World War II would rank right at the top of the list of subjects most likely to defeat any attempt to fulfill the writer’s basic mission: “make it new.” The war is too immense (could it be the single most extensive human endeavor in the history of the world?) and too well written about already by everyone from Anne Frank to Winston Churchill. To fit the whole thing into a single volume, even one limited to the United States side of it, means severely compressing dozens of subjects that have themselves filled many long books: Ike and FDR, the atom bomb and D-Day, the end of isolationism and the beginning of the Cold War.

William O’Neill, who specializes in contained histories of entire eras in American history, has not solved the difficult problem he has posed for himself in the most obvious way, which would have been to write a straightforward, textbook-like history of the war. He assumes some degree of familiarity on the part of the reader with the basic story, which allows him to weigh in with his own views on many of the persistent controversies about the war. One chapter, for example, argues that strategic bombing was morally and militarily this country’s greatest failure in the war effort, and another excoriates Churchill for insisting on a major Allied thrust through northern Africa, Sicily, and Italy, instead of agreeing to a much earlier invasion of France.

O’Neill does, however, have a stated main purpose to his enterprise that would appear to be unifying and fresh. From the vantage point of today’s dispirited America, what seems perhaps most amazing about World War II is that we won: When’s the last time this country (and in particular the federal government) seemed both so completely in the right and so competent? The war is impervious to being demythologized: Over the last few years writers of the caliber of Studs Terkel and Paul Fussell have tried to drain it of nobility and succeeded only in reminding us of how bloody the fighting was. Because the country feels itself to be so un-puissant today, the question of how we could have pulled off such a triumph now seems compelling—as it wouldn’t have in 1950 or 1960. In effect O’Neill has set for himself the task of explaining what magic secret we as a society possessed then that we no longer have: hence the second word in the title.

What O’Neill does very well is make it clear that conducting the war was not as smooth sailing as it now appears to have been. He takes a degree of devilish pleasure in creating a picture of a country that was just about as screwed up then as it is now. Before Pearl Harbor, although preparedness was the great national task (much more obviously than, say, deficit reduction is today), we didn’t prepare because politicians were unwilling to ask voters to sacrifice. Even at the height of the war, let alone beforehand, Congress wouldn’t pass a bill requiring universal national service. FDR had Clinton-like tendencies to waffling and disorganization: “Access to him was limited and capricious. Important men cooled their heels outside his office while nobodies who had caught his eye engaged the President’s attention. Letters were answered or not, as fancy dictated. Often the President made conflicting pronouncements on the same subject.”

After Pearl Harbor, the war effort entailed a constant struggle not only against the Axis powers but also against hindrances coming from our own side. Monday morning quarterbacking with relish, O’Neill provides many examples of Allied snafus. Our allies forced on us bad strategic ideas, such as the invasion of Italy. Our military commanders regularly acted out of vanity and egomania and were often ignorant of the most fundamental truths about modern warfare, like the futility of the frontal assault. Many of the main American weapons of the war were inferior: the Sherman tank was under-powered and thin-walled, the B-17 Flying Fortress couldn’t hit ships, the Mark XIV torpedo had a detonator that wouldn’t go off. Interservice rivalry was so intense that, for example, command of the Pacific Theater was divided between the Army and the Navy, with disastrous results.

Being reminded of all this only adds oomph to the question of what the key to our victory was. O’Neill’s answer lies mainly in a deterministic view of “democracy” as the source of our weaknesses and our strengths. A democracy, he believes, must be slave to lightly considered public opinion, which is why the country couldn’t get over its knee-jerk isolationism until Pearl Harbor. A democracy is fatally attracted to romantic foreign policies over realistic ones, which is why we didn’t adopt the kind of Kissingerian geopolitics that he seems to favor, and instead foolishly supported the likes of Chiang Kai-Shek, a move which unnecessarily turned Japan into a blood-enemy. In America, O’Neill says, “nothing important can be done until the need is overwhelmingly obvious.”

On the other hand, once we were in the war, democracy was the guarantor of our triumph. How? Here, unfortunately, at what is the key point in his argument, O’Neill doesn’t have much to offer except platitudes. We were “a proud people who subscribed to a common culture based on work, family, respect for institutions, and faith in self and nation.” We were “a people whose resolution would not fail.” Because of the prevalence of high school sports, “the young Americans of that era were team players and fierce competitors.” Americans “more so than now accepted responsibility for their acts and did not uphold personal gratification as the be-all and end-all of life.”

O’Neill subscribes wholeheartedly to the view of the war that was purveyed at the time in Bill Mauldin’s cartoons: The American soldier, plain as an old shoe, skeptical of authority, oblivious to the high-minded purpose of the war, was nonetheless a tough, brave, unstoppable fighter whose virtues made up for the vices of the preening MacArthurs and Montgomerys. As grandly Lippmann-like as O’Neill is in discussing diplomacy and military strategy, about ordinary Americans he is pretentiously unpretentious. One longs for some kind of social or economic theory that would more elaborately explain the strength of American society in the 1940s—but that would seem to O’Neill like fancy-pants intellectual stuff.

So A Democracy at War is not a book that pursues its self-assignment in a complete, disciplined way. Instead it is really a review of the war that lies in some middle ground between the page-turning popular histories of writers like William Manchester and Cornelius Ryan (with whom O’Neill can’t compete for readability) and the more argument-driven work of academic historians like John Lewis Gaddis and John Morton Blum. As the post war era begins to draw to a close, it’s possible to feel World War II becoming more like the Civil War, a great event of enduring fascination but one that is moving inexorably into the hands of the buffs. Because of their wholesale avoidance of military service, members of the baby-boom generation may have trouble even following O’Neill’s discussion, not knowing the difference between strategy and tactics or between a corps and a division. But anyone who grew up more obsessively familiar with the ship movements at Midway and the relative strengths of the Mustang and the Messerschmidt than with Ted Williams’ batting average will find O’Neill’s work interesting and impressive.

He gives the impression of being too tough-minded to believe any half-baked argument: For example, though he comes across as conservative (by historian standards, anyway), he effectively destroys the leading conservative bromide about the war, which is that our “sellout at Yalta” in 1945 consigned Eastern Europe to nearly half a century of communist dictatorship. As early as 1942, O’Neill points out, the American high command knew that post-war Soviet domination of the Eastern Front was highly likely, unless the U.S. and Britain invaded Europe immediately—which was impossible partly because America (thanks to the conservative isolationists) wasn’t ready yet. He also has little use for the liberal bromide that dropping the atomic bomb was avoidable. A two-day conventional bombing assault on Tokyo in March 1945 killed more people than the Hiroshima bomb. The battle of Okinawa, which lasted throughout the spring of 1945, left enormous American, Japanese, and civilian casualties: Our troop casualty rate was 35 per cent. Extrapolating from such figures (as the American high command did at the time) generated a mind-boggling picture of the bloodshed that would be involved in an invasion of Japan itself, which was the only alternative to dropping the bomb—and besides, “In a democracy the existence of the Bomb compelled its use.”

It’s possible that there is no lesson of World War II for America today except for the unpleasant one that for a vast, economically depressed industrial nation, a major, unquestionably just war fought entirely on foreign soil solves a lot of problems. The economic-stimulus effect of the war, as O’Neill reminds us, was stunning. In one month, November 1943, the labor force of Detroit grew from 396,000 to 867,000. Mean family income rose by 25 per cent in constant dollars from 1941 to 1944. Consumer spending in 1944 was equal to total national income in 1941. In 1945, a Gallup Poll posed the question, “Have you made any real sacrifice for the war?” Only 36 percent answered yes.

In addition to the economic boom it set off—which, remember, lasted on and off until 1973—the war also brought the country together in a spirit of shared effort in service of a noble cause, and led to the dethroning of the Episcopalian ruling class of the day (even as that class capably ran the war effort). It ended the dominant (though now forgotten) ethnic tensions of the first half of this century—involving what we now call “white ethnics”—in a blaze of assimilation, and laid the groundwork for the civil rights and feminist movements. The war advanced science, technology, education, transportation, and a host of other fields. But, getting back to the unpleasant thought, it could be that it took the real, immediate threat of conquest and enslavement by madmen to bring to the fore all the noble elements in the national character that we now associate with the war effort, and that if there had been no war we would have had in the 1940s a gridlocked society much like today’s.

Could there now be a moral equivalent of World War II—a way of our getting a much-needed dose of all the war’s positive effects on the country without actually going to war? O’Neill doesn’t address this question directly, but it seems that he would tilt in the direction of the argument made in cartoon form by Dan Quayle last year: If the cultural elite would push the public in the direction of responsibility rather than self-gratification as the highest value, a lot of our social, political, and economic problems would begin to work themselves out. But this argument assumes that the tone of national life is created independently of economics and demographics. If we did in fact have better cultural values at the outset of World War II, surely part of the reason is that twelve years of Depression will go a long way toward stamping out self-indulgent individualism. Also, some of the features of American culture that alarm conservatives, such as rock and roll, recreational drug use, and high divorce rates, have been transmitted upward from the simple, virtuous, ordinary American people to the cultural elite, rather than vice versa.

It would be more satisfying to find an institutional way of knitting the country together than to hope, vaguely, for different values to take root. The main institutions at hand for the job are public schools (including universities), the military, and the national-service bureaucracy that is now aborning. Right now American society doesn’t have a mechanism for bringing everyone together, which would give empathy and a sense of common purpose a chance to grow, and it doesn’t provide a large part of the country with the feeling of true opportunity that is the wellspring of commitment to national (not interest-group) concerns. If everybody were guaranteed a decent education, and if school, the military, and national service became mass, shared experiences rather than subcultural ones, then we’d be much closer than we are now to the attractive side of the national culture during the war years. It was, after all, government action, not a spontaneous shift in attitudes, that brought out the best in the country back then.

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.