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Rick Atkinson: The Lasting Impact of World War II on the U.S.

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Rick Atkinson. Photo: Elliot O’Donovan.

This is a guest post by Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “An Army at Dawn” and many others. He wrote this piece for the July/August issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, which is devoted to World War II. 

World War II, which ended 75 years ago this summer, was simultaneously the greatest self-inflicted catastrophe in human history and the most significant social cataclysm of the 20th century, with consequences that continue to unspool generations later. Novelist John Updike described the war as “a vast imagining of a primal time, when good and evil contended for the planet, a tale of Troy, whose angles are infinite and whose central figures never fail to amaze us with their size, their theatricality, their sweep.”

The conflict lasted 2,193 days, and by the time it ended with Japan’s formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, an estimated 60 million people were dead. That’s an average of 27,600 dead every day for six years, a death every three seconds.

The war eventually demolished several empires — including the German, Japanese, British and French — but enhanced others, notably the American and Soviet. The United States emerged from World War II with extraordinary advantages that ensured prosperity for decades: an intact, thriving industrial base; a population relatively unscarred by war; cheap energy; two-thirds of the world’s gold supply; great optimism. As the major power in Western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Pacific, possessing both atomic weapons and a Navy and an Air Force of unequaled might, the U.S. was ready to exploit what historian H.P. Willmott described as “the end of the period of European supremacy in the world that had existed for four centuries.”

World War II was a potent catalyst for social change across the republic. New technologies — jet engines, computers, ballistic missiles, penicillin, the mass production of houses, ships and aircraft — spurred vibrant new industries, which in turn encouraged the migration of Black workers from South to North and of all peoples to the emerging West. The GI Bill put millions of soldiers into college classrooms, spurring unprecedented social mobility.

Our national views on racial and gender equality were very much shaped by the war: Some 19 million American women worked outside the home during the conflict to help build the arsenal of democracy. Hundreds of thousands of blacks served honorably and sometimes heroically in uniform, notwithstanding a deeply segregated military. Many African Americans waged what they called a “Double V” campaign — victory over fascism abroad and racism at home.

The war cost the United States almost $300 billion, roughly $4 trillion in today’s currency. It also cost us 400,000 dead, including some 291,000 killed in action. Each death was as unique as a fingerprint or a snowflake.

Patricia O’Malley was a year old when her father, Maj. Richard James O’Malley, a battalion commander in the 12th Infantry Regiment, was killed by a sniper in Normandy in 1944. After seeing his headstone for the first time in the cemetery above Omaha Beach, she wrote: “I cried for the joy of being there and the sadness of my father’s death. I cried for all the times I needed a father and never had one. I cried for all the words I had wanted to say and wanted to hear, but had not. I cried and cried.”

Australian war correspondent Osmar White, who bore witness both in the Pacific and in Europe, later wrote: “The living have the cause of the dead in trust.” Seventy-five years on, we the living, almost 330 million strong in America today, indeed have their cause in trust.

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Comments (3)

  1. Great article

  2. Because he USA restricted the number of Blacks it would take, very few Blacks received the benefits of the GI Bills. Those who did serve returned to the same Jim Crow America as before. That is a major causer of the inequality in wealth we still have today between White and Black America.

  3. To the GI Bill comment, that’s exactly why the Government is not the answer to our social ills. Family is the answer.

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