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On the eve of World War II many Americans were reluctant to see the United States embark on overseas involvements. Yet the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seemingly united the nation in determination to achieve total victory in Asia and Europe. Underutilized industrial plants expanded to full capacity producing war materials for the United States and its allies. Unemployment was sucked up by the armed services and war work. Many Americans’ standard of living improved, and the United States became the wealthiest nation in world history. Over time, this proud record became magnified into the “Good War” myth that has distorted America’s very real achievement. As the era of total victories receded and the United States went from leading creditor to debtor nation, the 1940s appeared as a golden age when everything worked better, people were united, and the United States saved the world for democracy (an exaggeration that ignored the huge contributions of America’s allies, including the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China). In fact, during World War II the United States experienced marked class, sex and gender, and racial tensions. Groups such as gays made some social progress, but the poor, especially many African Americans, were left behind. After being welcomed into the work force, women were pressured to go home when veterans returned looking for jobs in late 1945–1946, losing many of the gains they had made during the conflict. Wartime prosperity stunted the development of a welfare state; universal medical care and social security were cast as unnecessary. Combat had been a horrific experience, leaving many casualties with major physical or emotional wounds that took years to heal. Like all major global events, World War II was complex and nuanced, and it requires careful interpretation.


Spencer D. Bakich

The Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991 was something of a paradox. From the American perspective, the war had the hallmarks of a resounding victory. Responding to a flagrant case of interstate aggression by Iraq against Kuwait, the George H. W. Bush administration assembled a substantial international coalition to deter further Iraqi attacks against its neighbors in the Gulf and to compel Saddam Hussein into quitting Kuwait, to avoid war. When the latter proved infeasible, the United States led that coalition in forcibly ousting Iraq’s military from Kuwait, substantially degrading Iraqi combat power in the process. The war’s outcome resulted from an auspiciously altered geopolitical landscape at the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming superiority of American power vis-à-vis Iraq, and a US decision-making process that tightly knitted military and diplomatic objectives into a coherent—and coherently executed—wartime strategy. However, America’s historically lopsided victory in the Persian Gulf War proved fleeting. Iraq’s surviving military forces retained the capacity to crush domestic challenges to the Ba’athist regime and to threaten its Gulf neighbors. President Bush’s vision of a post-war new world order notwithstanding, Gulf security depended heavily on continuing military missions years after the Persian Gulf War ended. Despite wartime tactical and strategic successes, grand strategic success eluded the United States in the years after the war.