Recently, the spectacular extent to which Americans misunderstand their predecessors’ roles in World War II was on display, much as it may have escaped the collective understanding of the American people. This blatant ignorance was provoked by a CNN piece dealing with “The World’s Ugliest Monuments.” In the piece, CNN cited a seemingly inconsequential structure in Belarus as perhaps the world’s ugliest monument. Little did the editors at CNN know that the monument commemorated the thousands of Soviet troops who gave their lives not only for their country but so that the world might evolve free of fascist influence (Associated Press, 2013). World War II, and with it the future of civilized people, was won in part through the gratuitous spilling of Russian blood. But for exceedingly savvy politicking on the part of Harry Truman, including his decision to drop “the bomb,” the U.S. would likely never have emerged as a global superpower.
Stoler carefully lays out the manner in which American memory has perverted the historical reality of World War II. Relative to the Russians, the Americans were barely involved in World War II; indeed, American causalities were higher during its own Civil War than they were during World War II and these numbers paled in comparison to the millions of Russian lives lost (Stoler, 1992). And yet, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew full well that Nazi Germany was thriving, while putting to death millions of innocent men, women, and children in its genocidal quest for racial supremacy. Indeed, FDR himself was instrumental in denying safe harbor to a ship of nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees in May of 1939 (Steinhouse, 2007). And it would be yet another several years before the U.S. would formally enter World War II.
Just as they had done in the Winter of 1812, when Napoleon’s army was rebuffed at Borodino, some 20 miles West of Moscow, Russian forces refused to allow Hitler’s Army to break their lines and the Russian border in the Winter of 1941. According to conservative estimates, up to 1 million casualties were suffered defending the Russian border from invasion by Nazi forces (Merritt, 1988). Had Hitler broken through the Russian lines and successfully occupied Russia, his army would have been far better positioned to defend against American forces at Normandy and throughout Western Europe. In other words, there would have been no war for the U.S. to finally enter but for Russia having defended its own borders. All tolled, Russian casualties numbered close to 30 million by the end of the war, or approximately 15% of the Soviet Union’s total population. With some estimates as high as 40 million, this percentage estimate was likely closer to 20% of all Russians, as compared with perhaps .4% of the American population (Stoler, 1992). Given this, the manner in which President Harry Truman chose to end the war amounted to a boon of the highest order for the future of his country.
In other words, when President Truman determined it necessary to use America’s atomic superiority to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he ensured that no further American casualties would be suffered, thought the U.S. had not suffered casualties of significance, relative to the Russians. As such, the U.S. strategically positioned itself for a future of global superiority; no country of its size had fewer resources invested in World War II than did the U.S. and no country benefitted more from the re-ordering of the world that occurred in the war’s aftermath than did the U.S. (Stoler, 1992). Through popular culture and the ills of collective memory, most Americans have either failed to comprehend this reality or, worse yet, simply chosen to ignore it in favor of some historical perversion undertaken for the sake of collective good feeling.
It should have come as no surprise to any American that CNN’s Russian Bureau Chief was called to the Russian Foreign Minister’s office, where he was issued a formal reprimand for ridiculing the Belarusian monument. Indeed, the fact that this ostensibly came as a surprise to CNN and any American indicates that the vast majority of Americans are entirely ignorant of the historical implications of World War II (Associated Press, 2014). As Stoler suggests, films such as Saving Private Ryan are less dramatized than are their predecessors, but they are no less confusing to an American populace that remains unable to come to grips with the reality of history: that the United States was a sometimes hindrance to destruction of Hitler and Nazi Germany, as opposed to a savior of all humanity. Viewed thus, to mock a memorial to the memory of those who did rescue humanity from a New World Nazi Order demonstrates a shocking degree of insensitivity and historical confusion. This confusion is further evidenced by the confused reaction to the Russian response to this insensitivity.
While U.S. forces did eventually enter World War II and while these forces were surely instrumental in places like the Ardennes Forrest and Guadalcanal, Americans have forgotten (or perhaps they never knew) that this “greatest generation” did what was asked of them, which was relatively little. This is not to minimize their sacrifice in the upholding of global order, but only to highlight the extent to which we have inflated this legacy for the sake of avoiding the realities that we would be forced to confront if we were to accept history as is. As an extension of Stoler’s argument, Americans would be wise to understand that its refusal to enter World War II at its height directly correlated with millions of Soviet losses and thus the expansion of Stalinist policies into former satellite republics as a means of compensating for the devastating loss of life that served to almost cripple the Soviet economy. In simpler terms, American’s posturing toward superpower status directly resulted in the evolution of the Soviet Union as a superpower, thereby generating the Cold War itself. Of course, these are difficult realities with which to come to terms, so it may yet be many years before American perceptions of history come closer to mirroring reality, which will likely operate to the detriment of the nation’s long-term stability.
The Associated Press (2014, February 10). “How Russia hits back at slights over WWII victory.” New York Times, pp.?.
Merritt, S.M. (1988). Between Churchill and Stalin: The Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the origins of the Grand Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Steinhouse, C. L. (2007). Barred: The shameful refusal of FDR's State Department to save tens of thousands of Europe's Jews from extermination. City?: AuthorHouse, 2007.
Stoler, M. A. (2001). “The Second World War in U.S. history and memory.” Diplomatic History, 25(3), 383–392