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The Reckoning That Wasn’t

Over the course of many evenings in 1952 and 1953, when I was a kindergartner, my family gathered around a hand-me-down TV in the Chicago housing project where we lived to watch Victory at Sea. With stirring music and solemn narration, this 26-part documentary produced by NBC offered an inspiring account of World War II as a righteous conflict in which freedom had triumphed over evil, in large part thanks to the exertions of the United States. The country had waged a people’s war, fought by millions of ordinary citizens who had answered the call of duty. The war’s outcome testified to the strength of American democracy.

Here was history in all its seductive and terrible magnificence. Here, too, was truth: immediate, relevant, and compelling, albeit from a strictly American point of view. If the series had an overarching message, it was this: the outcome of this appalling conflict had inaugurated a new age in which the United States was destined to reign supreme.

The series had a profound effect on me, reinforced by the fact that both of my parents had served in the war. For them and for others of their generation, the great crusade against Germany and Japan was to remain the defining event of their lives and seemed destined to define the lives of future generations, as well.

Yet Victory at Sea hinted at difficulties ahead. The concluding episode was titled “Design for Peace” but offered nothing of the sort. Instead, it conveyed something more akin to a warning. “One bomb from one plane and 78,000 human beings perish,” the narrator intoned, as a camera panned across images of a devastated Hiroshima. “Two bombs, and World War II is over.” Grainy footage of liberated concentration camps and scenes of homeward-bound troops flickered across the screen. Then, with a cryptic reference to “the free world on its march to tomorrow” and a quote from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill extolling the importance of resolution, defiance, magnanimity, and goodwill, the series simply ended. To discern what the most devastating conflict of all time signified politically or morally, viewers would have to look elsewhere.

Read the full piece in Foreign Affairs.

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