Victory in Europe: Fifty years later — with Daniel Boorstin (1995) | THINK TANK

Victory in Europe: Fifty years later — with Daniel Boorstin (1995) | THINK TANK


Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Fifty years ago this week, the war in Europe
ended. Liberation and celebration swept through Europe
and America. What was at stake? Are there lessons for us today? Joining us to remember the conflict and its
aftermath are Stephen Ambrose, director of the Eisenhower Center and professor of history
at the University of New Orleans and author of “D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle
of World War II”; historian Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress Emeritus and Pulitzer
Prize–winning author of “The Americans: The Democratic Experience” and “The Discoverers”;
Martin Blumenson, author of “Patton: The Man Behind the Legend” and a World War II
veteran who served in General George Patton’s Third Army; and David Fromkin, chairman of
the department of international relations at Boston University and author of the recent
book, “In the Time of the Americans, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur: The
Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World.” The topic before this house: victory in Europe
50 years later. This week on “Think Tank.” The American entry into World War II in December
of 1941 came none too soon for the British and for occupied Europe. Soon American soldiers and equipment began
flooding into a beleaguered Britain. By 1943, American airplanes were bombing Nazi
Germany by day while the British bombed by night. On June 6, 1994, American, Canadian, and British
forces hit the beaches of Normandy in what remains the largest amphibious assault in
history. During the next year, the allied forces pounded
Germany from the west, while the Soviet allies fought bloodily from the east. American and Allied troops liberated not only
the French, the Belgians, and the Dutch but also the victims of Nazi death camps at Dachau,
Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald. In May of 1945, in the rubble of Berlin, the
Germans surrendered and the war in Europe was over. Nearly 40 million civilians and soldiers died
in the struggle against Nazi Germany, making it the bloodiest conquest in the bloodiest
war in history. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us here today. I wanted to begin by reading a quote from
Winston Churchill, which is what he said when America entered the war after the bombing
by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. And Prime Minister Churchill said this: “Hitler’s
fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground
to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application
of overwhelming force.” You get the feeling from that statement, Dan
Boorstin, that victory was inevitable. Did you sense it that way at the time? Daniel Boorstin: You know, Ben, I’m wary
of statements like that, even though they’re so eloquently put, because I think that history
is the cautionary science. And I think it’s — the only inevitability
in history, I think, is the force of individual women and men. All the other simplifications are things to
be cautious of. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. David Fromkin. David Fromkin: General de Gaulle, too, said
at the time that it seemed to be inevitable, but I, too, disagree. I think nothing is inevitable until it happens,
and there were several points along the way where the war could have gone the other way. Ben Wattenberg: All right, we’ll come back
to what they might have been. Martin Blumenson. Martin Blumenson: It was inevitable only afterwards,
it seems to me. At the time, we could have lost the war. For example, on D-Day, if we had not gotten
ashore, we might have lost the war right there. So there is no inevitability, as David said,
until something happens. Ben Wattenberg: All right, Stephen Ambrose,
via satellite in New Orleans, do you agree with your confederates here? Stephen Ambrose: It’s four for four, yes. Nothing is inevitable. Another “what if” to add to Martin’s:
What if Hitler had gotten those jet airplanes into serial production in 1943, as Willy Messerschmitt
was ready to do? I think Germany would have won the war then. Ben Wattenberg: When you were with the Patton
headquarters, as you were executing that sort of mad dash across Europe, did you and your
colleagues and the troops then feel, at that point, that victory was inevitable? Martin Blumenson: Yes, we had the feeling
that the war was coming to an end and victoriously for us. But this is after the Battle of the Bulge,
and it wasn’t until after the Battle of the Bulge that we began to feel certain that
victory was just around the corner. And it was a matter of time, whatever that
means, because a matter of time means also all sorts of bad things that can happen, too. Ben Wattenberg: Stephen Ambrose, World War
II produced what we now sense are larger-than-life heroes, General Patton being one, Eisenhower,
Marshall, some of the much publicized heroes like Audie Murphy. Was that a product of momentous times or of
remarkable human beings? Stephen Ambrose: It was a nice combination
of both. That was a remarkable generation, especially
I think in the US Army, those guys that stuck it out in the ’20s and the ’30s. Eisenhower was a major for 14 years. These were men of great talent and ability. They could have gone off in any walk of life
and gone right to the top, but they stuck with it. And when the time came, they were ready, and
they created that miracle that was the United States Army of World War II. They also had opportunities. Men born earlier than they were or born later
never had the kind of chances that Patton or Eisenhower or Marshall had. Ben Wattenberg: Dan, you’re a student of
this argument of whether men make the times or times make the men. Daniel Boorstin: Well, I don’t think that’s
a discussable question as you put it. But I do think that there were heroes, and
among them I would count Winston Churchill, whose foresight and eloquence were what saved
Western civilization, I think. And also I admire FDR. The problem nowadays, though, is that heroes
are overshadowed by celebrities. And celebrities — that’s long been the
case, but it’s more so now than ever, when people who are celebrities are the people
who are known for their well-known-ness and not for their achievement. And the people who are accused of committing
horrible crimes are pushing off the front page the people who are leading us in important
conquests. Martin Blumenson: It seems to me that one
of the great things about American society is that it has produced heroes in times of
crisis, and these wonderful people that come up and do the things that need to be done. This is a wonderful function that American
society has produced in the past, and there is no reason to believe why it shouldn’t
continue into the future. Ben Wattenberg: David Fromkin, you have written
a book about those heroes, about President Roosevelt and Eisenhower and General Marshall
and so on. How do you — were they remarkable human
beings in any age, or did they sort of come out of the process? David Fromkin: I think they would have been
remarkable human beings in any age. I think that we were especially lucky to have
that generation in place when these crises arose. Ben Wattenberg: So much of our viewership
— I mean, it is 50 years after victory — really did not live through this even as children,
or as very young children. And I wonder if the distinguished panel here
could describe what the United States was like here on the home front. Stephen Ambrose: My father was in the Navy
in the Pacific. I had an older brother and younger brother. My mother held the family together. We lived at various parts of the United States. We felt very strongly what I think everyone
in this country felt, that we are all in this together. There was a marvelous sense of teamwork during
World War II. As kids we were participants. We were collecting tin cans. We were saving tinfoil from the gum wrappers. We were growing victory gardens. We were buying war bonds with our pennies. We were following the war. And we had shortages. There was rationing. It was nothing like the rest of the world,
but there were shortages. And anytime anybody complained in World War
II about this or that shortage or hardship, the answer invariably was: “We are all in
this together.” And that was a marvelous feeling that doesn’t
come along very often in a democracy. Ben Wattenberg: I remember as a kid growing
up frying a whole pound of bacon in order to save the fat to put in that can that you
then gave to the butcher, which would then allegedly go to the munitions factory. How about anybody? You were in service in Europe, Martin. Martin Blumenson: Yes. I was in service here in this country first. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Martin Blumenson: But what I wanted to say
is that despite this wonderful unity that Steve Ambrose speaks about, there was some
concern on the higher levels, military and political levels, and the wonder was whether
the young men of America, who had a good life and an easy life and were spoiled by the American
way of life — there was concern about whether the young American men would fight. And this persisted, I think, through the maneuvers
of 1941. And I think it was George Patton who more
than anyone proved that American young men would fight and fight well under him, and
if they would fight well under him, they would fight well under other good generals. Ben Wattenberg: If we had this kind of a crisis
today, would we still be able to respond in that fashion, in your collective judgments? Steve Ambrose. Stephen Ambrose: Yes, I think so, absolutely. I believe that a democracy produces the kind
of people who spend most of their time squabbling and fighting with each other over political
matters, which is what’s supposed to happen in a democracy, but when a crisis comes, people
pull together in a voluntary teamwork that is the most powerful force in the world. There is just nothing that can stand up to
it. The totalitarians cannot stand up to the fury
of an aroused democracy. So I have great confidence that if we ever
have a crisis like this again — it’s hard for me to imagine one of this magnitude — of
course we’ll pull together. Ben Wattenberg: That was one of the great
lessons of World War II, as was mentioned here, that democracies are not decadent. They only seem to be decadent for a while. Martin Blumenson: They seem to be disorganized,
but they are not. And they are far more efficient than totalitarian
states are. And the utilization of people and resources
in World War II, I think, proved that. It seems to me that, yes, we are capable of
meeting a crisis in the future, depending on the issues. If the issues are fundamental enough, Americans
will certainly make the sacrifices required. David Fromkin: I think we would respond — we
would respond in the same way if we were attacked, as we were in the Second World War. And the problem for us, I think, as a country
is the sort of thing that happened to us in Korea, where it’s more complex, where we
have not been physically attacked ourselves. I think we only respond well, really, when
we have been attacked, when everyone in the country can see that we have no alternative
but to fight. Ben Wattenberg: Dan, how about you? Would we respond in that sort of heroic fashion? Daniel Boorstin: Yes, I think so. I think we must remember — and Professor
Blumenson has suggested it — that a free society is a kind of creative chaos, and we
must put up with the turbulence in order to have the creativity. I think also that we mustn’t forget that
a characteristic of free societies, unlike totalitarian societies, is that totalitarian
societies exaggerate their virtues. Free societies, because they are free, tend
to exaggerate their vices. And that is something — I think if we had
to choose between the two, it wouldn’t be difficult to make the choice. Stephen Ambrose: Totalitarians rule by terror. Democracy rule is by persuasion. One example from the combat zone, in the Second
World War, Hitler executed 50,000 Wehrmacht soldiers for cowardice or for desertion. The United States Army in northwest Europe
executed one soldier for desertion, Private Eddie Slovak. They felt an example had to be made. Americans stayed in the front line not because
of terror, but because they were concerned about what kind of a world am I going to live
in when this war is over. And if I desert my post and let my buddies
down and if they desert others, we’re going to live in a world that I don’t want to
live in. And so they stayed because they wanted to. German soldiers, who fought bravely and in
many cases magnificently, stayed because they had somebody standing behind them with a pistol
at the back of their head. Ben Wattenberg: Former Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara’s recent book has sort of forced the Vietnam veterans to ask that haunting
question: Was it worth it? And this has sort of put forth a firestorm. Was there a moral quandary amongst the GIs
at that time? Was anybody saying, “What am I doing here?” You know, this is silly? Martin Blumenson: I don’t think so. I never came across anything like that. Everyone was quite unified, and everybody
knew what it was we were doing. And I think everybody was happy to be doing
it. Obviously, we’d rather have been home or
have been somewhere else, but it was something that had to be done, and I think that was
fine. Daniel Boorstin: But there was another element
I think in it, which we mustn’t forget in relation to World War II. The First World War appeared to be the result
of the tangle of European diplomacy and imperial forces at war with one another. But the Second World War had a plain moral
objective, to exterminate the most powerful force of barbarism in modern history. And I think that people were aware of that,
and I think that gave a strength to the cause. And I think we mustn’t forget that. We must also not forget, while we assess the
horrible losses in the war, that it was peace — it was Nazi peace that exterminated six
million Jews and others. And Stalin’s war against his own people
killed between 20 and 30 million people. So that we must assess these things in the
perspective of our time, and it’s shocking that in our civilized century, so many people
have died for ideological and racist reasons, more than in any previous — more even than
in the religious wars of the 17th century. Ben Wattenberg: Surely World War II was relevant
to deal with any subsequent perceived global tyrannies, such as the Soviet Union. It was — like Nazi Germany, it was totalitarian. It was expansionist. It threatened us directly. But we are some years beyond the Cold War. Are the lessons of World War II, such as they
may be, still relevant today? And if so, what are they? Stephen, you have something for us? Stephen Ambrose: I think that the lesson of
World War II is — we’ve been discussing it. It is that an aroused democracy is the most
powerful force in the world. And I think that what is relevant today about
World War II to young people, who are so cynical, and to so many others is: Don’t ever despair
of democracy. For all of its faults and all of its weaknesses
and all the politicians about to drive you crazy, don’t ever give up on democracy. It’s also the nature of democracy that it
doesn’t deal well with a non-crisis situation. And thank God, most of the time in human life,
we are not in a crisis situation. But when a crisis comes along, that democracy
will pull together. When you don’t have a crisis, that’s what
a democracy is supposed to be about — people fighting with each other, people squabbling
in their parliaments, people arguing about this or that policy. Daniel Boorstin: I agree with Professor Ambrose,
but I would add one more perhaps larger lesson. And that is the lesson of the two World Wars
is that the last war has never happened and probably never will happen. The First World War, of course we remember,
was fought as the war to end wars, and within a couple of decades, why, the world was back
at war again. And I think it’s very important to remember
that in the presence of people who have had considerable military experience. But I think we mustn’t pretend that the
last war has happened, and there is the menace — there is always a new menace. If you believe in original sin and believe
that human nature is not perfect, there are always causes for war. Ben Wattenberg: What’s the menace now? Daniel Boorstin: Well, I think fanaticism
— ideology and fanaticism. The idea of a jihad, of a holy war against
— and all kinds — all religious fanaticisms I think are equally evil. But when people are willing to fight for their
religion against people who don’t agree with them, just because they don’t agree
with them, because they don’t have that faith, that is a menace to civilization, no
matter who holds it. David Fromkin: I think that one of the lessons
that we can draw from the World War II experience is about the mistake that we Americans typically
make in not being able to think about politics in its relationship to war, to force, and
to power. In the ’30s, many Americans, though of very
civilized and liberal disposition, were pacifists. They were so much against war that they did
not see that the only way to stop something as evil as Hitler’s aggression was to oppose
force with force. And when the war was over, we made the same
mistake we had made in the First World War. There France in effect won the war and therefore
dictated the peace. And when Roosevelt came to Yalta, he seemed
to be alone perhaps in seeing that the logic of the war was that since the Soviet Union
had overrun vast portions of Eastern and Central Europe, they were going to keep it, and they
were going to dictate the future of those areas. As Americans, that was very hard for us to
accept, but that meant that in waging war, we always have to think about the effect of
how we wage war on peace. Ben Wattenberg: Could Franklin Roosevelt have
done anything about that? I mean, after all, there were the Soviets
in Eastern Europe. I mean, what could he have done? David Fromkin: Nothing. He saw the choice. He saw that if we wanted to get the Russians
out of there, we’d have to be prepared to go to war to do it. And we weren’t prepared to do that. Ben Wattenberg: Martin, what are the lessons
looking forward? Martin Blumenson: I’m not one much for lessons,
and I’m not sure that there are any lessons at all in history. If everything is a unique experience, it never
happens again. There are no such things as lessons. And I think that we learn the wrong lessons. And I think what we learned in World War II
was the strength of the United States, and I think that led us places we ought not to
have gone in subsequent years. I think that this lesson that we are so strong
took us into Vietnam, for example. So I — Ben Wattenberg: But the same lesson that took
us into Vietnam also won the Cold War for us. I mean, you know, the fact that that generation
McNamara now criticizes says that the appeasement at Munich was the formative experience of
that generation, which in addition to getting us into Vietnam, also won the Cold War. I mean, would you buy that? Martin Blumenson: You can say, too, that appeasement
came from the fact that if the statesmen in World War I had permitted Austria to take
over Serbia, there would not have been a World War I. And so that’s the wrong lesson, it seems
to me — or perhaps the right lesson, but we’re talking about things that really haven’t
— Daniel Boorstin: There is another way of putting
this perhaps, and that is that — to follow Professor Ambrose’s eloquent description
of the American tradition, which I agree with — is that perhaps our influence in world
affairs ought to be the power of example and not the power of power. Our long-term influence in the world is not
through American power; it’s through the example of American institutions. Stephen Ambrose: I would like to point out
that after World War I, the great lesson the American people took from that war was: Don’t
get into any entangling alliances and don’t arm yourself, and you’ll be able to stay
out of the next war. So our policies in the 1930s were neutrality
in a world that had gone mad and unilateral disarmament to the point that our army was
175,000 men in 1940, when Hitler had overrun France. That meant it ranked 16th in the world. Now, we learned from World War II to get into
alliances beforehand, and we learned from World War II that we’ve got to stay armed. And we learned a third lesson from 1919 and
then 1945. And that was to extend our hand to the defeated. In 1919, we kicked them in the teeth. In 1945, we extended our hand to the Germans
and to the Japanese and helped them back onto their feet and brought out the best in a people
who had had the worst brought out from them in the preceding 12 and 15 years. I think we learned some valuable lessons,
and I think we’ve applied them. And I think that these lessons apply today,
very much so. We’ve got to have alliances. We’ve got to stay militarily strong, and
we need to extend our hand to the defeated. I wish we would do more with regard to Russia
today, for example. David Fromkin: I agree entirely with what
Professor Ambrose just said. And I think we were very fortunate in our
timing in the sense that the generation that was young enough to fight in the First World
War was the generation that led us in the Second World War. They knew those lessons because they had lived
it. The timing was just right. Daniel Boorstin: If we are defining an American
tradition, I think we can take up Professor Ambrose’s suggestion and Professor Blumenson’s
also, that the Civil War and World War II are exemplars of the American approach to
the world, I think, and to our relationship. And that is, the Civil War is the only war
— the only civil war of a modern country fought, at least in large part, for the liberation
of some of its citizens. And World War II, of course, had a strong
moral ingredient. Woodrow Wilson inspired us into the First
World War with slogans of democracy, but the result, of course, was not what was intended. Nevertheless, that is the American tradition,
to believe that we are an exceptional country. We are here to affirm the opportunity of people
from all over the world. And I think that we’ve had many faults,
but nevertheless we still are in a position to affirm that, and I hope we continue to
be. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, on that note — on
that celebratory note with my celebratory tie, thank you, Stephen Ambrose, David Fromkin,
Martin Blumenson, and Daniel Boorstin. Please send your comments and questions to
New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via email at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

1 thought on “Victory in Europe: Fifty years later — with Daniel Boorstin (1995) | THINK TANK

  1. Never stop patting yourself at the back.
    US contribution to WW2 was minuscule, this whole notion of United States playing a major role is nonsense. And its a good thing, considering how US involvement in WW1 directly resulted in Hitler rise to power. A common theme with US "help" throughout 20th century – things getting a lot worse for those that get this "help".
    80-90% of fighting happened on Eastern Front, between SU and Germany. While Lend Lease did play some role in soviet war effort, it was in range of 5-7% of total and half of all those goods arrived in 1944. During first two most critical years, that also decided the fate of this war(as by the end of 42 Hitler nominally lost WW2, as Germany lacked resources for prolonged conflict – whole point of Blitzkrieg was to overwhelm SU and gain access to their resources, giving Hitler means for his plans of global domination – and with resources of Russia and extremely advanced tech at his disposal, he would crush anyone standing in his way), support from allies to SU was non-existing.
    Hitler did make a huge mistake by negotiating with Britain and letting it evacuate it armies from mainland, instead of annihilating them(if instead of evacuating with minimal resistance, as it happened at Dunkirk and other places, Wehrmacht would exterminate retreating British armies, UK would instantly lose over 2/3 of it fighting forces) and then conquering British Islands. It allowed Brits to dig in and gave US beachhead in Europe.
    Totalitarians cannot stand up to a fury of aroused democracy.
    I laughed so hard. Hitler put on their knees whole Europe and now that guy comes up with this nonsense. All while US has trouble winning wars against goarfuckers, armed with 50 year old tech. Hilarious.
    Totalitarians rule by terror, democracy rule by persuasion.
    Bwahaaahaha. US have been involved in more major conflicts since WW2(like ~95% of them), than next 10 countries combined. Half of those conflicts US started themselves. Raining bombs and terror all over the world at rates that make any maniacal dictator look like a kindergartner. Its this type of persuasion as mugger uses to convince you give up your wallet at gunpoint.
    What was the lesson of WW2 ?
    Lessons of WW2 for US were simple and have been employed every since – "1) Never let good war go to waste, 2) Capitalize to the fullest, 3) Start one if you have to".

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