- Historic Sites
What To Call It?
It took us longer to name the war than to fight it
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
His Columbia colleague Allan Nevins warned, “Our nomenclature is subject to change in the next 20 to 25 years.” For illustration, he pointed to the “Civil War,” which Southerners called “the War Between the States” and Northerners labeled “War of the Rebellion.” Since naming wars has always been the prerogative of victors, this is “the official and rather foolish and unjust name in our records.”
The New York University professor Alexander Baltzly regarded “World War II” a poor choice, even worse than “the Second World War,” but in such common usage it was “impossible to stop.” Dredging up “the War of the Spanish Succession” and “the Seven Years’ War,” he asserted that “there have been four world wars since we got history all on one stage.” Professor Commager disagreed.
Historians proposed, but it was up to the President to dispose. In late September Truman approved the recommendation of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Stimson had reached his conclusion through “an analysis of publications and radio programs” indicating its popularity. He urged its adoption “as a matter of simplicity and to insure uniform terminology” in a variety of public laws and executive actions. The winner: “World War II.”