Skip to main content

Letter From The Editor: War Memorials

Letter From The Editor: War Memorials

One dour morning early this March I had to drive to eastern Pennsylvania. I’d heard that a patch of the sometime steel town of Bethlehem had been spruced up and now was a bower of postindustrial charm, so after my errand I made a detour and headed over to see it. I drove up a hill and across a bridge and came upon something so outside the proportions of the workaday world that I suffered a moment of utter incomprehension. It was like driving through a stand of trees and finding yourself on a prairie occupied by Darth Vader’s Death Star.

I was looking at the Bethlehem Steel Works I realized, after my perceptions had adjusted themselves to its scale and my wife had sharply reminded me to keep my eyes on the road. As it turned out, I could keep my eyes on the road and still see the works, because for a while they were the whole landscape, a gargantuan desolation of half-mile-long gantries made of girders fat as city buses, brick buildings that could contain the suburban town I grew up in, furnaces tall as Park Avenue apartment houses. All of it dead: the ovens cold, the million windows black, gouts of drab vegetation in the intersections of hundred-foot-wide avenues. I thought: This is what it took to beat Hitler.

I’m sure that came to me because I was in the middle of preparing George Rarey’s letters to his wife, Betty Lou, for publication in this issue. This task was a strange mixture of pleasure and discomfort. Pleasure because Rarey’s letters are lovely—funny, self-effacing, and filled with the same sort of precise observation that makes the young cartoonist’s record of the P-47s he flew seem more alive and immediate than any photograph of the machine. Discomfort because of the knowledge that the death Rarey is so genially keeping at bay for his wife is going to claim him above a road in France.

That happened not long after the Normandy landings, whose sixtieth anniversary takes place this June. It’s a big anniversary, not just because of the satisfaction humans take in parsing the past into decades, but because this is the last that will see Rarey’s comrades—and here I mean everyone who joined him in the struggle—still with us in significant numbers.

In his letters, Rarey speaks often about the future he hopes to help shape for his infant son. Those of us who are the legatees of his efforts may not have inherited the tranquil world he hoped to give us, but our lives are unimaginably better than they would have been if he hadn’t given away his.

So when I came upon the Bethlehem Steel Works, I had been thinking about what this war cost: on the one hand, an industrial effort so vast its leavings seem to have been the work of a race of titans; on the other, thousands of young people the caliber of George Rarey.

How to commemorate so magnificent, excruciating an effort? There has been a lot of planning for a national World War II memorial lately, but for my money I’d like to see the Bethlehem works preserved—or, rather, simply not torn down. I find that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Industrial History is interested in taking over the site (not only, of course, for its connection with the Second World War but also because it majestically encapsulates the social turbulence and economic dislocations that beset heavy industry in the decades that followed). The property’s owners, International Steel Group of Cleveland, are selling off the site piecemeal, and have already said they cannot promise to save any of the buildings. Well, you can imagine the complexity involved in an effort to rescue the immense, grimly gorgeous plant, and perhaps this industrial mountain range will dissipate into thin air. How little survives from any epoch.

But what the International Steel Group can’t get at are the letters of George Rarey and all his colleagues, or Winston Churchill’s thoughts on what he had to offer his people, or Franklin Roosevelt’s on what the United States should offer Americans. It’s only words; but then, as William Hazlitt said, “words are the only thing that lasts forever.”

Richard Snow Signature

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.