Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 9, 2001Volume 29, Number 18

Historian David Kennedy, shown chatting with graduate student Claire Nee, returned to his alma mater as a guest speaker in the Graduate School's Tercentennial lecture series "In the Company of Scholars."

Historian Kennedy describes how WWII altered the U.S.

Standing at the podium and surveying the Law School's Levinson Auditorium, renowned historian David M. Kennedy recalled, "I sat in this very room three times a week taking notes, when I was TA-ing for John Blum."

This time, it was Blum (now Sterling Emeritus of History) who was sitting in the audience, part of the near-capacity crowd that had gathered to hear his protégé speak on "A Tale of Three Cities: How the U.S. Won World War II," the latest lecture in the Graduate School's Tercentennial series "In the Company of Scholars."

Kennedy, who earned his Ph.D. in American studies at Yale in 1968, has "been flying under false colors ever since," he admitted. Despite his formal training, he has been a member of the History Department at Stanford University for more than 30 years.

Like Tom Wolfe, who spoke earlier this year in the same lecture series, Kennedy has put his Yale American Studies training to use as an analyst of American culture. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize in April 2000 for "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945," a massive work of social history. In 1981, Kennedy's "Over Here: The First World War and American Society" was nominated for a Pulitzer. In addition, his 1970 book "Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger" was a pioneering work in the field of women's history.

"The trouble with studying history is that it's just one damned thing after another," Kennedy reminded the audience, but his own insights went far beyond a chronological string of events. In his lecture, he showed how a few seemingly minor decisions over the course of six months altered the fate of the U.S. for 50 years.

Calling World War II a "defining event in modern history," Kennedy explained that because of the way the war was fought, the United States became a world superpower.

To emphasize the dramatic changes that the United States went through during the Second World War, he contrasted the political and economic situation in 1940 with the status of the country after the war ended in 1945. In 1940, America was in the 11th year of the Great Depression, with unemployment hovering between 14% and 17%. Fully 45% of white households and an astonishing 95% of African-American households lived in poverty, he recalled. The dominant political mood was isolationist, with stiff tariffs on imported goods and stringently limited immigration.

Pearl Harbor and the ensuing events changed all that, said Kennedy.

After World War II, the United States not only joined the newly formed United Nations, but also the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and pledged billions of dollars to rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan.

"This would have been unthinkable only five years earlier," Kennedy said.

The three cities that altered the destiny of America, according to Kennedy, were Rouens, France; Washington, D.C.; and Stalingrad, U.S.S.R. The crucial six months extended from August 1942 to February 1943.

"How and why the United States fought and won a particular kind of war influenced the course of history," he said. "In those three cities, decisions were made or ratified that set the pattern for what was to follow."

On August 17, 1942, Rouens became the site of the first U.S. strategic bombing attack on Nazi-occupied Europe. The pattern of deep-penetration airborne bombing in the enemy's industrial heartland not only destroyed the Germans' means of waging war, but also demoralized the civilian population. "This is still our preferred strategy," Kennedy noted.

In Washington, the government debated whether or not to maintain the pace and scale of military mobilization undertaken after Pearl Harbor, since to do so would compromise the domestic economy that was struggling to get back on its feet. The decision was made to slow down the mobilization in favor of protecting the economy. That was one reason D-Day was delayed for a full year, and "the United States was the only country in which the civilian standard of living went up during the war, by a full 15%."

The Red Army's victory over the Germans at Stalingrad in February of 1943 "clinched the Washington decision" to delay the land invasion of occupied Europe. "America could fight a war of attrition," said Kennedy, "because given time, the U.S. could mobilize its vast industrial resources."

The United States possessed considerable advantages over its enemies as well as its allies, he noted. Industrial and scientific advances enabled America to fight a high-tech war from the air, while revitalizing the domestic economy and sparing the civilian population from hardship and danger. In the contiguous 48 states, said Kennedy, only six civilians were killed by enemy attack, when a group of picnickers stumbled on a Japanese fire bomb that had been set aloft by balloon to drift eastward on the Jet Stream. Of the 9,000 balloons with incendiary bombs that Japan launched, it was the only one to cause death.

By contrast, Great Britain lost 100,000 civilians during the war; China, six million; and the U.S.S.R., 16 million.

Because of the decisions to fight such a war, to delay the land invasion and to protect the economy, "The United States stood, and still stands, at the summit of the world," Kennedy concluded.

-- By Gila Reinstein


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Campus Notes

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