How World War 2 Shaped Our Lives

What is usually left out of narratives concerning World War 2 is the fact that, during the war, its outcome was particularly uncertain.  Those of us who were born after the war's end have always known it to be a victory for our side.  But our parents and grandparents were not able to enjoy such a luxury.  Also, many historians tend to consider the First and Second World Wars to be one unified conflict — with a 20-year hiatus between them in order to breed a new generation of combatants and with Japan and Italy changing sides.  During the hiatus, much concern was focused on declining birth rates, both because of the loss of so many males during the first conflict and the economic misery due to the global depression.

Also, often left out is the realization that WW2 was truly a nuclear war.  More significant, however, unlike the first war, was the involvement of the civilian population due to the aerial bombardment of population centers by both sides.  It truly was a holocaust.

I bring this up for the sake of comparison: we are now living through a challenging time, but our predecessors faced what may be considered even greater challenges.  During the Great Depression, the birth rate crashed, and children became especially precious.  A little girl named Shirley Temple was Hollywood's number-one box office attraction.  Along with her were Jackies Cooper and Coogan, Mickey Rooney, the "Our Gang" comedies, and several others.  Another cultural aspect was that back then, America was really corny.  Families were intact; loyalty was respected.  This helped us endure the struggle.

It is often said that Germany lost the war at Stalingrad, but the Germans still managed to fight.  Their last gasp was the Battle of the Bulge, where Germany launched a surprise attack in a relatively quiet area in the Ardennes wilderness.  In order to do so, they pulled many resources away from the Eastern Front, and for some "strange" reason, the Russians never tipped us off.  To clarify that point, the USSR was not an Ally — it was a co-belligerent and refused to allow the Allies to use its airspace to attack Axis forces.  The Soviets also didn't declare war on Japan until after Germany surrendered, and the Soviet embassy in Tokyo was a total hotbed of intrigue.

I learned from someone who was there that, after the Bulge, American forces stopped taking Wehrmacht prisoners; they just confiscated their weapons and sent them home.  Things were different with the black-uniformed Waffen SS soldiers.  With them, the fighting continued since word got out that they would fake a surrender and then start shooting.

The Soviets from the east and the Allies from the west ultimately met at the Elbe River.  Thus ended the war in Europe and began what became known as the Cold War.  I have a theory that Churchill would have preferred to let the Soviets and Nazis virtually annihilate each other, and then the Brits and Yanks could move in and mop things up.  But Stalin had FDR's ear and eventually prevailed in having a second front opened at Normandy, thus reducing the pressure on the Soviet forces in the east.

After Germany's surrender, Europe was on the brink of famine.  The U.S. had enough surplus food to keep things from getting too bad, but much of the merchant shipping (the most crucial material element of the war) was tied up in the Pacific for the impending invasion of Japan.  Thus, the pressure was on to knock out Japan. 

When Harry Truman assumed the presidency on FDR's death, he had no knowledge of the Manhattan Project.  But that didn't really hold things up...much.  In Thomas Powers's Heisenberg's War, he describes the "captured" German scientists who were sequestered on a remote English farm — that was festooned with secret listening devices.  They were listening to the BBC news when the bombing of Hiroshima was announced.  They well knew that an explosive device using refined uranium might someday be made.  But they were aghast that the Americans would actually use one in the conflict.  Germany had abandoned its nuclear weapons project after the Battle of Moscow (1941–42), when it appeared that the war would last much longer than originally planned.  Heisenberg's group would, instead, work on using nuclear energy to generate electricity.

After Hiroshima, Japan still hadn't surrendered.  The bombing of Nagasaki convinced the Japanese otherwise — even though there was a plot by some Japanese Air Force officers to kamikaze bomb the surrender ceremony on the USS Missouri.  Fortunately, the emperor's cousin learned of the plot, commandeered a car, and arrested them.  Also, it would've been six months before another bomb would've been ready, and we wanted the Japanese to believe that we were going to just keep nuking.  Thus, famine in Europe was averted.

And thus, the destiny for the rest of the twentieth century, and beyond, was cast.  The Soviets acquired "satellites" such as East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  Cold Warriors were inclined to decry the evil nature of this process — but Russia paid an enormous price and was particularly responsible for Germany's defeat on the ground.

Human fallibility is the real lesson derived from this conflict.  Cruelty, bad decision-making, tolerance of needless slaughter, and surrender to tyrants are all in the mix.  Hitler promised lebensraum in western Russia — and Japan sought much the same in Manchuria.  The aftermath shows that all they had to do was to produce Volkswagens and Toyotas — and they could buy their way to the fulfillment of their destinies without shedding any blood.

Conversely, unique in most of history is the profound magnanimity with which the United States treated Japan — of course, after the Japanese surrendered.  The Cold War had a big part in this — what with China becoming Communist and Russia flexing its muscles in the western Pacific.  In my youth, I used to go camping, and I'd buy equipment at a war surplus store.  A lot of it said "Made in Japan."  At first, I thought the stuff was phony, but it really was war surplus, and it really was made in Japan — for the Korean War.  We helped fuel Japan's recovery by having the Japanese produce military equipment for our soldiers.  This also helped thwart whatever communist designs there may have been for the Japanese home islands.

And, finally, nuclear stalemate is what kept the Cold War from turning hot.  The Soviets stole the secret of the weapon, and the Space Race was mostly a cover for the development of the delivery system.  Ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, by not having a large enough economic base to support such a vast military.  Lessons learned...

Meanwhile, in spite of the Ozzie and Harriet nature of the 1950s, Jack Kerouac's Bohemian subculture was largely fueled by the war's aftermath.  Many of the characters in On the Road are veterans.  And the results of new technologies, such as housing tracts and television, effected significant change in the way we viewed the world.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

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