A Serious Case of Mistaken Identity

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly

Each June, Americans rightfully honor the bravery and sacrifice of the men who invaded Normandy in 1944. Recently, however, this celebration has too often lapsed into a solipsistic and deeply flawed revision of the U.S. role in World War II, which leads to equally self-congratulatory but far more dangerous conclusions about America’s purpose in the world today. If Americans are to get a more balanced view of their history and their global role, we should remember another June anniversary: today, the 59th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Russia.

A national mythology has emerged that in 1941 the United States, appalled by the horrific policies of the Nazis, deliberately embarked on a crusade to rid the world of Hitler and to stop the Holocaust. D-Day was, according to this version of events, the decisive point in the “Good War,” when American troops, piously aware of the noble cause for which they fought, began the military operations that defeated Nazi Germany. Having beat Hitler and made possible a better world, the United States remains to this day what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declares “the indispensable nation.”

Some reminders are in order.

First, of course, such a view slights the anti-Japanese dimension of the U.S. war, which was the real reason the United States had gone to war in the first place. Nazi Germany declared war on the United States in accord with its treaty with Japan; only then did the U.S. declare that Germany was its enemy too. For most Americans, the purpose of the war remained to exact revenge on the Japanese.


Second, stopping the mass murder of the Jews didn’t figure in any way in either American war aims or conduct. As for American soldiers and sailors, they fought the war, as historian and critic Paul Fussell declares, “in an ideological vacuum.” The war was “about your military unit and your loyalty to it.” Plainly put, they fought the war to end it so that they could go home, a point of view entirely reasonable and even courageous, but hardly high-minded.

As far as the U.S. contribution to defeating the Nazis goes, even though Time magazine anointed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as “The Man Who Defeated Hitler,” if any one man deserves that label, it’s Soviet Army Marshal G.K. Zhukov, or possibly Josef Stalin. The main scene of the Nazis’ defeat wasn’t Normandy or anywhere else Americans fought, but rather the Eastern Front, where the conflict was the most terrible war fought in history. It claimed 50 million Soviet civilian deaths and 29 million Soviet military casualties. But more to the point, Americans should recall that about 88% of all German casualties fell in the war with Russia.

Until the Normandy invasion--from June 1941 to June 1944--almost the whole of the Nazi war machine was concentrated in the East; and even two months after D-Day, well over half the German army was still fighting the Soviets. Military historians date the war’s turning point two years before D-Day when, at Stalingrad, the Soviets eradicated 50 divisions from the Axis order of battle, or nearly one year before when, at the Battle of Kursk, the Red Army smashed the Wehrmacht’s strategic tank force, breaking the Nazis’ capacity for large-scale attack. And it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz and bore down on Hitler’s bunker.

The moral narcissism that characterizes recent American discussion of our role in World War II breeds within too many of our statesmen a smug and reckless pride. After all, the thinking goes, if history has shown the United States to be so virtuous, then any that oppose us must be evil.

Today, Americans need not honor the Russian dead as we do our own, but we should give credit where credit is due, and we must not make exaggerated claims for ourselves. In contemplating how our WWII role influences our conduct in the contemporary world, Americans should remember that self-righteousness is bad enough, but when it springs largely from a self-serving mythology, it is insufferable.


This story states that the war “claimed 50 million Soviet civilian deaths and 29 million Soviet military casualties.” The most commonly accepted numbers on Soviet war dead during World War II run between 15 to 25 million, civilian and military combined.


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