buff would profit from arguing seriously with it.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.