The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945 ought to prompt thoughtful reflection. For Americans, V-E Day, as it was then commonly called, marked the beginning of “our times.” The Covid-19 pandemic may signal that our times are now coming to an end.
Tom Engelhardt, editor and proprietor of TomDispatch, was born less than a year prior to V-E Day. I was born less than two years after its counterpart, V-J Day, marking the surrender of Imperial Japan in August 1945.
Tom is a New Yorker, born and bred. I was born and raised in the Midwest.
Tom is Jewish, although nonobservant. I am a mostly observant Catholic.
Tom is a progressive who as a young man protested against the Vietnam War. I am, so I persist in claiming, a conservative. As a young man, I served in Vietnam.
Yet let me suggest that these various differences matter less than the fact that we both came of age in the shadow of World War II—or more specifically in a time when the specter of Nazi Germany haunted the American intellectual landscape. Over the years, that haunting would become the underlying rationale for the US exercise of global power, with consequences that undermined the nation’s capacity to deal with the menace it now faces.
Tom and I both belong to what came to be known as the baby boom generation (though including him means ever so slightly backing up the official generational start date). As a group, boomers are generally associated with having had a pampered upbringing before embarking upon a rebellious youth (Tom more than me), and then as adults helping ourselves to more than our fair share of all that life, liberty, and happiness. Now, preparing to exit the stage, we boomers are passing on to those who follow us a badly damaged planet and a nation increasingly divided, adrift, and quite literally sick. A “greatest generation” we are not.
How did all this happen? Let me suggest that, to unpack American history during the decades when we baby boomers sashayed across the world stage, you have to begin with World War II, or more specifically, with how that war ended and became enshrined in American memory.
Of course, we boomers never experienced the war directly. Our parents did. Tom’s father and both of my parents served in World War II. Yet neither were we boomers ever truly able to put that war behind us. For better or worse, members of our generation remain the children of V-E Day, when—so we tell ourselves—evil was finally vanquished and good prevailed.
For Tom, for me, and for our contemporaries, World War II as history and as metaphor centers specifically on the Nazis and their handiwork: swastikas, mammoth staged rallies, the Gestapo and the SS, the cowardice of surrender at Munich, the lightning offensive campaigns known as Blitzkrieg, London burning, the Warsaw Ghetto, slave labor, and, of course, a vast network of death camps engineering the Holocaust, all documented in film, photographs, archives, and eyewitness accounts.
And then there was der Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, the subject of a fascination that, over the decades, proved bottomless and more than slightly disturbing. (If your local library ever reopens, compare the number of books about Hitler to those about Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini or wartime Japanese emperor Hirohito.) Seventy-five years after his death, Hitler remains among us, the supreme villain routinely pressed into service by politicians and media pundits alike intent on raising the alarm about some imminent danger. If ever there were a man for all seasons, it is Adolf Hitler.
Hitler’s centrality helps explain why Americans typically date the opening of World War II to September 1939, when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Only in December 1941 did the United States (belatedly) join the conflict, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other American installations in the Pacific forcing Washington’s hand. In fact, however, a full decade earlier Japan had already set out to create what it would eventually call its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In September 1931, its forces invaded then Chinese-controlled Manchuria, an undertaking that soon enough morphed into a very large and brutal armed conflict with China proper in which the United States participated on a proxy basis. (Remember the Flying Tigers?) In other words, World War II actually began in Asia rather than Europe, with the first shots fired years before the Nazi attack on Poland.
Yet launching the narrative in September 1939 has the effect of keeping the primary focus on Germany. From a moral perspective, there are ample reasons for doing this: Even in a century of horrendous crimes—the Armenian genocide, Stalin’s extermination of Ukraine’s kulaks, and Mao Zedong’s murderous campaign against his own people—the sheer unadulterated evil of the Nazi regime stands apart.
From a political perspective, however, intense preoccupation with one example of iniquity, however horrific, induces a skewed perspective. So it proved to be with the United States during the decades that followed V-E Day. Subsumed within the advertised purposes of postwar US policy, whether called “defense,” “deterrence,” “containment,” “liberation,” or “the protection of human rights,” has been this transcendent theme: “Never Again.” That is, never again will the United States ignore or appease or fail to confront a regime that compares to—or even vaguely resembles—Nazi Germany. Never again will it slumber until rudely awakened by a Pearl Harbor–like surprise. Never again will it allow its capacity for projecting power against distant threats to dissipate. Never again will it fail to lead.
Of all Donald Trump’s myriad deficiencies, large and small, this may be the one that his establishment critics find most difficult to stomach: His resurrection of “America First” as a primary principle of statecraft suggests a de facto nullification of “Never Again.”
To Trump’s critics, it hardly matters that “America First” in no way describes actual administration policy. After all, more than three years into the Trump presidency, our endless wars persist (and in some cases have even intensified); the nation’s various alliances and its empire of overseas bases remain intact; US troops are still present in something like 140 countries; Pentagon and national security state spending continues to increase astronomically. Even so, the president does appear oblivious to the historical antecedent—that is, the imperative of standing ready to deal with the next Hitler—that finds concrete expression in these several manifestations of US national security policy. No one has ever accused Trump of possessing a profound grasp of history. Yet here his apparent cluelessness is especially telling.
Not least among the unofficial duties of any president is to serve as the authoritative curator of public memory. Through speeches, proclamations, and the laying of wreaths, presidents tell us what we should remember and how. Through their silence, they give us permission to forget the parts of our past that we prefer to forget. Himself born barely a year after V-E Day, Donald Trump seems to have forgotten World War II.
New Signs for a New Time?
Yet let’s consider this admittedly uncongenial possibility: Perhaps Trump is on to something. What if V-E Day is no more relevant to the present than the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812? What if, as a basis for policy, “Never Again” is today just as outmoded as “America First”? What if clinging to the canonical lessons of the war against Hitler impedes efforts to repair our nation and our planet?
An abiding problem with “Never Again” is that US policy-makers have never applied it to the United States. Since V-E Day, individuals and regimes deemed in Washington to be the spawn of Hitler and the Nazis have provided justification for successive administrations to accumulate arms, impose punishments, underwrite coups and assassination plots, and, of course, wage war endlessly. Beginning with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong, the list of malefactors that US officials and militant journalists have likened to Hitler is a long one. They’ve ranged from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung in the 1950s to Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the 1960s to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. And just to bring things up to date, let’s not overlook the ayatollahs governing present-day Iran.
Two decades after V-E Day, a succession of presidents deployed lessons ostensibly derived from the war against Hitler to justify the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy described South Vietnam as “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike.” Failing to defend that country would allow “the red tide of Communism,” as he put it, to sweep across the region much as appeasers had allowed the Nazi tide to sweep across Europe. “Everything I knew about history,” Lyndon Johnson reflected, “told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what [Neville] Chamberlain did in World War II,” a reference, of course, to the Munich Agreement with Hitler, which the British prime minister so infamously labeled “peace in our time.” Even as late as 1972, Richard Nixon was assuring the public that “an American defeat” in Vietnam “would encourage this kind of aggression all over the world.”
Vietnam provides but one example among many of how viewing problems through the lens of World War II in Europe has obscured real situations and actual stakes on this planet. In short, the promiscuous use of the Hitler analogy has produced deeply flawed policy decisions, while also deceiving the American people. This has inhibited our ability to see the world as it actually is.
Overall, the approach to statecraft that grew out of V-E Day defined the ultimate purpose of US policy in terms of resisting evil. That, in turn, provided all the justification needed for building up American military capabilities beyond compare and engaging in military action on a planetary scale.
In Washington, policy-makers have shown little inclination to consider the possibility that the United States itself might be guilty of doing evil. In effect, the virtuous intentions implicit in “Never Again” inoculated the country against the virus to which ordinary nations were susceptible. V-E Day seemingly affirmed that America was anything but ordinary.
Here, then, we arrive at one explanation for the predicament in which the United States now finds itself. In a recent article in The New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold wondered how it could be that when it came to dealing with Covid-19, “the country that defeated fascism in Europe 75 years ago” now finds itself “doing a worse job protecting its citizens than many autocracies and democracies” globally.
Yet it might just be that events that occurred 75 years ago in Europe no longer have much bearing on the present. The country that defeated Hitler’s version of fascism (albeit with considerable help from others) has since allowed its preoccupation with fascists, quasi-fascists, and other ne’er-do-wells to serve as an excuse for letting other things slip, particularly here in the homeland.
The United States is fully capable of protecting its citizens. Yet what the present pandemic drives home is this: Doing so while also creating an environment in which all citizens can flourish is going to require a radical revision of what we still, however inaccurately, call “national security” priorities. This does not mean turning a blind eye to mass murder. Yet the militarization of US policy that occurred in the wake of V-E Day has for too long distracted attention from more pressing matters, not least among them creating a way of life that is equitable and sustainable. This perversion of priorities must now cease.
So, yes, let’s mark this V-E Day anniversary with all due solemnity. Yet 75 years after the collapse of the Third Reich, the challenge facing the United States is not “Never Again.” It’s “What now?”
For the moment at least, Tom and I are still around. Yet “our times”—the period that began when World War II ended—have run their course. The new times upon which the nation has now embarked will pose their own distinctive challenges, as the Covid-19 pandemic makes unmistakably clear. Addressing those challenges will require leaders able to free themselves from a past that has become increasingly irrelevant.