The American People
In World War II

David M. Kennedy
David Kennedy says that the reason we found ourselves at war with Japan in 1941 was simple. "If the tangled skein of events that eventually led to war between Japan and the United States could be summed up in a single word, it would be..." It would be...


No, no, no. Wrong.

It was China.

In emulation of the Western powers, Japan longed to pursue its own imperial destinies, especially in the "fertile, resource-rich region of Manchuria."

After the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, they were prepared to get indemnity from the Czar, plus a foothold in Manchuria. But Theodore Roosevelt arbitrated a settlement that rejected these claims, so that

    In Japanese eyes, the pattern was thus early established of inexplicably gratuitous American resistance to Japan's just deserts, as well as American refusal to accept Japan as a legitimate imperial power in Asia --- such as the United States itself recently became, with its annexation of the Philippine Islands.

§     §     §

What is it, do you think, that makes a good historian good (and a bad one bad)? Is it mere style: that one should write with verve, precision, and a smattering of humor? Or flow --- where unlike history itself, there should be definition (and limitation), a narrative that reads like a good novel?

Or is it more simple --- that the author should show himself or herself to be a jam-packed tower of information about his/her subject; a knowledge necessarily married to restraint (the writer should know the limits, should know when to shut up.)

Or is it that the writing should be of a piece --- must share the bulk of knowledge, the fire of inspiration, the daring of art?

Art? Is that what would set the likes of Francis Parkman, Brian Lapping, Barbara Tuchman, Eric Hobsbawm, Margaret Miller, Gerald DeGroot and even Winston Churchill apart from the mass of these history post-docs scribbling out their tired masses of words?

There are in the world of historians a bevy of fact-and-date accountants. Martin Gilbert (or is it Gilbert Martin? I can never remember) is an example of this history computer-counting school of writing. Then there is the ham-fisted Tom Brokaw, the over-opinionated A. J. P. Taylor, Conrad Black --- Lord Conrad Black, mind you --- all 1800 pages of him, along with the dullest word-watcher of them all, Arthur Schlessinger.

This was all going through my head as I made my way through Kennedy's second part of the series entitled Freedom from Fear: The American People and World War II. I was struck by his style --- for instance, as we, doughty old me and sharpshooter Kennedy, met and conquered the Solomon Islands, during the darkest days of the war, when the American military appeared in 1942, deciding to use them as a jumping off point for the earliest offensives against Tokyo:

    The Japanese had already dislodged, captured or scattered into the moldy jungle the five hundred or so Europeans who ran the Solomon Islands' few shabby coconut plantations, hacked laboriously by native workers out of the vine-choked tropical rain forest. The Solomons were annually drenched by some of the planet's heaviest rainfalls. The fetid atmosphere buzzed with insects. The damp jungle floor slithered with rodents and reptiles. Above it soared giant hardwood trees with forty-foot-diameter trunks arising from splayed, fin-like bases 150 feet into the virtually opaque canopy. The nearly one hundred thousand Melanesians who had inhabited the islands since time immemorial had already had a taste of Western ways when in 1893 they came under the rule of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate with its rustic and sleepy colonial capital at Tulagi.

    Now their verdant islands and blue lagoons were about to be convulsed by a spectacle so violently improbable, so murderously fantastic, that their horror and wonder could only be guessed at by imagining the citizens of Los Angeles awakening one morning to find flotillas of Eskimos and Mayans, somehow armed with weapons destructive beyond reckoning, descending, massively upon the coast of California, there to wage colossal battle.

And there it all is. The facts? Right there. The ambiance? Not to be missed? The writing? Damn near poetical.

Like the thousands of islands in the Pacific, we find Kennedy's insights strewn merrily along the 480 pages of this masterwork.

  • Prince Bismarck said that the supreme geopolitical fact of the modern era "is that the Americans speak English."
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may well have presaged their defeat in 1945. Why? There was no follow-up to destroy the all-important repair and fuel facilities, American aircraft carriers were elsewhere --- the Pacific War came to be, above all, a war between aircraft carriers --- and the strategic impact "was doubtful" avers Kennedy. The attack emboldened the Chinese and the English and enraged the American people who had previously been mostly in favor of "no foreign entanglements."
  • The German U-Boats damn near ended English defense in 1942 by cutting off fuel, foodstuffs, and strategic materials. But all that came to an end in May of 1943 with the delivery of B-24s to England, the coming of radar, and the eavesdropping of the code-breakers at Bletchley;
  • Boeing's B-17, touted as "The Flying Fortress," was a disaster. Fliers suffered from frostbite and suffocation from frozen detritus in their oxygen mask tubes. They were vulnerable to Luftwaffe head-on attacks. Mid-air collisions between the planes claimed "nearly as many airmen's lives (approximately 36,000) as did combat (approximately 49,000)."
  • Wartime contracts were a bonanza to large American corporations. "More than two-thirds of prime military contracts went to just one hundred firms. The 33 largest corporations accounted for half of all military contracting."
  • The United States was truly "the arsenal of democracy." By the war's end, we had produced 299,293 airplanes, 2,383,311 trucks, 634,569 jeeps, 88,420 tanks, 1,556 naval vessels, 6.5 million rifles, and 40 billion bullets.
  • The atomic bomb was produced by a vast industrial complex "as large in scale as the entire prewar American automobile industry."
  • "Area" bombing attacks on Germany and Japan were not restricted to military production installations; American pilots referred to those bombing runs as "women and children days."
  • Curtis LeMay whose bombing techniques created firestorms in sixty-six Japanese cities said "I'll tell you what war is about. You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough they stop fighting."

Last winter, we spent many a day with Kennedy's earlier volume on the Great Depression. We gave it our highest marks. We didn't think that he could pull it off again, especially with the world-wise tangle that makes up WWII.

We were wrong.

--- A. D. Savage, PhD
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