The Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 22, 2000
The US Is Not The 'Indispensable Nation,' As A Growing WWII Mythology
by Benjamin Schwarz
Each June, Americans rightfully honor the bravery and sacrifice of the
men who invaded Normandy in 1944. Recently, however, this celebration
often lapsed into a solipsistic and deeply flawed revision of the U.S.
role in World War II, which leads to equally self-congratulatory but far
conclusions about America's purpose in the world today. If Americans are
to get a more balanced view of their history and their global role, we
remember another June anniversary: today, the 59th anniversary of
Germany's invasion of Russia.
A national mythology has emerged that in 1941 the United States,
appalled by the horrific policies of the Nazis, deliberately embarked on
a crusade to rid
the world of Hitler and to stop the Holocaust. D-Day was, according to
this version of events, the decisive point in the "Good War," when
piously aware of the noble cause for which they fought, began the
military operations that defeated Nazi Germany. Having beat Hitler and
made possible a
better world, the United States remains to this day what Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright declares "the indispensable nation."
Some reminders are in order.
First, of course, such a view slights the anti-Japanese dimension of
the U.S. war, which was the real reason the United States had gone to
war in the
first place. Nazi Germany declared war on the United States in accord
with its treaty with Japan; only then did the U.S. declare that Germany
enemy too. For most Americans, the purpose of the war remained to exact
revenge on the Japanese.
Second, stopping the mass murder of the Jews didn't figure in any way
in either American war aims or conduct. As for American soldiers and
they fought the war, as historian and critic Paul Fussell declares, "in
an ideological vacuum." The war was "about your military unit and your
loyalty to it."
Plainly put, they fought the war to end it so that they could go home, a
point of view entirely reasonable and even courageous, but hardly
As far as the U.S. contribution to defeating the Nazis goes, even
though Time magazine anointed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as "The Man Who
Hitler," if any one man deserves that label, it's Soviet Army Marshal
G.K. Zhukov, or possibly Josef Stalin. The main scene of the Nazis'
Normandy or anywhere else Americans fought, but rather the Eastern
Front, where the conflict was the most terrible war fought in history.
It claimed 50
million Soviet civilian deaths and 29 million Soviet military
casualties. But more to the point, Americans should recall that about
88% of all German casualties
fell in the war with Russia.
Until the Normandy invasion--from June 1941 to June 1944--almost the
whole of the Nazi war machine was concentrated in the East; and even two
months after D-Day, well over half the German army was still fighting
the Soviets. Military historians date the war's turning point two years
when, at Stalingrad, the Soviets eradicated 50 divisions from the Axis
order of battle, or nearly one year before when, at the Battle of Kursk,
the Red Army
smashed the Wehrmacht's strategic tank force, breaking the Nazis'
capacity for large-scale attack. And it was the Red Army that liberated
bore down on Hitler's bunker.
The moral narcissism that characterizes recent American discussion of
our role in World War II breeds within too many of our statesmen a smug
reckless pride. After all, the thinking goes, if history has shown the
United States to be so virtuous, then any that oppose us must be evil.
Today, Americans need not honor the Russian dead as we do our own, but
we should give credit where credit is due, and we must not make
exaggerated claims for ourselves. In contemplating how our WWII role
influences our conduct in the contemporary world, Americans should
self-righteousness is bad enough, but when it springs largely from a
self-serving mythology, it is insufferable.
Benjamin Schwarz Is the Literary Editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
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