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The "Good War" in American Memory

John Bodnar

Publication Year: 2010

The “Good War” in American Memory dispels the long-held myth that Americans forged an agreement on why they had to fight in World War II. John Bodnar's sociocultural examination of the vast public debate that took place in the United States over the war's meaning reveals that the idea of the "good war" was highly contested. Bodnar's comprehensive study of the disagreements that marked the American remembrance of World War II in the six decades following its end draws on an array of sources: fiction and nonfiction, movies, theater, and public monuments. He identifies alternative strands of memory—tragic and brutal versus heroic and virtuous—and reconstructs controversies involving veterans, minorities, and memorials. In building this narrative, Bodnar shows how the idealism of President Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms was lost in the public commemoration of World War II, how the war's memory became intertwined in the larger discussion over American national identity, and how it only came to be known as the "good war" many years after its conclusion.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page

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pp. ix-x

When my mother and father talked about World War II, they always did so in bits and pieces. I never recall them saying anything about Fascism or the Four Freedoms. Those were things I learned in school. Their remembrance was about how the war affected them personally. They had scheduled their wedding ceremony in Pennsylvania in 1943 early enough in the morning so they could catch a train...

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pp. 1-9

Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut's fictional character in Slaughterhouse-Five, never could recall exactly what happened in World War II. Pilgrim, like the man who created him, was an American veteran of the conflict who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Yet his firsthand experience in Europe had not given him total recall. On the contrary, Pilgrim struggled throughout his...

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1. Wartime

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pp. 10-33

For the United States, World War II precipitated not only a military struggle but a cultural one as well. The problem revolved around the meaning of the war. President Franklin Roosevelt had already staked out the high ground of humanitarianism before Pearl Harbor when he implied that the next war would be a contest to ensure human rights throughout the world. The outlooks that...

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2. Soldiers Write the War

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pp. 34-59

Some soldiers started to fashion memories of the war soon after it ended by writing extensive accounts of what they saw and felt. Less accepting of Roosevelt's optimism about creating a better world, and deeply suspicious of the sentimental language of the war years that characterized the motivations and attitudes of men like themselves, these literary-minded veterans were ultimately...

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3. "No Place for Weaklings"

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pp. 60-84

The after-effects of World War II left the United States on a permanent state of alert. Despite the victory over Germany and Japan, the nation remained on the lookout for enemies and dangers. After visiting the ruins of Berlin, President Harry Truman told his fellow citizens that he was grateful that this land of ours had been spared. He was quick to note, however, that the future safety and...

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4. Monuments and Mourning

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pp. 85-129

Disagreements over the meaning of the war led to political squabbles as well as widespread controversies over how to memorialize the dead. In local places and private spaces where unrelenting strains of bitterness and sadness festered, neither the traditional language of patriotism and honor nor the dreams of humanitarianism could fully console those who regretted the war's costs. As...

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5. The Split Screen

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pp. 130-165

Hollywood played an important role in interpreting the war as it was fought as well as a vital role in the long debate over its remembrance. As the battles raged and for years afterward, numerous movies produced images of loyal Americans and gritty GIs who persevered in the face of danger. Films, of course, were no substitute for the actual horrors of the conflict, and they often reaffrmed...

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6. The Outsiders

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pp. 166-199

Sentimental myths and heroic images often obliterated not only the tragic dimensions of the war but the sordid reality of racism and discrimination within America itself. When the nation went to war, it was forced to ask minorities to put aside their many grievances to join the effort to defeat foreign enemies. This request, of course, raised serious questions for both the white male majority that...

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7. The Victors

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pp. 200-234

Traditional themes of American decency and heroic individualism dominated the enormous public commemoration of the war that erupted near the end of the twentieth century. Critical and humanitarian frames on the contest were still evident, but they commanded only limited attention in the many fiftieth anniversary celebrations, books, films, and museum exhibitions that now marked...

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pp. 235-242

Americans who experienced World War II quarreled over its meaning while it was fought and for decades after it ended. Citizens from various backgrounds took justifiable pride in their victory over evil regimes and felt their achievement was worth all it had cost. Some readily embraced the idea that war bred character rather than tragedy and heroes rather than victims. They explained their own...

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Postscript on Iraq

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pp. 243-247

The invasion of Iraq in 2003--like the war in Vietnam--brought another challenge to the long- term project to sustain a noble view of America and its wars. This was surprising in light of the fact that the assault on the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein began in a climate of patriotic unity and righteous vengeance after the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, on American soil. President...


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pp. 249-281

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 283-286


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pp. 287-299

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9781421400020
E-ISBN-10: 1421400022
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801896675
Print-ISBN-10: 0801896673

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 12 halftones
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Collective memory -- United States.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • National characteristics, American.
  • Memory -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • War and society -- United States.
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