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Remembering the “good” and “bad” wars: Memorial Day 40, 50, and 70 years on

Memorial Day is always a poignant moment — a time to remember and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by so many military personnel over the decades — but this year three big anniversaries make it particularly so.

Seventy years ago, Americans celebrated victory in a war in which these sacrifices seemed worthwhile. When, shortly afterwards, President Harry Truman implemented a plan to find and repatriate the remains of those bodies not yet recovered, he summed up the prevailing mood. The nation, Truman declared, wanted to show its “deep and everlasting appreciation of the heroic efforts” of those who had made the “supreme sacrifice” in such a noble cause. On the day that the first 6,200 coffins arrived from Europe many grieving relatives found it difficult to cope. Some wept openly on New York’s streets, while others could hardly bear to look. One woman screamed “There’s my boy, there’s my boy,” as she stared at a coffin, shaking with emotion.

For the country as a whole, however, World War II caused no real casualty hangover. Unlike other twentieth-century wars, the so-called “good war” certainly failed to engender a sense of never-again that had underpinned the isolationist revulsion to World War I during the 1920s and 1930s — so much so that for twenty years after 1945, successive presidents felt relatively unhampered when deciding to send troops to intervene in faraway conflicts.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson was in the process of taking the last fateful last steps toward the most important of these overseas interventions. While the United States had been gradually escalating its involvement in Vietnam for more than a decade, July 1965 marked the decisive point. This was the month when Johnson sent the first of more than half a million troops to defend South Vietnam against the communist assault.

When this “bad war” ended a little over forty years ago, more than 50,000 Americans had been killed. Although fewer in number than the dead in the “good war,” their sacrifices had a far more profound impact on the country as a whole. Indeed, they underpinned the so-called Vietnam syndrome, which has often forced subsequent presidents to think twice about sending large numbers of troops into potentially open-ended and bloody commitments.

U.S. casualties of the Vietnam War (above) elicited a different response among the American people than military deaths during World War II. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.
US casualties of the Vietnam War (above) elicited a different response among the American people than military deaths during World War II. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Why did the nation react so differently to these two wars? On Memorial Day, it is worth considering the importance of how the public was exposed to American casualties at the time. We are often told that Vietnam marked the nadir of government candor: a time when presidents were so mendacious about every dimension of the war, including casualties, that the so-called credibility gap became a yawning chasm. If true, then perhaps the public became so suspicious of official casualty figures that they thought the government was concealing the true cost of the war. But is this argument correct?

Johnson certainly did his best to put a positive spin on American losses, especially with his constant claims that these sacrifices would soon result in ultimate victory. Then, when these claims of progress turned out to be false, more and more Americans did indeed begin to question the veracity of government figures. Yet the importance of this lack of trust needs to be considered against two countervailing facts. One is that, in key respects, Johnson’s government was actually more truthful in revealing US casualties than any other. Each week from the summer of 1965, it issued unprecedented details on American losses, with press releases that included both battlefield and non-battlefield losses, severe wounds as well as injuries not serious enough to warrant a purple heart. The other countervailing fact is that a lack of trust affected the Roosevelt administration, too — and with better reason. Not only did officials during World War II try to conceal the cost of big defeats like Pearl Harbor, but they also failed to release any casualty totals at all during bleak moments of the war, which in turn encouraged the media to publish inflated enemy estimates instead.

If the Vietnam credibility gap has often been exaggerated, what about media coverage of American casualties? According to another common argument, the media during the Vietnam War inflamed the public’s response to casualties. Television is generally singled out as the central culprit, its ability to beam gruesome images into the nation’s living rooms seen as a major change in how the public responded negatively to war. Yet this argument has also been overstated. During the 1960s, the main TV networks invariably depicted combat in an anodyne and antiseptic fashion, partly because cameras were too cumbersome to lug around the battlefield and partly because executives and advertisers balked at the airing of anything too graphic.

American corpses sprawled on the beach of Tarawa, November 1943. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
American corpses sprawled on the beach of Tarawa, November 1943. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, World War II was very different. Although Roosevelt was prepared to mask casualty information whenever the fighting went badly, he went out of his way to encourage visual images of battlefield death at times of victory, convinced that the public had to be jolted out of its complacent conviction that final victory was just around the corner. For this reason, Roosevelt personally authorized the release not just of still images of American dead, but also of a training movie, With the Marines at Tarawa. Based on graphic combat footage, it included film of wounded marines on stretchers and casualty-identification teams at work on the beach. “These are the marine dead,” intoned the narrator toward the end, over pictures of prostrate bodies lying on the sand and bobbing in the shallow sea. “This is the price we have to pay for a war we didn’t want.”

This last sentence offers a major clue to why the two wars actually bequeathed such different legacies. Before the United States fully entered World War II, Roosevelt led a nation that remained desperate to stay out. Only the surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor destroyed the isolationist consensus against sending American troops to fight and die in overseas wars. Johnson never faced a similar moment: there was never a clear-cut case of communist aggression he could point to in order to convince the public that its boys were obviously fighting in self-defense.

Once the United States went to war, Roosevelt also developed a strategy that helped to keep the cost low, at least compared to other belligerents. Although his decision to lean heavily on the Soviet Union became deeply controversial when Stalin emerged as America’s archenemy after 1945, during the war Americans could see that the Red Army was bearing the main burden of fighting and dying to destroy Hitler’s armies. Johnson would have liked nothing better than to let his South Vietnam ally shoulder the main responsibility for fighting the communists, but he could not hide the fact that within a year of massively escalating the nation’s commitment US losses were more than double the amount of the South Vietnamese ally that GIs were purportedly fighting to protect.

Most importantly, seventy years ago World War II resulted in a stunning victory, while forty years ago Vietnam ended in an ignominious defeat. The images Americans received at the very end also shaped their understanding of the purpose of these two wars. Just weeks before Germany’s unconditional surrender, US troops had liberated a series of Nazi concentration camps, whose actual horrors surpassed even the worst depictions of Allied propagandists. At the moment of South Vietnam’s final defeat, Americans left Saigon in such a hurry that they had to abandon their allies to the clutches of a communist regime known for its brutality.

Success was therefore crucial to the way these two wars have been remembered, but so was the morality of the cause. As America remembers its dead, it is tempting to recall President Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words at Gettysburg about whether America’s war dead “have died in vain.” Americans seventy and forty years ago reached very different conclusions about whether the sacrifices in their “good” and “bad” wars had been worthwhile, with consequences that linger to this day.

Featured image: National World War II Memorial, Washington, DC. Public domain via the United States Navy.

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