The National World War II Museum in New Orleans: What History for the "Home Team" Leaves Out

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I recently visited New Orleans and, along with attending Jazz Fest, delighting in the pleasures of the Garden District, Treme, the Bayous, and cuisine, spent a day in The National World War II Museum. It is ranked the fourth most popular in the country, lauded on TripAdvisor, and rated the primary attraction of the city.

It’s easy to understand the praise. Exhibits include 100,000 artifacts, dramatic footage of famous battles, and deeply moving oral histories. Unfortunately, however, like many other World War II museums around the world, the “home team” experience is the focus, and those of allies, let alone enemies, virtually ignored. Distorting history reduces our ability to learn from it, including the value of international "teamwork."

A few key facts about the WWII are worth noting, as ever fewer Americans have personal recollections and Hollywood and television treatments, almost without exception, mirror chauvinistic history. Above all, there was the worldwide toll in military and civilian casualties, perhaps 70-80 million, not just among the major belligerents’ nationals, but also in countries, like China, Poland, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), India, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia, among others, which suffered catastrophic losses as well. The Nazis also enacted a genocidal campaign against transnational groups, particularly Jews.

The European War officially began in September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on the Third Reich. The US did not formally enter until after Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked Pearl Harbor in late 1941 and Germany was obliged to declare war on the US. Germany conquered many smaller European countries, such as Denmark and The Netherlands, but its primary goal was to colonize the USSR, which it invaded in June of 1941. US military forces first engaged Germany in 1943 in Tunisia and our most notable military offensive, the D-Day invasion (with the U.K. and Canada), did not occur until June 1944.

US losses in Europe were about 185,000. The Soviet Union experienced an estimated 8-11 million military deaths from all causes, suffered 10 million civilian fatalities from military activity and crimes against humanity, and an additional 6-7 million from war-related famine and disease. Three times as many Soviet soldiers died as Americans after D-Day, because a clear majority of German troops were still fighting on the Eastern Front. The Soviets lost 80,000 just in the two-week Battle of Berlin which ended the war against Germany in May 1945.

Though the Soviets undeniably suffered, by far, the greatest numbers of military and civilian deaths, was the US effort more decisive on the battlefield? After all, victims often are incapable of inflicting profound damage on their enemies. Certainly, nothing in the museum would lead any visitor to imagine the Soviet military was the principal source of Germany’s defeat.

The huge animated map of the war seen upon entering the museum, for example, highlights D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge by name. But there is no mention of Stalingrad in 1943--- Germany’s first major defeat, with about 850,000 casualties, half of which were Italian, Romanian and Hungarian allies. Nor is the Battle of Kursk noted, though almost three million soldiers participated (with more than a million casualties). It was also in 1943, and the Soviets gained, for the first time, strategic offensive capabilities. The map’s image of the massive rollback of the German advance on the Eastern Front looks more like a voluntary exodus than the result of momentous battlefield defeats foreshadowing the Nazi’s doom. During the entire European war, the Soviets accounted for close to 90 percent of German military dead. Interestingly, during the war, the US military command painted the most flattering portrait of Premier Joseph Stalin and the heroic Soviet soldiers and people. It produced famed director Frank Capra’s propaganda film. The Battle of Russia, part of his series, Why We Fight. The acclaimed documentary did not mention Communism, or Stalin’s many crimes, to increase domestic support for an essential “lesser evil” ally.

The museum’s depiction of the war against Imperial Japan is more accurate than that of the military struggle against Germany. The US did the heavy lifting in the Pacific Theater. Exhibitions focus on the horrific island battles where US and Japanese soldiers faced off in grueling and barbaric combat. They predictably culminate in President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. A visitor has little doubt that this immediately led to surrender. But, it didn’t. Emperor Hirohito and the six key decision-makers in the governing council were initially still unwilling to capitulate. They knew they lost the war, but some believed inflicting damage when US troops invaded the mainland would produce more favorable terms. Others rejected giving up under any conditions. Finally, there was a commitment to maintaining the Emperor, who had “incarnate divinity” status, in his role as head of state.

The Soviets, who promised to enter that war within three months of Germany’s defeat, did so in August 1945, between Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ironically, their late and limited military contribution, much like that of the US in World War I, proved significant, and possibly decisive. Japan defeated Russian forces in 1905 and seized Russian territory, and the Japanese worried that the rapid advance of a million Soviet troops in Manchuria would lead to reparations if the war continued. The incursion also undermined Japan’s hope of defending the mainland against a US invasion. Historians accept that Soviet action significantly hastened surrender, but possibly was necessary and sufficient for it.

Besides ignoring the “political” thinking behind military operations, a deeper limitation of the Pacific War coverage is the absence of any understanding of why Japan attacked the US in the first place. The origins of Nazism’s triumph are relatively well-known---bitter defeat in WWI, the Great Depression, Hitler’s charisma and the weakness of Germany’s democratic institutions---but the instructive Japanese backstory is not. Pearl Harbor was perhaps a long-delayed revenge for the US using military threats in 1854 to humble and force the previously isolated island nation to open itself to trade. After 1854, Japan modernized and militarized to prevent further humiliations, and even emulated Western imperialism in its region. Racist treatment by the US and Britain at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, despite Japan being allied against Germany in WWI, undoubtedly also soured it on the West.

There were other more immediate precursors to Dec. 7, 1941, especially a July 1941 American freeze on Japanese assets in the US in retaliation for Japan’s attempt to replace the western imperial control of parts of Asia with their own exploitative rule. The US and other western nations rightfully condemned Japanese atrocities in China and incursions into other countries in the region, but there was a significant degree of hypocrisy involved, given the historical role Britain, France and the US’ use of violence in colonizing, or otherwise controlling, Asian countries during the previous century. The Museum’s silence on the historical roots of the Pacific War makes Japanese behavior seem totally incomprehensible, and, of course, uniquely evil. This failing, is, of course, mirrored by apologists for Japanese militarism, as expressed in their own WWII museum, Yushukan. The citizens of both countries are poorly served. As has been noted, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.