HISTORY 546

NOTE ABOUT READING STUDS TERKEL’S BOOK, THE GOOD WAR

 

Among the things to look for are the following (and this is not an exhaustive list by any means - feel free to come up with your own questions):

 

ORAL HISTORY

*Why do we do oral history in the first place?

*What do we learn from these oral accounts that are not covered in standard histories of this (or any) historical period?

*How believable do you find the accounts? Do people tend to make the past rosier or grimmer than it was? What things are they likely to forget, or not to talk about?

*How do different people recall more or less the same events and the same years - how do the perceptions of men differ from women, whites from blacks, bosses from workers, etc?

*Terkel interviews a lot of bigwigs from the period - what surprises you about what they have to say, as opposed to the ordinary people?

*How does the reality of these years compare with how people remember an era like that today?

*If you were interviewing people like these, are there any questions you would like to ask that Terkel does not?

*Are there any types of people who Terkel fails to include here, who you'd like to hear from? Who?

*How much does Terkel himself emerge in these pages? What do we learn about him from the kind of questions he asks, how he asks them, who he interviews, etc?

*When were the interviews done? What does this chronology tell us about the political context of what people are going to say, and what Terkel is asking?

 

MEMORY AND STEREOTYPES

*A critical question: Was there anything in what you read that really surprised/shocked you about how people lived then, how they reacted to the war, etc?

*If you could pick one quote or passage that stopped you in your tracks, that changed your opinion about the war years, what would it be?

*What does an account like this do to contemporary stereotypes of the war years, the "good war", "Private Ryan" image etc? How serious or sardonic is Terkel about the Good War title? Good for whom?

 

THE HOME FRONT

*Were any particular regions or industries hit particularly hard or particularly lightly? Which regions or areas did best? Which, why?

*Based on these testimonies, could America have emerged from the depression without the war?

*How well did government cope with its domestic problems? Was it so focused overseas that domestic events got left behind? How far do these oral memoirs help us understand that picture?

*What do we learn about crime and corruption in the war years, especially in government and the armed forces?

*How well did conscientious objectors cope?

*How did Japanese-, German- and Italian-Americans cope?

*How does religion surface in these accounts?

*Were the war years equally catastrophic for everyone, or did some people manage and flourish better than others? Who? How did they do it?

*What were ordinary people most afraid of in these years? How realistic were those fears?

*How badly were ordinary Americans hit in terms of material goods, shortages etc?

*How successfully did the arrangements established by the New Deal cope with the pressures of war? Could America have done so well without the New Deal precedents?

*How far were American policies explicitly conditioned by memories of world war one, and maybe by mistakes made in those years?

 

FAMILIES AND GENDER

*What was it like growing up as a child in that era?

*What does this book to the Rosie the Riveter myth?

*How well did families cope with these years?

*Soldiers and sailors clearly did not take vows of chastity, nor did their wives back home: what evidence do we have of WWII as a sexual revolution?

*What do we learn about homosexuality and sexual deviance in these years?

 

WHY WE FIGHT

*How far did people's accounts of why they fought and what they fought against mesh with official interpretations of the war against fascism and tyranny? 

*We have the familiar stereotype about patriotic enthusiasm at the beginning of the war. Obviously that did not last forever. What were the low points of the war in people's minds? How seriously did people face the idea of losing, or at least not winning? How and when did war-weariness set in, if it did?

*What did people think about the war propaganda they were presented with, and how did they rate the mass media? Did they believe what they were told, did they become more skeptical as time went on, what?

*How important were movies I shaping people's consciousness and memories?

*In Britain, it is common to talk about the "People's War". According to this account, was WWII a "people's war" for Americans? Were they members of a "People's Army"?

*How did Americans regard their allies, like the British, French, Chinese etc?

*Allowing for differences in names and places, how different do you think the memories offered by German or Japanese survivors of the war would have been? Why?

 

COMBAT

*Does anything surprise you about the accounts of combat or the psychology of ordinary soldiers and sailors?

*Do people talk about atrocities committed by US forces? Do these seem to be isolated acts, or part of a wider cultural phenomenon? How should these be regarded in view of later debates over war crimes and crimes against humanity?

 

RACE AND ETHNICITY

*How much do we learn about the war and racism - how far were people motivated by anti-Oriental racism? Did people realize the paradoxes of fighting against racist regimes when US armed forces were segregated? How common was anti-semitism?

*How successfully was segregation combated in the armed forces?

 

LEFT AND RIGHT

*Do people talk about the impact of fringe movements, eg Communism, new religious sects, etc

*What politicians, celebrities or national figures left the greatest impact in people’s memory? Who do they especially remember as heroes or villains?

*How different a war were self-conscious leftists and Communists fighting from their less politicized comrades?

*How did people regard the Russians? How did views change over time? Did these views pose problems for post-war attempts to galvanize the nation against the red menace?

*We have a good number of voices from the left or far left? What do we hear about people on the right or far right? If there is a difference in treatment, why is it?

 

EFFECTS

*Based on what we read here, do the war years deserve to be remembered as a true revolution in American life?

*What did the war do for concepts of Americanism and American identity? Did it help stir the melting pot?

*How much does what we learn here explain what happened after the war, through the 1960s? What did it mean in the long term for the role of government, for gender roles, for race….

*What did the war do for concepts of whiteness? For ideas of masculinity?

*How far does what we read here explain the 1950s?

 

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER

*How did the atomic bomb affect people's thinking in the months and years following Hiroshima?

*How did people regard the political settlements in the various enemy and occupied countries? Do they think too much tolerance was granted to ex-fascists, do they think leftist regimes should have been established, what do they say about this? Was the peace lost, as it may (arguably) have been in 1919? Yet again, how does this affect the whole notion of a "good war"?

*America survived the depression and the war: how well did it cope with demobilization?