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The Good War: An Oral History of World War II

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In The Good War Terkel presents the good, the bad, and the ugly memories of World War II from a perspective of forty years of after the events. No matter how gruesome the memories are, relatively few of the interviewees said they would have been better off without the experience. It was a central and formative experience in their lives. Although 400,000 Americans perished, the United States itself was not attacked again after Pearl Harbor, the economy grew, and there was a new sense of world power that invigorated the country. Some women and African Americans experienced new freedoms in the post war society, but good life after World War II was tarnished by the threat of nuclear war.

589 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1984

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About the author

Studs Terkel

110 books367 followers
Louis "Studs" Terkel was an American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster. He received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for "The Good War", and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans, and for hosting a long-running radio show in Chicago.

Terkel was acclaimed for his efforts to preserve American oral history. His 1985 book "The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two", which detailed ordinary peoples' accounts of the country's involvement in World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize. For "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression", Terkel assembled recollections of the Great Depression that spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, from Okies, through prison inmates, to the wealthy. His 1974 book, "Working" also was highly acclaimed. In 1995, he received the Chicago History Museum "Making History Award" for Distinction in Journalism and Communications. In 1997, Terkel was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Two years later, he received the George Polk Career Award in 1999.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 283 reviews
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,370 reviews139 followers
September 3, 2013
A collection of reminisces and insights on the war. It's mostly American, but there are German, Japanese and Russian voices as well. Even so, the years 1939-41 are almost totally ignored, which is a surprising weakness is what is otherwise an immensely important book. The tales told here present hundreds of horrifying, bizarre and amazing images that linger on later. Perhaps the most memorable is the legless ex-GI, deformed from radiation and now become head of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, recounting his warm welcome in Japan and his treatments there, while the US government blocked all treatment at the VA hospital for fear of admitting negligence. And still he spouts patriotic sentiment.

From the varied accounts – the bombers and the bombed, the journalists and grunts and top brass – four main themes emerge. The first is how utterly naive, with the exceptions of a few so-called Premature Anti-Fascists, Americans were in 1941. A war was going on and almost all of them ignored its progress, ignored the likelihood of attack. The second is the attitudes Americans had after the war: prosperity became a right, and confidence was very high, among women and blacks as well as veterans. The third is the pervasive and deep racism of the Army and the U.S. Apparently white GIs told the English that blacks had tails. Blacks were shot and hanged by white soldiers. And they were fighting fascism! The fourth theme is the distrust that Americans came to feel for their government. Vietnam is mentioned again and again; the Russians as allies-to-enemies is cited. And, since the book was compiled the '80s, there is a palpable sense of fatalism in many of the stories: a feeling the bomb can drop any moment. Another WWII legacy.
Profile Image for Steve.
380 reviews1 follower
February 22, 2020
See there really ain’t anything especially noble about the US of A despite the oft heard fairy tales that might lead one to believe so. No, Americans can be as benevolent and as malicious as any other folk out there, and in the most unpredictable proportions. Mr. Terkel’s excellent work is a solid reminder of this truth, which would be just an interesting passing observation were it not for the many millions of lives so unfortunately and sorrowfully affected.
Profile Image for Nick.
414 reviews6 followers
May 9, 2023
This was a really readable history of different aspects of World War Two, covering the European and Pacific theatres, through interviews with participants and eyewitnesses. While mostly oral histories with Americans, Turkel has also interviewed people from Japan, Germany and several other countries as well.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
931 reviews861 followers
April 10, 2023
Studs Terkel's The Good War is a phenomenal work of oral history, chronicling the experiences of dozens of Americans (and occasionally others) during World War II and its aftermath. Terkel is a uniquely gifted oral historian, with an ability to ask the right questions and dig out frank and unpleasant truths from his subjects. The scope of this book is remarkable, covering well-known figures like John Kenneth Galbraith, writer Pauline Kael and singer Maxene Andrews alongside ordinary GIs, sailors, Leathernecks and others. We hear tales of battlefield courage and unfortunate cowardice; war crimes, massacres and horrifying ordeals in POW camps; conscientious objectors who endured jail rather than fight; women who found work outside the home and Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps; gay Americans battling homophobia and Jewish refugees struggling to integrate; Black and Hispanic Americans fighting Nazis on the battlefield and prejudice from their superiors and fellow soldiers. Coming from a variety of backgrounds and locations, their experiences vary widely: Terkel makes no effort to censor the unpleasantness in racial attitudes, sexism and homophobia, radical politics or even the individual misdeeds of his subjects. Most of those interviewed seem proud of their war experience, if more uncertain about its outcome; few truly label it the "good war" of legend, pointing to the ugliness, boredom and terror most experienced over courage and heroism. A remarkable book, multidimensional and honest, which serves as a powerful corrective to Greatest Generation hagiography.
Profile Image for Tommccoy26.
5 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2010
"The Good War" is advertised as an oral history of World War II as told by veterans and citizens on many fronts - which, technically, it is. However, Terkel seems to have taken a definite anti-war stance with this book. Rather than presenting a balanced view of World War II by telling both the positive and the negative, he has chosen to include interviews with a disproportionate number of veterans who were discriminated against or were treated poorly by their officers; people who were victims of bombing campaigns; or war workers of questionable moral fiber who had no idea why we were fighting and were just in it for the money. In reading this book, one gets the impression that the average citizen was ambivalent about the war effort, and that anyone in the Army above the rank of private was a strutting martinet.

While I don't doubt that any of the things that happened to these people are true, I have read enough books of similar premise to know that the vast majority of soldiers and citizens felt positive about what the Allies were doing, liked and respected their leadership, and wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to the war effort. Terkel seems to have chosen to interview the dregs and victims rather than the average citizen or soldier. In that respect, I think he fails to capture the true spirit of the era.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,851 reviews147 followers
September 20, 2023
This absolutely book I could not put down. The stories that Mr. Terkel assembled a series of short memoirs that are
incredibly balanced, and give a very personal view of war.

Are from those who are anti-war to those who were war heroes, Terkel has done a fine job of assembling all sorts of voices. Mr. Terkel should be complemented, I know he’s been awarded many times, but this is really a special and unique book that I read commend for many people.

11 reviews2 followers
Currently reading
December 4, 2013
My 89 year-old grandfather Joe fought in the war, and I know he's told me a few war stories before, but I'm sad that I can only remember one:

Joe was the head of his infantry, and his little group had gotten their jeeps stuck in a muddy ditch outside of base. They had been pushing for at least an hour, but the mud was really thick. A general from base was calling for their men to report back for lunch in the mess hall. Joe was getting annoyed that it was taking this long for the men to free their jeeps and report to base, so he fired one of his guns into the air a few times when the men had their backs turned.

The men were scared shitless, and apparently got their jeeps out of the mud in less than a minute after that. General McArthur walked over to him and told him that he really didn't need to do that, but since it worked, he commended him on a good job. I don't know how familiar you guys are with how important this guy was to WW2, but he was famous. Here's a link: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/General...
Profile Image for Ruth.
Author 10 books478 followers
December 14, 2008
World War II was the background of my childhood. I was 6 when it started and 10 at the end. At that age, what is, is. I accepted this setting for my young years and never thought about how strange it was to be in this situation. It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand.

Here he interviews soldiers, sailors, marines, men, women, Americans, Germans, Japanese… A full panoply of the participants, no matter what age, no matter at home or in battle.

Studs Terkel is a maestro of the interview, and of editing it afterwards. His book Working has long been one of my favorites. He turns what must have been long, rambling interviews, full of stops and starts and repetitions, into smooth, easy, succinct reading.

What strikes me most is how very many people speak of how WWII changed everything in the US. How we lost our innocence about the world and about war.
Profile Image for Mark.
374 reviews10 followers
December 30, 2013
An important, indispensable book that should be required reading. Terkel interviews a wide spectrum of people and gathers their reflections and experiences regarding World War II and the aftermath. The range of people is remarkable. We hear from GIs, Rosie the Riveters, scientists that helped make the A-Bomb, Japanese-Americans that were interred here in the U.S., and many, many other eyewitness accounts to history. Terkel does not paraphrase; the text retains the actual words of these individuals. The organization is basically chronological but felt a little scattered a times. I only wish there was a table of contents to allow for easier reference in the future. The dates of the interviews would also be helpful. Amazing reading.
Profile Image for Shane Gower.
Author 2 books5 followers
January 18, 2016
These first hand accounts from all walks of life is a comprehensive overview of people who lived through World War Two. Almost every account challenges the idea of the war as the good war, thus the quotes in the title. Everything from a conscientious objector, to women who worked in factories, POW's, Bomber pilots, Japanese-Americans who were in the camps and more. You'd be hard pressed to find a voice not included here. Great for helping to understand society during the war.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
1,093 reviews347 followers
November 20, 2022
The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, Studs Terkel (1912-2008), 1984, 591 pages, ISBN 0345325680

Forty-year-old memories of Americans' WWII.

Must a society experience horror to understand horror? p. 12.

If we answer hate with hate, it will never end. --Jacques Raboud, p. 422.

We are ordinary people, who can also be weapons for evil Hitlers. --Jacques Raboud, p. 422. As long as some men want power, we're gonna have wars. --Joseph Levine, p. 443.

July 1, 1946, the U.S. military tested a nuclear weapon at Bikini Atoll. 42,000 soldiers and sailors observed nuclear tests. 27,000 of them are dead. We were all used as guinea pigs. Within ten hours after the blast, we were at ground zero. I fought fire on a target ship. We drank lagoon water. Nothing was said to us about radiation or danger. Our ship was sprayed by the mushroom cloud. My legs have been amputated. They want to amputate the left arm. I have terminal cancer of the colon and liver. Diagnosed at a private hospital after two emergency surgeries. The VA hospital wouldn't admit me because I didn't have a scheduled appointment. The VA has six times refused my claim of military-service-connected illness. I draw what they call a non-service-connected disability of five dollars a month. Three doctors on my behalf say I was exposed to 1,000 to 1,800 rads. Their doctor from Stanford University said the swelling I have now isn't the same as I had in the military. I went to Japan and got the treatment that bomb survivors get. They told me I had to continue it here. The Government wouldn't allow it because that would admit their liability. The VA hospital treats you like you're either an alcoholic or a drug addict. VA doctors are overworked, underpaid, and bitter against the government. pp. 546-555. --John Smitherman (1928-1983), president, The National Association of Atomic Veterans. He died six weeks after this interview.

The president said it'd be a hundred years before anybody could go in the city. A few weeks later, we were ordered to occupy Nagasaki. About 20,000 troops occupied the town. An off-the-charts number of them got cancer. A marine mentioned in Newsweek, November 1979, spent his life savings, $30,000, on his cancer treatment. The U.S. Government refused him. When I die and I'm cremated and my ashes are scattered over some forest, that radiation is still alive. Thousands of years from now, somebody exposed to those ashes may get sick. pp. 542-546. --Victor Tolley.

I was in Hiroshima just after the bomb, for the occupation. My liver, heart, and lungs are ballooning. A Japanese I met, when I told him I was at Hiroshima, said my only chance is to stay in the water. I soak 5, 6 hours a day. It's all that keeps me going. pp. 556-559. --Joseph Staziak

My skin peeled off and was hanging from my body. p. 538. The remains were so burned we couldn't tell which might have been my mother. p. 540. By the next day, August 7, thousands of wounded people were covered head to toe by maggots on their wounds. Shortly after, they died. p. 541. You are in shock. I needed a very long time to return to some sort of normal state. Mr. Kito instituted a signature campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. He has gathered, thus far, thirty million signatures. p. 542.

The atom bomb was dropped on working people. It wasn't anywhere near the big shots of Japan who started the war in the first place. [After FDR forced Japan to fight us, by using the U.S. Navy to keep fuel from reaching Japan.--TRW.] We didn't drop it on them. Hirohito and his white horse, it never touched him. It was dropped on women and children who had nothing to say about whether their country went to war or not. pp. 109, 546. --Peggy Terry

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a warning to the USSR: We're stronger than you. p. 525. We bombed Nagasaki to speed up Japan's surrender,so the Russians wouldn't get into Japan for the occupation. p. 535. --Father George Zabelka.

Our friend at Oak Ridge, enriching uranium and plutonium, died of leukemia. p. 519. Most of the fellows who watched the test at Bikini Atoll have cancer or died of cancer. We have four children. Two have birth defects. Most of the couples who worked at Oak Ridge couldn't have children. p. 520. Most of the young women that did get pregnant miscarried. --Marnie Seymour. I had become sterile. p. 543. Warren Zink. People in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania die of cancer. There's a radium-processing plant there. They put the tailings in the creek. p. 579. --Nora Watson.

I thought after the war they'd close down all the plants at Oak Ridge. I never thought it'd go on and on. You ought to go down there now and see it. p. 520. --Marnie Seymour.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was a hellhole. Swarming with rats. pp. 518-519. Marnie Seymour. "We're in Dogpatch." p. 523. John H. Grove.

It was physicists who demanded to make the atom bomb, to win the war. p. 507. Leo Szilard came to the U.S. to look up Enrico Fermi. Szilard and Wigner persuaded Einstein to write that letter to Roosevelt. p. 508. Fermi's group made the first chain reaction December 2, 1942, in Chicago. p. 509. The Germans were far behind. Fermi, Bethe, Neumann, Kistiakowsky, Teller were all at Los Alamos, under Oppenheimer. p. 511. July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb went off in New Mexico. From exactly ten miles away, wearing welder's glasses, it was blinding heat. The sound came a minute later, a great thunder. p. 513. Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. p. 524. We killed a hundred thousand people. Fire bombs and high explosives did the job on Dresden and Hamburg and Leipzig. pp. 514, 534. By 1951, the U.S. could do all of World War I in one day. By 1958, we could do--not a kiloton, as in WWI, not a megaton, as in WWII--a gigaton. A billion tons. A thousand million tons. --Philip Morrison.

When we beat the Nazis, we emulated them. The rocket, the cruise missile, and the ballistic missile are German inventions. It wasn't justified, but I would do it again. We follow our leaders. p. 516. --Philip Morrison.

Nothing happened in 1945 except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man. p. 506. --Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values. [Herodotus says of the new weapons technology of around 1300 BCE, "Iron has been discovered for the evil of mankind:"]

Americans have never known what war really is. Because there is one feature they never appreciated: the smell. It's intolerable. The smell of death. Maybe if Americans had known that, they'd be more concerned about peace. p. 284. --Dr. Alex Shulman

The U.S. was far less damaged by WWII than any other combattant.

Americans have never had the experience of being bombed out. I don't wish it on them. But I wish they wouldn't be so keen to get into wars, because one day it will come back on your territory and God help you. p. 218. --Jean Wood.

The USSR was devastated. See Svetlana Alexeivich's oral history, /The Unwomanly Face of War/: quotes from it here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

War is not a worthy occupation for a human being. Of my generation, out of a hundred who went to fight, three came back. One should not ask those of us who remained alive what war means to them. I was the only one from our class of all the boys who went to the front who remained alive after that war. --Grigori Baklanov, p. 458.

Plastic surgery would go on for years on these burned veterans. In Pasadena in '46, nicely-dressed women standing there staring. Letters to the editor of the Pasadena paper: Why can't they be kept off the streets? What awful things for us to have to look at. p. 130. --Betty Basye Hutchinson.

Until the war my husband never drank. He never even smoked. When he came back he was an absolute drunkard. And he used to have the most awful nightmares. He'd get up in the middle of the night and start screaming. I'd just sit for hours and hold him while he just shook. We'd go to the movies, and if the film had a lot of shooting, he'd start to shake and have to leave. He started slapping me around and slapped the kids around. He became a brute. p. 108. --Peggy Terry

My brother was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He still has nightmares. Gave up hunting. He used to be a big duck, quail hunter. He never talks about it. p. 519. --Marnie Seymour.

"Not for the poor souls who lost sons and daughters. But for the rest of us, the war was a hell of a good time." pp. 8, 313, 575. --Paul Edwards.

America conquered the world. We could do what we wanted. p. 586. --Steve McConnell.

With the G.I. Bill and postwar prosperity, many more Americans were middle-class. Suburbs and automobiles were everywhere. pp. 9, 134. The postwar boom lasted until 1969. If you were a nice white middle-class family, life was pretty good. p. 65. --Robert Lekachman. Veterans bought homes in the suburbs on G.I.-Bill loans. The old neighborhood got older and never really recovered. p. 134. --Mike Royko. These damn Republicans win elections now because the New Deal picked up the working man and gave him a chance. He's now conservative. --James Rowe, p. 319.

The war gave a lot of people jobs. It led them to expect more than they had before. pp. 109, 112. --Peggy Terry, Sarah Killingsworth. Women after WWII were not content to be just housewives. p. 8. The women's movement had its seeds in WWII. p. 119. --Dellie Hahne. Examinations: "Are you pregnant?" I said I wasn't when I came in. They hired me. We replaced the clerical men for combat overseas. That was the whole idea. We rejected lots of women who had syphilis and didn't know it. pp. 123-124. --Evelyn Fraser. Student nurses were running Fresno hospital. p. 127. --Betty Basye Hutchinson.

Blacks too had demanded and received war-materials-manufacturing jobs. pp. 8-9, 113. --Sarah Killingsworth. FDR signed executive order 8802, June 25, 1941, forbidding discrimination in war contract work, at A. Philip Randolph's insistence:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Ph... --Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. p. 335, 337, 366. Lockheed hired 20,000 people. No Negroes. Roosevelt wanted to go slow. I had been aggressive, trying to get companies to comply. I was removed. --Earl B. Dickerson, pp. 337-340.

"I was promoted to shop pipefitter and went from $32 a week to $125. Then I went in the military and went down to $21." --John Garcia

At Oak Ridge, enriching uranium and plutonium, GIs were paid $50 a month. Civilians doing the same work beside them got $450 plus overtime. p. 519. --Marnie Seymour.

If not for price control, prices would've doubled or tripled during the war. --John Kenneth Galbraith. p. 321.

I advanced from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel during the war. At age 25, I was commanding a battalion in combat. p. 190. --General William Buster.

The war obliterated our culture and made us Americans. p. 140. --Paul Pisicano.

"You get rather fond of the people who pay you." --James Rowe, in 1980 a corporate lawyer, formerly a government official in several of FDR's New Deal agencies. p. 319.

After Japan surrendered they sent us to China to protect Chiang Kai-Shek's corrupt government. p. 174. --Roger Tuttrup.

Within a very short time after the war, the same people who had been Nazi officers terrorizing the neighborhoods were in charge again, in the Allied sectors of Germany. --Hans Massaquoi, pp. 504-505. When we started to arm Germany, I was shocked. I began distrusting my government. p. 115. --Dellie Hahne. In the war I was mad at the Japanese and supposed to love the Chinese. Now I gotta love the Japanese and hate the Chinese. That's when I decided something's wrong. p. 135. --Mike Royko.
How quickly our former enemies became our friends and how quickly our former friends became our enemies. What was it all about? p. 562. --Nancy Arnot Harjan.
We won the war but we lost the peace. Japan and Germany today, their technology and economy surpasses us. Even to this day, I'm bitter about Japanese and German goods. pp. 80, 353. --Peter Bezich. I don't drive a Toyota or own a Sony. p. 93. --Anton Bilek

Now, to Japanese people, America is a place of crime, violence, and unemployment. p. 227. --Yasuko Kurachi Dower

Young people who grew up ducking under desks in atomic-bomb drills don't think there'll be a future. p. 522. --Marnie Seymour.

We won the rights for all ex-felons to vote. p. 170. --John H. Abbott, convicted of the felony of being a conscientious objector (refusing to murder), and plaintiff in successful Supreme Court cases restoring rights of ex-felons.

My father, a farmer and an influential man in our Canadian community during WWI, had himself put on the draft board so he could exempt anyone who didn't want to go. In spring 1918 he was disabled with a broken kneecap. Teams of horses with seeding and cultivating equipment appeared from all around. They were in the hands of people my father had exempted from service. All of our crops were planted within 48 hours. p. 206. --John Kenneth Galbraith.

Roosevelt wanted to use the navy to get the Japanese out of Indonesia. The country wouldn't have allowed it. Then along came Pearl Harbor. --James Rowe, p. 319.

Since WWII, the military-industrial complex has set U.S. foreign and industrial policy. pp. 8, 187, 189, 327. We've institutionalized militarism. You can't find the term, "national security" before 1947. Now it's "defense" and "national "security," so there's no limit to the money you must give to it. pp. 187, 189. --Admiral Gene LaRocque

Americans, postwar, were eager to use military force anywhere in the world. pp. 11, 189.

The destruction of Dresden was unforgivable. It was done very late in the war, as part of a military dynamic which was out of control and had no relationship to any military needs. Japan was defeated before the atom bombs were dropped. pp. 205, 206, 353. --John Kenneth Galbraith.

The church hierarchy didn't speak against indiscriminate bombing of civilians. p. 534. I must say that there was a little difference in my feelings when I found out that Nagasaki was a Catholic city. --Father George Zabelka.

When you first come in you're a hero, but enough sailors come through these ports, and social disease, alcoholism, rape, mayhem, and they're not popular any more. p. 35. --Frank Keegan

Through the 1920s and 1930s, the army was less than 100,000. --Telford Taylor, p. 460. In 1939, the U.S. standing army was 186,000 officers and men. p. 190. --General William Buster. After Pearl Harbor, we built an eleven-million-man army. --Joe Marcus, p. 323.

When it started, it was the greatest thing since the Crusades. p. 117. --Dellie Hahne.

Most Americans believe WWII was not imperialistic. p. 13. [In fact, FDR took us into the war to win from Japan the resources of the crumbling European empires in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, for U.S. corporations. The U.S. Government refused European Jewish refugees entry into the U.S. (so they'd have to go to Palestine, as Zionists demanded).]

However just, it was war. Never a solution to anything. --Herman Kogan, p. 365.

All we had in San Francisco were Hearst newspapers. The headlines said, "Japanese Invade West Coast." We reacted like a bunch of nuts. p. 24. --Dennis Keegan

The Cold War resurrected the Red scare. p. 10. I was caught helping people escape Czechoslovakia after the Communist takeover. In the McCarthy era, it came to haunt my professional life. I was marked unreliable. Russians are very fearful of us. Russia has dysfunctioning machinery, shortage of skills, inefficiency, 20 million killed in WWII. --Paul Edwards, p. 571.

In graduate school, I had signed petitions in favor of the Spanish Loyalists. I did not get a commission. I was classified a "premature anti-fascist." pp. 194, 350, 481, 488. --John Ciardi. Those of us who had fought in Spain were stigmatized as premature anti-fascists. We were harassed by the FBI, Dies committee, McCarthy committee. The Subversive Activities Control Board took a year out of my life, defending the Lincoln Battalion before those characters. --Milton Wolff, pp. 486, 491, 493, 497.

If the OSS [which became the CIA] had not intervened in 1945 with lots of U.S. money, Italy would be a socialist country. --Milton Wolff, p. 486.

1941.12 Pearl Harbor: If they had arrested all the ordinary Japanese, there'd be no work force at Pearl Harbor. There were 130,000 Japanese on the islands. p. 19 --John Garcia

Anyone who had a German background was almost a pariah. p. 25. --Ron Veenker

Even before Pearl Harbor we were scared of Orientals. p. 34. --Frank Keegan

Why'd they bomb Hirosima? 100,000 people! Why not the big naval base? "What the hell. They're just Japs." p. 524.

In the occupation, you became acquainted with the Japanese. You start seeing they're not such horrible people. p. 536. --Father George Zabelka. I realized that these people didn't want to fight us. What the military did and what the civilians did were two different things. p. 545. --Victor Tolley.

Most blacks believe Hiroshima wouldn't've been bombed had it been a /white/ city. pp. 13, 370.

If a young black fellow, 18 years old, would get together with a British girl, 16, that girl would be encouraged to say she was raped. We had a number of young black soldiers who were hanged. p. 276. --Timuel Black

American suburbs are bound by their antiblack sentiments. p. 139. --Paul Pisicano. "Where I come from"--I detected a Southern accent--"we shoot niggers like we shoot rabbits." p. 150. --Dempsey Travis. It took 33 years to get our Negro tank batallion its Presidential Unit Citation. p. 265. -- Charles A. Gates

July 17, 1944, two transport ships in California loading ammunition exploded, killing 320 people--200 of whom were black ammunition loaders. All of the munition handlers were black. They were not given the equipment nor training to load it safely. Officers ordered them to roll 500-pound bombs down ramps off rail cars until they hit the side of the ship, saying, they have no detonators, they won't explode. Everybody above petty officer was white. If my division loaded 3,000 tons of ammunition in 8 hours, the officers pushed the next shift to beat it. Officers were betting whose crew would load fastest. If you complained, you got extra duty. After the explosion, those of us who survived and refused to work were sentenced to 15 years hard labor and dishonorable discharge. I have no veterans' benefits.--Joseph Small, pp. 392-393.
24 reviews3 followers
August 4, 2022
one of the best oral histories i've ever read. fantastic book, and what a set of various fascinating interview subjects. obviously focused more than anything else on the American perspective (which isn't surprising, especially considering it was produced during the Cold War), but just really excellent.
201 reviews17 followers
April 5, 2022
So. My experience with this book was kinda strange.

I started reading it as part of my planned suplementary reading for my thesis. As with most of the books on this list, I had intended to skim through it and focus on only those sections and chapters that would pertain to my thesis (those being the European theatre and experiences of infantrymen). This intent was only strengthened by the fact that this is a really fucking long book. Reading through 600 pages of a nonfiction bestseller from 1984 truly wasn't on my itinerary.

And yet.

I mean, I didn't read the whole thing. In the beginning, this was because I was still guided by my time-saving approach to secondary literature - for instance, I skipped right over "Tales of the Pacific" and "High Rank". Later, I skipped some individual stories because I would find these particular accounts to be overly long or too similar to other stories in the same section. Altogether I probably skipped close to a hundred pages. But that still leaves me with at least some good 450 pages.
Which I read in a 24 hour period.

Now, I'm a fast reader. Lowkey notorious among my friends for binging books like I'm downing vodka shots.
But that's usually romance. Or fic. Or a cheeky fantasy romp. Things that go down easy and sweet. And I really cannot overstate how emotionally difficult "The Good War" was at times.
So why the hell did I do this to myself?

I think it's the same reason I read Elie Wiesel's "Night" in one sitting. "Night" is so unflinchingly stark, so matter of fact in its misery and brutality that it is almost nauseating to read. But to not read it is somehow even worse. It's like a compulsion. You've got to keep reading. Even though it's been 80 years. You have to KNOW these things, know them viscerally, you have to feel yourself flinch away and then force yourself to keep looking at it.
I can't do that with the news. I don't keep up with what is happening in Ukraine. I keep myself sane by remaining willfully ignorant while others are dying. But within the safety of the book (I won't say the safety of the past, there is no difference between the people in "The Good War" and the people today - that is the hardest thing) I can make myself stare humanity in the face.

This all sounds like I spent the entire book bawling my eyes out. And don't get me wrong, I teared up at least a dozen times. I can't imagine anyone staying dry-eyed the whole way through an oral history of such a traumatic period in world history.

But there are, if I am not mistaken, 120 personal recollections collected in this book. Americans, Russians, Germans, veterans, housewives, teenagers. Black airmen, conscientious objectors, journalists and intelligence agents and factory workers. 120 different life stories. 120 different interpretations of the Depression and WW2 and Vietnam and the Cold War.
Because that's another thing about this book - it's not just about the war. It's about the way people's economic circumstances and existential fears and belief systems were overturned, often multiple times in the span of those few years, and how what they went through left a lasting impact on the entire society. (As I write this, it occurs to me that you could say the exact same thing about what we are going through with the pandemic - I wonder if we'll have oral histories of that in forty years' time.)

I think an excellent example of what makes this book hit as hard as it does is the section on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?". Within its 55 pages, you hear the stories of 11 people, among them a physicist who worked on the bombs, a crew member on the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, his chaplain, two Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, two American veterans advocating for healthcare benefits for vets with radiation sickness. All of these people connected through the same event that marked them forever, all of them with completely different experiences and interpretations and views. All presented equally.

"The Good War" truly is a source of incredible insight. I'm really glad I (mostly) read it. And it was just kinda wild, being so compelled by a history book that I felt like it was pulling me by my sleeve into yet another section that had absolutely nothing to do with my thesis (I did not manage to take a single note for the whole 600 pages!). Love feeling powerless in the face of a narrative of profound human experience, would recommend.
Profile Image for carl  theaker.
899 reviews42 followers
November 18, 2015
Author Terkel made a radio career of interviewing and he did well continuing using the format of oral histories in books, which I think is an easy way to write a book, but there’s probably more to it than I suspect.

In ‘The Good War’ he continues the genre with short interviews of anywhere from a couple paragraphs to 5 or so pages in length, short and potent, of what folks did during World War 2 or how it affected their lives afterward.

Mostly Americans, but also a variety of all nationalities and all walks of life. He talks to quite a few established people, that is, those whose professions are now columnists, writers, CEOs, professors etc. While those experiences are no less important, their stories are polished. I more enjoyed the talks with the ‘regular’ folks whose stories were a bit less organized, staccato remembrances, as if you could see them remembering as they spoke.

I began reading as if this were a book of the usual form, but after breezing through story after story, I found I wasn’t giving the heartfelt tales their full appreciation, one over rode the previous one. So I adapted a strategy of reading only one or two at a time, letting them soak in a bit. At almost 600 pages, at this pace it can take a while to finish the book !

Published in 1984, the folks in ‘The Good War’ are about the age of my Grandparents, Uncles, later, some coworkers, so I often felt I was listening to their stories. The Good War is a Good Read.
Profile Image for Juliana.
646 reviews47 followers
June 15, 2018
Want to know how we fought Nazis since things are starting to look a little Nazi-like? Fearing a totalitarian regime and fascism? Want to know how Americans of all walks of life came together and what came out of that? This book is filled with their personal stories. Studs Terkel is the man, he won the Pulitzer for this, and you should read it at least once in your life.
Profile Image for Lori.
294 reviews62 followers
December 16, 2008
I am not objective about the late great Studs Terkel. I miss him. Why couldn't he have stuck around another 50 years or so? Here is another example where Terkel lets the voices of other people shine through.
Profile Image for Nofar Spalter.
222 reviews2 followers
January 13, 2021
A must read, although it's not a simple one. I learned so much about WWII as seen and experienced by people who lived and fought through it. So much sadly hasn't changed in the world, while so much (especially the threat of the bomb and the wars that the US fights) have. You hear from soldiers fighting in the European and Pacific theatre, women going to work outside the house for the first time, men who survived Pearl Harbor, POWs, resistance members, Holocaust survivors, conscientious objectors, Red Cross and OSS (pre-CIA) operatives, Tuskegee airmen and Black soldiers in a segregated and racist army, Soviet and Japanese and German soldiers, Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, a pilot that dropped the bomb, scientists who made it, government functionaries, doctors and nurses, and children growing up under the threat of the bomb. Studs Terkel does a masterful job as usual, as he lets people speak in their own voices, and gathers them together in a whole narrative that is much larger than its parts.
Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jennifer Juffer.
311 reviews9 followers
December 15, 2019
Perfectly written, at times, laborious in meticulous detail. How can I fault that?
Terkel had a true gift for describing what’s important and captivating the reader.
The stories these individuals tell are absolutely necessary to explain our World’s history.
I truly wish more people would read this book. History is not something that should simply slide from our memories.
Everything detailed in this book is an example of human nature that continues to exist.
Terkel has a profoundly talented way of exposing necessary truths and telling future generations why WWII was so important globally and personally.

Fantastic read.
Profile Image for Matthew.
240 reviews3 followers
January 24, 2023
I love oral histories and this book didn't disappoint. Through hundreds of interviews, Terkel really captures what World War II was like through the eyes of the people who lived through it. What struck me the most was the variety of the experiences: A nurse in Australia, a boy from Chicago fighting in Europe, a boy from Texas being a prisoner of war in the Philippines, a general leading a charge in Italy, a Japanese child in an internment camp in California. There was so much going on all over the world and while most books deal myopically with one perspective, this books is loosely structured but jumps around and captures the true depth of experiences and how varied they could be.
Profile Image for Candi Johnson.
31 reviews
December 8, 2021
I loved the concept of this book and the stories, but not the way it was presented. It’s a must read for any one who wants to get a feel for what our men and women went through to give us the freedoms we have today.
Profile Image for Ushan.
801 reviews69 followers
December 8, 2012
Interviews with about 100 Americans and about a dozen foreigners about the Second World War. These run the gamut from ordinary GIs and deported Japanese Americans to, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist who implemented price controls and fought inflation during the war, and Telford Taylor, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg. When people in their 60s reminisce about their 20s, there are bound to be mistakes; an American soldier who met the Russians at the Elbe mentions a helicopter; although the U.S. Army did have helicopters, I have never heard of them being used in the European theater; it is probably a mistake. Still, many stories are absolutely fascinating. The commander of the American volunteer battalion in the Spanish Civil War was in the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) during the Second World War: "The Nazis, through fascist Spain, had a tremendous intelligence network, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Givin' them information on convoys. We set up counterintelligence network through Spanish War and Communist Party contacts. It was very effective." A real estate developer cashed in on the fears of Japanese invasion, buying up waterfront property for $30 a running foot and later selling it for $300. A homosexual young man wanted to prove his virility, enlisted in the Marine Corps, and went to Iwo Jima as a machine gunner. Later he got a religious education and re-enlisted as a chaplain, but when his homosexuality was discovered in 1963, he was given a dishonorable discharge and lost all his veteran's benefits, his sexuality being more important than his service to his country at Iwo Jima; only 17 years later did he hire a lawyer and got the conditions of his discharge changed to honorable. A secondary character in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five is an American turned Nazi who wants to form "The Free American Corps" from American POWs in Germany who would only fight on the Eastern Front: "You're going to have to fight the Communists sooner or later. Why not get it over with now?" One interviewee in this book, who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, like Vonnegut and the novel's main character, says that there was actually such a thing! It was called "The Legion of Saint George", though he doesn't know anyone who would join it.

On the one hand, the Second World War was the closest the United States has ever gotten to a Soviet-style planned economy and controlled society with the government curtailing freedom (most egregiously, interning all Japanese Americans from the West Coast in camps) and pouring out propaganda through all media, such as films. An interviewee remembers seeing a movie where the George Murphy character became elated when he learned that he was getting drafted; the audience exploded with laughter "'cause you know you can feed 'em only so much bullshit." On the other hand, there was still political activity: many interviewees mention blacks who organized protest meetings against discrimination. In 1944, at a naval base in California there was a gigantic explosion of ammunition that killed over 300 people; black sailors mutinied and refused to work under the same unsafe conditions as before. The mutineers, one of whom is interviewed in this book, were tried; they were defended by lawyers including Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice. They got harsh prison sentences, but because the case became a cause celebre, they were pardoned and released soon after the war. I cannot imagine such a thing happening in the Soviet Union, the other major victor in that war.

One thing that I knew but have forgotten about was the prevalence of racism in the United States during the war. In Savannah, a black woman, a soldier's wife or mother, had to produce a walking pass on demand to prove that she was not a prostitute, like in South Africa; a white woman didn't. A German POW was freer in his movements about a military base than an African American soldier. In the Pacific theater, soldiers routinely mutilated Japanese corpses, boiling off skulls and extracting gold teeth; an older doctor tried to dissuade a soldier from doing so: "You might get germs." Later the soldier understood that the doctor tried to make him not abandon his decency completely.

Another persistent theme is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many former soldiers told the author how relieved they were to hear of the bombing and the surrender: they wouldn't have to invade Japan! An African American asks, "Do you realize that most blacks don't believe the atom bomb would have been dropped on Hiroshima had it been a white city?" A nuclear engineer was stunned that the army decided to drop the bomb on a city of a hundred thousand instead of a naval base; his boss said, "What the hell, they're just Japs. Dumb animals." The engineer instantly lost all respect for his boss.
Profile Image for Todd Stockslager.
1,674 reviews25 followers
February 6, 2017
Review title: Talkin' World War III Blues

Dylan's song, serious in its frivolous lyrics, was poetry. Terkel's oral transcripts of interviews about World War Two are poetic, but lyrical in their seriousness. And the magic of Terkel's oral histories is that while we know that the raw material must be just that--oral transcripts of interviews--the finished product feels both less edited somehow, like snatches of kitchen table conversations, and more profound because of it.

By this point in his career (as a Chicago newspaper journalist) Terkel had established his style in a handful of other oral histories, mostly about the topic of ordinary American dreams desired and lost, for example in the Great Depression.

Working, which would come after "The Good War", is perhaps the pinnacle his style, as he captured people talking about work and what it means to the people sitting around the kitchen table. Here, his topic is both more focused, and more universal.

Writing years before Tom Brokaw would memorialize the Greatest Generation, Terkel puts his title in quotes, not to suggest irony or diminish the impact of the phrase, but in recognition that to all people in all times the phrase may not hold true. Certainly, defeating Hitler was a moral crusade even before we knew (or allowed ourselves to accept) of the death camps for Jews, and to most of the ordinary folks talking here the war was and remains a cause worthy to be called good, and one they would undertake again. But Terkel also talks to many who at the same time look hard at the issues of racism in the American response--Japanese Americans interred for the duration of the war, African Americans rejected for combat positions, ghettoized into menial positions, and treated as second class citizens with fewer rights than even the European prisoners of war they were guarding.

While he talks to the combat troops you would expect, Terkel also talks to their wives and the other women about the home front and working in the newly booming industries, and he talks to soldiers and civilians on the receiving end of the Allied war effort. He includes military, political, and business leaders where appropriate, although none of the biggest names; perhaps he couldn't get access to them in the unfiltered way he wanted, or perhaps he felt they already had sounding boards in other forums, but it would add to the value of "Good War" as a historical record if he could have gotten those leaders around the kitchen table. He includes dissenters, both conscientious objectors then and those who came to reject the post war results of the Cold War, Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the nuclear arms race that turned the weapon that brought a seemingly miraculous end to the war into the Damoclean sword hanging over the human race. The sessions with Japanese bomb survivors and American soldiers who went into Nagasaki just hours after the bombs to do cleanup and recovery work are among the most poignant and hardest to read.

Are Terkel's oral histories valuable as raw material for academic history? By the strictest standards of representation and sample size, no, but they carry perhaps an even greater value because of the voice they give to those whose unfiltered thoughts aren't often solicited or recorded as they gather at the kitchen table. And they make for compelling classics you want to devour and savor.
Profile Image for Mike.
679 reviews21 followers
November 14, 2022
I think I finished this about a week ago and forgot to update Goodreads? It's really excellent and easily one of the most moving books I've read in a long time. My one quibble is Terkel's arrangement of the book makes very little sense to me.
Profile Image for Dave Loftus.
Author 1 book1 follower
January 23, 2019
Since that sailor snogged the face off that woman on Times Square in 1945, it has been universally agreed that the Second World War was the human race’s finest hour. Even with seventy million deaths and enough Nazis to suit the most avid fan playing on your mind, you’d be hard-pushed to actually argue against those glorious six years, when the peoples of the world – including, almost certainly, some of your older relatives – stood up to the leviathan of pure evil with technical know-how and humble grit. Eventually, the good guys won and never again didst the souls of thine Lord do battle upon the face of the Earth.

Except it wasn’t like that, was it? Nothing in history is ever that black-and-white. Probe even an inch below the surface and you’ll find an uncomfortable gaggle of questions gagging for air: Such as, how did a whole nation succumb to the idea of monumental racism in the first place? Why did America get so chummy with Nazi scientists in the post-war scrabble for the bomb? How did the Russians become foes so quickly? Why did Korea happen only five years after that aforementioned smooch? Was Nagasaki necessary?

These questions – and a whole lot more – are what struck me most when I made my way through Studs Terkel’s compelling 1984 chronicle of recorded interviews, “The Good War.” By the way, those are his semi-sarcastic quotation marks hugging the title, not mine. This is a man who is fully aware of the other side of the story he is portraying.

And what a story! Never have I come across a telling of World War Two so detailed and vibrant. Soldiers and survivors from all walks of life, from the lowliest grunt to the smarmiest White House official, had their voices recorded in the sixties, seventies and eighties and their words leap off the page at you. With history documentaries, there is always that danger of being too slick and too edited. Here, the interviewees – certainly all nearly dead by now – were approached by a microphone and told to just discuss what they like. Immediacy crackles in their tales as they reel off what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor or how many girls they slept with on VE Day. For many Allied participants, the war, with its sense of righteous purpose and the unrivalled joy of its conclusion, is described as the highlight of their lives.

Not for all, of course. One motif I found intriguing was that, roughly speaking and with towering predictability, the further someone was from combat, the happier their recollections tend to be. For instance, draft-dodgers, black marketeers and a man who, at one point, controlled all of D-Day’s toilet paper, gabble more freely than a sombre airman who watched Nagasaki burn.

It’s not flawless, obviously. This is an American book after all. As such, the hostilities are bookended by Pearl Harbor in ’41 and the atomic bombings in ’45. The fact Europe had been slogging away since 1939 is only briefly mentioned and some other battles and theatres barely get a look-in. But then again, this is a tapestry of gut feelings and memories – not a text book and, really, nobody will ever grasp the true scale of those tumultuous, globe-changing, rollercoaster years. Not every nook and cranny of the war will ever truly be explored but “The Good War” comes closer to running the gamut than anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Is… is that a pang of envy? Am I jealous I wasn’t there? I’m definitely jealous of that sailor.
Profile Image for ferrigno.
540 reviews89 followers
February 23, 2018
Some time ago I read "World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war" by Max Brooks, a novel built as a collection of interviews with veterans of the war against the zombies. I discovered that the author was inspired by Terkel's "The Good War", so I decided to read this one too. I was afraid of discovering that World War Z was derivative with respect to The Good War, though: get a great classic of the New Journalism, change names, substitute "World War II" with "World War Z", zombies instead of the Nazis and there you are served the book.

Of course, The Good War too is a collection of interviews with survivors or vets from the World War II. The book is very broad, inclusive. The war is told from individual perspectives, but helps to assemble the big picture. Imagine talking with several tens of vets, for months. A huge amount of tales. Men of every backgroundy and nationality. Terkel introduces each interview with a brief description of the subject, but the reader gets acquainted with the character by what he tells, by the linguistic register he uses.
Each of them tells how he went to war, or how he survived, or what he did. How did he make money with the war, how did he find or lose love, children, parents, friends. The strange encounters he made, the improbable ones.
Many of the characters are witnesses of history in the very making: the end of the depression, the economic boom, the beginning of the Cold War, the cover-up of the effects of radiation after Hiroshima, the beginning of McCarthyism, the Spanish civil war; many others tell no more than their own intimate experience.

I finished this book with the feeling of having read an extraordinary book. Then I consolidated the belief that Brooks did a great and original job: World War Z is not derivative. Brooks created a multitude of situations, and these situations have much to do with the XXI century than with the XX. Brooks is a novelist, Terkel is a journalist.

The flaw of this book? Perhaps it is redundant. Maybe the cutting of some stories and insignificant characters would be beneficial. I understand that Terkel might not have had the courage to do it, and maybe that's better this way.
Profile Image for Marie.
Author 61 books89 followers
April 12, 2009
An absolute must-read. These personal accounts show the varied tapestry of a war - make it something you can relate too. So many years in history classes left me with no real sense of the war - and I certainly couldn't be bothered to remember if the Battle of the Bulge was after D-day or what... no, this book has me understanding the war, knowing its important events and many, many unimportant ones.

The black soldier fired on by white soldiers in a US base on US soil - because they suspected their was going to be a demonstration against jim crow laws on the base - had me shaking with anger and indignation, demanding "Why is this the first I've heard of this?"

The Florida housewife making a candy dish out of shrapnel - so poignant, indescribable.

The man who bombed Frankfurt and the woman who lived there, now friends - the depth of human forgiveness.

So many acts of bravery and kindness, against the backdrop of so much inhumanity.

And oddly, the pervasive fears of the cold war - these oral histories were recorded in the early 80s - lends another perspective to me, reading now, in a world without "the red threat" - I so want to go back in time, cry to them (and my younger self included) It's not necessary! It's not what they tell you!

The former aid worker knew how little the Russians were a threat to us - it was there for anyone to see, but we all "Couldn't know".

Much like the Jewish boy, growing up in Hollywood after his family fled Europe, didn't bother to find out where all the Japanese kids in class disappeared to. He grew up to write a documentary about ordinary people in France reacting to the German occupation. The real lesson is; these were ordinary people. We are responsible to keep seeing with our own eyes.

So I think just about everyone should read this book. Wow. It was an experience to read.
Profile Image for Daniel.
102 reviews1 follower
June 15, 2020
Yksi parhaista kirjoista, joita olen lukenut.

Studs Terkel käy oraalihistorian keinoin ja muistelujen kautta läpi amerikkalaisten suhtautumista toiseen maailmansotaan. Osa muistelijoista on ollut sotilaita, mutta suuren osan saavat myös kotirintaman väki, joille sota on ollut hyvin erilainen.

Ylipäätänsä muistelijoiden suuri määrä ja toisistaaan poikkea kirjo luovat kirjasta todella moniäänisen. Monelle amerikkalaiselle sodalla oli positiivisia vaikutuksia, joko taloudellisesti tai oman itsearvon takia.

Ääneen pääsevät myös sorretut. Monessa muistelussa, joko sivutaan rasismia tai puhtaasti kerrotaan, kuinka rasismi oli osaa Yhdysvaltoja ja sen armeijaa. Kirja ei ole siis pelkkää voittajien kertomaa, vaan myös pommitetut japanilaiset ja saksalaiset pääsevät ääneen.

Yhtä kaikki, kyseessä on hieno teos, joka kuvaa hyvin sitä, että suuret mullistukset aiheuttavat lukuisia seurauksia. Sodan kokemukset vaihtelevat eri ihmisten ja ihmisryhmien välillä ja se välittyy teoksessa erityisen hyvin.
Profile Image for briz.
Author 7 books67 followers
September 16, 2013
Like all good history books, it was a TOME and took forever to read.

However, it is indeed a VERY good history book, up there with The Hindus, or American Prometheus (about Oppenheimer, so relevant here), or A History of Contemporary Italy.

Oral histories are also particularly affecting: shit gets really emotional, and it's hard not to shed a tear or two. It's also often AMAZING. God, the lives some people have had. It's just amazing. Highly recommended. I'm looking forward to reading more of Studs Terkel's work now, too.
Profile Image for James.
Author 11 books92 followers
March 15, 2008
Studs Terkel is the definitive oral historian, and this is one of the most masterful works on the Second World War ever written. A detail often missed is the fact that he put "The Good War" in parentheses in the title, to reflect that there is no such thing as a good war, no matter how necessary this war was - and it may have been the most necessary in human history - or how much reminiscences may often gloss over the bad parts. In this work he follows the experiences of Americans in the war from Pearl Harbor to the war's end, interviewing people who experienced every part of the most total of total wars ever fought.
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