ISWD Roundtable: World War II and the Present Crisis

Institute for the Study of War and Democracy Roundtable featuring Conrad C. Crane, PhD.

To our Readers:

The historian spends a career studying subjects on their own terms, carefully analyzing events for their origins, course, and consequences. Good historians try to place events in their context of the times, to understand what people were thinking, to describe, in the words of the great German historian Leopold von Ranke, “how it really was” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen.”)

But historians have another ability, especially in troubled or uncertain times. They can compare what is happening today to events of the past, to compare and contrast, to see if persistent patterns emerge from the past that might help us understand the present.

With that end in mind, I have asked the scholars in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, the research arm of The National WWII Museum, to compose their thoughts about the present crisis and its historical and conceptual links to World War II. Those contributions form the basis for this roundtable on “World War II and the Present Crisis.”

I am pleased to note the presence on this roundtable of Conrad C. Crane, PhD. Con is Chief of Historical Services at the US Army Heritage and Education Center, part of the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. He is also Lieutenant Colonel (ret.), US Army. Con is a great friend of the Museum and a close personal friend, and when I asked him to contribute, he jumped at the opportunity. As always, as you’ll see, Con had something to say!

As we pass through the current crisis, let us seek inspiration and solace from the past, as we study the lessons of the War that Changed the World.


Rob Citino, PhD

Executive Director, Institute for the Study of War and Democracy

Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian, The National WWII Museum

New Orleans, LA

March 30, 2020




Tyler Bamford, PhD

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the global conflict already was one of the costliest in human history. German, Italian, and Japanese conquests encompassed much of continental Europe, Russia, China, and North Africa. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, things looked grim for the Allies, and victory was far from certain. America’s military was ill-prepared and poorly equipped for modern combat. The United States did not have a single armored division ready to deploy overseas, nor were its aircraft a match for German and Japanese fighter planes. In this dark hour, one of the most important ways the United States government prepared the nation to fight and prevail in the conflict, was to educate its citizens on the true extent of the difficult road that lay ahead.

Following World War I, many Americans resented wartime propaganda that had seemingly deceived them about Germany’s wartime atrocities, and the ideals of freedom and democracy that some felt were betrayed in the final peace settlement. When American mobilization for World War II began, the US government vowed not to repeat the same mistakes. In June 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI) and tasked the agency with providing clear and timely information to Americans about the causes of the war, Allied military progress, and the sacrifices victory demanded of every citizen. Through mediums including newspapers, radio broadcasts, posters, photographs, and films, the OWI supplied Americans with information about the war. The OWI also exhorted Americans to do their part, urging them to conserve critical resources such as food, gasoline, and rubber. Simultaneously, OWI posters encouraged Americans to volunteer as nurses and to fund the war effort by buying war bonds.

In addition to the OWI, the US military launched its own information offensive aimed at inspiring inductees and instructing service members about the reasons for their service. The War Department showed the majority of the 16.1 million men and women who served in uniform films from award-winning director Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. These movies, which had titles such as Prelude to War and The Nazis Strike, paired Axis propaganda footage with concise narration to explain the causes of the war. The documentaries also introduced American soldiers to their allies, and educated them about the difference between fascism and democracy. Though Capra is better known today for his work on films like It’s a Wonderful Life, his wartime movies are widely credited with playing a key role in the War Department’s successful efforts to inform soldiers about the reasons for their service.

Whether Americans fought on far-flung battlefields or contributed to victory on the home front during World War II, they were armed with accurate information about the purpose and necessity for their sacrifice. Today, the government’s education efforts during World War II serve as a reminder that the vast majority of Americans have historically been willing to make the commitment their nation requires when they are given accurate and complete information explaining the need for their participation. In times of crisis, it is vital that those being asked to sacrifice understand the importance of their contribution, and the direct impact it will have in obtaining victory.

In the present fight against the COVID-19 virus, the US government is asking Americans to make sacrifices to their economic well-being and personal comfort. This is the first time since World War II that the government is requesting that the majority of the US population change their daily lives in a substantial way for a common cause. Consequently, what elected leaders need to do now is conduct a new information campaign that makes no false promises of easy victory, but rather offers concrete steps that everyone is mandated to follow. These immutable instructions must be accompanied by assurances that if everyone abides by these temporary restrictions, the crisis will pass and the country will return to business as usual. Armed with the facts, it will then fall to the American people to support one another in upholding these guidelines. Other nations have ensured their directives are followed using the threat of force. But World War II showed that Americans will support the protracted disruption to their lives if the government gives them all the information regarding the crisis and asks the same thing of every citizen.


Robert M. Citino, PhD

Few men in US history had the rhetorical chops of our nation’s 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Phrases like “the arsenal of democracy” or “the day of infamy”; the ringing declaration of the “Four Freedoms”; even Roosevelt’s defense of his “little dog Fala” against political opponents in Congress: when FDR said something, it had the ring of truth to the American people, and it usually stuck.

That’s why, in seeking the links between the present global crisis and the one Roosevelt navigated, I go back to his first inaugural address—the very first speech he gave as the nation’s president and perhaps the finest piece of political rhetoric in his entire career. The country wasn’t yet at war, and wouldn’t be for some time. The date was March 4, 1933. The country was stuck in an apparently endless economic crisis, the Great Depression, and early 1933 might have been the worst of it. Unemployment stood a shade under 25 percent. Factories lay silent and bread lines were thriving. The sense of hopelessness was palpable.

That’s when Roosevelt stepped to the microphone and uttered words that will live forever. The American people deserved “candor” and “the truth, the whole truth.” Times were awful, anyone would see that. But surface conditions masked a deeper truth. The real thing to be afraid of was not the Depression or unemployment statistics. The real danger was losing heart. “The only thing we have to fear is…” and here you can hear him hesitate, for effect, “fear itself.”

Fear itself. The enemy, the real enemy of all humankind. “Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror,” he notes, is the real enemy, the one thing that can paralyze us, prevent us from doing getting on with the job, doing what we need in order to overcome. He had no doubt that if we just didn’t let ourselves be frozen by fear, then we could “convert retreat into advance.” Ultimately, he offered hope. If we hung together as one, worked for a common purpose, and pulled together rather than apart, he promised, “this great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.”

And this is the very point of all those comparisons between then and now. The real enemy, the only enemy that can truly bring us down, is despair. Fear freezes us, renders us unable to act. Crisis, however, demands a different course of action altogether: assess the situation, weigh the dangers, devise solutions, and then act on them. Even more important, we will be able to remain strong as a people, as citizens of a democratic republic, with rights and responsibilities to look out for the common good. The worst thing that could happen now would be to lose connection with the men and women around us (even, ironically, as we’re being told to stay home for the duration.)

Here at The National WWII Museum, we like to recall the World War II slogan, “We’re All in This Together,” and it is as true today as it was then. Letting “fear itself” drive us apart would not only be stupid and counterproductive, it would betray the heritage of Franklin Roosevelt and the Americans who faced down the Depression and Adolf Hitler in a single lifetime.


Conrad Crane, PhD

In August 2002, the US Army conducted a conference at Carlisle Barracks to examine initial impressions of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and NOBLE EAGLE: the campaigns in Afghanistan and to defend the American homeland after the attacks of 9/11. One of the most provocative presentations was provided by the Army’s Chief of Military History, Brigadier General John Brown. He described President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s many programs to involve the American public in the efforts to win World War II. BG Brown argued that the nation really did not need drives to collect commodities like tin and rubber from its citizens. Nevertheless, such campaigns gave everyone a part in wartime work and sacrifice. Conference attendees worried that President George W. Bush’s exhortations to the American people after the fall of the Twin Towers, to just go back to “shopping at malls and flying on airplanes” would have a very different effect: detaching the people from actions in the field, and creating “an Army at War for a Nation at Peace.” This is to a large extent what happened.

The current crisis is a time for stronger efforts to restore that WWII sense of shared sacrifice. Stories of people making surgical masks and helping quarantined neighbors are encouraging, but there are even more tales about panic buying and hoarders. There was an article in one local newspaper about a woman who bought out all the bananas at a grocery store, and then called back a few days later to ask for her money back because they were all going bad. Other people have been hoarding milk and eggs: also not a smart long term investment.

The WWII generation was not perfect. There had to be rationing at home for some resources, in order to insure that everyone had their fair share. But those items were scarce because of higher wartime priorities. Today there is plenty of toilet tissue in the supply system, but stores cannot keep shelves stocked because of selfish panic buying. In many cases, retailers have had to impose their own rationing of hard to find items. Internet videos of American women fighting over rolls of toilet paper has generated international ridicule.

Almost everyone on the home front during World War II cheerfully accepted rationing as part of their obligation to support the fight: and contributed to tin drives, and bought war bonds. Hoarders were ostracized. Black marketeers could be prosecuted. There should be that same disdain for those who abuse their privileges today. If everyone just buys what they need, there will be plenty for all. We are in a similar fight against an enemy who threatens all we hold dear. And we are all in it together, against a foe who is not on a distant battlefield, but right here at home. Just going back to “shopping at malls” is not an option. We have to tighten our belts and take care of each other. During World War II, American housewives rolled two and a half billion Red Cross bandages. How many masks have you made today?


Jason Dawsey, PhD

As is well known, the American mobilization against the fascist and militarist regimes of Italy, Germany, and Japan pulled some 16 million men into the armed forces by 1945. On the home front, the shift of industry to a wartime footing led to staggering levels of productivity and innovation. With rationing and high taxation to prevent profiteering, every social class was affected by calls to stand together against the Axis Powers.

It should not be forgotten that this mobilization also applied to many who were new to American shores. The Office of Strategic Services, established in 1942 and led by Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, actively recruited German, often German-Jewish, émigrés who had fled their homeland after Adolf Hitler had taken power in 1933. Some came right after the Reichstag Fire. Another wave arrived after the passing of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, while others escaped after the Night of Broken Glass of November 1938. They transmitted harrowing tales of SA and SS thugs, stories of loved ones, friends, and comrades sent to concentration camps, and warnings to listeners in the United States that Hitler could never be appeased. They also quickly recognized that American life was itself hardly immune to xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic attitudes. Yet there was a democracy here, one that had the might to crush Hitler’s murderous vision of a New European Order.

More than a few of these men and women possessed exceptional educational backgrounds in the pre-1933 German university system. Donovan, a registered Republican, appealed to them to join the OSS and support the struggle against fascism with their intellectual talents. A special Central European Section of the OSS’s Research & Analysis Branch (R & A) was assigned the task of producing reliable research about the Nazi dictatorship. Later, Donovan spoke of the “good old-fashioned intellectual sweat” exerted within his intelligence organization.

Based in Washington, DC, and put together by James Phinney Baxter, President of Williams College, and Harvard University historian Lawrence Langer, this cohort was a redoubtable one. The Central European Section included Yale historians Hajo Holborn and Felix Gilbert; Vassar College art historian Richard Krautheimer; philosopher Hans Meyerhoff, who had only just received his PhD from UCLA in 1942; and several members of the Institute for Social Research (philosopher Herbert Marcuse, political scientist Franz Neumann, and legal theorist Otto Kirchheimer.) Scholar Barry Kātz convincingly described them as a “staff of distinguished scholars unprecedented in American political or intellectual history.”

Politically, these individuals ranged from cultural conservatives to liberals to Marxists. Donovan did not worry much about their politics. What counted was their determination to defeat the Third Reich. As part of a larger group of 900 staff in R & A, the Central European Section of OSS created a rich array of texts between 1942 and 1945 on the psychology of submission on which Hitler depended; on Nazi Germany’s political, economic, and legal systems; and possible anti-Nazi tendencies within the German population. Recommendations about occupation policy in a post-Hitler Germany also were submitted to Donovan. Much of this work is available to the public today and is worth careful reading.

The utilization of these German-born experts by the US government during World War II should remind us of two things as the United States confronts the coronavirus crisis. Don’t permit xenophobia and scapegoating to rule politics ever, but especially in a moment of crisis. For instance, to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” not only misleads people about the nature of a global pandemic, but can also foster a very dangerous atmosphere in this country for people of East Asian descent. Finally, this mobilization of intellectuals reveals that unity in the struggle against Nazism did not require uniformity in political and social views. As the coronavirus outbreak continues, people with opposing political perspectives can and must find a way to cooperate against a foe which is utterly indifferent to these differences


Keith Huxen, PhD

Like over 70 million Americans, I am currently self-quarantined in my home in New Orleans, focused upon the health of my wife, child, and elderly in-laws. We watch the news on television, and listen to doctors and scientists. We are trying avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus and “flatten the curve,” thereby placing the policies and actions of our political leaders into contexts that allow us to develop expectations for likely future events.

In my study I am surrounded by works of history, but many people might be surprised to know that virtually none of it is on World War II. Given my job, my WWII collection is all in my office at work, excepting a few volumes that I took home last week when I learned that staff should prepare to work from home for a while. Sitting in my reading chair at home, it is natural to turn to the past in an attempt to understand the present. It is also natural to want to escape to other times that have no recognizable similarities to our own. But I have found myself browsing a few works in the past days that have stimulated thoughts about the value of the study of history now.

When first confronted with the new realities of social distancing and self-quarantines, I thought of the father of history, Thucydides, and his account of the plague within the city walls of Athens during the Peloponnesian War in the 4th century BC. Living now with an unknown future, and confronting a contagious and invisible enemy, is stressful; but at least we live in an age where scientific knowledge and technology can identify the enemy and develop methods to combat it, even treat and perhaps cure it. It is natural to wonder how much worse things can get. Reading Thucydides, one can appreciate the desperation that the Athenians must have felt inside the city walls. Not only did they have a very incomplete understanding of infectious disease, but at the same time they were faced with an enemy army literally at the gates.

The most comparable event in modern times is the siege of Leningrad by the German army in World War II, which lasted 900 days in 1941-44. One Soviet estimate placed deaths within the city as high as over 1.3 million out of a population of a 3 million people. When one considers the empty grocery shelves today, it is sobering to reflect on diaries from Leningraders that I have read who ate sawdust and wall paper glue, and even traded beloved pets with other families to eat, in order to survive.

These are grim facts, but at least we understand today that we can avoid the spread of the virus through social distancing and quarantining, without the complexities of fighting a war. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and the example of Leningrad offer stark reminders that however difficult things are at the moment, history shows that other people have been through much worse. Even if they emerged changed and scarred from the challenge, they ultimately prevailed.

The other book which I have been browsing and thinking about is Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower. The book offers a deep look into how networks have developed and impacted change, often revolutionary, throughout history going back to the printing press in the fifteenth century. The social media and online networks that we use today mark the latest wave in the information revolution that spawned the religious revolution of the sixteenth century; the diplomatic and scientific revolutions of the seventeenth; and the political revolutions of the eighteenth century. In our interconnected global world, which the COVID-19 virus is disrupting and challenging, Ferguson’s work is a timely meditation on power and the channels through which power flows.

Ferguson’s title refers to the town square, which represents a network whose values are the democratic equality of the marketplace. The tower which often stood over the square represents the hierarchical power structures of government (and other institutions), and their ability to bring order to society. Indeed, Ferguson ends his work by juxtaposing the world of Silicon Valley and the social media revolution: symbolized by the completely circular, ring-shaped Apple building only four stories tall, with the 68 floor-high (technically 58, as Ferguson points out) skyscraper in Manhattan that is Trump Tower, whose owner currently occupies the White House.

For those wondering about what the future holds in the wake of the current crisis, projecting what will change from international economic patterns, information networks, and great power political rivalries, The Square and the Tower provides an indispensable historical background. Ferguson’s biography subject Henry Kissinger once noted that history is not a cookbook in which recipes are precisely repeated, but something that teaches by example and analogy. And that, to me, is the value of reading history while quarantined in my study (like so many others) during COVID-19: let the hard work of understanding what needs to be done and changed, begin.


Edward G. Lengel, PhD

Compassion, I have always believed, is the most vital quality to understanding the past. It also provides the key to linking the past with the present. We have become accustomed to regarding those who inhabit the past as mere subjects: to be inspected, evaluated, classified, and ultimately judged on the basis of our supposedly superior wisdom. In truth, as British art historian Kenneth Clark proclaimed in his magnificent BBC television series Civilisation (which I cannot recommend highly enough to those binge-watching TV from home today), “men haven’t changed much in the past few thousand years . . . history is ourselves.”

Everything we witness today has already, in some measure, been written on the pages of human history. That includes the deplorable—squabbling and selfishness—and the inspirational—poise and selflessness. To me, this basic fact offers perspective, and immense consolation. Human beings have been through far worse, and persevered. They have felt the same uncertainty and dread. Many millions of people have suffered more than most of us can imagine. And yet, in the end, we humans have risen above our limitations. Ironically, perhaps, crises like the present moment also allow me to regard the past with greater empathy. I can understand our ancestors better. I might even consider them as neighbors.

In some respects, World War I—which ended just over a century ago—offers closer parallels to the present day than World War II. By 1914, the western world had enjoyed almost 100 years of unprecedented growth and prosperity, only intermittently broken by crisis and war. If anything, people of that time had become restless with peace, eager for something to break the monotony, or to test and thereby cleanse humanity. Many spoke of war as inevitable—and indeed, looked forward to it with a kind of mad eagerness. When it came, however, war delivered a terrible shock to the western psyche. Massed artillery and machine guns; glutinous trenches; millions dead. No one could remember seeing anything like it before.

For the past 30 years I have read WWI letters, diaries, and memoirs in their hundreds, with an almost obsessive interest. I’m fascinated to learn how individual men and women experienced and dealt with the sudden shock of a global conflict that turned accepted realities upside down. Some were crushed by what they witnessed. More, though, found the strength to move on, and in some cases to turn suffering into good. I think of my third cousin Sergeant Alvin C. York, who received the Medal of Honor for his exploits (as a corporal) in France’s Argonne Woods in October 1918, but who was deeply plagued by survivor’s guilt and probably post-traumatic stress. His shining example was to transform his inner pain into good, by using his celebrity to devote the remainder of his life to charity for others. In giving, he found peace.

Even so, the WWI generation accepted as routine trials that Americans today can hardly imagine. Disease, especially childhood disease, was a fact of life: millions died from—or like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who contracted polio, were crippled by—maladies that scientists have now largely eradicated. The Influenza epidemic that killed some 50 million people globally in 1918-1920 at a time of severe economic hardship and political turmoil did not, it seems to me, generate the kind of widespread terror that COVID-19 has today. Likewise, the Great Depression of 1929-1940 wiped out hard-earned savings, caused massive unemployment, and left millions destitute (many who lived through those times, like my grandmother, never trusted banks again and stuffed money under their mattresses.) For all the incredible suffering these crises caused, over such a long span of time, Americans found ways to carry on. Watch 1930s movie musicals by Busby Berkeley, or with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—you’ll understand.

World War II, then, tested humanity. But these people—the Greatest Generation, as they came to be called—were unfazed. They knew how to face the test with strength and resilience. The magnificent Dame Vera Lynn, who has spoken out again recently at age 103 with words of hope for the present crisis, galvanized Great Britain in 1940 with songs such as “The White Cliffs of Dover” and, “We’ll Meet Again.” And yet, her words reflected those that British and Americans had sung along to in the dark days of the Great Depression—just listen to “Pennies from Heaven,” or, “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” filling the airwaves over the bread lines in 1932:


Night seems darkest just before the dawn,

Just as the daybreak nears.

Soon we’ll see a sunny sky,

It’s time to dry your tears.


Somewhere the sun is shining,

So, honey, don’t you cry!

We’ll find a silver lining,

The clouds will soon roll by.


We have been down this path before—and so we shall again. The traits that inspired the Greatest Generation and achieved victory dwell within us still—and they’ll see us through.


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