They’re almost all gone, now. The men and women whom journalist Tom Brokaw aptly named the Greatest Generation are fading into history, like the war they helped win 70 years ago today. World War II wasn’t over, but on May 8, 1945, the horrendous, continental destruction of the war in Europe came to an end with the surrender of Nazi Germany.
The suffering inflicted and endured was beyond human ability to measure, and certainly beyond our power to appreciate seven decades later. And as anti-Semitism rises again in Europe, it is plain that some lessons have to be learned not once, but over and over.
Some people have called it the Good War, and it’s easy to see why. Rarely are good and evil so clearly delineated, especially in retrospect as the scope of Nazi brutality became known to the world. It was, to be sure, a necessary war. The sacrifices made by Americans, Canadians, Britons, Russians and many others were for a cause that was both just and critical to the survival of democratic government.
That war probably said more about the American character than any other event in our history. This country could have owned most of Western Europe, which lay broken at the feet of the victors. Instead, America nursed the continent back to health, even setting half of Germany up as a bulwark against the Cold War designs of the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan, enacted in 1948, was an enormously expensive project, costing an estimated $12 billion to $17 billion, equal to as much as $120 billion today.
We could have looted the continent, bestrode it, simply turned our backs on it after four years of unthinkable violence, the 20th century’s worst bloodshed. We didn’t, and that, to a great extent, is what defines that war. The Axis powers were the thieves and savages. The Allies were the rescuers. It is a sort of bravery and selflessness that is rare, something of which Americans can still be proud, especially the fading veterans of the war in Europe who took on the task of, literally, saving the world.
The echoes of that war reverberate daily in our lives, whether we know it or not. The United Nations exists because of it. The GI Bill exists because of it. Adolf Hitler is the go-to analogy for lazy thinkers who don’t like what some American politician does. Fear of repeating Neville Chamberlain’s prewar policy of appeasement affects foreign policy today, for better or worse. We have tended to see all subsequent wars in the black-and-white terms that World War II provided, at least as those wars began, in Korea, Vietnam, in Kuwait, in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
None was the same and, likely, none ever will be the same. Warfare has changed. There may never again be anything like the Battle of the Bulge or the D-Day invasion of Europe. War today is less about individual bravery and sacrifice than it is about technology, precision and intelligence. That may be good or bad – or both – but it is radically different from the kind of courage that the war in Europe demanded of troops fighting their way into the heart of darkness that then was Germany.
It wasn’t all admirable. There were mistakes and incompetence and brutalities committed by Americans, too. Even good people become hardened in war. To acknowledge that, though, only magnifies the overarching virtue of the cause and of the men and women who fought that war.
Some 407,000 American troops died in World War II, 180,000 of them in the European theater. Of the 16 million members of the armed forces who served in the war, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that just over 1 million were still alive as of last September. The youngest of them are approaching 90 years old. On this anniversary of V-E Day, they should hear again that the world is grateful.