Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART FIVE
Making War and Making Peace: 1939-1945

There was a time when war seemed an aberration in the American experience. We were a peace-loving people, forced to fight for our independence, but able to enjoy the long developmental years of the nineteenth century with only brief and minor military interruptions (against Britain, Mexico, and Spain) and one unique and unrepeatable Civil War. The first four decades of the twentieth century, as well, gave us more years of peace than war. Then the epoch of world convulsion caught up with the United States; and between 1940 and 1970 we have been involved in major wars for at least fifteen of the thirty years, or half the time, and we have endured numerous smaller engagements involving military activity and American combat deaths. Seen from the 1970s, war and preparations for war are the dominant pattern of American life. Given this perspective, it is not surprising to find among historians a mounting interest in the origins of the two great wars which did so much to militarize American history -- World War II and the Cold War.

To historians writing shortly after these wars they seemed to be conflicts forced upon America by certain aggressive nations that inexplicably erupt in violence, reminding us how close barbarism runs beneath the surface of the older human civilizations in Europe and Asia. But of late we have seen a strong revisionist current, in which America's responsibility for these wars is the dominant theme. We find revisionists arguing that America was involved in World War II and the Cold War because she asserted her influence in very remote and unlikely parts of the globe; that she came into conflict with the vital interests of large and expansionist nations, refused to yield, and was soon enmeshed in hostilities. There are two broad explanations for what revisionists see as a pattern of the overextension of American influence. One stresses the expansionism of American capitalism, and the other condemns a national moralism which has made us disastrously rigid in foreign policy. The latter explanation has been the more persuasive, and it is expressed in two of the three essays reprinted below.

It is easy to understand why a strong revisionist impulse emerged in the 1960s. In the first place, it was inevitable that historians would react eventually against the sort of patriotic histories that had been written in the 1940s and early 1950s. These studies depicted an innocent, passive, and almost pacifist America being dragged into wars despite her strenuous efforts (sometimes amounting to an ostrich-like isolationism) to avoid conflict. But from the beginning of the industrial era, it now seems clear, the United states has played an increasingly active role in

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