“Americans … acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus democracy throws [a man] back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
Alexis de Toqueville
75 years ago today, Nazi General Alfrd Jodl signed an unconditional surrender at Reims, France, bringing to an end World War II in Europe. Our nation traditionally celebrates V-E Day on May 8, but for me, May 7 is the anniversary of note.
Europe as it had
known was no more. Cities were leveled, cathedrals burned. By war’s end, there were 7 million more German women than men. That pales next to
the horror visited on the
Soviet Union: more than 26 million lives lost, including 8 to 9 million from starvation.
The United States was in so many ways spared the worst of a war fought almost entirely overseas. Of 418,500 US casualties, nearly 417,000 were servicemembers.
This is not to say that our nation was
an observer. The US turned the battle in Europe and won the war in the Pacific, both through the audacity of our fighting forces and our industrial might.
No, if there is a flaw in
, it is not that our country was distant from the scene. Rather, it
is the conviction
—smoothed by liquid time—that Americans were alike in opinion
We imagine the men and women of the Greatest Generation, aligned by common purpose, marching arm-in-arm to victory. It was a just war, the Good War.
The truth, though,
ar more magical and
a source of encouragement at this trying time in our history
. And what is the truth? Not
A short chronology helps illuminate the story. The war began with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Rapidly, Nazi forces took Czechoslovakia, Austria and even France, yet more than two years would pass before the US committed combat forces to the conflict.
In the intervening time, a political fight had been playing out in Washington and on Main Street between isolationists, led by men such as Charles Lindbergh and Herbert Hoover, but also powered by thousands of mothers marching to protest the possibility of their boys dying in a foreign land, and interventionists, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into the fight and turned isolationists into interventionists. Our mistake though is to believe that all argument ended then. There remained folks who disagreed on strategy, who thought lend-lease was too expensive and that power should be concentrated on Japan. There were war profiteers and Nazi apologists, pacifists and draft dodgers. Japanese-American soldiers pulled on their uniforms even as their parents were forced behind wire. A black corporal named Rupert Trimmingham wrote to
magazine to ask why he and his fellow soldiers had been denied a cup of coffee at a railroad lunchroom in Arizona but a cluster of German POWs were served.
Even FDR had critics: 22 million Americans voted for Thomas Dewey in 1944.
Somehow amid contention and endless death, the US stayed the course.
Ours is a combative, quarrelsome country. That can make our politics—and our holiday dinner tables—ugly, but it is also a source of creativity and the means by which we sort between good and best. We take a position, find someone who thinks differently, and go toe-to-toe. The ideas that emerge are tempered and sharpened.
Of late, though, it seems we have lost the ability to argue productively. We gather in like-minded tribes and shout down our critics as fools and fiends. This has been painfully evident during the Coronavirus pandemic. Scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, I am struck by how many commentators seem to care less that the nation wins than that their enemies lose.
World War II teaches that it is possible to disagree and still be in the fight together. On this historic anniversary, let’s resolve, if only for one day, to argue in good faith. Let’s listen with respect to those who see the world from another perspective. Remember the words of General George Patton, a man who knew something about conflict: “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.”