In his State of the Union address of January 6, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt looked to the future with confidence: “The new year of 1945 can be the greatest year of achievement in human history,” he declared. “Nineteen forty-five can and must see the substantial beginning of the Organization of World Peace. This Organization must be the fulfillment of the promise for which men have died and fought in this war.” After the bloodshed of the world war, the world looked with expectation to a new era of peace and international harmony to be guaranteed by the United Nations organization. The great tragedy of 1945 was that it was not to be. Internecine conflict appears to be the endemic state of modern man, and the United Nations—far from serving as a force for peace—has become a forum for the most intense ideological and national hatreds. Indeed, if any one thing symbolizes the frustrated hopes of 1945 it is the pathetic organization to which Roosevelt seemed to attach so much importance.
Robert Kee’s 1945 is a sprightly overview of this year, perhaps the most important of our century. It was in 1945 that the bloodiest war in history ended, that the most devastating and inhumane weapon in history was used, and that one of the crudest dictatorships of all time was defeated. Nineteen forty-five also saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as one of the two major world powers, the eruption of anticolonial movements throughout Asia and Africa, and the acceptance by the United States of a major and permanent role in peacetime international politics.
Kee describes the response of the West, primarily the English, to these momentous developments. Having served in the Royal Air Force during the war and written several volumes in British history, Kee’s focus on England is understandable, although American readers might find his emphasis unbalanced. Thus he spends less than two pages discussing the transition in April from FDR to Truman, while he devotes an entire chapter to the British election of July which resulted in Clement Attlee’s ouster of Churchill.
Concerned with the perception of the year’s events rather than with the events themselves, Kee seeks to show how the war was presented to the public and, in turn, how the man in the street responded to such things as the discovery of German atrocities, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the wartime economic shortages. For his sources, he turns to the major British, American, and French newspapers and magazines, as well as to the BBC’s broadcasts. “My method,” Kee writes, “has been to relay the picture which a reader of British and American newspapers and listeners to radio broadcasts might have received. . . . Newspapers, for all their obvious limitations, often preserve details and emphases which can otherwise disappear in the sweep of later overall assessment.” Implicit in this approach is the belief that the best way to find out how the war looked to the average person is to read the newspapers and radio broadcasts of the time, and that editorials and letters to the editor and radio broadcasts are an accurate barometer of public opinion.
This approach is at best problematic. The study of public opinion is one of the more arcane branches of social science. Do we really know what the average person thinks of his world, assuming for a moment that it really concerns him, and do we really know the power of the Manchester Guardian or the Washington Post to mold such thinking? And does it really matter? Does the man in the street have any influence over the elites who shape policy?
Cultural and social historians have argued that a better way to approach mass opinion is through the study of cultural artifacts. Many claim that the movies provide a more accurate picture of public attitudes than the editorial pages of major newspapers and magazines, and that they exert a more powerful influence on these attitudes. Bestselling novels, comic strips, and billboards also provide glimpses of mass opinion. Today, television undoubtedly provides the most complete image of public opinion, and it is also the most influential force in shaping that opinion.
This caveat regarding the relationship between newspapers and public opinion is not fatal to 1945. If newspapers do not mirror popular thought, they do reflect elitist thinking, and this might be even more important to understand. And besides, 1945 is a good read.
[1945: The World We Fought For, by Robert Kee; Little, Brown; Boston]