H. W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is “Heirs of the Founders.”
‘There never was a good War, or a bad Peace,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. The U.S. Army begs to differ. Last month the Army announced a redesign of uniforms that will garb the nation’s soldiers in dress greens reminiscent of those worn during World War II. “We went back and asked, when is the most prominent time when the Army’s service to our nation was universally recognized?” the sergeant-major of the Army explained. The war against Germany and Japan came at once to mind. “That victory, that impact on the nation, is still felt today by the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ”
The Army outpolls Franklin on this subject, at least in America. Despite causing upward of 40 million deaths worldwide, and American casualties greater than those in any conflict save the Civil War, World War II persists in American memory as the “good war.” Not even academic historians, those pesky revisers of received wisdom, have dented the reputation of the anti-fascist conflict. This is all the more remarkable given the devil’s bargain the war involved — to wit, the alliance with the Soviet Union, a country led by Joseph Stalin, a monster rivaling Adolf Hitler for runner-up in the ranks of history’s mass murderers. (First place goes to Mao Zedong — another American ally, de facto, in the war.) Nor did the war solve America’s essential security problem, for shortly after the conflict’s end, Americans faced an even greater threat than that posed by fascism, from the very communist regimes they had helped save.
James Lacey’s new book reflects a curious aspect of this abiding paradox. The “Washington war” of Lacey’s title was the complex series of battles within the U.S. bureaucracy over America’s conduct of the war. In the subtitle the author refers to Franklin Roosevelt’s “inner circle,” and he defines that circle generously. He includes scores of individuals, ranging from the obvious (Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall) to the obscure (Union Pacific Railroad president and wartime “rubber czar” William Jeffers, statistician Stacy May).
This broad-gauged approach is at once the strength of the book and its weakness. The literature on World War II includes biographies of all the major actors and histories of the principal institutions. But no one before Lacey has wrangled such a large cast and covered so much bureaucratic ground. There is scarcely a significant quarrel or even mild dispute that Lacey doesn’t address, except the ones he deliberately avoids. He ignores, for example, the Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks conferences, on the reasoning that these elicited “broad general consensus.” Nothing to see here, folks; move along. Even if this were as true as Lacey suggests, consensus doesn’t just happen. It would be useful to observe how Roosevelt arranged it on such crucial issues as world finance (Bretton Woods) and the United Nations (Dumbarton Oaks).
The weakness of the book is that the reader sometimes gets lost among all the characters. Lacey helps by providing prefatory cameos of 59. And he invariably has something striking to say in the text about them. Douglas MacArthur dressed down Roosevelt for shortchanging the Army, declaring (as MacArthur recounted later) that “when we lost the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.” Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Roosevelt’s secretary of commerce after Hopkins, didn’t like being criticized; when the owner of The Washington Post, Eugene Meyer, refused to retract a harsh editorial, Jones assaulted him in the ballroom of the Willard Hotel. Meyer fought back, and the Willard’s guests were treated to a furious grapple between the sexagenarians. Roosevelt laughed it off at a news conference the next day, saying he hoped not to have to referee the rematch.
This is great fun, and enlightening after a fashion, but the reader can wish for a more judicious weighting of the vignettes according to the heft of the participants. A similar reaction applies to coverage of topics. Lacey devotes a page to D-Day and a chapter to the Morgenthau Plan. Even if the punitive blueprint for postwar Germany had been adopted — it wasn’t — the largest amphibious operation in history deserves better.
Lacey gamely draws conclusions from his sprawling tale. He says he commenced his research believing that the political infighting hindered the war effort. “But the more I delved into the clashes that made up the Washington war, the clearer it became that these titanic rows almost always led to better outcomes than would have prevailed had there been a single man or apparatus directing events.” As a corroborating counterexample, he cites Hitler’s refusal to brook dissenting views. “How might the course of the war have changed if Hitler had let the German general staff debate the pros and cons of declaring war on the United States, at a time” — December 1941 — “when Britain remained undefeated and the Wehrmacht was stalled in front of Moscow?” Lacey concludes that the fights in Washington, however bitter and costly, were “a precondition of victory.”
He doesn’t prove this. In fact his own stories offer plenty of evidence to the contrary: that the American side won the war despite the struggles in Washington, not because of them. But both versions — infighting good, infighting bad — fall into the realm of the unprovable, a category encompassing nearly all historical explanations.
Yet it doesn’t really matter, for most Americans. The war had a happy ending. The good guys won and the bad guys lost. The war revived the U.S. economy and restored American self-confidence after a decade of depression. The war quieted partisan strife and made Americans feel they were on the same team. Nazi Germany was so indisputably evil that America’s flaws — and, for a time, those of America’s allies — paled by comparison.
Could the war have been managed better? Doubtless. But one doesn’t quibble over details in the defining moral struggle of the age. Every country requires a Greatest Generation, and until the last members of ours pass away, the “good war” will remain untouchable.
By James Lacey
567 pp. $35