With the publication in May of The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, journalist and historian Rick Atkinson brings to a close his Liberation Trilogy, an account of the Allied victory in the Mediterranean and Western Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War In North Africa, 1942-1943 (2002) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. Atkinson interrupted his writing in order to cover the conflict in Iraq-a reminder that war never quite goes out of style. The second volume, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, was published in 2007.

Atkinson faced a major challenge as he wrapped up his story. While the North African and Italian campaigns are not particularly well known to the general public, the war in Europe is etched deeply into popular culture through movies, mini-series, and popular books. We are all more or less familiar with the horror and grandeur of D-Day; the heady times of General George S. Patton’s Third Army driving across France; the insufferable British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and the disaster of Operation MARKET-GARDEN (“A Bridge Too Far”); the Battle of the Bulge and siege of Bastogne—”Nuts!” to the Germans; the derring-do at the Bridge at Ramagen; the Nazi Götterdämmerung and the discovery of the death camps. Throughout it all, we celebrate the accomplishments of the modern-day bands of brothers who represented the greatest generation.

Atkinson aims to carve his niche in the literature through a strong narrative and a mastery of details accumulated through exhaustive archival research and interviews (many veterans, upon reading the earlier volumes of the series, offered him their papers, letters, and unpublished memoirs). From such accounts he describes, for instance, the distinct odors of liberation—”cosmoline gun-metal preservative, oil used to clean weapons, chlorine in the drinking water, flea powder, pine pitch from freshly severed branches, fresh-dug earth…GI yellow soap and the flour-grease fumes” from the field kitchens, as well as the smells left by the Germans—”cabbage and sour rye,” “stale-sweat wool” and “harsh tobacco.” And of course, there was the smell of tobacco; Frenchmen and women often approached their liberators with what the Americans called the “French national salute”—two fingers pressed to the mouth, “do you have a cigarette?”

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Atkinson inundates the reader with detail. If you didn’t know how much and what kind of liquor was sent by the American and British delegations to Yalta, you will. You will learn how Graves Registration went about identifying, processing, and reconstructing the dead (and the fact that the number of dead who needed such processing was considerably underestimated by planners). Atkinson is relentless in his search for just the right quotation, often from an obscure or unattributed source, to set the scene. As a result, his narrative often sounds as if it were a script for a Ken Burns documentary.

He does not offer any startling new revelations or grand new theses about the war. The high-level argument throughout the Liberation Trilogy is that this was an absolutely necessary war, a war over the future of civilization (or, better put, between civilization and barbarism of the worst sort). The liberation from tyranny was real. At the same time, this war—any war—is a terrible thing. It is Janus-faced: “war is never linear, but rather a chaotic, desultory enterprise of reversal and advance, blunder and élan, despair and elation.” Out of chaos one can at least quantify the butcher’s bill. Battle casualties among armies of the Western Allies from D-Day to VE-Day exceeded three-quarters of a million, of whom at least 165,000 were dead. There were 10,000 naval losses, half of them dead, and 62,000 air casualties—half of them dead, too, in the 12,000 Allied planes lost over Europe. There was virtually no respite for the soldiers during the campaign: almost as many Americans were killed or wounded in April 1945, when German defenses had supposedly collapsed, as in June 1944.

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Atkinson describes but does not try to settle the major political-military controversies that have been hotly debated since the war began by the participants and scholars. Should the Allies have focused on a single thrust into Germany from the northwest, instead of General Dwight Eisenhower’s broad-front approach, after their successful breakout from the Normandy lodgment? (Atkinson’s narrative suggests that the single-thrust approach would not have led to a better outcome, primarily because Montgomery was not the man to pull it off, but also because of unfavorable terrain and logistical challenges.) Was Winston Churchill right in trying to stop the second Allied invasion in the south of France in August 1944—Operation ANVIL/DRAGOON—in favor of diverting those forces to exploit favorable opportunities elsewhere? (No, at least according to Atkinson—Marseilles and other ports in the south were invaluable to supply the main effort in France; and there were no good opportunities elsewhere.) Could the war have been won in the fall of 1944, when German defenses seemed on the verge of collapse? (Probably not—Allied logistics were simply not up to the task.) Should Eisenhower have tried to beat the Soviets to Berlin and other points in the east, in order to strengthen the American-British post-war position? (Atkinson dismisses this argument in passing—Eisenhower, he says, was merely following the policies of his civilian leadership, which based post-war security on close cooperation with the Soviets. A race to Berlin would have undermined the confidence necessary for that arrangement to work, at a cost of untold and unnecessary American casualties.)

The student of strategy might usefully approach the detail provided in The Guns at Last Light to draw different conclusions on these matters. Perhaps more importantly, he might reflect on what World War II teaches us about how, and how well, democratic peoples—specifically, the democratic American people—fight their wars. Atkinson’s narrative takes us away from fuzzy nostalgia about the Good War to recall that victory over the Axis was not only very messy, but it was far from a certain thing. It was certainly a great test, one in a line of tests, “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

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During the 1930s, free societies and free markets reeled under the twin pressures of economic failure and the claims of collectivist, militant, anti-liberal ideologies that theirs was the way of the future. The matter would be decided, as so often throughout history, by war, and here the democracies (broadly defined) seemed to many to be at a fatal disadvantage. The anti-democratic regimes appeared to be more passionate about their cause, more united, and certainly better organized, able to bring to bear more fully the resources of the industrial age—especially in the conduct of war, which they were patently preparing to wage. The carnage of 1914-1918, by contrast, had led many liberals to conclude that democratic societies could not survive another round of modern warfare. Appeasement or isolation seemed the best foreign policy, combined with some sort of benign socialism at home. The first dismal years of the Second World War (including Japan’s aggression against China) gave no solace to the champions of free men and free markets.

Atkinson’s focus on military operations in Europe, and especially on the ground war there, does not offer a comprehensive explanation for why the democracies unexpectedly, if belatedly, passed the test. There is, after all, the Pacific theater, as well as the sea and the skies, to consider. Yet the fact that the United States (and Britain) met and defeated the best army in the world, in its own element and on its own soil, seems somehow peculiarly decisive and therefore worth close study. (Atkinson quotes a British military maxim, “he who has not fought the Germans does not know war.”) The United States might have adopted a more distant strategy, supplying those who resisted the Germans (and Japanese) and enforcing an air and naval blockade of the Eurasian continent, while avoiding the costs and risks of introducing an expeditionary force into Europe. The United States, following this strategy, could have sat back and waited, perhaps for decades, for Germany to succumb to internal fissures and to unending war against the Soviets or their successors. It did not do so because it seemed imperative to defeat Germany directly and as quickly as possible, to limit the long-term damage to civilization and to demonstrate the courage and competence of the democracies.

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The United States, to be sure, could not have beaten the Germans on land (or the fanatical Japanese on innumerable islands in the Pacific) at acceptable cost without first controlling the sea and the skies. Further, the task would have been much more difficult or even impossible if the Soviets had not destroyed much of the cream of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Soviet forces killed roughly nine times more Germans than the United States and Britain combined. The Red Army suffered more combat deaths at Stalingrad alone than the U.S. armed forces did in the entire war. As a result, the Soviets claimed as a matter of right and power the ability to control the post-war fates of lands and peoples they had conquered, even against their will.

But the United States too had its claims, staked out by the U.S. Army. From 1942-1945, and particularly 1944-45, America had demonstrated the ability to fight and to hold and acquire territory, something that its navy and air force (and later its atomic arsenal) could not alone achieve. The United States paid the price, not only in terms of its treasure but also through its blood, military competence, and tenacity, to become a power in Europe (and Asia) and to organize the democracies against new security threats. The United States, at the invitation of its allies, soon stationed large contingents of ground forces in Western Europe to support this claim. It deployed its army and marines to fight in Korea and Vietnam (however unfortunate the latter turned out to be) and later in the Middle East and Central Asia. There are those who think this was a major mistake; that an army in being, deployed forward, is much more dangerous to the soul of a democracy than a distant army at dawn. Atkinson certainly nods in this direction. “If the war had dispelled American isolationism, it also encouraged American exceptionalism, as well as a penchant for military solutions and a self-regard that led some to label their epoch ‘the American century.’

In any case, the possibility of a new American grand strategy that included the deployment and use of ground forces in Eurasia was made possible by a successful wartime grand strategy founded on an effective political-military alliance. Atkinson writes:

The cohesion and internal coherence of the Allied coalition had assured victory: the better alliance had won. Certainly it was possible to look at Allied war-making on any given day and feel heartsick at the missed opportunities and purblind personalities and wretched wastage, to wonder why the ranks could not be braver or at least cleverer, smarter or at least shrewder, prescient or at least intuitive. Yet despite its foibles, the Allied way of war won through, with systems that were, as the historian Richard Overy would write, “centralized, unified, and coordinated,” quite unlike Axis systems. In contrast to the Axis autocracy, Allied leadership included checks and balances to temper arbitrary willfulness and personal misjudgment.


The Anglo-American confederation was the core of the democratic anti-Axis coalition. It amounted, Atkinson notes, to “a strategic symbiosis: British prudence in 1942 and 1943, eventually yielding to American audacity in 1944 and 1945.” The British were right in their assessment that the United States needed time to learn the intricacies of ground warfare; the Americans were right that the Germans would have to be defeated where they lived, as soon as feasible.

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This symbiosis was hardly a natural one. Atkinson documents fully the genuine strategic disagreements between the British and American commanders and also the pettiness, egotism, and outright acts of sabotage that threatened the alliance. Yet, as Churchill said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” (De Gaulle and the Free French, whose commitment to democracy was uncertain, put that aphorism to the test; they believed it their duty to be dissatisfied.) The alliance worked, however, not simply because of logic and necessity but primarily because both nations had visionary Great Captains who understood its importance and who worked tirelessly to see that it succeeded. Atkinson, with his nose close to the war on the ground, does not much discuss this point. Churchill is portrayed as a fairly ridiculous figure, although a source for good quotations; Roosevelt is even more distant, except for a relatively brief appearance at Yalta.

Churchill, in fact, made the alliance something more than happy words on paper. He had long appreciated the need for close Anglo-American cooperation, going back to the final stages of World War I. He cultivated Roosevelt in 1939-40, while the latter maintained a stand-offish position. He accepted the fact that growing American power increasingly gave Washington the dominant say in the relationship and, in contrast with the French, he sought to advise and temper that power rather than to threaten to break with it. Churchill did so in the belief that Western civilization and democracy depended on that special relationship, forged in blood on the battlefield, to win the war and beyond. (For this, Churchill would be excoriated by the left and right in his home land for sacrificing Britain to the upstart, money-grubbing Yanks.)

Roosevelt’s story is more complicated. At times he seemed as determined to destroy the British Empire as he was those of Germany and Japan—yet he took for granted that British power would be available to support his plan for a post-war security system. He was arguably naïve about the long-term threat posed by Stalin. He was determined to use the war as a means to move the country further to the left, to support the implementation of an economic bill of rights. Yet like Churchill, he provided unquestioned leadership and inspiration that allowed his nation to endure the strain and heartache of war and to make sense of the sacrifices it was asked to make. His geopolitical vision was of the first order, even if it had later to be modified significantly to account for events. It is impossible to think of anyone on the American political spectrum who could have approached his standing with the public or with an international audience.

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To be sure, democracies cannot count on enlightened statesmen always being at the helm. Yet it is reassuring to know that democracies can and do produce such men, and can and do identify and empower them. So far there seems to have been an almost providential coincidence of great men with great political-military crises, such that constitutional governments have survived and advanced. At the same time, we know that enlightened statesmen are neither infallible nor immortal. Rightly constituted democracies, like rightly constructed alliances, have the sort of internal checks and balances that prevent executive excesses (to which FDR was prone) and to help steer the ship of state, in ordinary times, more or less on the proper course.

The pattern of an American-led democratic alliance persisted successfully after the war, even if things did not always go smoothly. The United States typically got what it really thought it needed out of the relationship; but it usually went to the limit to make concessions to its partners, especially when national pride was at stake. Democratic alliances—at least under strong leadership—seem to demonstrate the resilience and flexibility that failed the Axis, and subsequent arrangements among tyrannical governments. Whether those traits can persist if a democratic alliance follows a more equitable model, without strong leadership by one nation, and whether democratic alliances can be sustained in the face of post-industrial war, are open questions.

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One might renew the objection that there was another, more successful partner in World War II that made no pretence of liberalism—Stalin and Soviet Communism—and that therefore we cannot simply award the palm of victory to an alliance of democracies. If democracy passed the test of modern industrial war, one might argue, it did so only by cribbing off the sheet of a more capable student.

Even granting the point about the Soviet contribution to the war effort, it should be noted that Atkinson and other scholars have demonstrated that Stalin hardly won the war by himself and thus proved the military and strategic superiority of the leftist version of totalitarianism. American logistical aid to the USSR, maintained over vast distances despite enemy opposition (and in some cases, Soviet obstinacy), was critical to the Red Army. The American and British strategic bombing campaigns had a major effect on German industrial production and their transportation network, which aided the Eastern and well as the Western front. They also destroyed the Luftwaffe as an effective fighting force, such that the Soviets enjoyed air superiority for their ground campaigns. This was done at tremendous cost: a British Tommy in the trenches in World War I stood a better chance of survival than an RAF bomber crewmember. The British-American ground offensives in North Africa, Italy, and France distracted the Germans and drew off significant forces that otherwise could have been deployed in the East. Hitler’s last great gamble on the Western front—the Ardennes offensive—consumed most of Germany’s remaining reserves and opened the door to the great Soviet winter offensive, which took the Red Army to the gates of Berlin. It is certainly fair to conclude that if the British had gone down in 1940 and the Americans had stayed out, the Soviets would have lost the war when Hitler turned on them. That worst case scenario aside, if the British and Americans had not fought as well as they did, Stalin would probably have faced a stalemate in the east—and Hitler was unlikely to have given him a diplomatic way out.

The British-American alliance with Stalin demonstrates that democracies can use military alliances, or cooperative arrangements, with less-than-savory regimes to accomplish morally defensible objectives as well as strategic ends. They can also successfully discard or modify those connections when circumstances change, although the transition can be difficult if the virtues of “Uncle Joe” (or Chairman Mao) are excessively touted in order to bring democratic public opinion along.

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In addition to the virtues of far-sighted and inspiring leadership and well-crafted alliances, we might explore another commonly-cited factor in America’s victory in World War II: its role as the “arsenal of democracy.” The great American industrial base, which had been substantially idled by the Great Depression, was partially converted to military use. Cranked into full gear, it produced staggering amounts of hardware and supplies. Atkinson’s narrative offers a chronicle of the dominance of America’s material contribution. “I’m letting the American taxpayer take this hill,” he quotes one prodigal gunner.

The armed forces had grown 3,500 percent while building 3,000 overseas bases and depots, and shipping 4.5 tons of matériel abroad for each soldier deployed, plus another ton each month to sustain him…. What Churchill called the American “prodigy of organization” had shipped 18 million tons of war stuff to Europe, equivalent to the cargo in 3,600 Liberty ships or 181,000 rail cars: the kit ranged from 800,000 military vehicles to footwear in sizes 2A to 22EEE. U.S. munitions plants had turned out 40 billion rounds of small arms ammunition and 56 million grenades. From D-Day to V-E Day, GIs fired 500 million machine-gun bullets and 23 million artillery rounds…. By 1945, the United States had built two-thirds of all ships afloat and was making half of all manufactured goods in the world, including nearly half of all armaments. The enemy was crushed by logistical brilliance, firepower, mobility, mechanical aptitude, and an economic juggernaut that produced much, much more of nearly everything than Germany could—bombers, bombs, fighters, transport planes, mortars, machine guns, trucks—yet the war absorbed barely one-third of the American gross domestic product, a smaller proportion than that of any major belligerent.


It is an interesting question whether this prodigy of production can be attributed to the strengths of capitalism (whether of a free-market or corporatist variety) or to the fortunate geographic circumstance that the American industrial base was outside of the war zone. The Soviets, by shifting factories deeper into the interior, managed to maintain a significant industrial base of their own. Paul Kennedy suggests in his recent book, Engineers of Victory (examined in the March 2013Notes on Strategy and Statesmanship)¸ that it was the British-American ability to adapt and modify existing products and to use these creatively—rather than the creation of new wonder weapons or the sheer volume of production—which made the critical difference. To simply compare the total GNP of the Allies and the Axis and conclude that the victory of the former was inevitable beggars our understanding of the total war effort.

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In any case, the sheer volume of American production should not obscure the fact that there were shortfalls in some critical areas. These included gasoline, heavy ammunition and, of all things, winter gear, including properly-sized boots (trench foot probably disabled as many soldiers as German bullets). Allied commanders overlooked the means necessary to secure vital port facilities (particularly Antwerp) against determined German resistance. Logistics often succeeded through brute force rather than brilliance—pounding a round peg into a square hole enough times to make it work just well enough.

Nor should we look to the military brilliance of the Allied high command as a principal explanation for battlefield success, at least according to Atkinson’s account. There were certainly a number of outstanding combat commanders up to and including the division level, but many duds—too many—as well. High-level generalship was, in Atkinson’s opinion, dull and uninspired—and remarkably vain and eccentric. This deeply flawed roster includes Eisenhower, for all his virtues as an alliance leader and, to put it bluntly, as a politician. Those virtues were necessary, to be sure, along with a cool head and a determination not to act rashly. It is hard to argue that there was anyone better suited than Eisenhower to the job of keeping his remarkably factious subordinates in line and pointed in the same direction. This juggling act required compromises, however, for both national and personal reasons, and compromises seldom lead to optimum results on the battlefield.

Atkinson finds no such excuses for the vaunted commanders at the next step down, particularly Montgomery and Omar Bradley, or for those in special lines such as logistics and intelligence. (Atkinson can’t quite decide about George Patton—he thinks he was probably the best of the Army-level commanders but his overall reputation is much too high.) Among other failings, senior commanders seemed to lack the ability to think and plan one move beyond the current situation, if things did not evolve as expected (whether for better or worse). Even those whom Atkinson praises, such as Lieutenant Generals Jacob Devers and William Simpson, made their share of seemingly obvious mistakes.

For those of us who are armchair generals, this should serve as a reminder that being a real general, especially dealing with the pressures and uncertainties of high command, must be a hard task, indeed. But in light of Thomas Ricks’s book onThe Generals (2012), which takes the story through current times, it does not seem that democracies can rely upon a natural succession of superior commanders. Nor have we yet developed a sure means of identifying, training, and promoting those who do show promise.

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That leaves us with the bands of brothers, the ordinary American G.I. and his immediate leaders. Atkinson chronicles in considerable detail the hard slog, with precious few moments of glory and sunshine, which marked the often-short life and times of the infantrymen. He offers little direct reflection on how and why they did as well (or as poorly) as they did. One can draw the conclusion that they were, or became, tough and competent enough to deal effectively with a combination of still-formidable Germans, fortifications, difficult terrain, awful weather, supply problems, and the tactical vagaries of combat. They undoubtedly excelled on those relatively rare occasions when mechanized, mobile operations were possible—war fit for soldiers with “machinery in their souls,” as John Steinbeck wrote. But in the Battle of the Bulge, as at Anzio and Salerno, they also proved they could fight outnumbered and on the defensive. American soldiers were the masters of firepower (as they had been since the Revolution) and they developed considerable combined arms competence. Some institutional memory and learning in the ranks must have developed. The Hollywood-idealized grizzled sergeant who took his men from Morocco to Berlin was very rare indeed; the real item would have been killed, wounded, or rotated out of combat.

So: the American soldier, collectively, was tough and competent, enough to get the job done. He would have had no apologies to make to his Russian counterpart. But why did he fight—for the liberation of oppressed peoples, for democracy, for hearth and home, for self-respect? Because of peer pressure or because he had no choice? Are democratic armies more motivated to fight than those of other types of regimes? Here the evidence is sketchy and open to different interpretations. The American government and the armed forces tried to offer a coherent explanation to the troops, through vehicles such as the documentary series “Why We Fight” (directed by Frank Capra) and through various publications and seminars. Atkinson cites a study of American soldiers in Britain, taken just before D-Day; more than one third of the troops doubted whether the war was worth fighting, a figure that had doubled since July 1943 (but which would rise no higher).

Near the end of the war, Eisenhower and other senior commanders examined the just-liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, a satellite of Buchenwald. Patton vomited at the sight of its horrors. Ike remarked to the troops: “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now at least he will know what he is fighting against.” The fact that the Senior Allied Commander still had to frame the matter in such a way suggests that “the cause” was still unclear to many.

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Yet it is fair to say that the majority of American soldiers—whether in France and Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan—typically become vested in their cause, even if they have become cynical about military life and are well past celebrating the glories of war. They typically believe their war is winnable and that good is being done for the locals. This may not exactly be the cause for which the political leadership went to war. But it is hard to think that the typical solider in the Wehrmacht or the Red Army thought like this or that it is merely imperialism in another guise.

Atkinson raises the question of whether war, even a necessary war like World War II, inherently debases the men and women who fight in it, thereby debasing democratic society as a whole. He offers a mixed judgment. He notes that incidents of combat fatigue-shell-shock to an earlier generation, post-traumatic stress to a later one—were widespread and often poorly treated or even understood. American troops deserted in not insignificant numbers, raped civilians, shot Germans presumably trying to surrender, and occasionally went berserk or attempted to impose their own sense of justice on concentration camp guards. Plundering M.P.s became known as the “Lootwaffe.” A soldier in the 45th Infantry Division judged that a “typical infantry squad involved two shooting and ten looting.” These incidents were often covered up by the brass, despite pious edicts from on-high. “[H]onor and dishonor often traveled in trace across a battlefield…even a liberator could come home stained if not befouled,” Atkinson writes. (Some recent scholars have attempted to equate this with the systematic campaign of violence against noncombatants in the east, as a way of excusing the Soviets, without quite explaining why German civilians invariably tried to flee west.)

Yet Atkinson notes that many participants regarded the experience of war, awful as it was, as the high point of their lives. J. Glenn Gray, an Army officer and writer, called it “the one great lyric passage in their lives.” Atkinson quotes an Army Air Forces crewman who completed 50 bomber missions: “Never did I feel so much alive. Never did the earth and all of the surroundings look so bright and sharp.” A combat engineer reflected: “What we had together was something awfully damned good, something I don’t think we’ll ever have again as long as we live.” War correspondent Alan Moorehead believed that “here and there a man found greatness in himself.”

The anti-aircraft gunner in a raid and the boy in a landing barge really did feel at moments that the thing they were doing was a clear and definite good, the best they could do. And at those moments there was a surpassing satisfaction, a sense of exactly and entirely fulfilling one’s life….This thing, the brief ennoblement, kept recurring again and again up to the end, and it refreshed and lighted the whole heroic and sordid story.


Those of us who were not in this nor any other war should refrain from highlighting excessively such sentiments. We can, however, reflect on the larger political and social effects of this particular conflict. These effects, intentional or not, do not seem to indicate that democracies are necessarily debased by war, even if democracies should not seek out war for its own sake, or for any sake other than the strategic and moral matter at hand.

The war was a potent catalyst for social change across the republic. New technologies—jets, computers, ballistic missiles, penicillin—soon spurred vibrant new industries, which in turn encouraged the migration of black workers from south to north, and of all peoples to the emerging west. The GI Bill put millions of soldiers into college classrooms, spurring unprecedented social mobility. Nineteen million American women had entered the workplace by war’s end; although they quickly reverted to traditional antebellum roles—the percentage working in 1947 was hardly higher than it had been in 1940—that genie would not remain back in the bottle forever. The modest experiment in racially integrating infantry battalions ended when the war did, despite nearly universal agreement that black riflemen had performed ably and in harmony with their white comrades. A presidential order in 1948 would be required to desegregate the military, and much more than that would be needed to reverse three centuries of racial oppression in America. But tectonic plates had begun to shift.


“Glad to be home,” Atkinson quotes a black soldier from Chicago, as his troopship sailed into New York harbor. “Proud of my country, as irregular as it is. Determined it could be better.”