Seventy years ago this week, the United States entered World War II after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Less than four years later, it was all over.
In this era of multiple, open–ended, decade–plus U.S. occupations in the Middle East, it never ceases to amaze me that World War II – the crucible which formed the basis of what we know today as modern American society – was so incredibly short.
Coral Sea, Kasserine Pass, “I shall return,” Midway, Italy, Guadalcanal, the bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan, D–Day, Leyte Gulf, Patton’s breakout, Iwo Jima, Tuskegee Airmen, a bridge too far, Tarawa, the Battle of the Bulge, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
All that heroism, all that sacrifice, all that blood and death and defeat and victory.
All in 43 months.
It’s not just the battlefield exploits. It’s the enormous, profound changes that happened here at home.
Women and minorities entering the workforce. Bases and shipyards being constructed. River after river dammed out west for electricity to churn out tanks and airplanes.
Unlike all other combatants in World War II – with the possible exception of the Soviet Union, which also enjoyed huge amounts of U.S. aid – only America completely mobilized its economy on a war footing.
Britain and Australia were crippled throughout the war by strikes and other labor unrest.
The Japanese kept fully half of their military occupying China until the very last day of the war.
Nazi Germany continued to produce luxury consumer items, such as stockings and chocolate, until the Russian tanks were almost on their doorstep.
Only in America did an entire country completely mobilize – from the top down and the bottom up, from the inside out – for total war.
It was an effort whose impact lasted long after the war itself, in the form of huge societal changes (integration of the armed forces, the G.I. Bill, the “Baby Boom”) and technological advances (nuclear power, radar, jet engines, computers, and too many more to name here).
There is no doubt that other countries made greater sacrifices than we did: An entire generation of men gone in Britain, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians killed in B–29 firebombing raids, many millions of soldiers and civilians dead in Russia and China.
But the main reason World War II lasted such a relatively short time was the ability of the United States to mobilize all the human and natural and technological resources of a great country for one overriding purpose.
It’s all simultaneously inspiring and depressing. Inspiring to know that we come from a place of such ability. Depressing to see that we are apparently incapable of doing so again to solve the problems that face us today.
As the many World War II observations and 70th anniversaries are marked over the next few days, and as we mourn the passing of so many aging World War II veterans, my hope this December is that the younger generation of Americans take to heart the lessons of World War II and appreciate the value of total commitment – a lesson which many of their elders have sadly forgotten – or even more sadly, have stopped caring about.
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