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Great War Journalism

June 2024
1min read

Part Two: American Journalism 1944-1946

The Library of America, 912 pages .

The Library of America, 970 pages .

There have been other collections of World War II reporting but nothing as magnificent as these two fat volumes from the Library of America. The best American journalists of the age take you all the way through the war, beginning with William L. Shirer at the Munich Conference in September 1938, when “Daladier and Chamberlain never got together alone once” before handing over the Sudetenland to Hitler. Shirer’s dispatches on the plunder of Poland and Belgium follow, as well as A. J. Liebling’s portrait of Paris’s hearing the first German guns in the calamitous spring of 1940. Edward R. Murrow—whose radio broadcasts hold up amazingly well on the page—describes the firebombing of London, and a United Press story from June 1942 gives the first news of the suspected Nazi atrocities. There are dozens of Ernie Pyle’s ground-level stories and all of Bill Mauldin’s Up Front , chronicling the progress of his immortal dogfaces Willie and Joe. But unexpected pieces leaven the mix of combat reporting, like James Agee’s review of war movies, Walter Bernstein’s visit to an off-base Southern U.S. whorehouse, S. J. Perelman on war advertising, and E. B. White on Dorothy Eamour gracing a 1942 warbond rally in Bangor: “Here, for a Nazi, was assembled in one hall everything that was contemptible and stupid … a group shamelessly lured there by a pretty girl for bait, a formless group negligently dressed, a Jew in an honored position as artist, Negroes singing through their rich non-Aryan throats, and the whole affair lacking the official seal of the Ministry of Propaganda—a sprawling, goofy American occasion, shapeless as an old hat.”

Volume I leaves us in North Africa in early 1943, Paris taken, London cindered, D-day just a plan. Volume II opens with Pyle on the Italian campaign, followed by the Normandy invasion: “Ducks and tanks and trucks were moving down this narrow rocky road,” Martha Gellhorn writes after landing. “The dust that rose in the gray night light seemed like the fog of war itself. Then we got off onto the grass, and it was perhaps the most surprising of all the day’s surprises to smell the sweet smell of summer grass, a smell of cattle and peace and the sun.” As the death camps are liberated, the stunned reporters struggle to put their unspeakable revelations into words. The collection ends with a pilot’s account of the “giant column of purple fire” at Nagasaki and the entirety of John Mersey’s Hiroshima . This is an incomparable collective portrait of what Liebling called “The World Knocked Down.”

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