Last night at the Marshall Foundation we heard from three distinguished historians who explored some of the more popular myths of World War II. Dr. Mark Stoler, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, Michael Adams, Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Kentucky and Dr. Conrad C. Crane, Chief of Historical Services for the United States Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks. You can see from the video below how the evening went ahead.
Although any discussion arising from these eminent scholars on this topic is fascinating, this particular event, as part of the Marshall Legacy Series, underscores again two of the the themes of Marshall’s life: firstly, the need to learn from the past, substantially, what happened and why and to see through the mythic elements to the reality in the belief that some of those myths hinder rather than help in thinking about the future. Secondly, Marshall’s constant refrain of the need for preparedness, readiness in thinking about the next war, not the most recent ones.
Marshall addresses gatherings of professional historians on several occasions during his career, notably the American Historical Association in 1939. An excerpt from that address is below and speaks quite eloquently as to the challenges, and opportunities, of myth making.
“Popular knowledge of history, I believe, is largely based on information derived from school text-books, and unfortunately these sources often tell only a portion of the truth with regard to our war experiences. Historians have been inclined to record the victories and gloss over the mistakes and wasteful sacrifices. Cause and effect have been, to an important extent, ignored. Few Americans learn that we enrolled nearly 400,000 men in the Revolutionary War to defeat an enemy that numbered less than 45,000, or that we employed half a million in 1812 against an opponent whose strength never exceeded 16,000 at any one place, and fewer still have learned why these overwhelming numbers were so ineffective. The War between the States pointed numerous lessons for our future protection, yet seldom has a nation entered a war so completely unprepared, and yet so boastfully, as did the United States in 1898. Veterans of the World War often seem to overlook the fact that almost a year and a half elapsed after the declaration of war before we could bring a field army into being and even then its weapons, ammunition and other materiel were provided by our Allies. And many of them seem unaware of the fact that the partially trained state of our troops proved a costly and tragic business despite the eventual success.
What the casual student does learn is that we have won all our wars and he is, therefore, justified in assuming that since we have defeated the enemies of the past we shall continue to defeat the enemies of the future. This comfortable belief in our invincibility has been reflected legislatively in the inadequate military organization of past years, resulting in stupendous expenditures in each emergency, invariably followed by a parsimonious attitude, if not the complete neglect of ordinary military necessities. In addition to the perils of war there is the issue of huge war debts with their aftermath of bitter years of heavy taxes. I think it apparent that much of this misfortune in the life of our democracy could have been avoided by the influence of a better informed public on the decisions of the Congress.”