After 75 years, World War II legacies soldier on as living memories fade

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, left, President Harry Truman, center, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin pose after dinner in Potsdam, Germany, July 23, 1945. U.S. Army Signal Corps


By JOSEPH DITZLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 1, 2020

TOKYO — History professor Cord Scott likes this analogy when he tries to relate current events to World War II for his students.

“We’re watching ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ or, if you like to read, we’re picking up a Stephen King novel and we’re starting at page 450,” Scott said during an Aug. 26 interview.

In other words, the legacy of World War II is still rippling through world events and influencing history. Even though the war ended 75 years ago, and its warriors are down to a relative handful, the world is still defined in many ways by what they accomplished.

Much of what remains from the war is obvious: rusted tanks on lonely Pacific islands or crumbling pillboxes above French beaches. Still relevant but less tangible are institutions like NATO, the Department of Defense and the United Nations, elements of the world as ordered by World War II.

Until recently, knowledge of the war and its legacy passed between generations; but as the last eyewitnesses to that history leave the scene, that knowledge resides instead in books and classrooms.

“To be honest, some students can’t identify groups we fought against in World War II,” Scott said. “At times I’ve had to go through and reestablish the basics.”

Scott and David Harmon, both history professors for University of Maryland Global Campus, teach U.S. service members, their families and interested civilians about that history. They sized up for Stars and Stripes some of the significant legacies of World War II.

“World War II put us on the world stage,” Harmon said during an Aug. 19 interview. “We became the bank then, also.”

Power projection

Former adversaries, the Axis powers, namely Germany, Japan and Italy, today are allies of the U.S., which still bases military forces in each of those countries. Before rising out of the war’s ashes to thrive again, they existed beneath a military and economic umbrella provided by the U.S. and its wartime allies.

The value of those alliances is sometimes questioned, but Scott believes they’re still relevant.

“On the whole, most America foreign policy officials realize these alliances are necessary,” he said. “They build a strong, cohesive interaction and if we try to do things on our own this can lead to bigger problems down the road.”

Western powers after the war divested themselves or were relieved of their colonial possessions or mandates.

The United Kingdom ended its control over India, which became independent along with Pakistan, in 1947. Ceylon, today Sri Lanka, followed in early 1948. Israel’s founders declared a nation in May 1948, provoking an invasion by four Arab countries.

The Netherlands reluctantly yielded its control over the East Indies, which became Indonesia in 1949. The Philippines, a U.S. territory, became independent July 4, 1946.

Tensions between India and Pakistan and Israel and its Arab neighbors, including displaced Palestinians, continue to this day.

World War II also planted the seeds of further conflict involving the United States. The U.S. during the war fostered a relationship with Ho Chi Minh, leader of a Vietnamese insurgency against the occupying Japanese. Afterward, the U.S. forfeited that tie by yielding instead to French entreaties to reoccupy its former colonies in Indochina.

The origins of today’s “great power” competition in Asia were also laid during and immediately after the war.

In August 1949, the U.S. ended its support for the Nationalist Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan after their defeat that year by communists under Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China. The two sides had worked together to fight the Japanese during the war.

Taiwan and China remain at odds today, and the U.S. again backs the government on Taiwan and still has a contentious relationship with mainland China.

The year 1949 was eventful in other ways, Harmon said. The Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb and continued a blockade on West Berlin begun in 1948, NATO came into existence and U.S. President Harry Truman ordered a plan to strengthen the nation’s defense, delivered in January 1950 as NSC 68.

“Can you imagine having a year like that? I mean, this is all on Truman’s plate,” Harmon said.

NSC 68, or United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, laid out three main objectives: rearming West Germany; peacetime mobilization, in practical terms, establishing overseas U.S. bases; and speeding up development of the hydrogen bomb.

Out of World War II also came the Cold War, the result of a divide between former Allies in the West and the Soviet Union. The U.S., which demilitarized after previous conflicts, this time could not cede international leadership to a powerful adversary.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill defined that relationship soon after the conflict ended with a speech at a Missouri college in 1946, where he applied the phrase, “Iron Curtain,” to the line separating East from West.

Harmon believes the 44-year Cold War started definitively at the Potsdam Conference between Truman, Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in summer 1945. There, Harmon said, Stalin reneged on a promise to the late President Franklin Roosevelt to permit free elections in occupied Eastern European countries.

“Essentially, his quote is: ‘A freely elected government in any of these Eastern European countries would be anti-Soviet and we can’t allow that,’” Harmon said. “I’ve argued the Cold War started right there when he finished that sentence.”

Within 10 years, proxy wars, fueled by unresolved issues from World War II and by competition with the communists, cropped up in Korea and then in Vietnam.

Personal legacies

The broad sweep and lasting consequences of World War II elicit a sense of detachment and distance, but World War II also left personal legacies. Harmon and Scott both had family in the war.

Harmon’s father, Charles Harmon, served with the 95th Infantry Division, which fought across Northern France and into Germany. His father never talked about his wartime experience, Harmon said, and he died at age 88 in August 2012.

Scott’s grandfathers both served in the war. His paternal grandfather, Earl Scott, was drafted late and expected to take part in the invasion of Japan. Instead he arrived in Japan after the surrender and saw firsthand the bombed-out city of Hiroshima.

“That kind of floored me and he passed before I could follow up with him,” said Scott, who has lived in Hiroshima prefecture and has seen photographs of the city after the bombing. “I thought, my lord, this is just pictures in a book. What did my grandfather see and smell going through those actual places?”

His maternal grandfather, Jerry Smetana, was an artilleryman with the Army from North Africa to Sicily before an injury sent him back to the United States.

In 2005, at a coffee shop in Chicago, Scott said, he spotted an elderly man in a cap bearing the words “USS Indianapolis,” the heavy cruiser torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese after delivering parts of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. A third of the 900 crewmembers survived the sinking and four days at sea, surrounded and preyed upon by sharks.

“Are you from the Indianapolis from World War II? He was very reluctant to talk about it,” Scott said. “That story, in and of itself, was absolutely stunning to me.”

Twitter: @JosephDitzler

Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh wrote to President Harry Truman on Feb. 28, 1946, asking American intercession to stop the return of French forces to their former colony in Southeast Asia. National Archives and Records Administration