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Weekly Summary Ww2

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History 144.001

Weekly Summary, Aug. 29-Sept. 2

Leader personalities, political systems, rearmament, and militarism

Readings:  Stokesbury, chaps. 3-4 (Mon.), Morison, The Two –Ocean War, pp. 3-13 (Wed.), Stokesbury, chap. 5 (Fri.)

Film:  Triumph of the Will (Fri.)

The core goal this week has been to distinguish among the U.S., European nations, and Asia (focusing so far on Japan) between the wars.  There was no single global response to World War I, and the main distinction doesn’t seem to be a simple one between winners and losers.  Thinking about the collapse of some nineteenth-century empires that we discussed last week (German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian), it does seem that all the interwar nations felt the consequences of shifts in nineteenth-century colonialism brought about by the Treaty of Versailles (keep in mind that Britain, France, and the U.S. either kept or expanded their overseas territories).  This is the background:  no matter how the world’s leaders and nations behaved after 1919, it was in the context of the reorientation of earlier empires.

A certain kind of totalitarian leader emerged within a number of different kinds of political systems.  Mussolini gained power in a constitutional monarchy, Hitler in a republic, and Stalin under revolutionary communism.  It is arresting that these figures – with a disregard for law, unscrupulous use of power, and expansionist ambitions – appeared in these different kinds of nations.  As Jim said, it’s as if these parts of the world were ready for this kind of leader – someone who knew how to inspire and elicit not only compliance but also enthusiasm from citizens.

Although these Europeans seem different from the lackluster American presidents of the 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt was somewhat like them.  Like them, he was willing to disregard established policies, move government in new directions, and use the media effectively.  More than Congress, he also thought in global terms.  Still, when I think of FDR’s effective use of the media, I think first of his “fireside chats” over the radio (from 1933 to 1944).  He cultivated a personable image, as if he was speaking to listeners one-on-one.  This is obviously different from the public pageantry of the Nazi Party event that Leni Reifenstahl captured in 1935 in Triumph of the Will.  The latter aimed to be grand, unifying, and inspiring.  Again, one wonders about the national differences between these kinds of charismatic leaders, both of whom excelled at using the media for political purposes.

One thing that isn’t prominent in the U.S. is the cultivation of military symbolism and the rise to civil power of military figures that one sees in nations elsewhere.  The U.S. was neither a militaristic society nor a well-armed one (as Morison argues).  Perhaps one reason is the very deep-seated fear of a “standing army” that went back to the American Revolution.  Perhaps another reason is the sense of American exceptionalism – the assurance that the seas would protect the U.S. from having to become a defensive power.



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