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What To Call It?

June 2024
3min read

It took us longer to name the war than to fight it

Something began at 7:50 A.M. (Hawaiian time), Sunday, December 7, 1941. Most Americans seemed convinced it was World War II. But one man wasn’t so sure. And because he happened to be President of the United States, a lot of brainpower was diverted to the practicalities of nomenclature.

Britons tended simply to say “the war,” and more formal Americans shunned “World War II” in favor of “the Second World War.” No unadorned common noun and neither cardinal nor ordinal numerical designations, however, could satisfy the free world’s acknowledged leader. He wanted something more expressive. This was an exceptional war; it demanded an exceptional name.

At his press conference of April 3, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt set forth stringent guidelines. The name must be short, he said, yet convey the idea this was a war to preserve democracy.

The reporters on hand naturally got first crack at trying. “War with the Axis Powers” received quick presidential rejection. Too cumbersome.

“Let’s call it ‘the Gips War,’” suggested a second reporter. Puzzled looks led to an explanation. “ G for Germany, I for Italy.…” No, that wouldn’t do either.

A third reporter pointed out that wars in progress don’t get lasting names. He had the Hundred Years’ War in mind. Roosevelt agreed, noting that anyone hearing of “the Revolution” in 1776 would surely have thought it meant the English Revolution of 1688. And no one needed to be reminded of how the Great War’s claim to that distinction had ended.


Nonetheless, the title search began immediately. Emil Schram, president of the New York Stock Exchange, offered “the Last World War.” Obviously this ignored the presidential guidelines. Rep. Sol Bloom, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, preferred “Your War.” Anna M. Rosenberg, regional director of the Social Security Board, thought of “Freedom’s War.” James Montgomery Flagg, whose finger-pointing Uncle Sam had become the previous war’s most famous recruiting poster, was torn between “Everybody’s War” and “Total War.” From Jack Dempsey came “Fight to Live.”

As one chief executive to another, Dr. Harold W. Dodds took issue with Roosevelt. The Princeton University president said, “World War II seems as good a name as any for the present. Its ultimate name will be given by history, not us.” He added, “You might call it ‘the war to save civilization,’ but civilization hasn’t had much saving so far.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer appointed a “Name-the-War editor” and conducted a contest for readers. At the White House suggestions soon began “flooding in at a great rate,” according to Press Secretary Stephen T. Early. Among them: “Four Freedoms War,” “Last Hun War,” “War to Save Humanity,” and “War Against Tyrants.” Isolationists chimed in with “Franklin’s Folly” and “the Meddler’s War.”

At first FDR tilted toward “the War for Survival,” but in mid-April 1942 the whatsit was still young. Distant precincts had yet to be heard from.

Nicaragua’s Noticia asked its readers for ideas presentable to the colossus up north. An Australian woman gave Prime Minister John Curtin a crossword solution:


The Australian leader, more traditional than his constituent, came up with “the People’s War.”

As April ended, George Gallup, director of the American Institute of Public Opinion, presented disconcerting news for the President: The public still overwhelmingly favored “World War II.” Of all the others, “War of World Freedom” led by a substantial margin, trailed by “War of Freedom,” “War of Liberation,” and “Anti-Dictator War.” Lagging far behind were “Anti-Nazi War” and “Total War.”

During the course of the next two years, FDR underwent a change of heart. He dropped “the War for Survival” and announced his new favorite at a press conference on May 31,1944: “the Tyrants’ War.” One J. F. Snyder, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, had hit on it. Press Secretary Early showed reporters Snyder’s historic letter to the White House.

Unfortunately the writer’s place in the spotlight was overtaken by events. Exactly one week later came D-day. Again the question of naming the thing was shunted aside. When it reemerged, as V-E day and V-J day neared, a new man occupied the helm of state.

So it came to pass that the buck stopped at Harry Truman’s desk. And with Axis collapse imminent, finding an official title for what soon would be over became an increasingly urgent matter.

HISTORY WAITS AS SAGES SEEK NAME FOR WAR ran one headline in mid-September 1945. Said Henry Steele Commager, Columbia professor and member of the War Department Committee on the History of the War: “Good heavens, the names are obvious. President Roosevelt tried to find a fancy name, but none caught on. These wars were too big for descriptive names.”

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.”

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