Wartime America: When We Were All on the Same Page

Successful movies often have a ripple effect on the rest of society, so it's possible that "Saving Private Ryan" will start a new wave of interest in World War II. The media hype has definitely inspired me to revive a long, private struggle: I am determined to read through my wartime collection of Life magazines.

This bulky archive was accumulated by my mother. She knew the war was a historic event and made a conscious effort to preserve a wide range of everyday items such as coupon books, government pamphlets, and newspaper clippings. Most of these souvenirs remained stored away during my childhood. I don't believe she valued them as heirlooms. They were simply personal reminders of a remarkable national experience.

Over the years, the stacks of magazines have acquired their own enduring legacy. They were packed up with other household goods and moved several times before I was born. After my parents passed away, I carried the stacks along to three other houses. During the past 10 years, they escaped two potentially disastrous encounters with broken water pipes. Currently they are resting on a counter in my basement, safe from moisture.

The big problem for me is that I cannot give the magazines a quick study. It takes hours to closely examine each issue. Facts that never got into history books are often tucked away in advertisements, photo captions, or letters to the editor.

What astounds me about World War II is how the US built its armed forces, managed a booming economy, defeated Germany and Japan, and helped set up the United Nations, all in less than four years. And while political and military stories dominated the headlines, average citizens carried on their lives within the familiar boundaries of work, home, and family.

My parents met in 1943 and got married the following year. Dad was a Navy officer, and they traveled around the country for some of his duty assignments, but I don't know many details. I should have asked more questions. What I do know is that Hollywood will never make a movie that conveys the collective feelings of hope, sadness, fear, and excitement that shaped American attitudes during the war.

I know that some critics of Life say it presented a sterile, sanitized view of the news and was used by its creator, Henry Luce, to promote his own views on foreign and domestic policies. But it was the first magazine to give the country weekly snapshots of itself, and I think my parents felt a connection to their own lives in those pictures.

For a brief period in this century, from late 1941 to the summer of 1945, Americans were, as the saying goes, all on the same page. And nobody is laying a hand on my collection of Life magazine until I've read every one of those pages.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, writes from Portland, Ore.

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