Unsordid

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The war’s-end anniversaries are over now. In a sense they were over on June 6, 1994, with the commemorative ceremonies that drew the nation’s gaze back half a century to the Normandy landings. Last May the fiftieth anniversary of Germany’s surrender went by with scarcely a ripple; the big date was August 6, 1995, and it climaxed a tormented debate shot through both with self-reproach and self-righteousness about America’s dropping the atomic bomb. A few days later, walking through Washington Square Park one sweltering Tuesday evening, I passed two old men wearing uniforms and combat ribbons. “Huh?” I thought, and then: “Oh, it must be August fifteenth.”

That was the extent of the celebration I saw last V-J Day. The D-day services had looked back upon the triumphant breaking of Hitler’s legions; but much of the public debate that marked the actual end of the war cast a bleak, hard light forward onto the uncertainties of our own time, as incarnated in the dreadful weapon we built and used—criminally it was said again and again (although not, I’ll bet, by those two old soldiers I saw in the park).

It is late autumn now, and the sense of connection with events half a century ago that was present during the last four years has dissipated. There’ll be no Europe-fifty-years-ago retrospectives on television this winter: what would they show, after all, except feral children shivering in the rubble of leveled cities, and people eking out hopeless lives in an economy driven by cigarettes and prostitution?

And there will almost certainly be no specials and speeches on April 14, 1998, although that date is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of an American epic as impressive, in its way, as the struggle that preceded it. April 14, 1948, was the day the John H. Quick left the port of Galveston bound for Bordeaux with nine thousand long tons of wheat in her hold. The freighter was the vanguard of the 12.5-billion-dollar Marshall Plan—“the most unsordid act in history,” Churchill called it—that in remarkably short time would rebuild a moribund civilization.

I’ve been thinking about the Plan because the exchange in this issue between John Lukacs and George Kennan on the early years of the Cold War led me to Kennan’s Memoirs: 1925-1950 , a fascinating book in which, soon after he describes sending his Long Telegram, the author offers an absorbing account of how Secretary of State George C. Marshall ordered him to establish a Policy Planning Staff for the salvaging of Europe (and set him to the chore with a single piece of advice: “Avoid trivia”).

Another story in this issue is eloquent about America’s global role in the postwar era: James M. Lamont Jr.’s tale of how, as a ten-year-old, he was part of the effort to revivify our other Axis enemy. There’s something amusing in the attempt to unveil for the Japanese the homely beauty of American family life while maintaining the level of splendor they would expect from a suitable conqueror—the result suggests a production of Andy Hardy as staged by the Vanderbilts—but there is warmth and imagination in it too. And generosity.

Amid all the fiftieth-anniversary wrangling about the cataclysmic violence that brought the conflict to a close, I do not recall hearing anyone say anything about what happened once the shooting stopped. The recent national discourse about the war ended abruptly with America standing in the ashes holding a terrible new weapon. I hope that discourse will resume in the months ahead; for if that bomb was unique in the history of warfare, so too were the kind of conquerors that its inventors turned out to be.

Richard F. Snow