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Capsule Review

Three New Books on World War II

In This Review

A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II
By Maury Klein
Bloomsbury Press, 2013, 912 pp. $40.00 Purchase
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy)
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy)
By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt and Co., 2013, 896 pp. $40.00 Purchase
What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France
What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France
By Mary Louise Roberts
University Of Chicago Press, 2013, 368 pp. $30.00 Purchase

These three books illuminate different aspects of World War II using diaries, letters, and memoirs to capture what the war meant for people caught up in it. Klein’s monumental book focuses on what he calls “the greatest industrial expansion in modern history.” As the war began in Europe in 1939, the armed forces of the United States were small and undernourished, and the public was wary of any involvement. President Franklin Roosevelt pushed U.S. industry to get ready for a war that he knew would come. Klein details the impact this had on Washington -- the personality clashes, the interagency feuds, the tensions between government and big business -- and also demonstrates the enormous social impact of mass mobilization on the rest of society. Labor unions were challenged to moderate their demands out of patriotic duty, and African Americans were drawn into the mainstream work force, leading to hostile reactions from some white workers and even race riots in Detroit. In effect, Klein’s book narrates the birth pangs of the modern American state.

With The Guns at Last Light, Atkinson concludes his celebrated trilogy on World War II. The first two volumes covered the Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy. In this one, Atkinson is on more familiar territory: the buildup to the Normandy landings and the drive to Berlin, with its frustrating setbacks. Most of his readers will know this story. Yet Atkinson still manages to keep it fresh, with a talent for narrative and a mastery of detail that make this book one of the great contributions to the war’s history. He has an impressive command of the high-level strategic debates, coalition politics, and logistical feats that shaped the war, and he brings them to life with the accumulation of small details: U.S. General George Patton’s exuberance at the prospect of battle, the inventory of personal effects found on corpses, the U.S. decision to excuse American soldiers who shot captured SS guards in cold blood at the concentration camp in Dachau, the bedbugs and caviar at the Yalta conference.

Atkinson also describes the sexual temptations that greeted American GIs in France and the dire consequences in terms of prostitution and venereal disease. Roberts zeroes in on this aspect of the war in a remarkable study that complicates the view of the liberation of France and casts doubt on the moral character of the vaunted “greatest generation” of Americans. She vividly depicts the impact of the influx of hundreds of thousands of GIs on French society, especially on French women. One of the book’s most troubling revelations is the way that U.S. authorities wrongly blamed the rapes of French women on African American soldiers. Roberts demonstrates how officials excused appalling conduct by referring to the stereotype of the licentious French woman -- blaming victims for the sexual assaults they suffered. The book is marred by a tendency to overgeneralize and to overinterpret observations gleaned from letters and diaries. Nonetheless, it is a powerful reminder of the dark side of the liberation.

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