"THE GOOD WAR" by Studs Terkel; Pantheon; 589 pages; $19.95
Studs Terkel is the man who gave us our oral-history fixation.
Working (People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do) and Hard Times (An Oral History of the Great Depression) hooked a national audience with the transcribed experiences of hundreds of Americans. Some scholars dismissed these books as little more than jumped-up man-in-the-street interviews, strong on emotion and weak on critical framework. The public disagreed. Let the eggheads collect cut-glass generalizations from Tocqueville and Toynbee. Folks read Studs to find out what it was really like on the bread lines and assembly lines.
And now in the trenches. Terkel, a tireless 72, has lugged his tape machine cross-country and abroad to record memories of World War II, "the good war." The quotation marks are important. Terkel's army of disparate witnesses generally agrees that the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was an unconditional virtue. But the years since 1945 have taken a toll on that good feeling. Korea, Viet Nam and the rat race slowly eclipsed the enthusiasms and certainties of youth. Former enemies became allies; old comrades-in-arms are now adversaries. Robert Lekachman, an economics professor and Army survivor of the Pacific meatgrinder ("I computed my regiment's casualty list. It was 140%"), echoes the book's dominant theme: "It was the last time that most Americans thought they were innocent and good, without qualifications."
Even black servicemen were caught up in the spirit of the white man's crusade. Despite a history of slave labor, Jim Crow laws and racism in the ranks, blacks fought with distinction. Recognition for many was a long time coming. The 761st Tank Battalion, all black except for fewer than a dozen white officers, battled Germans for 183 days without relief. The outfit had to wait 33 years before its veterans could persuade the White House to award them a Presidential Unit Citation.
The war rewarded American women immediately. Defense plants provided them with their first paychecks and a chance to get out of the house. Rosie the Riveter became an overnight symbol of competence and independence, though not all women finished work looking like Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift. Peggy Terry, who loaded shells at a plant in Viola, Ky., recalls that the tetryl in explosives turned skin, hair and eyeballs orange: "The only thing we worried about," she says, "was other women thinking we had dyed our hair." Evelyn Fraser, a former WAC captain in Europe, had more somber preoccupations: "The shocking thing was to walk s among Germans and see them as human beings, and then see Dachau. It was so difficult to put together."