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A Separate Peace | Context

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World War II

A Separate Peace takes place during the Second World War (1939–45), which began in Europe when Nazi troops invaded Poland in September 1939. At that time the United States was in an isolationist mode and determined not to get involved in the war in Europe. However, as the Nazis swept across Europe and occupied or tried to occupy Allied nations (Great Britain, the Soviet Union, France, and others), the United States government and people began to wonder how long their country could remain on the sidelines. The United States eventually provided materials and support to Great Britain, which suffered almost nightly bombing by the Nazis in 1940, known as the Blitzkrieg.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing about 2,500 Americans. The United States immediately declared war on Japan, and soon after was at war with the Axis powers in Europe (Germany and Italy) as well. The nation went all out in its mobilization for war. Many factories were reconfigured to make war materiel. For example, automobile factories stopped producing cars and instead made tanks and other vehicles for the armed forces to use in fighting the war. Once engaged, U.S. forces fought both in Europe against the Nazis and in the Pacific against Japan. The war ended in 1945.

Military Recruitment

Once the United States was committed to the war it quickly had to build a large and well-trained fighting force. In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress passed the first peacetime military draft legislation. Most young men who were drafted ended up in the infantry. The infantry was made up of ordinary soldiers who fought on the ground and were most vulnerable to being killed or injured in the fighting.

Young men, and some women, who attended prestigious private high schools (similar to Devon School in A Separate Peace) or who were enrolled in Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) programs, were recruited for officer training, which put them in higher positions than ordinary infantry soldiers. The benefit of enlistment for these young people was that they could choose which branch of the military they wanted to serve in. If they did not enlist voluntarily, they would later be drafted. Draftees were usually assigned to the branch of the military where fighting men were most needed—usually the infantry.

Through enlistment and the draft, by December 1941, the number of soldiers in the U.S. armed forces reached 2.2 million. As the war dragged on more soldiers were drafted. Approximately 10 million citizens were drafted into the military during World War II. The draft required that all men between the ages of 18 and 64 register with the military. However, it was men under the age of 38 who were most often drafted for active service. Depending on the service and assignment draftees spent a period of time at a training camp for basic military training. Those chosen for their special skills might train for a longer period than men headed for the infantry.

The Olympics

The modern Olympics derived from the ancient Greek contests of athletic skill. The Olympics were revived in 1896 as a global convocation of nations whose athletes would come together to compete in various types of athletics and sports. They were viewed as a way for the nations of the world to convene and engage peacefully. At first the modern Olympics were held every four years and only during the (northern hemisphere) summer. In 1924 the winter Olympic Games was added.

The politics of virulent nationalism in Europe that began in the 1930s undermined the Olympic Games. Although the games were held in Berlin, Germany, in 1936 during the Nazi rule of Adolf Hitler—at a time when Europe and the United States still viewed the dictator favorably—once World War II started the games were cancelled. This explains why Finny in A Separate Peace is so fanciful in his notion of training Gene for the 1944 Olympics—there were no Olympic Games held in 1940 or 1944 because of World War II. Similarly, the 1916 games had been cancelled because of World War I (1914–18).
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