Romanticized stories about the Second World War are at the heart of American exceptionalism.
Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
by Elizabeth D. Samet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 368 pp.
Nations, like the individuals who make them up, define themselves largely through their memories. And, as countless psychological studies have shown, our memories are malleable, as often as not shaped to fit the identities we have already chosen.
Elizabeth Samet’s Looking for the Good War is the latest in a trickle of literature exploring how our collective historical memory of the Second World War has been falsified to enshrine the destructive myth of America’s heroic exceptionalism.
The United States is not the only nation whose identity is stuck in its governing class’s self-serving historical fiction. While American leaders struggle to maintain their global hegemony, their counterparts in Russia and China itch to restore their own lost mythologized empires. Samet—who teaches English at West Point—argues, however, that “there’s a particular irony in dwelling so stubbornly in the past” in the United States, “once billed as the great nation of futurity.”
And there is no episode more central to American myth-making than the Second World War. Germany and Japan declared war on the United States, and there is not much doubt that ridding the globe of those monstrous regimes was the right thing to do. What’s more, in retrospect, the war solidified the New Deal, legitimized labor unions, and led to the 1948 desegregation of the armed forces—one of the biggest steps forward for civil rights since the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.
But the actual war was quickly forgotten, replaced by a romanticized misremembrance that dangerously inflated Americans’ view of their own power and virtue. “Every American exercise of military force since World War II, at least in the eyes of its architects,” Samet writes, “has inherited that war’s moral justification and been understood as its offspring: motivated by its memory, prosecuted in its shadow, inevitably measured against it.”
This misremembrance has blinded the citizenry to the realities of U.S imperialism, which include at least 750 military bases around the world, some 200 foreign military interventions since the end of the Cold War, and an expensive, wasteful, and corrupt military-industrial complex. U.S. war planes and ships patrol the world up to, and sometimes over, the lines of other nations—provocations that we would not tolerate anywhere near our own borders.
“The great thing about the American empire,” observes historian Niall Ferguson—a fan of that empire—“is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence.” Samet argues that a major reason for this disbelief is the collective misrepresentation of America’s triumph in the Second World War. Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Steven E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan are only some of the better known evangelical texts of American exceptionalism. A sea of popular culture—books, movies, newspapers, radio and TV shows, comics, and social media campaigns—has transformed the war into what Samet calls an enduring “testament to the redemptive capacity of American violence.” This, she writes, “leads us repeatedly to imagine that the use of force can accomplish miraculous political ends even when we have examples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to tell us otherwise.”
The scripture inspires our politics on all sides. An obvious reference point for Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” you can also hear the nostalgic echo in Joe Biden’s call for a new crusade for democracy against authoritarianism. Analogies to Hitler and Nazism are sprinkled like fairy dust to transform complicated conflicts into comic book tales of Bad Guys vs. Good Guys—i.e., we Americans, who have shown our willingness to sacrifice for our democratic ideals. “America stands up to bullies,” Biden said about Russia. “We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”
Domestic critics of U.S. military aggression are routinely dismissed with comparisons to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s weak-kneed treatment of Hitler in 1938. “Everything I knew about history,” Lyndon B. Johnson told his biographer in the mid-1970s, “told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did.” Decades later, George H.W. Bush said that Saddam Hussein was worse than Hitler. More recently, Bob Menendez, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, cautioned against the Ukraine crisis becoming a “Munich moment.”
Such facile historic parallels trivialize the real horror and agony of those who suffered Nazi tyranny. Moreover, declaring your adversaries to be avatars of unmitigated evil relieves the burden of trying to understand how they see the world, increasing the dangers of fear-driven miscalculation and overreaction.
The widely accepted story of the Greatest Generation confuses “consequences” with “causes,” Samet argues. As a result of the Second World War, the Holocaust was stopped, France was liberated, and fascism was crushed. But none of these outcomes were what motivated the majority of Americans. The United States reluctantly entered the war more than two years after it started, and only after it was attacked. According to Samet, six months into the war, a majority of polled Americans “admitted they did not have a clear idea of what the war was about.”
On the home front, Americans primarily supported the war because it brought good times in the form of jobs and higher wages for people who had been mired in a decade-long Depression. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who oversaw price controls during the war, commented, “Never in the history of human conflict has there been so much talk about sacrifice and so little sacrifice.” Moreover, the vast majority of U.S. civilians were comfortably protected by two oceans, saving them from the terror of German bombs and rockets in the United Kingdom or the catastrophic suffering in Russia.
Uncomfortable facts have been left out of America’s triumphal story. These include the rape of thousands of French women by American soldiers, the anti-Semitism and contempt for Holocaust victims among many troops, the brutal treatment of African Americans in the military, and an astoundingly high toleration for corruption and profiteering.
Americans are taught that the June 1944 U.S.-led invasion of Normandy was the turning point of the war, but the actual turning point came a year and a half earlier, when the Russians defeated Hitler’s armies at Stalingrad and began to drive them back to Berlin. Roughly 85 percent of German casualties in the war occurred on the Eastern Front. An inaccurate view of the past makes it harder for many Americans to understand Russian and European behavior in the present. Why, we ask, aren’t they more grateful for all we’ve done for them?
American elites also offered a scrubbed narrative of the successful mobilization for war. The war effort was a spectacular demonstration of the power of economic planning and coordination. Rising wartime incomes and constricted civilian production created a large pool of pent-up demand. When the shooting stopped, American corporations did not need the government to maintain domestic demand—at least for a while. To help ensure that the warfare state did not turn into a welfare state, business elites needed a story that we won the war because free enterprise made us economically and morally superior.
But for many ex-GIs, the postwar celebration of the self-made capitalist—often associated with war-profiteering—didn’t fit the image of the patriot sacrificing himself for the collective good. Such skepticism was not helpful for the coming war against communism. And once the governing class started practicing Keynesian economics, the Faustian bargain of the Second World War—jobs and higher wages in return for risking the lives of their children—no longer appealed to middle America. The wars in Korea and Vietnam, fought during periods of economic prosperity and growth (bolstered by military spending), were never broadly popular.
Richard Nixon dealt with the problem of low support by eliminating the draft. The fiscal burden of war was lifted by simply borrowing the money, a choice made possible by the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency—another beneficial legacy of the Second World War.
With no draft and no war taxes, Americans were comfortably disconnected from the consequences of their country’s imperial policies. The antiwar movement disappeared. War now was a Rambo movie. As the Iraq War began, almost 70 percent of young Americans supported it. Only 15 percent actually knew where Iraq was.
The public’s disconnection from foreign policy has been reflected in the steady surrender of Congress’s war-declaring power to the imperial presidency. If the people no longer care, why should their elected representatives? The disconnect also provides the military with virtual impunity from the consequences of U.S. policy. Despite decades of botched operations, cost overruns, and spectacular intelligence failures, generals keep getting promoted, contracts get renewed, and the mainstream media treats every forecast and claim of the disgracefully inept national intelligence system as if it were indisputable fact.
Samet’s major contribution to our understanding of this disconnect is to track the specific ways in which the manipulation of popular culture has kept us from learning the lessons of history. Looking for the Good War gets bogged down at times in somewhat tedious recounting of the plots of movies, many of which are difficult to find today, and it’s frustrating that there is no index. Still, she guides us through a political-cultural landscape well worth exploring.
Samet takes the reader on a tour of movies in which disillusioned ex-GIs find their way back to the promises of the American way. One recurring plot is the veteran afflicted with amnesia, which turns out to hide suppression of guilt for some wartime betrayal or atrocity. The brutalities of war are reduced to a problem of the odd maladjusted individual. Postwar American film noir, meanwhile, populated by gangsters, grifters, and cynical private detectives, offered what Samet called a “counterpoint to the mainstream Cold War narrative of American righteousness and self-satisfaction.” But it kept these impulses safely locked in a fictional box.
Hollywood fiction bridged the psycho-cultural gap between the courageous outsider alienated from the shallow materialism of the masses and reverence for those who get rich by selling to them. It was perhaps no accident that the post war Hollywood star Gary Cooper played both the libertarian hero in the 1949 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead and the marshal abandoned by the cowardly townspeople in the 1952 Western High Noon. Postwar conservatism was further reinforced by cinematic reinterpretations of the Civil War. Samet examines how the solitary cowboy hero—often a Confederate veteran—forced the fusion of rugged, almost misanthropic, individualism with altruistic sacrifice for the common good.
This cultural analysis also helps the reader understand how Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan would come to lead the destruction of hopes for a second New Deal. The charming Reagan stepped out of the silver screen to dazzle America with political fantasies: cutting taxes would produce government surpluses, destroying unions would raise wages, and government benefits would be provided without government bureacracy. Reagan, who often confused war films with actual history, inspired voters with nonsensical parables in which the vision of Puritan settlers of a peaceful, communitarian “City upon a Hill” would be restored by violent gun-toting loners financed by corporate capitalists. Donald Trump was his cartoonish sequel.
Samet’s book was written before the Ukrainian crisis, which has exemplified the problem of American historical amnesia. Morally unjustified as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, it was not, as the U.S. media insists, “unprovoked.” When Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to dismantle the Soviet empire, he and his successor Boris Yeltsin believed that, as then–Secretary of State James Baker had said, NATO would “not move one inch eastward.” But intoxicated by its triumph, the American governing class reneged. “To hell with that,” President George H.W. Bush privately told Baker. “We prevailed. They didn’t.”
For the next three decades, the United States relentlessly pressed NATO to expand up to Russia’s borders, a move that even seasoned Cold Warriors warned against. George F. Kennan, architect of U.S. Cold War containment policy, said it was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.” In a joint New York Times op-ed, otherwise hawkish Democratic Senator Sam Nunn and George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft reminded readers of John Maynard Keynes’s fateful warnings that the humiliation and punishment of the defeated Germans after the First World War would come back to destroy the peace.
Like the defeated Germans, the Russians after the Cold War were too weak to resist. But the 2008 announcement that NATO would move into Ukraine and Georgia, putting American troops deep into Russia’s geography, was the last straw. As international relations scholar John Mearsheimer predicted, “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”
Samet concludes her book with a meditation on the blurred lines between foreign and civil wars. Moving from popular film to Shakespeare, she reminds us of the long history of leaders diverting domestic discontent to enemies beyond the border. The dying Henry IV advises the son who will succeed him: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” As if on script, progressive Democrats, who had been complaining that Biden was insufficiently committed to their agenda, rushed to support a bipartisan bill for $40 billion in new spending for the war in Ukraine, while accepting a Republican demand that $16 billion in COVID-19-related domestic programs be cut.
Joe Biden is the first U.S. president in decades who seems to truly understand the urgent need to rebuild the economy, while also reweaving the ripped fabric of our democracy and fashioning a global response to climate change. With a narrow congressional majority and a nihilistic Republican opposition, success was a long shot. But the war in the Ukraine has shrunk those chances to zero. We have returned to full battle bombast, with the promise of a victory requiring little sacrifice and offering plenty of opportunities for profit. Joining the parade, some on Wall Street argue that since more guns and missiles are needed to secure democracy and peace, defense stocks should be included in “socially responsible” portfolios.
With the antiwar movement dead, jingoism let loose, and the possibility of nuclear war once more a subject of talk shows and blogs, a book that punctures the prettified mythology of our violent past is not a happy read. Still, I did manage to close it with a tiny sliver of hope: Samet teaches, and presumably preaches, at West Point.
Jeff Faux was the principal founder of the Economic Policy Institute. Among his books are The Servant Economy and The Global Class War.