LosingTheWar.doc

Reporter spent hours watching the army with its

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reporter “spent hours watching the army, with its wagons, horses, and guns, file past the minareted village in the moonlight.” (I’m quoting, here and elsewhere, from the Library of America’s excellent anthology Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938-1946.) It convinced people that there was no more glamorous job in the world than foreign correspondent, but it also convinced them that the war was just a lot of foreigners going exotically crazy — nothing for Americans to bother their heads about. Still, by early 1941 most Americans had come to understand that they couldn’t stay unscathed forever. Even in the most remote towns of the heartland, people had some hint of the world’s collective terrors: by then the local schoolteacher or minister had come back from a European trip still shaken by the sight of a Nazi book burning, or a neighbor had received a letter — battered, heavily postmarked, and exotically stamped — from a long- forgotten cousin, pleading for help getting out of the old country. A Gallup poll taken in the summer of 1941 showed that a large majority of respondents agreed that America was bound to be drawn into the war eventually; a slightly smaller majority even agreed that it was more important to stop the Nazis than to stay neutral. (Japan wasn’t mentioned; even then nobody thought of Japan as a likely enemy.) Yet “eventually drawn in” really meant “not now.” That was what routinely stunned travelers returning to America from the war zones, even late in 1941: how unworried everybody in America seemed. Crowds still swarmed heedlessly on undamaged streets; city skylines still blazed at night, like massed homing beacons for enemy bombers. But if you’d even mentioned the possibility of an air raid out loud, you’d have been laughed at. New Yorker reporter A.J. Liebling wrote a piece that summer about coming back to Manhattan after the fall of France and discovering just how impossible it was to get his friends to take the thought of war seriously: “They said soothingly that probably you had had a lot of painful experiences, and if you just took a few grains of nembutol so you would get one good night’s sleep, and then go out to the horse races twice, you would be your old sweet self again. It was like the dream in which you yell at people and they don’t hear you.” It all changed of course, with a knock on the door, that weekend day in December. There’s a phrase people sometimes use about a nation’s collective reaction to events like Pearl Harbor — war fever. We don’t know what a true war fever feels like today, since nothing in our recent history compares with it; even a popular war like the gulf war was preceded by months of solemn debate and a narrow vote in Congress approving military action. World War II came to America like an epidemic from overseas. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, recruitment offices all over America swarmed with long lines of enlistees;
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