More than 15 years ago, Stephen Ambrose wrote that historians were in danger of overdoing World War II. This past weekend, however, nationally renowned scholars visiting the College showed that the second World War remains a mainstay not only of scholarly research, but also of popular imagination and national mythology.
Sponsored by the Stanley Kaplan Program in American Foreign Policy and the Program in Leadership Studies, 40 noted historians convened in Williamstown for a two-day conference entitled “World War II Reconsidered.” The conference was organized by Mark Stoler, visitng professor of American foreign policy, to discuss new scholarship and perspectives on World War II.
“There continues to be enormous interest in World War II,” Stoler said. “There has been a great deal of recent scholarship on the war and revisions of existing interpretations. It’s a good time to call together some of the most notable scholars in the field and have roundtable discussions of these new findings about the war.”
Three-time Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and historian Rick Atkinson delivered the keynote lecture, “The Day of Battle: History, Memory and Writing about War,” on Friday night in Brooks Rogers.
Atkinson began his talk by pointing out that 63 years ago to the day, Allied Forces captured the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, a strategic turning point of the war. “I don’t know about you, but I feel a frisson of excitement over it,” Atkinson said.
It is this excitement for the “greatest story of the century” that Atkinson tries to impart in his writing. While he acknowledged the importance of research, Atkinson also emphasized the importance of storytelling. “Storytelling is too important to leave to playwrights and novelists,” Atkinson said. “[It] is the most ancient art, even more ancient than that of thesis-writing.” For effective historical narrative, he stressed the importance of conveying emotion and developing characters.
Atkinson also contemplated the moral element of writing history. He quoted historian Will Durant who wrote that in all of human history, only 29 years have not been marred by warfare.
By imparting the horrors and trauma of history, Atkinson hopes to remind his readers that war, as in the words of Robert E. Lee, is terrible. “I consider each of [my] five books an anti-war book,” Atkinson said.
Saturday’s discussions began with “Japanese Strategy in the Pacific,” a lecture on the book Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War: Was Defeat Inevitable? written by James Wood, professor of history. Wood argued that if the Japanese had not made several key mistakes in strategy, such as spreading their Pacific defenses too thin and pushing their territorial boundary too wide early on, the war may have been prolonged for several more years. Nevertheless, he doubts that Japan would have won in the end due to their inferior production capabilities.
Richard Frank, an independent scholar in the field, followed by noting that research on the Pacific Theater should focus more on Japanese collaboration with Germany. Edward Drea of the Center for Military History then commented that throughout the war, the majority of the Japanese army was actually stationed in China and so was unavailable to fight in the Pacific islands. Finally, Mark Parillo from Kansas State University returned to the discussion of wartime production to point out that the Japanese could not have possibly interrupted America’s Pacific shipping due to excellent U.S. air coverage.
The second panel discussed airpower in the different allied countries. Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College discussed British bombing strategies, while Conrad Crane from the U.S. Army Military History Institute presented on American bombing strategies. Both commented on the difficulty of maintaining high morale, due to the high death rates and the imprecision of the bombs that led to heavy civilian casualties. Reina Pennington from Norwich University finished by discussing Soviet tactical use of airpower.
The last panel of the day, “What Remains to be Done?” examined gaps in World War II scholarship and areas for further research. Raymond Callahan, a specialist in Britain’s role in World War II, began the discussion by pointing out the lack of literature on the participation of colonized nations. “People enlisted more or less voluntarily from villages where the sight of an internal combustion engine was unusual, and their knowledge of operations was wizardry,” Callahan said, before raising and addressing a host of questions about the lasting human impacts of the war.
Callahan’s talk was followed by a presentation from Allan Millett, a retired Marine colonel and historian from the University of New Orleans. Troubled by portrayals of the war for entertainment value, Millet bemoaned what he called the “Band of Brothers syndrome.” Academics, he said, have a responsibility to stay “within the bounds of reality to address the taxonomy of the war.” Millet suggested that the next groundbreaking task of war scholarship would be the writing of an international history with authors from different cultures and languages. “War is a huge laboratory for the human experience,” Callahan said. “As humanists, historians should be interested in looking at the commonalities and universalities of the human experiences.”
The last panelist was Gerhard Weinberg from the University of North Carolina, who is noted as the discoverer of Hitler’s Zweites Buch, a sequel to Mein Kampf. He focused on more specific issues, including American island strategy in the Pacific, Japanese policies on poison gas, German military training and the extent of Soviet espionage and its implications for the Holocaust.
The prevailing theme of the conference was that, although historians have reached consensus in some areas of World War II scholarship, the war remains a topic of continued debate and upcoming research. Delegating the task to future generations, Callahan said, “We ought to leave some things for our grandchildren, or else they will be terribly bored.”