Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) in PM magazine, 1941. (Here is some context).
Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) in PM magazine, 1941. (Here is some context).
Lives were lost every day of the war — in the Soviet Union, one life every four seconds — but D-Day holds a special place in American memory because it marked the beginning of the end of our nation’s last clear-cut conflict between good and evil. “Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history,” President Ronald Reagan once explained on the wind-swept cliff above the bloodiest beach of all. We’ll hear similar invocations this week about bravery and sacrifice on behalf of this noblest of causes, and how we must aspire to such greatness today.
Those exhortations will be hollow if we fail to remember the real purpose behind those hallowed deaths, which was not merely the destruction of an evil regime but construction of a world capable of preventing its return. Today, nationalism, xenophobia, trade barriers and just plain hate — all the elements that produced World War II — once again dominate global politics. Even the war’s simplest lesson, that Nazis are bad, finds critics, a development that would undoubtedly surprise and sadden the men of Omaha Beach and Point du Hoc. That is a shame. It is also dangerous, because “lest we forget” is not merely about remembering grand deeds of old. It is also a warning.
D-Day was nothing less than the down payment on an investment Americans had debated since their inception: whether this country should build bridges to the rest of the world, or walls. The former brought costs but perhaps greater benefits. The latter meant isolation behind our splendid ocean moats, or at least engagement only when it suited our narrow needs alone.
Megan Jones of The Pingry School offers one more post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. In this post, Megan reflects on her last day of the conference with a nod to the book exhibit and a panel on visual culture and the end of World War II. (Read all of Megan’s posts here). Enjoy! –JF
The book exhibit is one of the best parts of an academic conference, particularly for someone who does not have the time to keep up with book reviews in academic journals. A scholar browsing the exhibit hall for new titles is like a child perusing a candy store, and the feeling of ecstatic curiosity is probably about the same. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) had a great GIF of the wizard from Disney’s “Fantasia” to represent his analysis of historians in book exhibits. I spent about two hours walking through the hall. Here’s a screenshot of my camera roll showing the books I found particularly appealing:
I’m going to (hopefully) be teaching a course on American environmentalism, Atlantic World and modern European revolutions, and Modern World History in the future, so my selection is fairly broad. I even persuaded a few publishing reps to send me free samples. Score.
The best panel I attended on Day 3 was session #173, “Visualizing Victory, Visualizing Defeat: The Material Culture of Occupation in the Wake of World War II.” Two PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave fascinating talks on the afterlives of visual artifacts in the postwar period. Abigail Lewis discussed the various uses and changing meaning of photographs taken by French photographers during the Vichy regime. These images depicted a relatively happy and peaceful France under Nazi occupation, which can be best explained by the fact that only photographers who agreed to abide by Nazi rules could obtain material with which to actually shoot photos. These images were used after the end of WWII to depict occupation in a blockbuster show at the Grand Palais in 1946, and also during a 2008 retrospective. Jennifer Gramer spoke about German war art and the confiscation of such work by the American Captain Gordon Gilkey with the Roberts Commission, and the choices made to determine which art was deemed potentially capable of inciting violence in the future.
Both Lewis and Gramer discussed how the images and works they studied had different meaning for the French and Germans depending on the time under consideration. Both also questioned how the meaning of images changes depending on the context – should we look at an image divorced from its historical context and deem it “artistic” as in the case of German war art, some of which is objectively beautiful and clearly drawn by a talented artist? Do the images taken by French photographers indicate their complicity with the Vichy regime, or were they subversively collaborating with the idea that their images would serve as a documentary record for posterity? Who gets to determine the meaning of an image? The questions Lewis and Gramer posed, which I am probably doing no justice to, speak to a broader question of who owns history and who has the right to interpret historical artifacts.
My forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump devotes several pages to Trump’s use of the phrase “America First.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust” was not yet open when I was writing these pages, but if it had been open I am sure a quick trip to Washington D.C. would have inspired some of my writing on this topic.
Over at The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen reviews the new exhibit. Here is a taste:
This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.
America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.
Read the entire review here.
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is currently ranked #1 at Amazon. But this post is not about that book.
According to The Huffington Post, a Canadian historian‘s book on World War II–Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945–also seems to be doing quite well these days. His name is Randall Hansen and he directs the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Here is a taste of Liam Casey’s report at The Huffington Post:
“The book is 10 years out and it had been languishing for years and suddenly it was on three bestseller lists,” Hansen said.
Wolff’s book about Trump was the only logical reason for the sales bump, he thought. So he shared that thought with his Twitter followers and went to bed. When he woke up, the tweet had been shared more than 1,000 times and in came interview requests from international media.
He said he won’t know how many people ordered his book by mistake until his royalty cheque arrives in about a month’s time. But he only had a few people complain to him on Twitter that they meant to buy Wolff’s book instead.
“It’s not my fault people can’t tell the difference between a book about Trump and a book about the bombing of Germany,” Hansen said. “But most have been jovial and appreciated the moment of levity.”
Read the entire piece here.
Pundits are calling Donald Trump’s inaugural address the “America First Speech.” Thanks to the work of historians, many Americans are now aware of the history behind this phrase. But just in case you have not had a chance to get caught up on the meaning of “America First,” I want to call your attention to Krishnadev Calamur’s recent piece at The Atlantic.
Here is a taste:
The phrase in itself might provide comfort for those of Trump’s supporters who have long railed against what they see as lawmakers in Washington catering to special interests, corporations, and other countries at the expense of, in their view, the American worker. But the phrase “America first” also has a darker recent history and, as my colleague David Graham pointed out Friday, was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.
The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune,but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.
“It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay,” Susan Dunn, the historian, wrote on CNN last April.
But charges of anti-Semitism persisted, and were compounded with perhaps one of the most infamous speeches given by one of AFC’s most famous spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest.
Read the entire piece here.
It is also worth noting that the cartoonist Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” published several cartoons critical of “America First” in the pages of the left-leaning, interventionist New York newspaper PM.
Here are a few of those cartoons:
“Reverend Peter Marshall, Pastor of New York Presbyterian Church, preaching sunrise service at Fort Lincoln Heights on Bladensburg Road, Washington D.C., April 1942.” Source
The American Bible Society manuscript is almost done. I am currently polishing a chapter on the United Bible Societies, a global fellowship of Bible societies founded at the end of World War II. I am trying to connect the UBS to other forms of internationalism in the wake of the war. The United Nations and the World Council of Churches come to mind. Maybe even the Olympic movement.
I am aware of good books on the UBS, the World Council of Churches, the United Nations, Protestant ecumenism, etc…, but could anyone recommend a solid study of the culture of post-war internationalism in the United States or the West? There is probably a lot of stuff out there, but I want to read something scholarly acceptable. I am new to the work in this field.
Thanks in advance!