New Orleans remembers World War II

There’s more to New Orleans than music, food, and hurricanes. While we were there, we visited an extraordinary place that every American should see in their lifetime. I speak of the World War II Museum.

There, you’ll see airplanes hanging from the ceilings and the original Higgins boats constructed in the city by the guy Dwight D. Eisenhower said was the main reason we won the war. The boats, named after their inventor, opened in front and could deliver soldiers right to the beaches.

The famous author Joe Persico, who has written extensively on American history, heard that we were going to New Orleans and was kind enough to write ahead to the president and CEO of the museum on our behalf. Dr. Nick Mueller, who co-founded the museum along with the late Stephen Ambrose, spent an hour with me on the radio. It was a fascinating conversation. If you want to hear it, go to WAMC.org.

World War II was the apex of American morality. It has sometimes been referred to as “the last good war.” It was a war in which the United States was attacked by two despicable regimes, the nationalistic Japanese and their allies, the Nazis. When the country was attacked, everyone got on board. It represented a time when women who wanted to work got to work. Kids walked around their neighborhoods collecting newsprint and rendered fat. The country’s automobile factories were converted so that they could turn out tanks and ships. Some of the ships that were built were constructed in as few as three days. People accepted the hardships of food rationing and other shortages because their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers were fighting.

When I ask if we could have lost that war, there are many people who say, “Absolutely not.” Yet all the great historians with whom I have spoken about the conflict are pretty clear that it was touch and go, and had a few things been different the Nazis and the Japanese could have won. Let’s remember that the Nazis had great scientists who were working on an atomic bomb. In fact, the only reason Albert Einstein approached President Roosevelt about making such a bomb was that he was convinced that the Nazis would beat us to it. It didn’t stop there. The German Luftwaffe introduced jet planes into the conflict. Had they done so a year earlier, the war could well have gone the other way. For their part, the imperialist Japanese, who operated with incredible cruelty, had been successful in occupying huge parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Had Hitler won the Battle of Britain, or had he not made the fatal mistake of attacking the Soviet Union, and husbanded his resources to maintain what he had, the outcome of the war might have been very different — and so it goes. Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, who had spent considerable time in the United States, correctly predicted that the risk was “waking the sleeping giant.” This country, still very much remembering the slaughter of its sons in the First World War, had no stomach for a rematch with the Germans. Some of the country’s greatest heroes, like Charles Lindbergh, admired the Nazis and did everything they could to fight against our entry into the conflict. The attack on Pearl Harbor ended all of that. People will fight like hell to preserve their homeland. In WWII, the French and many other European and Asian countries couldn’t, but in America, the attack lit the public fuse.

America as we know it has been defined by three wars: our own Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. If you plan to visit New Orleans, I suggest that you put this remarkable museum on your must see list. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/21/12

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