Our Current Fascination With World War II Linked To Its Perception As America's Last Good War
May 25, 2001
Dr. Maddox, a specialist in World War II and the Cold War, is the author of six books, among them "Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later" (University of Missouri Press): "The Education of Harry S. Truman" (Westview); and "The United States and World War II" (Westview). During the Korean War, Dr. Maddox served in the 34th Regimental Combat Team, 24th Division, U.S. Army.
Americans of all ages continue to be fascinated with World War II as evidenced by a recent spate of books and movies. Maddox believes this can be traced to the perception of World War II as America's last good war fought honorably and for the right reasons.
"There was no doubt as to the aggressors in World War II: Germany, Japan and Italy," Maddox notes. "Hitler and Tojo could be cast as despicable villains and dangerous menaces to the security of the United States. Contrast them with the elderly Ho Chi Minh squatting over a fire in sandals. To depict him and the North Vietnamese as a direct threat to our way of life was impossible. Furthermore, both the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam had elements of a civil war that fogged up the issue."
In World War II, the fact that the United States was not defending its own shores but was going to the rescue of other countries made our military efforts appear nobler. "Americans had a real cause in World War II. We were the good guys, and the good guys won," Maddox says. "The Brits were besieged and being bombed from the air, the French had been subdued, the Chinese had their backs to the wall. We saw ourselves, not without reason, as the liberator of captive people. It wasn't like Vietnam, where we had to be satisfied with favorable body counts."
According to the Penn State historian, baby boomers are not only taking a fresh look at World War II but the people who fought it, their own parents.
"The generation that emerged from the Depression and World War II was concerned with security, stability and the acquiring of material possessions," Maddox says. "The generation that came after, the baby boomers, took those material possessions for granted and spurned them -- or said they spurned them. This naturally resulted in a conflict between the two generations in the 1960s. Younger people at that time thought they were creating a brave new world. This would change when the hippies found themselves with kids and a mortgage and bearing a strange resemblance to their own parents.
Now that members of the 1960s generation look back, they are a little ashamed, knowing that some of what they did was foolish or worse, such as jeering at returning Vietnam veterans and calling them baby killers. As they become older and wiser, the 1960s flower children appreciate what their parents accomplished in the 1940s."