Seventy years ago, Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy with the hope of dealing Germany a military blow from which it couldn’t recover. And so they did, it seems, but D-Day, as it is known in the annals of history, is a much bigger story than one day on the beaches. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/author Rick Atkinson details the invasion plan that was two-years in the making and brings the characters and events of D-Day to life in his absorbing book The Guns at Last Light. It is the final tome in his WWII series and should be on everyone’s reading list.
“I think the legacy [of WWII] is enormous and long-reaching,” Atkinson recently told me over the phone from New York. He also revealed surprising facts he discovered during his research, what the Brits and Americans thought of each other, and the long lasting reverberations of the war.
You are coming to UCSB next weekend. Will you be speaking just about your latest book, The Guns of Last Light, or about the whole trilogy?
I’m going to talk about the war, specifically. I’ll talk about, Normandy in particular. It’s almost the 70th anniversary of the landings at Normandy in 1944; I’ll use that as a peg for talking about the war generally, the consequences of the war, the magnitude of the war, what the war means to us 70 years later.
Did you set out to write a trilogy, or did you set out to write one book and then you thought, there’s so much here I need to write a trilogy?
[Laughs] It just metastasized. No, it started out as a trilogy. It was always conceived as three volumes, starting in North Africa, moving across the Mediterranean to Sicily and southern Italy, and then finally to Western Europe.
Did you find that a daunting task?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was daunting, but on the other hand it let me give up my day job.
How long did you spend writing the trilogy?
The whole project took about 15 years… I had worked at the Washington Post and I went twice to the Post briefly during that 15 years, once to go to Iraq with David Petraeus and then I was [at the Post] again in 2007 to go to Iraq and Afghanistan.
That doesn’t seem a surprisingly long time considering the depth of research you did—the details in the book are incredible. How did you keep it all straight in your head?
Well, the wonders of computers, you know, having worked as a journalist for a long time, and having written books previously, I had a system for keeping things straight, but obviously the magnitude of this was substantially [bigger] than anything I had done before. But, you know, it’s one archive at a time, one letter at a time, and one secondary source at a time, and that’s the way you have to take it.
Was there anything you were surprised to learn about WW II? Any characters that you came to really like?
Oh, gosh I mean, I’m surprised every day, which is the reasons why you keep doing it for 15 years. Yeah, I find things—if you’re an archive rat, you can always find things that I didn’t know and I don’t think anybody knew. For example, in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I found a plan for a tunnel under the English Channel, which would be one way of getting to France without having to sail or fly into the teeth of the German defenses. I found the target list for chemical warfare that had been approved by Eisenhower for chemical war against the Germans in Normandy, if it came to that.
In terms of the characters—which is really what I’m most interested in and what the book is built around—I’ve lived with Eisenhower for 15 years, and I have to say that my admiration for him has only increased over that 15 years. And then there are many subsidiary characters that I grew very fond of. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., for example, is one who is in all three volumes and he’s a wonderful character. He’s in the thick of the fight, he’s naturally belligerent, which is what you want in a general, and then he dies of a heart attack a month after landing on Utah beach, first wave, in 1944. so yeah, there are many characters.
And I’m always surprised by the depth of Anglophobia among American generals, most of them just detested the British. Eisenhower’s an exception to that.
And the Brits weren’t too keen on the Americans coming to their country.
Yeah, well, Britain is only the size of Oregon, and you suddenly had one and a half million Americans and many of them were not especially well-behaved, and the boorish behavior of many of them was very taxing to the British, who were already under lots of stress as a consequence of the war. It was not a marriage made in heaven but it was a marriage that was made to work.
Obviously, WWII had a huge impact on the world. Do you think there are outcomes of that war that still affect us today?
I do. I think the legacy is enormous and long-reaching. [For example,] the anti-colonial impulses that shaped the world, the end of the British Empire, the end of the French empire, the birth of new nations from Kenya to Israel. The division of a continent like Europe and the division of countries, like Germany and Korea—all those things are part of the legacy of World War II. Our national attitudes and the conversation about race and gender equality—those are deeply, deeply impacted by the Second World War. All of the things that we see in the Arab Spring, for example, I think are really a residual reverberation from the Second World War.
How informed have you found people to be about WWII?
Well, it depends on how old they are. The younger the reader the less likely they are to think World War II as even remotely current. For high school kids, it can seem as remote as the Peloponnesian wars….But there’s a lot of misconceptions about it. I think many Americans think that once D-Day was over, then the war was over—something bad happened in the Bulge…but essentially the war was won. Well, there were 10,000 American soldiers killed in Germany in April 1945, the last full month of the war in Europe. That’s almost as many as died in France in June 1944, the month of the Invasion. So it was terrible at the very end. It was incredibly bloody, and the idea that somehow we kind of just coasted to the end of the war once we were ashore in France is just wrong….
The other thing that Americans don’t appreciate is that the overwhelming majority of the killing and the dying was done by the Soviets. There were more Soviets who died at Stalingrad alone than Americans died in the entire war. It says to me that the Russian soldiers killed nine times more Germans than the American and British combined. And 26 million Russians died in the war. So that’s a very important part of the war that many Americans simply don’t appreciate fully.
We have made it 70 years without another world war, but we’ve had a lot brutal, smaller wars nonetheless. Do you think there’s a possibility of a World War III?
I think a world war of the flavor of World War II is very unlikely. That’s not to say that there won’t be more really nasty wars, but the world’s changed a lot since then, and it’s hard to imagine a conflict like that lasting six years and a day, which is how long World War II lasted. The weapons are too terrible now to make it drag out that long; if it’s really a conflict that’s on a broad scale. Obviously, there are brush-fire wars that can drag on forever—we’ve just come out of two of them.
Do you feel there are any similarities between WWI and WWII?
I don’t know that much about World War I. I’ve written four different books about four different wars, and heretofore I haven’t gone back any earlier than World War II. I’m working on the American Revolution, now, so that will change.
What made you want to write about World War II?
Well, my father is about to turn 90; he’s a World War II veteran. He’s a career Army officer whose career started in 1943. So I grew up on Army posts; I was born in Germany, moved around a lot, and World War II was very much a part of the landscape, the cultural milieu where I grew up. So I think it’s been with me for a long time. I was the Washington Post Bureau Chief in Berlin for several years in the mid-90s, during the 50th Anniversary commemorations of D-Day and the Bulge and all the rest of that, and I think my interest was rekindled during that period.
That must have been interesting, being in Berlin for that. How were they “celebrating” it?
Celebrating is probably not the right word. Seven millions Germans died, cities were completely destroyed. The Germans are very attentive to World War II. Every German school kid is frog-marched to concentration camps and forced to learn the history of the war and German aggression, and German atrocities and all the rest of it. It’s only really in the past 20 years or so that Germans have participated in some of the commemorations, like at Normandy. They were not particular welcome before then; they weren’t particularly interested in participating. But I would guess that next month, when the 70th commemoration occurs, there will be a German presence of some sort.
It seems that there’s a lot of blame and guilt still surrounding Germany.
There’s a story on the front page of The New York Times today about the continuing prosecution of concentration camp guards and others who were involved in atrocities. They’re mostly my father’s age, in their 90s, and yet the effort to bring them to justice still continues in Germany, and it’s actually had something of a revival in the past few years.
Are there one or two things that you think came out of WWII that changed the course of history in a positive way?
Well, I think the destruction of the fascist, nationalist Axis regime was certainly positive. There were millions of people who were unshackled as a consequence, there were millions more who didn’t die as a consequence of deliberations that took place in Europe… I think on a cultural and sociological basis, our national attitude toward race is very much affected by World War II. There were only 4,000 American soldiers in the U.S. army who were black in 1939; by 1949 there were 750,000. And they were very much involved in the war, and they were very much involved in trying to bring attention to the fact that we were fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and at the same time we had a really dreadful record on civil rights at home.
And then it unshackled women. There were 19 million women working outside their home by 1945 and that genie was never gonna go back in the bottle. I think the extent to which you and my daughter, my wife, all have careers that maybe wouldn’t have been open to you back in the day—that’s all part and parcel of the upheaval that the war brought.
It seems a terrible balance—that such suffering and destruction would also spark equality movements.
The United States had relatively light casualties in the population compared to the Soviet Union, for example. We ended up with great prosperity and our industrial base intact, we ended up with two-thirds of the world’s gold supply, bountiful energy. The GI bill put soldiers on college campuses and changed social mobility in the country in a way that had never happened before. Guys went to college and it was a social elevator for them. And so all of those things came out of the war.
So what do you hope that the kids at UCSB will take away from your talk?
If they take away anything, I’ll be very pleased. [Laughs] No, I’m really looking forward to a conversation with them about this extraordinary thing that happened half a century before they were born and yet still has reverberations in their lives. And it’s important for them to understand it, to understand how we got to where we are in the 21st century, and to have some sense of what the 317 million of us in the United States now owe to generations before. I think that that’s an important part of everybody’s education, whether you’re a student at the University of California or not. So I would hope that they take that away, and that they get some understanding of the sacrifice and the suffering that the war entailed, because it was stupendous.
When can we look forward to the American Revolution series?
I’ve been at it hammer and tongs since July. It’s a whole different century, it’s a different war, so it’s a very steep learning curve. It’s really kind of a creation story, where we came from, and I’m fascinated by the Brits and the Germans, and eventually the French. But I’ve probably got two or three more years of research to go before I start putting together that first volume.
But we can look forward to three of them?
It’s a trilogy, yeah. God help me.
Well, in 15 years you’ll be all done. Think about it that way.
[Laughs] That’s right. Then I’ll put my feet up.
Richard Atkinson will discuss his WWII trilogy Sunday, May 18, 3 p.m., UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit https://artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu