Tom Hull on "The Good War" by Studs Terkel



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Tom Hull on “The Good War” by Studs Terkel

The more I learn and think about World War II, the more clear it becomes what a profound shock the war was to the path of American history. It changed how we thought of ourselves and how we thought of the world, and while victory in the war was certainly better than defeat would have been, the changes it wrought weren't necessarily for the better. With victory came an extraordinary arrogance which we still suffer from -- and for that matter make the world suffer with us. It led to a romance of war that we haven't shook off even though none of the many wars the US has engaged in have been anywhere near as satisfying. The quotes I pulled from Terkel's book reflect my concerns. It's a long book, 589 pages, and fascinating. It even goes beyond the Americans-only approach Burns is limited to, although only on occasion.

In the book, short intros by Terkel are in italics. Anything not in italics is a quote from the interview, listed at the start of each quote.

Directions: For each perspective, discuss the following considerations in your analysis of your primary sources:



  1. Who did you read about?

  2. What nationality was he/she?

  3. What circumstances did he/she describe?

  4. What three major points did he/she make about World War II and his/her experience in it?

  5. How did he/she feel about his/her enemy?

  6. Do you think your subject would have classified World War II as a “Good War” or not? Please explain your answer.

    1. In this position paper, you must take one of the following stances on the Second World War:

      1. World War II was a “Good War”

      2. World War II was not a “Good War”

      3. World War II was both a “Good War” and a destructive war

Perspective A: Looking Back

John Garcia, a dock worker at Pearl Harbor (p. 20):

There was so much excitement and confusion. Some of our sailors were shooting five-inch guns at the Japanese planes. You just cannot down a plane with a five-inch shell. They were landing in Honolulu, the unexploding naval shells. They have a ten-mile range. They hurt and killed a lot of people in the city.

When I came back after the third day, they told me that a shell had hit the house of my girl. We had been going together for, oh, about three years. Her house was a few blocks from my place. At the time, they said it was a Japanese bomb. Later we learned it was an American shell. She was killed. She was preparing for church at the time.

Robert Rasmus (p. 47):

We were aware that the Russians had taken enormous losses on the eastern front, that they really had broken the back of the German army. We would have been in for infinitely worse casualties and misery had it not been for them. We were well disposed toward them. I remember saying if we happen to link up with 'em, I wouldn't hesitate to kiss 'em.

Peggy Terry (p. 111):

My husband was a paratrooper in the war, in the 101st Airborne Division. He made twenty-six drops in France, North Africa, and Germany. I look back at the war with sadness. I wasn't smart enough to think too deeply then. We had a lotta good times and we had money and we had food on the table and the rent was paid. Which had never happened to us before. But when I look back and think of him . . .

Until the war he never drank. He never even smoked. When he came back he was an absolute drunkard. And he used to have the most awful nightmares. He'd get up in the middle of the night and start screaming. I'd just sit for hours and hold him while he just shook. We'd go to the movies, and if they'd have films with a lot of shooting in it, he'd just start to shake and have to get up and leave. He started slapping me around and slapped the kids around. He became a brute.

Betty Basye Hutchinson (p. 134):

When I think of the kind of person I was, a little hayseed from Oroville, with all this altruism in me and all this patriotism that sent me into the war! Oh, the war marked me, but I put it behind me. I didn't do much except march against Vietnam. And my oldest son, I'm happy to say, was a conscientious objector.

John Houseman, worked for the Office of War Information (OWI), which did propaganda, ran Voice of America (p. 352):

We were all civil service, so everyone was investigated. Sometimes it took up to six months. One of our best writers was fired because he'd been with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Among the investigators were many who had worked for Henry Ford as union busters. They invented the term "premature anti-fascists," PAF. It was used in adverse reports that we received on people.

Erich Lüth, of Hamburg, Germany (p. 433):

We were afraid at home, with every chime of the clock. All the time. I was afraid they'd find out my real opinions. One of my brothers was already in a concentration camp. He had been a bookseller. You know, before the millions of Jews were thrown into the camps, there were hundreds of thousands of German democrats, poets, ministers, students, labor people, thrown into the camps.

Vitaly Korotich (pp. 434-435):

I was seven years old when I see my first terrible war poster. Jews of Kiev, you must be on Lvov Circle. Those who will not be there will be killed. It was September 1941. Kiev was a multinational city. We have up to two hundred thousand Jews. The German army invaded Russia June 22, and on September 19 they were in Kiev.

They kill people from the third day of their occupation. It was Yom Kippur, Jewish holidays. They throw them in Babi Yar. It is an abyss, a very, very deep hole in the ground.

Nobody believed this would be done. It was done so easy. I ask those who came from Babi Yar. They say they believe these people are quite normal and they take you somewhere to nice places. Some people believe they will go to Palestine. Nobody believed a tfirst they will be killed. [ . . . ]

In 1943, nobody can believe it. When we start to open documents. The prisoners from other camps, who burned these bodies, they were killed too after two weeks of their work. Each evening, they were kept in old house standing near to Babi Yar. They dream about escaping. They looked in the pockets of those dead bodies for keys. The people who were killed in Babi Yar, they take keys with themselves. They think they are going back. For me, this is the metaphor! Keys for freedom in the pockets of the dead.

More than three hundred war prisoners run away. Only fifteen escaped. SS men killed all the others. Six of them still alive. I know five Jews who survived Babi Yar.

They tell me the story and I filmed it. They speak about such details: two or three trucks with children's shoes, which Germans take from Babi Yar in two weeks. How many children must be killed to fill one truck with shoes? They speak of looking for gold teeth, those who try to smash bones. Fascists do this in very practical way. They are very orderly. [ . . . ]

After the war, all German documentary film come to Soviet archives. In every German battalion, there will be one movie operator, who'll take miles and miles of these films. Sometimes, they never opened them. When we start to open them, it was terrible for me. It all came back to me. We work more than two years with those movies. I became crazy looking through it and looking. Sometimes it looks like the world after the neutron bomb. Because there are only things, no people Everybody dead. Like Babi Yar.




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