The following is the second segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. The first segment is below; subsequent posts will follow.
In the faux-Chinese sense of the term, the last interesting time in U.S. history was the Second World War. That war was interesting in any sense of the term: fascinating, frightening, challenging, momentous. It called for the expenditure of blood and treasure on an epic scale unprecedented in our national history. We can talk about some of the details later. But you don’t need me to tell you that the struggle against Japan and Germany in 1941-45 was one of the truly big events in the history of the world and had a tremendous impact on our subsequent national history. You know that. You’ve picked it up by osmosis in the movies you’ve seen, the stories you’ve heard, the classes you’ve taken.
Here are some other things you also know – things you may not have been told but instantly grasp if you haven’t: that a nation waging two wars on either side of an ocean at the same time was a major accomplishment. That in the process, hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the conflict, causing untold grief to their loved ones and depriving the survivors of their talents and untapped potential. And that a lot of developments that happened after the war have origins in the war, whether in the realm of technology (computers, space travel), social change (women in the workplace), or subsequent political struggles (all those Communists).
And here’s something else you’ve always known: our side won. Winning meant some very big and obvious things. Some of those things can be defined in negative terms, in the sense of what didn’t happen or what was stopped: the enslavement of the Koreans and Chinese at the hands of the Japanese; the end of a Holocaust that had already engulfed millions and would have engulfed millions more. Societies that had been liberal democracies before the war, notably Great Britain, were able to resume their way of life.
Other good things that happened can be defined in more positive terms. Our two great adversaries were reconstructed, also as liberal democracies, an outcome that was certainly a matter of self-interest, but also one that led to the creation of prosperous societies that allowed them to take their place in the family of nations with a degree of prominence and influence appropriate to the notable talents of their peoples. More generally, the victory of the United States and its allies in the Second World War resulted in the creation of a world order that was highly favorable to the United States, even if that order seemed continually under threat by its enemies and the long shadow of nuclear destruction.
I should concede: that’s a big “if.” The fear of Communism – from the Soviet Union, followed soon thereafter by the triumph of a Communist regime in China – loomed very large and very dark in the consciousness of Americans in the years following the war. What loomed even larger and darker was the legacy of the Pandora’s Box that got opened when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, an event with terrifying implications that loomed larger a mere four years later when the Soviets detonated nuclear weapons as well. Many Americans were confused and angry that after achieving such a decisive victory, now subject to instant apocalypse at any time. They asked questions like “Who lost China?” as if China was ever really ours to lose.
But in a way that could only be fully appreciated in retrospect (though some observers did sense it at the time), the terrible danger posed by prospect of human catastrophe – captured by the phrase “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) – had the effect of restraining the United States and its rivals, diverting their tensions into a series of smaller wars fought around the globe for a half-century. The people caught in the middle of these struggles – in places like Korea and Guatemala, Iran and Vietnam – were forced to live through interesting times indeed. Some of these struggles seemed more justified for the United States than others (very few of them were truly necessary). And some, notably Vietnam, proved quite costly in any number of terms. But in some literal as well as figurative sense, all these conflicts were far away to most Americans, even if they captured the public’s fitful attention, and even if they pierced the hearts, minds and souls of some Americans some of the time.
Because that’s one of the two most important things that the World War II bought for the United States: distance. For most of its history, the nation enjoyed the incalculable advantage of being oceans apart from any people who posed a threat to its territorial security. Instead, it continually encroached on its neighbors, especially native peoples, in every direction. U.S. victory in the Second World War guaranteed secure territorial boundaries – with layers of insulation reaching half a world away – and made it possible, notwithstanding persistent anxiety, that the danger of foreign occupation would be remote. I’m sure you’ve had any number of worries during your high school years. But territorial conquest of your dormitory hasn’t been one of them. And hasn’t been since Milton Academy was founded in 1798, though there was a war scare with France that year.
The other important thing World War II bought the United States was time. It could live for decades off the economic and political gains it reaped from victory in the war. It was this moment, more than any other, where the mass pursuit – and fulfillment – of what I call “the Dream of the Coast” was realized. As I explain, the Coast is both literal (as in West Coast, more specifically California, the epicenter of the postwar American Dream) and figurative (“coast” as a verb, as in gliding frictionlessly from aspiration to reality).
Again: the nation was prosperous before the Second World War, and its international stature had been rising. But the war brought about what one famous journalist dubbed “the American Century,” an era of prosperity and internal stability – a Dream of the Good Life – that is the hallmark of all great empires, whatever political shape they may happen to assume.
This, more than anything else, has been your inheritance. It’s not just that many of the hallmarks of modern life – the interstate highways that stitch the nation together; the World Wide Web that does virtually the same thing; the mass availability of colleges and universities that represent the most concrete embodiments of your aspirations – all date from the Second World War or experienced a turning point because of it. It’s also important to note that the basic governing institutions of your life have been sufficiently functional that the closing of such traffic has been the exception, not the rule. You expect the electricity to work, the stores to be open, the holidays to be observed. Disruptions like terrorism are scary precisely because they’re so extraordinary. That Frisbee that sails across the quad; that dog you’re walking through the woods; that laundry in the dryer that’s clean and warm: it’s all been bought, and maintained, with blood.
It’s not that there haven’t been memorable moments of domestic unrest. Clearly, there have been such moments, some severe. But the most important disruptions in the lifetimes of your older relatives, like the Civil Rights movement – an event that also had deep roots in the Second World War – were usually the product of rising expectations, not falling ones. Prosperity has a way of bringing internal conflicts to the fore.
To a great extent, the gains procured by the Civil Rights movement and other struggles that followed in its wake reflected the persistence, ingenuity, and morality of those who sought to secure and expand social justice. But they also reflected a calculation on the part of people in power that they could afford to accommodate such expansions, a calculation rooted in the dividends paid by victory in the Second World War. This did not necessarily mean such people were enlightened. Nor did it mean that the nation was inexorably evolving in the direction of Progress, though the economic logic of the time suggested that calls for redistribution of wealth could be resolved by making the proverbial pie bigger, not cutting it differently. The margins were somehow wider, the possibilities greater, even if there were limits, as there always are, as to how much those in positions of entrenched privilege are been willing to concede to those who challenge them.
Next: The end of Post WWII Victory culture and what it means for you.
Next: The end of Post WWII Victory culture and what it means for you.