Waged for a just cause and culminating in total victory, World War II was America’s “good war.” Yet for millions of GIs overseas, the war did not end with Germany and Japan’s surrender. The Good Occupation chronicles America’s transition from wartime combatant to postwar occupier, by exploring the intimate thoughts and feelings of the ordinary servicemen and women who participated—often reluctantly—in the difficult project of rebuilding nations they had so recently worked to destroy.
When the war ended, most of the seven million Americans in uniform longed to return to civilian life. Yet many remained on active duty, becoming the “after-army” tasked with bringing order and justice to societies ravaged by war. Susan Carruthers shows how American soldiers struggled to deal with unprecedented catastrophe among millions of displaced refugees and concentration camp survivors while negotiating the inevitable tensions that arose between victors and the defeated enemy. Drawing on thousands of unpublished letters, diaries, and memoirs, she reveals the stories service personnel told themselves and their loved ones back home in order to make sense of their disorienting and challenging postwar mission.
The picture Carruthers paints is not the one most Americans recognize today. A venture undertaken by soldiers with little appetite for the task has crystallized, in the retelling, into the “good occupation” of national mythology: emblematic of the United States’ role as a bearer of democracy, progress, and prosperity. In real time, however, “winning the peace” proved a perilous business, fraught with temptation and hazard.
A disturbing look at the experiences of the ‘after-army’: the American service-people who stayed on active duty after the Second World War, charged with rebuilding the places they had helped to destroy. Frank, often harsh voices from letters, diaries and memoirs serve up ‘inconvenient truths’: the armed forces’ caste system and racism; casual cruelty and venality trumping conscience; ‘fraternisation’ (and prostitution and rape) with ‘blowsy frauleins’ and ‘anxious to please’ Japanese maids.
Based largely on previously unseen diaries and letters, the book poses the question: was the good war followed by the ‘good occupation’ of the book’s title? As ever, there is no easy answer and from Carruthers’s lucid and elegantly written account, a picture emerges of muddled thinking and ill-thought out policies as often well-meaning men and women struggled with the conundrum that the people they were trying to help were representatives of countries they had only recently been attempting to destroy.
With characteristic brilliance, Susan Carruthers has written a critical history of military victory. Using letters and memoirs, she illuminates the interior life of American occupiers in Europe and Asia, showing the way military governance came to be imagined as a form of altruism. Highly recommended.
It is a book for the reader who enjoyed the notion of a ‘greatest generation’ but may well be ready for a more complicated understanding of that period.
Susan Carruthers asks how the legend of the beneficial American military presence in Europe and Asia after World War II was created despite contemporaries’ observations of ‘destruction, confusion, despair and hopelessness.’ Based on impressive and enlightening archival researches, this lively book urges us to add a permanent question mark to the phrase, the ‘good occupation.’
Carruthers brings together the American experiences of occupying both Germany and Japan as no other historian. In this lively, superbly researched account, we see not the magnanimous, square-jawed GIs and officers we recall today, but rather war-weary, bewildered Americans who confronted bombed-out cities and millions of hungry displaced people. To these very human occupiers, the successful rehabilitation of the enemy that we now celebrate appeared closer to Mission Impossible.
The Good Occupation dives directly into those controversies, mining a wide array of first-hand documents to create a vividly detailed picture of thousands of U.S. troops denied the neat conclusion to their wartime service that they dreamed about during the years of fighting. Carruthers doesn’t shy away from the rapes, the looting, and the black market violence that cropped up in the Allied occupation as they have in every military occupation in the history of mankind. The venality of a significant number of U.S. occupiers (and their commanders—General George Patton is quite dispassionately raked over the coals) is exposed in chapter after chapter of meticulous research and austerely lovely prose.
[Carruthers’s] book vividly illustrates the tumultuous period between 1945 and 1948, when Americans raised as isolationists suddenly found themselves in control of large swathes of the world and were ill-prepared to handle the mission at hand…Her archival research into the diaries and letters of the occupiers…lays bare the rapidly shifting attitudes that members of the Greatest Generation held toward the occupied, the military and America’s new place in the world.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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