Study Assignment 5 — 30 points
Historiographic Essay — Analyzing Historical Myth — The “Good War”
1-2 pages, double-spaced, with non-insane font and margins
Historians use the phrase “historical myth” to refer to a widely circulated story about the past, a story that is told primarily for the effect it has, independent of the accuracy of the story. In other words, it is a description of the past that is popular largely because of what people get out of it — inspiration, a moral lesson, entertainment, political justification — whether the story is true or not. The myth is often assumed to be true or taken at face value without question, because deep down people simply want it to be true.
In this sense, calling something a myth does not necessarily meant that it is totally false, a complete lie, or overt propaganda. (The opposite of truth is falsehood. A lie is just one kind of falsehood. I’m looking at you, James W. Loewen.) Calling it a myth is not necessarily meant to be an insult or meant to destroy the story completely. Strange as it sounds, a myth could even be largely true. Almost by definition, however, myths are oversimplified versions of reality. Even ones with some basis in fact tend to omit large sets of facts that do not fit the story. They often take complex aspects of past events and present them in simple categories, for example as a basic “hero vs. villain” story.
With this as your definition of myth, analyze what Polenberg, quoting Studs Terkel, refers to as the “Good War” myth of the U.S. in World War II. Polenberg’s introduction to Chapter 9 gives a brief summary of the mythology, but you may have your own impression of the myths of World War II. The “Greatest Generation” meme in American culture today is a variant of this myth.
Using information from the book, including primary sources, evaluate the accuracy of the Good War mythology. What aspects of wartime period seem to fit this ideal, and what aspects of the wartime period do not seem to fit the ideal?
You should not try to cover every possible aspect of the myth, but instead should focus on one or two key parts of the Good War ideal. For example: civil liberties in wartime, national unity (“we put aside our differences”), cooperation in the war effort (“we all pulled together”), ideals of freedom and democracy, making the world a better place, etc.
At some point in your essay, you should present an explanation (a reasoned opinion, using your best judgment) for the popularity of the Good War myth. Even if you find the myth to be largely true, explain what besides accuracy would explain the popularity of the Good War myth.
Be sure to use quotes and/or paraphrases from the book as evidence, properly citing with footnotes any quotes and paraphrases.