The Best Years of Their Lives

Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American ‘Neutrality’ in World War II

by Nicholas John Cull
Oxford University Press, 276 pp., $29.95

London at War

by Philip Ziegler
Knopf, 372 pp., $30.00

For You, Lili Marlene: A Memoir of World War II

by Robert Peters
University of Wisconsin Press,to be published in December, 122 pp., $19.95

The spring this year was bitterly cold in Britain. But for the first week in May the north wind relented, and VE day was celebrated in baking sunshine. The nation wallowed in nostalgia. Nostalgia for past glory and for a war that, apart from a few revisionist historians, people remembered as a just war and a war for our survival. In Moscow there was the familiar parade of tanks and weaponry, comprehensible in present circumstances to remind the world that it was the Red Army that smashed the finest professional army in history. But in London on Wednesday May 8 there was no triumphalism, not a tank in sight. Veterans marched and, when both Houses in Parliament presented loyal addresses to the Queen in Westminster Hall, the only martial forces present were the Beefeaters and Yeomen of the Guard. The Royal Family reverted to their true role: they became iconic figures. On Sunday the Queen yielded precedence to her mother, now in her ninety-sixth year, and followed her out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace with Princess Margaret, the three of them re-enacting the day fifty years ago when they had stood there with King George VI and Winston Churchill. An enormous crowd stretching all the way along the Mall to Trafalgar Square cheered good-heartedly.

Earlier there had been doubts that the BBC was about to vulgarize the event; but most people thought the BBC got the balance about right between speeches about the need for reconciliation and entertainment that brought back the old times. There was also rock music for the generations that were not yet born then. Vera Lynn (“The Forces’ Sweetheart”), aged seventy-eight, strode out onto a stage set up in Hyde Park and sang wartime favorites of unbridled sentimentality. For three days large crowds gathered there until the moment came on the last evening when for two minutes silence fell as in the days between the wars when everything stopped on Armistice Day at eleven o’clock. Then the Queen lit a beacon and all over the country beacons burned, fireworks shot into the air, and the modest festivities on village greens came to an end.

The celebration later in the summer for the end of the war against Japan was even more successful. It culminated in hundreds of teen-agers, to whom the war was an event in the remote past, carrying torches and surging down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. To the astonishment of the British, America largely seemed to ignore the fiftieth anniversary.

The two World Wars in this century created powerful myths. According to one the First World War was an imperialist struggle for which the statesmen of all five nations involved were to blame. The civilian armies endured unimaginable misery in the trenches, displayed astonishing bravery, and were slaughtered in their millions by generals who were little better than donkeys. Profound disillusion followed: words like “patriotism,” “honor,” “sacrifice,” were nonsense. Pacifism became modish. The only war still popular was the class war …

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