This has been a year of big anniversaries – the 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House and Capitol in Washington by British troops; the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation.
But certainly one of the most significant anniversaries occurs next week – on Monday, September 1. On that date in 1939, Nazi Germany launched its first “Blitzkrieg” against Poland, the final straw as far as the Allies were concerned.
For four years, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich had been defying international rules and agreements in its effort to reclaim victory from the German loss in World War I. On Sept. 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany.
In short order Italy would join the war on Germany’s side. And even though Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin only days before the invasion of Poland, Russia would wind up on the side of the Allies after Hitler invaded his supposed “ally” in 1940s.
Initially the United States held back. Still reeling from the Great Depression and jaded by the sour outcome of World War I, Americans were ambivalent at best. 1939 had been an upbeat year in America. The World’s Fair in New York City – “The World of Tomorrow” was its theme – celebrated innovation and the promise of a brighter future for Americans.
Hollywood had perhaps its greatest year, ever, with the studios producing a string of classics that are still celebrated today. The week that Germany invaded Poland “The Wizard of Oz” was playing to first-run crowds in theaters across the country. The on-screen specter of a Wicked Witch and her winged monkeys reflected the real-life horror of Storm Troopers, the Gestapo and Blitzkrieg.
One of the great national heroes, aviator Charles Lindbergh, led a movement called “America First,” and he was even accused of being pro-Nazi. It wasn’t so far fetched: A “Bund” — organized to promote Fascist Germany in the U.S. — held a huge rally at Madison Square Garden in February 1939.
President Franklin Roosevelt viewed the situation in Europe with alarm, but was very sensitive to American public opinion. Just three years before, he declared:
“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping, exhausted men come out of line — the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”
But the reality of the German army’s rapid advance — from Poland west to the Netherlands, Belgium and France, which fell in June 1940 — made even Roosevelt certain that it was merely a matter of time before our soldiers would be headed off to the battlefields. And American public opinion was rapidly swayed by the brutal air attacks on Great Britain during the Blitz. By the time of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, there was an American consensus that international war was critical to the nation’s survival. And so it was.
Seventy-five years is a long time. According to the Veteran’s Administration, our World War II veterans are dying at the rate of about 550 a day. Of the 16 million men and women who served our nation in World War II, only about 1.2 million vets remain alive.
Although I was born more than five years after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the horrors of the Second World War were abundantly real – and constantly present – in my childhood.
To begin with, my parents, grandparents and their friends described virtually every event as “before the War,” or “during the War,” or “just after the War.” We all knew what was meant by “The War.” There was only one that really mattered at that time.
The key figures of the 1940s still loomed large on the national stage – President Harry Truman, General (and soon to be President) Dwight Eisenhower, French President Charles de Gaulle, Britain’s Sir Winston Churchill, PT-109 hero John F. Kennedy, diplomats George F. Kennan, W. Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson.
But on the playground and after school in the neighborhood, we children rarely engaged in World War II games. Instead, we played cowboys and Indians (TV Westerns were hugely popular in the 1950s and early 1960s) or Civil War Yankees and Rebels. There was little humor about World War II. In fact, the ghosts of the Holocaust cast a very long shadow over my children, as did the haunting danger of nuclear war.
In 1947, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was published, and by the time I reached junior high school it was required reading, in a paperback edition with a foreword by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although FDR had died in the final weeks of the war, his widow continued to be a major public figure until her death in late 1962. If times had been more advanced, she well could have been president herself, although, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, she had a strong personality that was divisive. In the 1950s, the far right wing, angered by her views on racial integration, accused her of being “pink,” slang for a Communist sympathizer.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning history book about the Roosevelts during the War, No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin cites a number of reforms that were to result from World War II. These included the women’s movement (after women went to work to fill jobs in the defense plants, industry and elsewhere), the civil rights movement (after serving in the military, many African Americans questioned why they were expected to die for their country but couldn’t enjoy the same privileges of liberty as white people), widespread higher education and home ownership (through the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration), and so forth.
Television, which had been developed in the 1930s and first shown at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, remained undeveloped until after the War, but it quickly caught on in the years immediately after. In time TV would change everything including American politics and commerce.
In 1938, the essayist E.B. White first saw a demonstration of television in New York City and wrote this in Harper’s magazine: “I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television — of that I am quite sure.”
In my own lifetime I’ve seen computers and the Internet have essentially the same seismic effect on lives around the world. IPhones have even had a decisive impact on politics (remember the revolution in Egypt and the role that Twitter played). I am just barely old enough to remember when TV was a novelty, but I can only imagine what life was like without it.
A final thought about what World War II meant to the world. Nineteen thirty-nine would be the last time that the old powers of Europe – Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia – would go to war against one another.
We may have lost the peace that came with the Armistice in 1918, but by 1945, the Allies seemed to have gotten something right. Certainly conflict has been a constant since Germany and Japan surrendered and the United Nations was formed, but there has still been a kind of order that has, over time, proven that the “Good War” as many called the terrible conflict, created a better world order.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.