Skip to main content

World War II 1941 To 1945

May 2024
7min read

Those Yanks of World War II are white-haired now. Great-grandchildren play about their feet. The grand parades and great commemorations are over. Only a few monuments to their achievements are yet to be built. But we can still see them as they were, striking the casual pose, caps and helmets tilted toward the big adventure, cigarettes dangling from a smile. The picture is all innocence. And then later: the hours and days of fatigue piled one on top of the other, “for the duration,” eyes that have seen too much and will see more, bandages and blankets on the bloody cots, empty helmets, the wreckage of faith. We can see them like this too, and all in between, in the high councils of state and command, on the high seas and miles above, and in holes that turn into graves in an instant. In all the time since the Yanks were young, you see, history has been erecting its own monuments.

The Second World War may be the most thoroughly recorded and studied war in all military history. By now we might think our picture of the war is almost finished. Far from it. History never stops rearranging itself. But every modern war has created its own historical and literary reflection, a blurred image that gradually passes through stages, growing sharper each year. Just after the last shot come the hot-off-the-press first drafts of history. Memoirs and novels march out next, followed soon enough by stories of the war’s bestknown events, battles, personalities, and policies. Only much later do the grand histories appear, seasoned by years of study, broad of scope and learning. Inevitably, however, revisions and counterinterpretations will challenge conventional wisdom to defend itself. Controversies great and small will compete for our opinions. Eventually the war’s reflection assumes a familiar, mature form, perhaps stable for a time before the reinterpretations begin anew.

If the literature of World War II has indeed reached such a place, one might think it simple to choose the best books about the war. That, however, depends on what one expects from such a list. Those who think proportionality is more important than perspective, for instance, might like a list that represents the war by military service, with equal parts for the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Corps, Merchant Marine, and Coast Guard, not to mention the WAVES and WACS. They would quickly find themselves overwhelmed with books but no idea of how to make sense of the part the services contributed to the whole war. The same would be true if one were organizing a list around the weapons used. One might learn everything about armored warfare without knowing much of anything about the war in which it was used. That would be putting the tank before the horse, and as we all know, many more horses fought in World War II than tanks. All this is why I have made this list as though it were for me, many years ago, when I knew less than nothing about the war but wanted to learn. If I had read my way through these books, I would have known more, sooner and more systematically, than I did. They have added immeasurably to my understanding of this most important of modern wars.

I think the key to reading about America’s part in the war, and thus America’s role in it, is to realize that America’s was not the only part—a salient fact all too often glossed over in literature and film ever since. This means that one must begin learning about America’s part by seeing the war as a whole, in its vast scope and in its unending complexity. The book that best captures the war’s totality is Gerhard L. Weinberg’s monumental global history A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994; Cambridge), which draws upon the wealth of archival and historical work that has appeared since the war and fuses the whole into an intelligible historical picture of that cataclysmic era. No one, scholars included, should presume to know about the Second World War if they have not read this book.

At more than a half-century’s remove from the war, it is useful to remind ourselves that the Allied victory was not preordained. The Allies could have lost. No Olympian judge sat with history book on lap, dictating the war develop in this way or that. So, how were the Axis powers defeated? Richard Overy, for one, will not accept the casual, fashionable notion of recent years that the Axis lost the war and that the Allies simply enjoyed the results of their enemy’s mistakes. Overy’s analytical history, Why the Allies Won (1995; Norton), explains how the Allies won a victory that was far from inevitable. “The Allies did not have victory handed to them on a plate,” he writes; “they had to fight for it.”

And it is the fighting—or more exactly the human beings doing the fighting—that most interest Paul Fussell in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989; Oxford), a thoroughly bad-tempered, unforgiving, and brilliant analysis of “the psychological and emotional culture” produced by the war. Fussell’s war was not the war the statesmen or the generals or even the 90-day wonders wanted to contemplate, but the real war that belonged to Fussell and his comrades. As an angry infantryman turned distinguished professor of literature, Fussell is most interested in the war’s “actuality,” the war that will “never get in the books.” He writes that “for the past fifty years, the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition. I have tried to balance the scales.” When you read Wartime, turn your Norman Rockwell print toward the wall.

Well before Pearl Harbor, American strategists had decided that in the event of a two-front war against Germany and Japan, the defeat of Germany would be America’s primary strategic objective. But for nearly the first half of the war, America’s fight against Japan took center stage. The war across the Pacific was a part of a struggle so different it could almost be seen as another war altogether. The Pacific Theater was the largest and most complex of all the operational theaters, requiring unprecedented, novel combinations of ground, air, and naval force, directed inventively against a skilled, desperate enemy. Some strategists at the time argued that the Pacific war was so important it should be America’s only war. For all that, the Pacific campaign is still less well represented by history than the one in Europe. By seeing this particular war through the expert and comprehensive analysis in Ronald H. Specter’s Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan (1985; Vintage), readers can begin to appreciate not only how it was fought but just how critical it was to the outcome of the whole war.

One of the defining features of the Pacific war was the bitter racism that suffused both sides’ conduct in the war. No corner of Allied or Japanese strategy, campaigns, operations, or minor tactics was beyond the reach of racism’s poisonous effect. John W. Dower’s prizewinning War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon) is the most thoroughly researched and balanced investigation into the sources of the Pacific war’s viciousness. No one should journey into this region of the war without Dower’s guiding hand.

For every one of the combatant nations in this war, some single campaign, battle, or event has assumed a symbolic power that outshines all others. For Americans, the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, is the iconic battle of the war. That is partly why the Normandy campaign has attracted so many able historians and inspired so many memoirists over the years. Carlo D’Este’s Decision in Normandy (1983; William S. Konecky Assoc.), however, portrays the war from the vantage point of those who bore the responsibility of conceiving, planning, and executing the D-day campaign—a campaign that took the Allies to victory as no other operation could have done. After spending time with Decision in Normandy , the reader will have an idea of how the professionals plan and command modern war.

And then, at some point in one’s reading, the shooting starts. The greatest challenge for any student of any war is to come to an understanding of the world of combat, for combat alone is the essence of war. Without the threat of combat, the dread of it, the act of it, or the sorrow of it, war itself would collapse. War has never held out the secrets of combat for historians to see. This best-studied of all wars has produced very few histories that come directly to grips with war’s fundamental nature. It is true, as it has long been true, that fiction and the literature of memory deal with the act of combat more effectively than any other forms of literature.

History will have to go some way, therefore, to equal Eugene B. Sledge’s classic memoir of his war in the Pacific, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981; Oxford). Fighting with the 1st Marine Division in 1944 and 1945, Sledge’s company suffered 64 percent casualties during the savage battle for Peleliu. And then, on Okinawa, the fighting was worse. Only much later was Sledge able to reflect on what he had seen and done and lost during his war. An understanding of war is impossible without an understanding of combat; the reader is advised to pay attention to the lessons Sledge and his friends paid such a high price to learn.

Sledge’s book has been justly praised since its first appearance. A much less well-known memoir depicts the vastly different experience of combat miles above the earth at the controls of a heavy bomber. John Muirhead fought with the 301st Bomb Group, first out of North Africa and then out of Italy, against Axis targets, one of which was Romania’s infamous Ploesti oil field. Like Sledge, Muirhead returned to a quiet life after the war and did not sit down to his memoirs until much later, finally publishing Those Who Fall in 1986 (Random House; out of print). No American heavy bomber pilot had ever before published an account of his wartime experiences. Military memoirs are not usually noted for their literary quality, but Muirhead’s book is distinguished by a style so fine the reader finds himself wishing the writer had made a life in letters. When these qualities are combined with his authoritative rendering of the Allied bomber offensive from the pilot’s perspective, Those Who Fall must take its place on the shelf alongside Sledge’s With the Old Breed as one of the two best memoirs of the Second World War.

Those Who Fall will eventually find the wider audience it deserves. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead (Picador), found its wider audience as soon as it was published, in 1948. Drafted less than a year after graduating from Harvard, Mailer spent the last two years of the war as an enlisted man in the Army. His experiences as a rifleman in the Philippines inspired him to begin writing. The Naked and the Dead was published two years after he returned home. His dark rendition of the war from the conflicting perspectives of command and soldier defied the triumphal, sanitized version of the war then being retailed by dozens of instant histories. Remarkably, a war-weary American public kept Mailer’s book at the top of the bestseller lists for 11 weeks. The work has had many imitators since, but The Naked and the Dead still stands at the top of the list of novels produced by the Second World War.

Despite their different ambitions, all these writers hold fast, unflinchingly, to the fundamental human nature of war. Each of these books in its own way shows the reader how war calls forth the best and the most terrible human qualities. That is why the last title on this shelf of World War II books may be the most important. Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986; Simon & Schuster) is an exquisitely rendered history of the most terrible of all weapons from its theoretical beginnings to its first use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war made the bomb, and for the next generation the world struggled to control what the war had made. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a masterly work of history, therefore, that also tilts its head in the direction of the future. That is where all the best history should aim. Armed with these books, and the wisdom they contain, we may see a future in which the term world war belongs to an ever-receding past.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.