After World War I, Americans had vowed that they would never be drawn into a global conflict again, trumpeting the virtues of "splendid isolationism" and putting faith in documents like the Kellogg-Briand pact, which was supposed to eliminate war forever. Yet less than twenty-five years later, millions of Americans fought World War II, which was longer and costlier (in terms of both money and lives) than the previous conflict. Throughout the war, many men and women in the service reflected on why it was necessary that they fight. Signe Skott Copper recalled that "most Americans really thought that World War II was a worthy cause, that we had to get involved. . . . We felt it was right, it was right we should be doing this."
Americans, confident of their eventual triumph, possessed great optimism about the world of the future and about their ability to effect positive change in other areas of society. This sense of American accomplishment and confident outlook can be seen in the following letters (excerpted online) reflecting on the war:
Letter from Peter G. Pappas to Myrtle Trowbridge
Peter J. Pappas was born in La Crosse in 1917 and attended La Crosse State Teachers College and University of Wisconsin Law School, where he was enrolled at the start of the war. In July, 1942, he was drafted and became an intelligence and supply officer with an antiaircraft battalion, serving in the invasions of New Britain, Hollandia, Leyte, and Luzon. Captain Pappas returned to the United States in December, 1945, and received his discharge in March, 1946. He finished his law degree at the University of Wisconsin and then received a master's degree in law from Harvard University. Pappas currently is a circuit court judge, a position he has held since 1969. His letters are to his former teacher, Myrtle Trowbridge.
December 26, 1943
Dear Miss Trowbridge,
. . . The army is giving me an unrivaled education of travel; both coasts of the U.S.; Australia, New Guinea and a few more places in the future. All of us are learning how the other fellow lives—and we will know of life beyond our own group of states. I fervently hope our lesson is a lasting one for there is so much to be done after the war and we will need all our wisdom and strength to meet the challenge to make this a decent world. At last we realize how fine a way of life we've had and how poor the rest of the world is—but with the material things go the spiritual forces which will breathe hope into the world.
I see I should have planned for a longer letter.
Eve Currie writes in "Journey Among Warriors" that the other nations are fighting for the bright future while the American soldier, realizing how good his life has been, wants merely to return to his old way of life. Like any generalization it overlooks those painful exceptions; yet it contains much truth. On the whole our plane of living has been very high and it must be extended because a good life means much for a peaceful world. Still, we have much to take care of in our own backyard; poverty is not unknown; many are undernourished; there is much to be done in public health; education; housing and many other fields.
There are too many signs of intolerance and interest oppression—education still has much to accomplish. So, it appears that spiritual forces must walk hand in hand with material blessings.
There are favorable signs that the people of the U.S. are looking to activity in the sphere of world politics—a good omen but I wonder if it was not also true during the last war that there was much similar activity; many committees and numerous articles. Yet the results were lacking of any such great ideas. I still believe the mass of voters exercise the greatest of powers and usually are quite intelligent. True, we blunder but the benefits of democracy far overweigh the shortcomings.
We have spent many hours talking of these problems and altho we agree on the objective to be reached, i.e. a world at peace and U.S. international participation we do not agree on the means—and that will be a pressing problem.
Yet our pressing and immediate problem is to win this war and then to meet the next problems. But we can not help but think of what is to come.
One hears much of any entanglement and red-tape but it goes its way and somehow manages to get things done—and I have found it takes good care of us. Under our present conditions I think we are well off—and altho our comforts are few we don't lack for the necessities—and life does become one of simple things. I never dreamt I could do things that I now accept as commonplace—and yet when I return I'll lose no time surrounding myself with the comforts of old.
War is a matter of much training; constant repetition of fundamentals and a lot of hot, dirty work. There is no glamour in it. . . .
Letters from Roy f. Bergengren, Jr. to Don Anderson
As a young adult, Roy F. Bergengren, Jr. moved to Madison, where his father was one of the founders of CUNA credit union. Bergengren worked at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison for five years before enlisting in the army in 1941. He served as an aircraft controller with the 311th Fighter Control Squadron, 63rd Air Defense Wing, and with the 78th Fighter Control Squadron, 2nd Air Defense Wing, rising to the rank of major. By the time of his discharge in 1945, Bergengren had seen action in England, Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. After the war, he received an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Florida and also taught at that institution. He served as president of Daytona Beach Community College for fourteen years and died in 1982 at the age of sixty-seven. He wrote to Don Anderson and other co-workers at the Wisconsin State Journal.
November 24, 1943
. . . This will be my second Christmas overseas and I think I'm well qualified to report that the Yank, 1943 version, is doing a good job in upholding the traditions of his father and his grandfather and all who came before him. His few weaknesses are a source of pride rather than otherwise. He occasionally gets drunk, but that's because he loves his home and family and is terrifically lonely for both. He's slow to anger, but when he does get mad, he fights like hell. He's quick to forgive—the pictures of him giving his candy ration to Italian kids is not a publicity gag. Sometimes he gets cheated, but it's because he has a deep faith in human nature. I think he's the best there is.
We could have done very nicely without this war, but I do think it has given us a new sense of values which will go a long way in canceling any future wars. We'll come out of it stronger than ever and with a revitalized conception of man's brotherhood to man which is, after all, what Christmas is all about. Next Christmas we overseas will demonstrate personally—at home.
January 20, 1945
Having entered Germany a while ago, I feel something like the coast-to-coast marathon runner must as he crosses the New York State line.
In 28 months, I've journeyed through 11 countries to get here. It was a rather roundabout route, but there's never been any doubt about where we were headed. I hope I shall travel right to Berlin—and then home.
So far, it has been an interesting, if unpleasant experience. I could certainly have done nicely without it; but since it has been necessary, I'm glad to be one of those taking a share in it.
There have been a few outstanding impressions. Obvious though they may be, they are none-the-less vivid.
First is the absolute futility of war. Seen at close range, it becomes so brutal and stupid that we have to rub our eyes to believe the world is capable of it. It can't be written; samples of death, poverty, and destruction in war's wake must be seen to be appreciated.
In a Lyons cafe, a French journalist asked me,
"Why is it you Americans refuse to believe the Germans really tortured and killed so many innocent people in France?"
I couldn't answer. I guess it's because we live so far from such things and we must see to believe. Words fail to make such things real.
A second impression is the fundamental similarity of the peoples of the United Nations. I've lived and worked with British, French, Australian, South African, New Zealand, Polish, and Belgian soldiers to name a few. I'm convinced that we all seek the same general sort of life. We criticize one another for our little individual eccentricities; each of us thinks his is the best nation; but fundamentally we differ little. When this war is won, we must remember only the fundamentals and get together in a big way.
A third impression is that of America's own capabilities. London, Algiers, Paris, Rome, Florence, Marseilles, and every other city and town in every liberated country teeming with American traffic. Huge depots of American supplies, throngs of American men everywhere. If we can put forth one half the effort for peace that we've extended in this war, because it was necessary, there should never be need for another war. We must realize that peace, now, is just as necessary as the war has been.
I'm now living in a half-wrecked miner's house. There's snow and there's cold in addition to other little worrisome things. I and millions of others like me aren't enjoying ourselves at the moment, but we're perfectly willing to live this way because we have faith that the peoples of the world involved this time are going to do a better job in fashioning the peace. . . .
I've rambled on at some length and must now get a bit of shut-eye. The lessons to be learned from war are so simple and so obvious, that they have to come out. This time, dammit, we've got to remember them.
My best to the gang!