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Journal of Social History 38.4 (2005) 1165-1168



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God, Country and Self-Interest: A Social History of the World War II Rank and File. By Toby Terrar (Silver Spring, Maryland: CWP, 2004. xxxvii plus 382 pp.).

Ed and Hazel Terrar live a few miles from the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was dedicated on May 29, 2004. They did not attend the dedication. Despite both being veterans of World War II, they do not view [End Page 1165] it as "their" war. This is the substance of their just-published biography God, Country and Self-Interest: A Social History of the World War II Rank and File.1 It studies the beliefs of those in the ranks by looking in depth at two who were there.

God, Country and Self-Interest was written by Toby Terrar, one of the Terrar's sons, who teaches in the Department of History, City University of Los Angeles. His scholarly interest in their history grew out of his own generation's conflict in Vietnam. The work incorporates 350 letters written between the Terrars during the war, official military records, interviews, diaries of squadron and unit members, and 100 photos, maps, and illustrations.

The book might better be titled God, Country and Imperialism. Historian Da- niel Hallin found in his study of the media coverage of the Vietnam War that the word "imperialism" was forbidden. Dissatisfaction with certain policies or incumbent politicians was allowed but no questioning of basic assumptions about the character of the American political system and the American role in world politics.2 As Hallin put it, the media, like the clergy, the educators and the politicians were part of the "system" and had no interest in questioning its core beliefs. They defended the war in Vietnam as a replay of World War II: a struggle to defend democracy against aggression. The rank and file in Vietnam that did the fighting knew different. What God, Country and Self-Interest reminds us is that the World War II rank and file also knew different.

Various government studies done during World War II concluded that those in the ranks viewed the war as a bad but unavoidable thing, brought on by their country's imperialism. The closer to the "real business of war," the more worthless it was felt. Those with wives and children had a particular hatred. Political attempts at making them internalize the war as their own responsibility or adopt imperialist beliefs were not successful.3 Typical was the comment that the anti-labor war correspondent Robert Sherrod voiced in 1944:

My third trip back to the United States since the war began was a letdown. I had imagined that everybody, after two years, would realize the seriousness of the war and the necessity of working as hard as possible toward ending it. But I found a nation wallowing in unprecedented prosperity. There was a steel strike going on, and a railroad strike was threatened. Men lobbying for special privilege swarmed around a Congress which appeared afraid to tax the people's newfound, inflationary wealth. Justice Byrnes cautioned a group of news people that we might expect a half million casualties within a few months—and got an editorial spanking for it. A "high military spokesperson," generally identified as General Marshall said bitterly that labor strikes played into the hands of enemy propagandists. Labor leaders got furious at that.4

For Ed and Hazel, the positive side of the war included a doubling and tripling of their pre-war income. It meant travel, new, life-long friends, marriage, parenthood, settling in California and a G.I. Bill that helped them buy a house and obtain higher education.

God, Country and Self-Interest gives a human face to the agrarian and industrial working class origins of America's anti-imperialism. Ed was from Coffeyville, Kansas. Hazel was from Dalzell, South Carolina. Ed's father was a coal [End Page 1166] miner and Welsh immigrant. Reflecting his politics was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 1165-1168
Launched on MUSE
2005-06-22
Open Access
No
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