What World War II Wrought

That about which we fantasize actually happens.

Post-Apocalyptic life is a standard literary genre. The Terminator series, as well as the Mad Max series, show what life is like when some great catastrophe has engulfed and destroyed the civilized world. According to these tales, life has once again become short and brutal, peopled by grotesquely dressed and malformed people (and by machines), some saving remnant of humanity trying to preserve what is left of and trying to re-establish what had existed before the cataclysm. My favorite of these is the Alexander Korda version of H. G. Wells’ “Things to Come”, the movie made just before the impending Second World War, when it was expected that strategic bombing might reduce cities to rubble-- which it did, without, however, destroying the governance of those cities or nations. In Wells’ vision, civilization is reduced to barbarism until it is rescued by a cadre of airmen, known as “Wings Over the World”, who then build cities that are modernistic while its inhabitants wander around in togas and are given to bombastic speeches delivered by gigantic holograms of themselves, the young people driven to go on to the exploration of the Moon.

To the sociological mind, however, whatever is imagined can be exemplified by what actually comes to pass. There are many times in world history when a nation or a new civilization is reborn or created after the coming of a dark age, or when, even more generally, the old days have rather abruptly been put to rest and a new time is emerging, a new time beginning, as happened when the French started the clock over again as part of their understanding that their Revolution had put an end to the Old Regime that would be replaced by an age of citizenry and enlightenment. The new calendar lasted fourteen years. Similar new beginnings emerge after the execution of Charles I and the Russian Revolution and Hitler’s seizure of power, while the new beginnings that started with the eight years of violence and mayhem that was the American Revolution are still going on, so much so that there are those who will claim that the American Revolution was not really a cataclysmic upheaval but just a struggle among the colonial elites for power, even though the people of the time certainly thought, as the popular song of the time went, that “The World [was] Turned Upside Down”.

The continent of Europe, after the Second World War, bore the tell-tale signs of having been through an apocalypse. There was, at first, licentiousness and hunger and Zombie-like displaced persons and roving gangs. And then, in Western Europe, there was the labor unrest, the rapidly shifting governments, and the rationing that go along with whatever feeble efforts are made to bounce back from an apocalypse, those finally succeeding when Truman introduced the Marshall Plan. But things were even worse in Central Europe, cities having to be rebuilt from scratch and nations largely ruled by the authoritarian regimes that come into place after an apocalypse. That was not the case in the United States, though it did flirt with the apocalyptic politics of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, both of whom proclaimed that the ambitions of ordinary Americans were being undermined by powerful enemies from within. Yet America was soon enough on a march into prosperity.

It must be remembered, however, that a cataclysm may not bring about change, either for good or bad, but only more of the same. It may bring about only a restoration of what had been before, albeit under a different name. So the American Civil War was not followed by the growth of a new and united nation, freedom for the ex-slaves somehow redeeming the awful carnage of the war. Rather, it is as if the North was embarrassed by its victory, letting the vanquished all too quickly recover their seats in the Congress and to keep control of that up to today except from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. The South also kept its own regional autonomy well enough to impose a new form of slavery, Jim Crow, on the freed slaves. The North, for its part, proceeded with its own project which had existed from long before the Civil War, which was to become a center of industry and invention, one that had from Colonial times been in competition with the home country. The Connecticut Yankee preceded the Civil War and just moved, after it, to Pittsburgh, Dearborn and Dayton.

The hope for something very different, a new civilization, to emerge out of the ashes of the Second World War did happen in America and in Europe, even though it was perceived as having had causes independent of the calamities of the Second World War, however much, in fact, the Second World War was the direct cause of these deep structural changes. The G. I. Bill of Rights was a way of dealing with the perpetual problem of integrating veterans back into society and it led to a new middle class which would buy all that tract housing made possible by federally guaranteed mortgages and by the creation of an interstate highway system. The Baby Boom was the result of the overlap of the returning young soldiers fathering children at the same time as those who had delayed having children because of the Depression catching up in family life. An era of American prosperity was unleashed by the fact that the factories of Japan and Germany had been destroyed and the economies of Great Britain and France depleted.

But that is not the way it seemed at the time. The concern, quite justified, was instead that what had been unleashed onto the world by the atomic bomb was the possibility of an even greater war and that the enemy now to be confronted, the Soviet Union, was even more dangerous than Nazi Germany: more populous as well as more dedicated to the destruction of the West. The United Nations, that great hope for thwarting war, was obsolete from its beginnings because nothing would be settled by a conference of the Soviet Union and its partners and the United States and its partners, even if such a conference might have a nice new setting on the shores of the East River.

And so the world quickly shifted from thinking about the apocalypse avoided, which would have meant the death of Jews and Slavs, but not much of anybody else, even if a spectre of a Nazi Europe would cast a shadow on the rest of the still civilized world, to thinking about a new atomic bomb generated apocalypse which could indeed destroy humanity much more quickly and much more fully that H. G. Wells had ever imagined. It is that ripping of hope away in the course of the first few years after the war that left everyone reeling, aware of living in a new age before having had time to come to terms with the fact that the old age, that of the Second World War, was over and that one might live, for a time, in a state of recovery before some new existential threat presented itself. The veterans of the First World War had time to raise children before war again came into their lives, as that  was recounted in so themed movies set during the Second World War or immediately after it. Irene Dunne, in “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1944), is an American woman who loses her British husband in the First World War only to lose her own son in the World War II raid on Dieppe. Orson Welles is the mysterious refugee in “Tomorrow is Forever” (1946)  who comforts the woman they both recognize but do not admit to having been his wife about sending what was his son, though adopted by her new husband after her old husband had disappeared in the First World War, off to another war. But what would follow a Soviet-American war? Only ashes. Only fools thought there would be a phoenix to rise out of that one. There having been no respite between challenges, it is a wonder that Americans didn’t lose their nerve and wind up either dead or in the grips of a new Fascism.