From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

1
The Origins of 'The Second World War'

Historical Discourse and International Politics

It is now impossible to imagine the twentieth century without the terms 'First World War' and 'Second World War'. Together they define the first half of the century, with the 'pre-war' and 'inter-war' eras as punctuation marks. They also conjure up the ultimate horror, World War III, lurid imaginings of which helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot. Yet use of the phrase 'world war' for these conflicts was by no means axiomatic. While some countries applied this label to the war of 1914–18, others did not, and a firm consensus developed only during the 1940s. As concepts, therefore, it took the 'Second World War' to create the First. Even after 1945, however, the terminology was not adopted automatically. Only in 1948 did the British government conclude as a matter of policy that the country had just been fighting the 'Second World War'; other major belligerents, notably Russia, China, and Japan, continue to use quite different language. To a large extent, the discourse of world war was a German and American construction—foreshadowed in their conflict of 1917–18 and then confirmed in the ideological struggle between Roosevelt and Hitler in 1939–41.

Although as historians we now live in an Age of Discourse, these terminological issues have attracted surprisingly little attention from scholars. Most volumes about the two great conflicts take their titles for granted.1 Here I can only be suggestive, raising questions rather than resolving them: much more work can profitably be done in journals, books, and archives. In this chapter I look at the way the conflict of 1914–18 was labelled, at signs of a rethink in the 1930s, and then, in greater detail, at how the war of 1939–45 was conceptualized. My main focus is on Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The result is a striking example of how historical language is politically

A slightly longer version of this chapter, ending with some observations on the concept of globa-
lization, was originally published in the Journal of Contemporary History, 38 (2003), 29–44. For
helpful comments on a draft, I am grateful to Cambridge colleagues Christopher Clark, Richard
J. Evans, Emma Rothschild, John A. Thompson, and Robert Tombs.

1 For a rare exception see the brief but suggestive comments about 1914–18 in Hew Strachan,
The First World War, i: To Arms (Oxford, 2001), 694–5.

-9-

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