The Good War as American Ideology

American altruism and the spread of democracy are World War II myths that are endlessly renewed to justify American military power abroad. A new liberal account reveals their contested nature — while obscuring the material basis of American imperialism.

A lobby card for the 1947 World War II documentary 'Thunderbolt', directed by William Wyler and Jon Sturges. The film documents 'Operation Strangle', carried out by the U.S. Airforce in 1944. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The contemporary deployment of World War II as a master narrative for the demonstration of national character across Europe and North America is a familiar story, so ubiquitous that it is sometimes hard to see its scale clearly. The occasion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 provides a vivid and instructive example. Governments and media in the United States and United Kingdom, especially when they justify sending arms and funding to Ukraine, compare Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, and the attack on Ukraine to the German aggressions of 1938–40. The lessons of the past are clear, according to the logic of this comparison: The fight for democracy must be constantly renewed. Nonintervention is appeasement. The North Atlantic powers must once again make Europe safe for democracy, as a despotic totalitarianism reemerges from the past. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, labors under a delusion that he is resuming, in pantomime form, the role of Winston Churchill, a fearless and eccentric British gentleman who stands up to bullies. For the Kremlin and Russian media, by contrast, the “special operation” in Ukraine is part of a long, existential struggle against Nazism that dates to World War II. A courageous Soviet Union beat back Fascism in a series of extraordinarily bloody encounters on this territory in 1943. The unending war on Fascism, the story goes, is part of Russia’s historical mission and destiny. For the Zelensky government, meanwhile, Russia is perpetrating a genocide against the Ukrainian people that echoes the mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II. “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, when the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?” went one of Zelensky’s tweets. He was responding to a Russian missile landing near the site of a Nazi atrocity that took place in Kiev in 1941, where more than thirty-three thousand Jews were murdered. World War II, in the context of the war in Ukraine, tells us not how to fight but why we should fight. It sustains the concept of the good war long after the chivalric codes governing warfare evaporated.

Elizabeth D. Samet’s book, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, offers a cultural history of World War II in the United States up to the present day. The American remembrance of World War II as “the good war” is, she argues, a pernicious myth that not only fails to account for the reality of the war itself but also requires the erasure of swaths of postwar culture that testify otherwise. The myth has several components in its American guise. It portrays the United States as a nation of innocents who are reluctant to go to war but ineluctably brave and victorious when they do. American soldiers are seen to adhere to the codes of warfare and be motivated by ideals of freedom. The myth thus sees American violence as driven primarily by altruistic motives and the defense of democracy overseas. It honors the figure of the American veteran with a cult of sentimentality but forgets his experience of war and fails to provide for his reassimilation into civilian society. Samet shows how these reductive themes and motifs crystallized around World War II and recur throughout postwar American culture, in presidential speeches, popular history, and memoir. She is particularly interested in how they are mobilized in response to various wars the United States has waged since 1945: in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan. Samet is scathing about the Bush presidencies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, during which period many aspects of the “good war” myth were rearticulated and secured for a new context: war in the Middle East. Father and son were both veterans, George H. W. Bush having seen active service as a bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II, while George W. Bush served in the Air National Guard in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Both, she argues, conjured specters of World War II in attempts to win over public support for interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This work included the reinvention by neoconservatives under George W. Bush in 2001 of the then relatively unknown term “Islamofascism” as a new concept linking their opponents to Nazi Germany.

The contours of this mythology will not come as a surprise to scholars of American history and culture in the post–World War II era, though it may prove salutary to some of the readers outside the academy who examine the book. Looking for the Good War speaks to a general readership in a lucid and accessible style that draws on scholarship from across the disciplines of history, literature, film, and American studies. This includes classic books in the canon of American studies, such as Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence, Donald Pease’s influential work The New American Exceptionalism, and the latest research on the literature of World War II by scholars such as Roy Scranton. In this way, despite not carrying any of the conventional scholarly apparatus, Looking for the Good War manages to appeal to its readership while remaining deeply informed by several generations of academic scholarship, a considerable achievement.

What is most impressive about Looking for the Good War, however, is the counter-archive that the book summons in order to show how the myth of the good war has been contested, not only in the academy but also in a wide range of fiction, film, painting, reportage, comics, travel literature, and oral testimony, much of it dating from the war itself and the decade after 1945. While a few of the works discussed, such as Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22, or William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, will be well-known to many, the majority will not be. Samet conducts wide genre surveys of Hollywood films as well as of middlebrow and popular novels, accumulating evidence that mid-century American culture articulated in a variety of ways — sometimes explicitly, sometimes not — deep unease about America’s role in World War II. This unease found expression in the wave of noir cinema in the late 1940s dealing with morally compromised veterans turning to crime, and in the Westerns of the early 1950s that used the historical setting of the Civil War and its aftermath as a way of addressing the cruelty and violence of World War II. In addition, Samet’s attention to testimonies by soldiers who served in the war crushes the mythology of the “Greatest Generation” as one motivated by altruism. Troops, rather, were focused simply on survival and getting home in one piece. In a number of cases, the author shows how survivors were permanently traumatized by the acts of violence they either witnessed or perpetrated themselves. Taken together, these chapters make the case not only for a more complex and nuanced story about the American experience of World War II but also for the power of cultural studies itself in its ability to excavate intricate and contradictory structures of social feeling from the past. In contrast to mid-century intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald, who derided the Hollywood studio system and the publishing conglomerates for pumping out anodyne trash for mass consumption, Samet effectively models a form of reading and interpretation that reveals such cultural products to demonstrate more sophisticated forms of political and social engagement than they are usually given credit for.

“Real wars,” Samet argues, “resist the shapely plots and satisfying conclusions we try to impose on them.” Rather than retrofitting its causes and injecting it with heroic gestures, we should instead recognize the “deep ambiguities and complexities of World War II.” Appeals to complexity as a critical and democratic value in itself are made periodically throughout the book. Samet makes it clear enough that the mythology of the good war is a crude and inadequate one when stood alongside the multiplicity of cultural sources that she marshals. But the critical drive to show that this simple story is really a much more complicated one is animated by the book’s apparent commitment to a particular kind of hard-boiled American liberalism, one that attained a hold among prominent thinkers in the United States during the Cold War. This strain of liberalism accepted that coercive force is sometimes necessary in a fallen world, in order to protect democratic institutions and projects. It argued that such use of force will inevitably produce terrible suffering as well as troubled consciences in those who undertake it. The motivations for violent coercion will be multiple, opaque, and often contradictory, combining elements of self-interest with authentic commitments to moral principles. The suffering and torment, however, are preferable to the risks entailed in the avoidance of contradiction and ambiguity. These open the door to manifold forms of misplaced idealism that are intolerant of complexity and lead, ultimately, to authoritarianism. Perhaps the most salient feature of this liberalism is not its far enemy — totalitarianism — but its near one: bad-faith innocence. It is the United States’ unearned innocence about its own violence that troubles Samet above all.

The bleak liberal perspective espoused by Looking for the Good War becomes clearer once we read it in relation to two of the thinkers Samet identifies in the “recommended reading” section appended to the book as having informed her understanding of American history. Reinhold Niebuhr and James Baldwin are alluded to briefly at particular moments in her argument, but their outlook pervades it. Though rarely read together, they belong to the same historical moment in US intellectual history, coming to prominence in the 1950s as a result of their coruscating assaults on the delusion of American innocence. “The irony of our situation,” Niebuhr wrote in 1952 of a United States facing down the “monstrous evil” of the Soviet Union, “lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous . . . if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be.” For Niebuhr, the global dominance that the United States acquired through World War II had to be acknowledged and used with a sense of responsibility that required the nation to drop its veil of innocence and embrace a morally realistic vision of human nature. For Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, meanwhile:

One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. . . . But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

These lines could serve as Looking for the Good War’s epigraph, because of the way the book directs its attention not toward the very material interests that the myth of the good war serves but toward the compromised moral lives of those who instigate and perpetrate American violence.

For both Niebuhr and Baldwin, their critiques of American innocence led them, one way or another, to explicit considerations of US imperialism after World War II. In Looking for the Good War, however, one must look carefully indeed for use of the word “imperialism.” When the discussion does turn in that direction, it is in the context of a more distant past. The Spanish-American War of 1898, for instance, is rightly described as a “nakedly imperialist gambit.” When addressing the period after World War II, including numerous US wars in East Asia and the Middle East, the terminology and logic of US imperialism disappear. It is a striking omission, but it’s not uncommon. In her 2014 book Empires Without Imperialism, the political theorist Jeanne Morefield observes what she calls the “deflective impulse” among US liberals in the post–Cold War era of imperial decline. This impulse sees eyes diverted away from the coercive practices of imperialism and their devastating effects upon dominated societies by rhetorical insistences upon the fundamentally liberal character of the United States itself. Behind the myth-busting of Looking for the Good War lies Samet’s own seeming faith in the United States’ founding principles, which are seen to transcend the dubious motivations for the nation’s wars and endure beyond them. This faith emerges in snatches toward the end of the book, in reference to what we discover is its presiding inspiration: not Baldwin and Niebuhr but Abraham Lincoln, whose moral commitment to the Declaration of Independence and its insistence that “all men are created equal” provides the book with its climax. The Union cause in the American Civil War, the author writes, was advanced by “imperfect men fighting for a variety of motives,” who nevertheless “preserved a political experiment underwritten by the idea of equality.” In World War II, this same experiment “entered a new phase,” in which the United States “sided with the forces of liberation.” Whether this experiment survived Vietnam, or Iraq, Samet does not tell us, but she does reserve a serious moral purpose, if not purity of intention, for her history of American warfare. This narrative of tangled ethics, ambivalence, and sacrifice obscures a still-less-palatable story about US imperialism since 1945, which we don’t hear about in Looking for the Good War. It is a story underpinned not by experiments in democratic equality but by the relentless drive of capitalist accumulation regardless of moral imperatives. The most important function of the myth of the good war over the last seventy years is to have saved the Allied victors of World War II from having to talk about the devastation wrought by their empires, and the ignominy of their imperial declines.

About the Author

Will Norman is a scholar of twentieth-century American literature teaching at Kent University. He is currently researching the idea of complicity in postwar literary and intellectual history.