The Corner

Burmese Days

Last week, I wrote about a visit to the hydroelectric plant in Telemark, Norway, where those brave saboteurs on skis slowed the Nazis’ drive for an A-bomb. I said I had a memory from student days. It was the historian Ernest May, I think, who told us, “When you study World War II, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Allies assumed they would win all along. Oh, no. It wasn’t until the Casablanca Conference that they even decided to go for total victory — a total victory rather than a negotiated peace. When you study the war, try to rid yourself of the notion that the outcome was inevitable.”

In response to this, a reader from Silicon Valley writes with a memory of his own. Thought you would enjoy it:

Dear Jay,

. . . My father told me something long ago. He was a war refugee, arriving from Hungary in late 1941. He settled in Boston and began a medical career. Shortly after moving to Boston, he went one night to the movies. A news reel was played. It featured General Stilwell making his famous comment, “I claim we got a hell of a beating.” The audience cheered.

Dad’s first reaction was sheer terror. He was sure the police would storm the theater and arrest the projectionist for showing the news reel, and the entire audience for cheering an American defeat. That most certainly would have happened in Admiral Horthy’s Hungary. But nothing happened, except that the movie was shown after the news reel.

At the end, there weren’t any police at the theater, and my dad went home relieved. But he was confused. In the following days, he thought a great deal about what had happened at the theater. Until that point, he was absolutely convinced that the Axis would win the war, and that someday the Wehrmacht would invade the U.S. The Germans had of course been winning everything up to then, and, to a newcomer like Dad, the U.S. in early 1942 did not seem strong or serious enough to resist the Germans.

But it finally occurred to him that we were in fact quite strong — far stronger than the Germans — and serious as well. General Stilwell’s full statement had been, “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it.” The cheering was in response to the call to get our act together and retake Burma.

Dad told me that from then on he never had any doubt about our eventual victory, or about how fortunate he was to have come to the U.S. when he did.

Are there Stilwells around today? Yes. Do they exist in the upper ranks of our military? Yes. I’d like to hear from them more, myself. I know all about discretion in military officers, especially vis-à-vis the commander-in-chief. Still: A military oath is not a vow of silence (is it?).

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