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War Stories

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 23, Number 2, June 1995
pp. 317-322 | 10.1353/rah.1995.0035

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Reviews in American History 23.2 (1995) 317-322

Michael C. C. Adams. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xvii 189 pp. Illustrations, maps, bibliographical essay, and index. $38.95 (cloth); $12.95 (paper).

Thomas Doherty. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. x 364 pp. Illustrations, notes, appendixes, and index. $32.50.

Throughout the great era of American historical revisionism, roughly the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, the history of the United States during World War II remained relatively untouched. While some historians did broaden the scope of World War II historiography, most importantly by examining the war-time mobilization of women (e.g., Leila Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War, 1978) and by turning a spotlight on the treatment of Issei and Nisei on the West Coast (e.g., Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps U.S.A., 1971), the essential story Americans had been telling themselves about her war remained relatively uncontested: even in the most revisionist-oriented textbook the picture of a united, if flawed, people defeating fascists abroad remained in relatively clear focus. Generally speaking, revisionist historians did not focus their attention on the war.

Over the last few years, a growing number of historians have begun to rewrite the history of America during World War II and to emphasize new themes. While not as ideologically or politically driven as, for example, the revisionist histories of the Cold War, the new histories of America and World War II tend to be tough-minded accounts of a nation riven by conflict, jaded by the distance between homefront and battleground, mired in horrors, and often blinded by ignorance.

New social histories of World War II, not surprisingly, have pushed hard at the meaning of wartime national unity. Books like Alan Berube's compelling study of gay men and lesbians in the armed forces, Coming Out Under Fire (1990), and William Tuttle's methodologically sophisticated analysis of the lives of America's "homefront" children, "Daddy's Gone to War" (1993), foreground how differently, in fact, Americans experienced and understood the war years.

Other historians have pushed even harder at the basic narrative of the American war years. John Dower, for example, in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986), cogently argues that "race hate" both undergirded the Japanese and the American war efforts and explains the course and nature of the war in the Pacific. Michael Sherry, in The Rise of American Air Power (1987), similarly foregrounds the cultural understandings that made the fire bombing and atomic bombing of civilian targets seem reasonable to Americans.

All four of the above books exemplify a major new trend in World War II historiography -- an unblinking focus on the horror and pain of the war. Most unyielding in this approach is Paul Fussell's passionately argued, if calmly titled Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989). Fussell argues that Americans have remained willfully ignorant of "the real war" U.S. fighting men endured: "For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriot, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales." As the quote marks around Studs Terkel's oral history collection "The Good War" (1985) suggest, many of the new histories of World War II aim to strip the romance away from Americans' involvement in the war and to focus instead on the war's dark sides.

Michael C. C. Adams's short synthesis, The Best War Ever, emerges directly from this relatively new historiography. In 160 pages, Adams aims to destroy, as he puts it, the "simple, shining legend of the Good W ar" (p. 2). In his preface and first chapter, "Mythmaking and the War," Adams uses a sprinkling of mass media quotes and telling anecdotes to argue that Americans today wrongly believe that the war years were "a golden age, an idyllic period when everything was simpler and a can-do generation of Americans solved the world's problems.... [E]veryone was united" (p. xiii). With rigor and...


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