Book Review: The Good War – An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel

I was first introduced to this book when I received it in the mail the summer prior to my freshman year in college. Our “summer assignment” was to read the book, locate and interview someone who was alive during the time of WWII, and then write a 5-10 page essay. Sadly, or perhaps for the better, I don’t have either the essay or the interview anymore. Ultimately, the essay was crap which my professor made clear by drowning it in red ink, so you’re not missing out on much. As it turned out, the whole interview was completely superfluous to the assignment and we never ended up using it anyway. So, I basically went through a lot of trouble to write up a paper that got me a bad grade and conduct an interview that the professor didn’t even bother to listen to. Well, that certainly wouldn’t be the last time I put a lot of work into something that ultimately amounted to nothing. A lesson for life. While I’ve lost the interview, thankfully, the person I interviewed has given other interviews on their WWII experiences, so you might say that a version of the interview still exists online, but that’s for another post.

Oral histories of the Second World War are becoming more and more important for the mere sake of documenting the experiences of the ever dwindling number of survivors. We are now reaching a time where, not only military veterans, but the number of people alive during WWII who were old enough to even remember their experiences is steadily decreasing. A person who was 10 years old in 1940 would be around 80 years old now! Naturally, we’ll eventually reach a time when there is no one left who was even alive during the war. (Consider that we’ve passed the centennials of both the start and end of WWI.)

Everyone Has a Story

Winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction, The Good War, by Studs Terkel, is a compilation of oral histories from people in virtually every walk of life and ethnicity during World War II. Military servicemen (from various branches and jobs), civilian factory workers, politicians, lawyers, economists, entrepreneurs, Caucasians, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc. Surprisingly, there’s not a ton of interviews with front line combatants in this book, but a few, like Eugene B. Sledge, are notable. Anyone who’s read With the Old Breed, or seen the HBO miniseries, The Pacific, will recognize that name. As mentioned, the survivors who remember WWII are only getting smaller in number. As of 2020, most of the people interviewed for this book are likely deceased.

The stories are more or less organized thematically and somewhat chronologically. One section could focus on stories from the Pacific Theater, while another could focus on women working in factories around the country, and another could focus on foreigners. The stories vary widely in tone and greatly depend on the person’s background and what they did during the war. The majority of the stories, however, are from U.S. citizens. For me, the most interesting stories are about people who grew up or lived in other countries, be they Allied or Axis, as well as the stories of people who were in non-traditional roles, like OSS agents or scientists working on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.

The difference in tone and experiences between the American citizens and foreigners is probably due to the way the country experienced the war and because the United States was never actually invaded or totally devastated by the war. Apart from some small attacks on the mainland, the United States did not suffer nearly to extent of other countries closer to the fighting. For the most part, Americans on the home front recalled the Great Depression, entering the war, the war hysteria, and the war rationing. There are many stories of people going to work in factories or essential jobs, but compare that to what was endured by any other Allied or Axis country that was under invasion, occupation, or the threat of air raids. (For anyone who’s read it, note the differences in tone and experiences of the oral histories in Turkel’s The Good War versus Theodore and Taya Cook’s Japan at War.) The difference is notable.

While there doesn’t appear to be an overarching theme to this book, you could interpret the title as reflective of the different experiences that people had during WWII. For some people, it literally was a good war; being a fight against evil. For others, it was “a good war” in the ironic sense. Some people made their lives and fortunes during wartime, and others were destroyed by it. Some people came out of the war well-off and ahead of the game, others came out worse or still had to suffer various injustices as they put their lives back together after the war ended.

Not Everyone Has an Interesting Story

The biggest problem I had with this book was that many of the stories began to blend together after a while and lose their distinction. I actually found the stories of civilians on the U.S. home front, as well as those of most front line combatants to be rather bland. These were basically stories of civilians working in factories or stories of your average infantryman. Those kinds of accounts are a dime a dozen and you can find any number of personal memoirs written on the war elsewhere. Some of the accounts also parroted the propaganda and advertising slogans of the times, but that’s just natural. After a while, it all read the same.

Another problem is that some of the stories are better than others and they greatly vary in length, too. While the interviews certainly capture a good representation of the different people in the country, some of them lack focus and seem to devolve into rambling. Thankfully, many of these interviews were conducted when these people were still in their middle-age, so their mental faculties probably weren’t drastically deteriorated to the point of dementia.

Assuming that the transcription of the interviews was accurate, you definitely notice a difference in the language of the interviewees. Some are more eloquent than others. I found the more articulate ones to be better at describing their experiences and imparting useful facts.

The point is that not all of the interviews in this book were interesting or useful (to me), but I suppose what qualifies as interesting or useful really depends on what aspect of the war you’re studying.

The Good, the Not So Good, and the Bad (of Oral Histories)

Oral history is a sub-field of history that comes with many benefits and drawbacks. The interviewer needs to choose their questions very carefully and know what they’re looking for. The interviewee needs to be able to articulate their experiences and viewpoints in a comprehensible manner. The interview itself is like a dynamic conversation between the two people. Hence, some interviews are better than others. There’s a fine line between a detailed and cohesive interview, and that which just rambles on like a stream of consciousness.

Some of the benefits of oral histories are that, as primary source materials, they can reveal personal feelings, emotions, and shed light on the societal values of the times. They provide a certain immediacy to the events and give details that may be overlooked by secondary source histories. Conversely, some of the drawbacks are that they are constrained in their viewpoint since they only represent a single person’s experience. Hence, there’s an inherent bias to them, as there is with any personal account. Therefore, the researcher needs to determine if the interviewee’s experiences are representative or anecdotal. Perhaps these peoples’ experiences only serve as a single data point in the mass of information already out there, and the historian will have to have to balance it out with additional research. While The Good War is a very encompassing collection of interviews, there’s only thematic connections for the majority of them, although some do give different accounts of the same events. Another drawback is that many of these interviews were conducted decades after the fact, so the people have the benefit of hindsight, and perhaps some degree of nostalgia for their younger days. Finally, some of the oral histories are very short, so the amount of useful information in them is debatable, especially when you compare it to a lengthy memoir.

Realistically, most of my issues with this book are inherent in the very nature of oral histories themselves. In many ways, I’m torn between the content of this book. On one hand, it’s very insightful for providing personal perspectives on some events, but in other ways it does feel very constrained, or even rather cherry-picked. Some of the interviews are lengthy and others extremely brief. Some provide extensive details and others just ramble on.

You can study WWII from virtually any perspective and field. Again, oral histories have tremendous value, but you need to look for the good interviews and know what you’re looking for in relation to a specific topic. A one page interview with a person who recalls surviving an air raid isn’t very helpful if you’re looking for personal accounts of U-boat sailors. Similarly, those that end with simplistic evaluations of the war as “good” or “bad” aren’t terribly insightful since we can examine the war from multiple accounts and see numerous shades of grey. Of course, the counterargument is that these were different times and the people could simply be reflecting on their thinking at the time. Heck, we could even read personal politics into this and note that Studs Terkel was a leftist, so make of that what you will. In the end, what we see with oral histories is a spectrum of viewpoints on the war and each comes with inherent bias.

Ultimately, this is not a book about grand strategy, and the reader will have a very difficult time constructing a comprehensive narrative of WWII from it. Rather, it’s a collection of scattered and individual experiences from people that lived during the war. If you want personal experiences of the war with some useful information contained therein, then this is a fine collection. However, if you’re looking for an expansive narrative of the war, then you’ll need to find other secondary sources.

Overall, I’d give Studs Terkel’s The Good War a 3.5 out of 5.

One comment

  1. Studs Terkel. A name not heard in a long, long time — maybe 50 years. The interviews, the oral histories, of his book were like so many stories that I heard in those days. Just everyday stories of this happened and that happened. Stories from the people who were there.

    Liked by 2 people

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