David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus at Stanford University, delivered the insightful remarks below at “The Making of Modern America,” a June 2011 Humanities Texas teacher institute in Austin.
Professor Kennedy received his PhD in American studies from Yale. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic and cultural analysis with social and political history. His 1970 book Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger embraced the medical, legal, political, and religious dimensions of the subject and helped pioneer the emerging field of women's history. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) used the history of American involvement in World War I to analyze the American political system, economy, and culture in the early twentieth century. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War (1999) recounts the history of the United States in the two great crises of the Great Depression and World War II.
I began last time by making a point about “what if” questions, so let me return to that motif here and just pose the question, which might strike you as outrageous, but it has pedagogical value, I think: what if the United States had lost World War II? How would the world that we’ve all lived in ever since have been different? That’s the strong form of the question. There’s a somewhat more historically responsible form of the question, which I’ll rephrase, but it doesn’t have the headliner and banner quality: what if the United States had won the war, but won it fighting on a different set of strategic principles, on a different timetable, with a differently configured force? How would the war have ended differently and how would the world that it shaped have been different for all of us who have lived, whether we like it or not, in the post–World War II order?
So, that’s the general question that frames these remarks. There’s a premise that underlies these remarks, and the premise is that World War II was an enormously transformative event in the life of this society and in the life of the world at large, on a scale that really bears comparison with other great events like the Napoleonic Wars and so on, or even the French Revolution. So that’s the premise: how transformative this event was. The proposition that I want to argue for you, the line of analysis that I want to try to develop here, is that the transformations that the war effected did not just happen. They were not simply incidental effects of an event that was driven by other considerations, but to a large degree, they were the deliberate products of a series of decisions made about how to fight a particular war, in a particular way, on a particular timetable, with a particular force configuration for particular objectives. That’s the general argument that I want to advance here.
So, how transformative was the war? Some of you may have read a wonderful novel by Philip Roth called American Pastoral. I think it’s his best novel. There’s a line in there where Roth is trying to describe the mood of post–World War II America as a way of setting the scene for the history of this family (this narrative constitutes the arc of the story). He says among other things that this moment, this post–World War II moment, was “the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history.” A time when the country was truly giddy with a sense of its own self-confidence—when prosperity was real and continued—the economy grew at an almost 4 percent per year rate from the 1940s into the 1960s. It’s a time when we increased by 50 percent the size of the middle class as measured by home ownership in the immediate fifteen years after the war. I think, not incidentally, this is the moment—in the context of spreading and widely diffused and shared prosperity, great national self-confidence—it’s in this context that the unfulfilled agenda of the Civil War and Reconstruction finally moves forward significantly in the civil rights movement. That’s not just a historical accident, it seems to me, that the civil rights movement takes shape and achieves the successes that it does in this particular historical context.
There’s another way, too, for me at least, to sum up the transformative character of the war, and it’s a single sentence in a speech that Winston Churchill gave on August 16, 1945, the day after the Japanese emperor had signaled his intention to bring Japan to the surrender table, which happened on the deck of the battleship Missouri a couple of weeks later, but it was now broadcast and publicly known that Japan was going to surrender, and Winston Churchill gave a speech on the floor of Parliament. He was no longer prime minister, but he was still there in the Parliament, and he gave a speech in which he tried to sum up for his countrymen, and anybody else who cared to listen, the consequences of this great conflict that had now come to an end. It’s a wonderful, typically Churchillian speech and it’s worth reading in its own right, but there was a sentence in it that just leapt off the page at me when I first read it, not least of all because Churchill used a form of diction that hasn’t been used in this country for over a hundred years, 150 years now. He rendered the United States as a plural noun. So the sentence reads—it’s one single declarative sentence—it says simply: “The United States stand at this moment at the summit of the world.”
It’s August 16, 1945: “The United States stand at this moment at the summit of the world.” If you think about this in a historical context, it’s a remarkable statement because it was undeniably true, and I would argue that with certain qualifiers and modifications it’s been true ever since. This society has been the most influential actor on the international stage and has (until the last couple of years anyway) preserved this sense of hopefulness about the future and self-confidence and spreading prosperity, rising standards of living. Not as well shared in the last generation as they were in the post–World War II generation, perhaps, but nonetheless, with some modifiers this sentence has described the United States’s position and character for the last two or three generations. Now the reason that’s so striking to me is because Churchill says this in 1945, and there was absolutely no basis on which the accuracy of that statement could have been predicted from the vantage point of just five years earlier, 1940, the last full peacetime year in the United States. The contrast between the character and position of this society in 1940 and its condition in 1945 is just enormously dramatic and of course what it means is participation in the war. Thus, on this kind of perspective rests my case that the war is a transformative event.
Let’s just take our minds back to 1940 and try to put ourselves in the mindset of what it would have been like to live in this society in 1940 and how improbable it would have been to anticipate Winston Churchill saying, “The United States stand at the summit of the world,” just five years later. So, another thinking exercise: let’s just imagine ourselves walking down the streets of some great American city like Austin, Texas, in 1940. We hear a street-corner speaker who’s telling anyone who cares to listen that, “In this year of grace 1940,” he said, “I’m here to tell you, my fellow countrymen, that this economically stricken country of ours which has been groaning under this protracted economic crisis called the Great Depression for the last eleven years, more than a decade, from which both one Hoover and two Roosevelt administrations have failed to find the exit, at a moment when [he couldn’t have known this in 1940, but historians have reconstructed it] we think 45 percent of all white households and 95 percent of all African American households live below the poverty line in 1940. And if we think about the international situation of our country, my fellow countrymen,” (our hypothetical speaker would say), “we are the people who refused to join the League of Nations after World War I, even though it was the brainchild of our own president. We passed not one but two historically high tariff barriers to foreign vendors trying to sell into our markets: Fordney-McCumber in 1922 and Smoot-Hawley in 1930. We’re the country that insisted on repatriation of all those U.S. Treasury loans to the major European belligerents after the war, thus disrupting international capital flows and helping to bring on the Great Depression. We’re the country that imposed the first numeric ceiling on immigration to this country ever in 1924, which has made it very difficult for us to accept refugees from Nazi Germany trying to escape persecution. And we’re the country that passed five neutrality statutes in the last five years so that we will not again get involved in a great international conflict like World War I.
“I’m here to tell you,” our speaker goes on, “my fellow countrymen, that this economically stricken and deeply isolationist country of ours, just five years over the horizon, in 1945, will be embarked on an economic expansion of such a magnitude that it will increase the size of our middle class by 50 percent as measured by home ownership by 1960. We will become the leader in a global economic liberalization and invigoration that will achieve such proportions that by the end of this century, my fellow citizens, we will have invented a new word to describe this global situation. That word will be globalization. And what’s more, this isolationist country of ours that refused to join the League, that put up these enormously high tariff barriers to trade, that insisted upon repatriation of U.S. treasury loans to the World War I belligerents, passed these neutrality statutes—we will host a new institution, a successor to the League of Nations, on our own soil. None of this striped pants stuff in Geneva; we’re going to put it in our own principal city, New York. We’ll be its chief funder. And what’s more, we will found some new institutions. One will be called the International Monetary Fund, one will be called the World Bank, another will be called the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade—it will eventually morph into something called the World Trade Organization. We will be the locomotive in driving a period of global economic growth, the integration of markets, the free flow of capital and goods and people, and again we’ll have to invent a new word to describe it. That word is globalization.”
Now, anybody who had made that speech on the streets of Austin, or Berkeley, California, or wherever else you could think of, even in environments like those, would have been considered to be totally nuts and probably would have been hauled off, never to be heard from again. But we know that’s exactly how the story plays out. Something happened between 1940 and 1945 that transformed the internal character of this society to a remarkable degree and certainly transformed the status of this country with respect to the rest of the international system and the world. It was the war that did it. What could it be about the way that this country engaged in the war that achieved those results? If there’s nothing else that you take away from this discussion this morning and its continuation this afternoon, I hope it will be the thought that America’s World War II was unlike everybody else’s war. That this country fought a very peculiar kind of a war in World War II and no other society that was in a major way engaged with that conflict had an experience that even remotely resembled the experience of this country.
Now, my students at Stanford, and maybe your students too occasionally, if you get them be honest about their attitude toward the study of history, they’ll often say, "You know, Professor Kennedy, the trouble with the study of history is it’s just one damn thing after another." This story I’m going to rehearse for you in a little bit is not just one damn thing after another. The result we got, the forces that deposited the United States at the summit of the world, to use Churchill’s trope again, were not just the result of some casual or incidental side effects of a story that really has its principal logic elsewhere. We’re talking here about some very carefully taken decisions to fight the war in a particular kind of way. One of the remarkable things about the story or the history of America’s engagement with this war is that to a degree that is usually not given to most combatants in a major conflict like this, the United States succeeded largely in fighting the kind of war it wanted to fight and it anticipated fighting to its maximal benefit.
Franklin Roosevelt in a sense summed up the logic of what I’m going to try to describe to you in a fireside chat in December of 1940, I believe, when he said that we will become—it’s a phrase that I’m sure is familiar to all of you—“we will become the great arsenal of democracy.”
Now, notice what he did not say in that sentence. He did not say that we’ll become the sword of democracy, or even the shield of democracy. We’ll become the arsenal of democracy. We will become the workshop where we will supply combatants with the things they need to prevail in this conflict. With some modifications that I’ll get into in just a moment, that is the central core logic of this country’s engagement in World War II.
Now, this is where it all began, of course: Pearl Harbor. There’s something I’d like you to notice about this and the following photograph. This is of course the West Virginia and there’s the Arizona. You’ll notice in both of these photographs if you look at them carefully, you’ll see no bodies. In fact, Pearl Harbor was awash in dead bodies. The War and Navy Departments did not allow the publication of photographs showing the dead or the injured at Pearl Harbor. To this day, to the best of my knowledge, we have never seen photographs of Pearl Harbor that show the dead.
This is the first photograph of dead GIs that the authorities allowed to be published in World War II. It was published in LIFE magazine in 1943. It’s part of the New Guinea campaign. You don’t see the faces, of course. It’s been remarked many times, this is an exceptionally artfully composed photograph with a triangular formation of the bodies and the hull of the landing craft, and so on. But there’s something to be thought about in this. Why did we not see photographs of dead Americans until 1943, two years into the U.S. engagement in the war? Even when we see them, they’re in a sense sanitized the way this is.
Well I brought us up now to the point where the United States actually gets into the war. So here we are, December 1941, and I’m going share with you some observations by principal players in this drama about what were now going to be the implications of the fact that the United States entered the war. December 1941: the war in Europe is two years old. More than two years old by this date. The war in Asia, depending upon where you put its starting date, is at least four years old, maybe ten years old by this time. The United States finally enters the war.
We have an ear-witness to what Adolf Hitler said when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. This witness is recorded in William Shirer’s great book about The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Hitler said, when he heard the news—and he heard the news the way everybody else in the world heard it, over the newswire; he had no meaningful prior knowledge of the Japanese attack—he said, “Now it is impossible for us to lose this war, because we now have an ally as Japan who has never been vanquished in three thousand years.” So Hitler’s first reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack is to be filled with energy and exhilaration and confidence that now a German victory is assured.
At what we’re permitted to think was essentially precisely the same moment, several hundred miles to the west in England, Winston Churchill heard the same news in the same fashion over the news wire—believe me, he had no prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack—and we don’t know exactly what he said at that moment, we don’t have any such testimony, but what we do have, in Churchill’s memoir, the volume The Grand Alliance, we have his effort to reconstruct for the reader (that’s us) what his mindset was, what his state of mind was when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. He says this—again, he’s just writing about reconstructing his own state of mind—he says, “So the United States was in the war up to the neck and into the death. So we had won after all. England would live. I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and the thankful.”
Now, what’s extraordinary about this from a historical point of view, I think, is that here we have the same event, the same piece of news reaching these two players, Hitler and Churchill, locked at this time in mortal combat to determine the future of Europe and the world, making 180-degree opposite appraisals of what would be the implications of American belligerency. Hitler’s filled with confidence that now he’s got a certain victory and Churchill’s filled with confidence that now he has a certain victory. Again, we know how the story turns out, that Churchill had it right and Hitler had it wrong, but what’s remarkable about this, these two reactions as of December 7, 1941, is that it was still not clear, even to Hitler and Churchill, precisely what would be the way in which the United States would weigh into this war, exactly how it would put its resources into the scales and exactly how, where, when, and on what scale it would fight.
Now another document (I’m still quoting here), this comes from the pen of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, who about a week or two later, in mid-December 1941, prepared a memorandum for his fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, in which he tried to describe what would now be the implications of American belligerency. This is a much more considered and analytic document than Hitler’s outburst on the morning of December 7 that Germany had now won the war. It’s a long document; it’s a very, very analytic document. But here’s what Ribbentrop had to say on the crucial point of American belligerency. He said, “We now have just one year to cut Russia off from her military supplies. If we don’t succeed, and the munitions potential of the United States joins up with the manpower potential of the Russians, the war will enter a phase in which we shall only be able to win it with difficulty.” Now that was a far more shrewd appraisal of what the American entry into the war would mean than Hitler himself had said a just few days earlier.
Last comment from this little documentary recital: here I’m going to break the time-frame of December 1941 for a reason I hope you’ll agree is legitimate, because this remark I’m about to share with you comes from the pen of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of the Japanese Imperial Navy, and the person who was assigned the task of starting the war with the Americans by attacking Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. This is from a document he wrote in September of 1940, about fifteen months or so before the Pearl Harbor attack, at about the time the U.S.-Japanese relationship was beginning to go seriously sour. Yamamoto prepared a memorandum for his prime minister, a man by the name of Fumimaro Konoe, the last civilian prime minister of Japan before the Tojo government took power, and among the things he said are the following: “If I am told to fight, regardless of the consequences, I shall run wild for the first six months or a year”—note the comparability of his time frame to Ribbentrop’s—“but I have utterly no confidence for a second or third year. I hope, therefore, Mr. Prime Minister, that you will endeavor to avoid a Japanese-American war.” Now again, to me this is another extraordinary historical document: the man who is given the task of starting the war is telling his own government fifteen months before that date not to do it.
What Ribbentrop and Yamamoto shared was their deep knowledge of a principle first articulated hundreds or thousands of years ago by the great Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, who said that the first principle of warfare is “know your enemy,” and the second principle of warfare, said Sun Tzu, was “know yourself.” Know your enemy and know yourself. Yamamoto and Ribbentrop knew the United States in a way that Hitler did not, and they knew that the greatest asset that the Americans could bring to bear would be the enormous depth and strength of their economic and industrial production and facilities. If the United States had time enough to mobilize its economy in depth and begin to put those products of war materiel and so on into the scales, both Germany and Japan were doomed. That’s the central thing they knew. So the war now takes on a more urgent character for both the Germans and the Japanese, because they know if the Americans have time enough, they’ll be able to mobilize in depth.
I’m going to tell you a little parable here, and I’m going to call this “The Tale of Three Cities: How the United States Won World War II.” Some of you may have heard this on other occasions because I’m fond of telling this story. This is going to be a Cliffs notes-style summary of about three hundred pages’ worth of detailed argument in Freedom From Fear. This does not relieve you of the obligation to read the entire original, but I’m going to try to distill some of that and tell a little story about three cities. If we understand what happened in these three cities, we will, I think, understand the grand pattern of American grand strategy and we’ll be on our way to an answer to how the United States won the war and what the way in which it won it did to determine the shape of the world we’ve lived in ever since. So all three of these cities are on rivers. The first city is Rouen, on the banks of the Seine River in France. The second city is one familiar to all of us: Washington, DC, on the banks of the Potomac. The third city is a city that had its name changed a couple of times over the course of the twentieth century; it began the twentieth century known as Tsaritsyn, today we know it as Volgograd, because it’s on the Volga River, but at the time our story unfolds, it was known as Stalingrad. Our story unfolds in a six-month time frame from August 1942 to February 1943, and in that six months in these three cities, things happened that if we understand their essential nature and the summative character of the events in these three cities, we’ll have a pretty good grip on American grand strategy in World War II: how the United States fought the war and what the consequences were of fighting the war in a particular way.
Chapter One: Rouen, France, August 17, 1942. Not a date that’s emblazoned in our memory the way December 7 is or November 22, 1963, but an important date nonetheless. On August 17, 1942, a squadron of one dozen B-17 bombers, the great workhorse bomber of the European theater in World War II, took off from their base in the south of England, crossed the English channel, and dumped their bomb load on a railroad switching yard, or marshaling yard, in Rouen, France. By the way these things were usually measured in the course of the war, this was a highly successful raid, all the ordnance, all the bombs were dropped on the primary target, a lot of damage was done to the target, all the planes returned to base, no loss of aircraft, no loss of crew. That’s not why this is important. It’s important because on this date, August 17, 1942, this is the first all-American raid on Nazi-occupied Europe from the air. What was happening on this date was the making operational of a decision that had been made roughly a decade earlier, in the early 1930s, when American military planners, having read and seriously studied a book written in 1922, twenty years earlier, by an Italian theorist of war by the name Giulio Douhet, a book called Command of the Air. American military planners read this book carefully and decided that in the case of a future conflict in which the United States became involved the way it did in World War I, it would make its heaviest bet not on traditional infantry or even traditional naval power, surface naval power, but it would bet instead on strategic air power. It would configure its force around the central element of a very heavy-fisted air arm that would conduct warfare in a way that Douhet argued, and the American military planners bought this, would revolutionize the nature of warfare itself.
The core premise of strategic bombing was to use this new technology of the airplane not simply to support troops in the traditional field of combat. That’s called tactical air support. That still goes on but that’s not what Douhet was talking about. He was talking about a use of the airplane that would revolutionize warfare itself. He argued, and the United States bought this doctrine, that you could build fleets of what he called strategic bombers, long-range bombers, that would deliver their blow not against the enemy’s troops in the field, but against the enemy’s homeland. And they would so badly damage his infrastructure, his economic and industrial productive capacity, and his morale that he would be unable to wage conventional warfare in the field. So the strategic bomber would overfly the traditional battlefield, penetrate deeply into the enemy’s heartland, knock out his industrial, transportation, and communication facilities and—Douhet did not hesitate about using this word—so terrorize the enemy population that they would lose their will and capacity to fight. There are only two countries that fought World War II that made their major bet on this strategic doctrine: the United States and the United Kingdom. Germany and Japan, to be sure, bombed civilians, as did the Italians, especially in Ethiopia, but none of those adversary or Axis countries actually made a strategic air arm the central component of their force configuration. We, and the British, did.
So note the date here: this is August of 1942. This is, in round numbers, two years before D-Day, what we think of as the great iconic event that represents our major intervention in the European theater. But the principal front from which the United States engaged its German adversary beginning in 1942 was not on the ground, it was from the air. D-Day comes eleven months before the war’s conclusion, after the combined Anglo-American bombing campaigns had already badly weakened Germany in terms of its industrial heartland, and lest we forget after by that time three years of just god-awful fighting on the Eastern front between the Germans and the Soviet Union—I’ll come back to that point in a minute.
Now, if I may add a footnote to this, a matter I did not know when I was writing Freedom from Fear, I learned later, the pilot of the lead airplane on that August 17, 1942, raid, was a man named Paul Tibbets. The name will be familiar to some of you—he was the pilot of the Enola Gay, which drops the first atomic bomb in history on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, almost to the day three years later. So in a sense we can take Paul Tibbets’s military career in World War II as a kind of summary statement of the centrality of strategic bombing, of air power, to the American formula for victory. Two years’ worth of strategic bombing of Nazi-occupied Europe and finally the great attack on Japan, the atomic attack in World War II, which makes it unnecessary to have an amphibious or ground invasion of the Japanese home island. So the centrality of air power, in particular strategic air power, is the great lesson of the Rouen raid on August 17, 1942.
Chapter Two: Washington, DC, just a few weeks later, October 6, 1942. Much less dramatic chapter, this one, doesn’t involve an air raid, but a meeting in the office of a wartime bureaucrat by the name of Donald Nelson, who’s the head of something called the War Production Board. Nelson’s job was to mobilize the American economy, shift it over from a peacetime to a wartime footing and to fulfill the requirements of something called the Victory Program, a document drawn up in the War Plans Division of the War Department in 1941. An enormously detailed list of the things that would be necessary to wage this war: forty billion bullets, thousands and thousands of aircrafts, so many ships, fifteen thousand chainsaws, one of the items on this list in the Victory Program, in order to cut the trees to mill the timber to build the barracks to train the troops and send them overseas, and so on. Enormously detailed. As 1942 went on, Donald Nelson was given the job of implementing the Victory Program, shifting the economy to wartime footing. He concluded that it was not feasible to do so at the scale and on the schedule that he’d been given, that this would break the back of the civilian economy and produce all kinds of bottlenecks and economic inefficiencies. So he began discussions with the military to slow down and diminish the scale of economic mobilization. And in a more or less showdown meeting on October 6, 1942, with Vice President Henry Wallace sitting at his side representing the White House, across the table from the military chiefs, Donald Nelson prevailed, and from this meeting, this confrontation, two big strategic consequences followed.
Number one, the target date for the event that we know as D-Day, as the amphibious invasion across the English channel, landing on the French coast in order to get a force into the industrial heartland of Germany, the Saar and the Ruhr Valleys, the target date for that on the Victory Program had been laid down as July 1, 1943, and now as a result of this meeting everything slowed down, and the target date becomes eventually June 6, 1944, but in round numbers D-Day is postponed by a year. It’s a direct consequence of this resolution of this dispute about what pace and on what scale to mobilize.
The second decision that flowed directly from the same meeting was to ratchet down significantly the size of the force that was going to be conscripted, trained, and deployed. Originally thought to be 215 divisions, that was now brought down to ninety divisions, leaving 125 divisions worth of manpower that had originally been destined to serve in uniform and on the fighting front to keep them at home on the production lines. The military called this the ninety-division gamble. They didn’t like it. They were nervous about it.
Why did they call it a gamble? The answer to that takes us to Chapter Three, our third city, Stalingrad, early February 1943. The first major, large-scale, strategic-scale German surrender in the invasion of the Soviet Union. If any one battle in the World War II saga can be said to be the turning point of the war, it’s Stalingrad, where the Russians, now the Soviets, turn from defensive warfare to offensive warfare. They bag about 350,000 German POWs at Stalingrad, and they begin the process of pushing the Germans back through Russia, through the Ukraine, through Poland, through Eastern Prussia, back into the streets of Berlin itself in May 1945. It is the turning point of the war insofar as any battle can be.
The Russian victory at Stalingrad and the passage of the Russians from defensive to offensive warfare ratified the viability of these earlier American decisions to fight primarily from the air and not on the ground, to postpone the opening of the western front, or D-Day, by a year, and to field a much smaller force than had been originally anticipated. Joseph Stalin had his own way of describing this. He said, and he said this many times, he said it both to Churchill and to Roosevelt. He said it to their faces. He said it in correspondence. He said it looks like the Americans have decided to fight this war with American money and American machines and Russian men. Now, it’s a very cynical way to put the matter but it was absolutely accurate.
Here’s D-Day, again, I’ll just call to your attention this was eleven months before the conclusion of the Europe war. It is the coup de grâce delivered against an enemy who has been badly weakened by the previous fighting on the eastern front and by the air campaign. Here is a summary story of what the core element in all this is, but I want to come to something else.
Macy’s Department Store—in late 1944 the marketing team at Macy’s decided they were going to hold a storewide sale, a big large-scale discount sale, and the date they hit on, oddly enough, was December 7, 1944, the third anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. I don’t know about you but I’d find it pretty creepy if Wal-Mart or Costco or somebody today had a big advertised sale on 9/11. That would be kind of weird. But they did it anyway on December 7, 1944. And at the end of the day they counted all the cash register receipts and so on and it turns out that Macy’s on that day had a higher dollar volume of sales than on any day in its prior history. Now there is no other country that fought World War II` where that kind of story could have happened. In our two principal allies in the grand alliance, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, both of those countries, the civilian economies, the civilian sector of the economy shrank by nearly a third. People had roughly 30 percent less food and fuel and clothing and shelter and so on than they had in peacetime. In the United States and the United States alone, of all the major combatants in the war, the civilian sector of the economy grew by 15 percent. The Macy’s story is simply illustrative of that. That is a singularity. There is no other country that fought the war and indeed there are few if any other countries in the history of warfare that fought long protracted wars of attrition, which basically World War II was, and managed to grow their civilian economy even while fighting such a conflict.
Final point here: these are a little hard to hear, these numbers, but they tell a very important story. These are the numbers of dead by country. The United Kingdom: about 350,000 dead in a country roughly a quarter to a third of our size, and of that 350,000, one hundred thousand were civilians. China, a country we sometimes forget its belligerent status in the war: ten million dead, of whom six million were civilians. Yugoslavia, a relatively small country by our standards: two million dead of whom one and a half million were civilians. Japan: three million dead of whom one million were civilians, most of them killed not in the atomic attacks but in the firebomb raids that started in late 1944. Poland: eight million dead of whom six million were civilians, and somewhere in the range of four to five million of those were Jews. Germany: six and a half million dead of whom one million were civilians; most German civilians killed in the combined Anglo-American bombing raids. Soviet Union: twenty-four million dead of whom sixteen million were civilians. And then the United States: 405,399 by Department of Defense count (even today, it’s not been revised in years) 405,399 military dead in all branches of service. That’s Navy, Marine Corps, U.S. Army, Air Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine, all counted together. 405,399 military dead, and on the civilian side of the ledger, in a war which we think is the first war, in modern history at least, in which the civilian death toll was larger than the military death toll, largely because of what happened in the Soviet Union, the civilian death toll for the United States is exactly six people killed as direct result of enemy action in the forty-eight continental states, the states that in that era had a star on the flag.
This is a monument to those six people. They were in south-central Oregon on the slopes of a place called Gearhart Mountain, which is near a little tiny hamlet called Bly. There were six people all killed at the same time, killed together in this highly improbable place. The dead were a woman by the name of Elsie Mitchell, she was twenty-six years old, and five children who were with her, ages nine to fourteen. Elsie Mitchell was the wife of a pastor at a local church. His name was Archie Mitchell. He went on to have a pretty unhappy life after this episode I’m about to describe to you. He became a missionary in Vietnam in the 1950s, and in 1962 he was captured by Vietnamese insurgents and never heard from again.
On this day, in April 1945, the Reverend Mitchell and Elsie Mitchell were taking these children from their parish, their church, on a picnic. They drove up to this picnic site—it was on Weyerhaeuser timberland in southern Oregon—and Rev. Mitchell let Mrs. Mitchell and the five children out of the vehicle. He went to park it, and as he was parking it he heard an explosion. He ran to the sound and he found his wife and the five children laid out, as he later described it, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. They were all dead. What had happened? They had discovered, apparently, Mrs. Mitchell and the children, a Japanese firebomb.
The Japanese launched about ten thousand of these in late 1944 and early 1945. They were very primitive devices. They were made of mulberry paper panels pasted together with a potato flour paste in school auditoriums where they could lay the thing out, because it was quite large and schoolchildren were used to paste the panels together. They were taken to a place called Ninety-Nine League Beach near Tokyo, launched with I believe helium gas with a little gondola slung under them which had a three-pound incendiary bomb. They were launched into the jet stream. They had no internal means of propulsion; they floated across the Pacific Ocean. They were designed to fall to earth in North America and ignite enormous forest fires in western North America on such a scale that the Americans would have to direct resources from fighting the Japanese war to fighting these forest fires and slow down the U.S. advance to the Japanese home islands. Now, these things were tremendously ineffective. They started a few fires but nothing really consequential. Most of them were duds or fell into the ocean. Mrs. Mitchell and these kids found one, pulled it out of the brush to see what it was, apparently, and it had an anti-personnel device on board as well as the incendiary bomb. The anti-personnel device went off and killed them all on the spot. These were the only civilian casualties in the continental United States whose deaths are ascribable to enemy action in World War II. If you needed no other reminder of how different World War II was for this country compared to all others, the story of Elsie Mitchell and the children, I think, defines it.
So, I’ll end by conjuring a scene that I can’t prove exists, but I think it’s a responsible speculation that it could have existed. Imagine you’re a bombardier, a navigator, a machine gunner, or a pilot, on one of the B-29 bomber streams that are taking off from the Mariana Islands in late 1944 or early 1945, and night after night firebombing Japanese cities, sixty-six or sixty-seven of which were entirely destroyed. You are flying along in your formation of maybe five or six hundred airplanes, and you see this Japanese thing, this balloon thing, headed the other way on the jet stream. The vectors of the flight paths were such that it’s quite conceivable they could have crossed. Here’s this balloon with no internal means of propulsion carrying a three-pound incendiary bomb, and you’re flying along in a B-29 with four fifteen hundred horsepower right engines, with some primitive computer gun programming on board, and you’ve got on board maybe an eight to ten ton load of a combination of incendiary and explosive devices, and you’re about to flatten an entire Japanese city. In that scene, if we can imagine it—and as I say, it’s a responsible speculation that somebody might have looked out their plexiglas bubble and seen this. You have in that scene the realization of Admiral Yamamoto’s nightmare, that if the Americans were given time enough they would mobilize and indeed innovate in their tactics of warfare because of the depths of their engineering prowess, scientific knowledge, and material resources, financial resources and so on and bring weapon systems into play that would spell eventual and inevitable doom for Japan. That’s exactly what happened, and that’s how the United States got to stand at the summit of the world in 1945.