Posted: November 29, 2010
emember all those World War II movies? You know—the ones with an Army unit that had a guy from the South, a factory kid from Pittsburgh or Detroit, a farmer from the Great Plains and invariably, a loudmouthed guy from Brooklyn. The movies always showed that however different the unlikely compatriots initially seemed and sounded, they all ended up getting along and looking out for one another.
Surprisingly, it turns out that those movies were a fairly accurate picture of American men at war—or at least that's what Thomas Bruscino, a historian at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, argues in A Nation Forged in War.
Bruscino's thesis has a solid basis in the American demography of the 1940s. Growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, I sensed something fishy in the fact that all of these Hollywood Army units included guys from Brooklyn. But when you look up the 1940 Census, you find that Brooklyn accounted for 2% of all Americans, one of every 50, and an Army unit with 500 men was likely to include 10 of them—and with their accents and gift for gab, they would be noticed. Altogether the five boroughs of New York City contained 5.64% of the nation's population in 1940—one in every 18 Americans.
The America of 132 million that was plunged into mobilization for war in 1940 was in many ways different from the America of 310 million we are familiar with today. The mass media that had emerged in the two preceding decades, radio and the movies, did introduce Americans of one region and ethnic background to those of others, but they provided only introductions, not intimate relationships. The moguls of Hollywood and the radio pioneers of Chicago and Detroit (where many of the great programs originated) tended to smooth off the rough edges, and when you left the movie palace or switched off the radio you were back in your familiar cultural niche again.
One enormous divide—far wider than it is today—was between North and South. Between 1865 and 1940, when more than 30 million foreign immigrants moved to the North, only about one million Southern whites and one million Southern blacks followed suit, despite the fact that wages were more than twice as high in the North as in the South. Southerners almost never traveled to the North; Northerners seldom went South except to vacation in a few beach communities. The segregation system, enforced by law and by force (there were multiple lynchings every year in the 1930s), was unfamiliar enough to Northerners that the Chicago sociologist John Dollard was hailed for his scholarly exposé in his 1937 book Caste and Class in a Southern Town. As Bruscino duly notes, the World War II military kept blacks in segregated units out of fear that mixing the races would reduce unit cohesion and effectiveness. Because of this segregation, the book's thesis—that the war experience taught Americans how to get along—applies to whites only, though these whites—not just those from New York City—were from very different backgrounds.
In 1940, one in four Americans lived on farms, about half of which were either then or quite recently without electricity. Another quarter lived in the large cities of the Northeast and industrial Midwest, where a majority of residents were the product of the vast immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries before the introduction of the restrictive immigration act of 1924. The Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles lived in monoethnic neighborhoods or in uneasy proximity to one another. Catholics were outbreeding Protestants (or so feared Yankee ladies like George W. Bush's grandmother who had five children and supported Planned Parenthood), and Jews were rising rapidly in businesses (retail, women's wear, show business) that put a premium on sensitive understanding of the rapidly changing tastes of people unlike themselves. Then there was small-town America, the product of the Yankee diaspora of the first half of the 19th century, where local lawyers and businessmen ran affairs in the county seat and from time to time sent one of their own to Congress. And finally, many soldiers came from Germano-Scandinavian America, whose representatives voted against entry to World War I and who formed the core of the isolationist constituency in the tense years between Hitler's invasion of Poland and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
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It was this culturally diverse America that saw its young men enter military service in the years from the institution of the draft in October 1940 until September 1945—not much more than half the time Americans have been in combat in Afghanistan. The magnitude of the mobilization is hard for us to fathom. At one time or another, some 16 million American men were in the military. The modern equivalent would be a military of 38 million, more than 10 times its present size.
Bruscino tells the story of how military service changed the lives of these young men—and changed the country in the process. Readers will run across some irritating liberal pieties. But I think he gets this important story mostly right. Young American men were put into uniform and forced to depend on comrades from very different backgrounds not only for daily companionship but also for protection in battle. This protracted experience, he says, forged a stronger national identity and an increased tolerance and appreciation of Americans of different religion, ethnic background, and economic status.
The most uncomfortable moments in his story, to me at least, were the reminiscences of Jewish soldiers. In the 1940s Jews were 4% of the nation's population-about double the current proportion—and most were the children of immigrants who had come over in the quarter century before 1914. Bruscino skates over the evidence in public opinion polls that show anti-Semitism in America peaking in these years. Many felt that Jews were shirking military service (Bruscino cites several Jewish soldiers and rabbi-chaplains addressing this accusation) and there was an undercurrent of opinion, voiced by Charles Lindbergh in his infamous speech in Des Moines on September 11, 1941 (the same day as the groundbreaking for the Pentagon), that American boys were going to be sacrificed to save Jews in Europe. In fact, Jews served in the military in proportionate numbers and made a point of volunteering. The morning after Pearl Harbor, Hank Greenberg, after hitting 58 home runs the year before, was in line at the recruiting station, volunteering for active duty.
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I agree with Bruscino's point that the near-universality of military service, both for the servicemen themselves and vicariously for members of their families, did much to shape the culture of postwar America. We were a more fractious, quarrelsome, divided nation before 1940 and a more united, harmonious, one after 1945. In some respects this was an undoubtedly good thing. The mutual respect expressed almost universally in postwar America for and among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews was an improvement over the bickering and mistrust that had been the hallmark of pre-war America. Though ethnic stereotypes—often based on genuine differences—persisted, the nasty edge was blunted, and derogatory terms passed out of polite and impolite conversation alike. The universality of military experience promoted a sense of civic equality, which ensured that no matter how high your income and how venerated your ancestors, you had to wait for your turn in line, and march in order, just like everyone else.
For some, there is nostalgia for postwar America's civic equality and sense of common purpose. Yet there are downsides to it as well: we wouldn't really want to return to that era any more than we want a 38-million-person military. President Truman's proposals for universal military training, rejected by Congress in the 1940s, would get very little support from the politicians of his party today—or from those of the other party, either. The postwar age of civic equality was also one of conformity. Americans wanted to be thought of as normal, not exceptional; as organization men (William Whyte's term) who worked smoothly with others, and not as innovators or disturbers of the economic peace who invented new products and services. It was an era of low divorce rates, high birth rates, and low crime rates. But it was also an era of low tolerance of eccentricity, of little interest in feminism, and perhaps of record repression of homosexuality. Overall, those on the Left—fans of the progressive hallmark of identity politics—can't remember the postwar era with much nostalgia. We were governed in that era by the same triumvirate of leaders of Big Units—Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor—who gained enormous prestige from their success in organizing production and mobilization in the war. Over the first postwar generation, Americans expressed great confidence in large institutions and their leaders. Political scientists and sociologists assumed this was the norm in American history. But by the late 1960s, as those leaders and institutions performed poorly, confidence vanished, and I suspect (there were no pollsters to ask questions about it before 1935) that its prevalence in the postwar period was the exception rather than the rule in American history.
Bruscino leads off his story by recalling the Four Chaplains—Methodist, Dutch Reform, Catholic, Jewish—who in February 1943, when their ship was torpedoed, handed off their life jackets to sailors and then locked arms in prayer as their ship plunged into the North Atlantic. It's impossible to read this without tearing up, and without reflecting, as Bruscino urges us to do, on how their example helped to make this a better country. A better country in many ways, but one that now is past, and the past is always, in L.P. Hartley's phrase, another country. We are the lucky inheritors, three generations later, of a country strengthened rather than weakened by an experience of total war, strengthened materially, geopolitically and, as Bruscino tells us, culturally. But our duty is to take our country in different directions from those in which the wartime experience took postwar America.