Picture History of WWII
ISBN: none listed
Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 4 Oct 2005
First published in 1950, Life's Picture History of World War II is indeed a treasure. While the book was aimed commercially at American servicemen and home-fronters alike, it was also, in the words of editor Henry R. Luce, a journalistic tribute to thousands of "combat photographers and artists in and out of uniform. This book is in some small measure a salute to their bravery, their skill, and their patriotism" (vi).
It's easy to agree with Mr. Luce's assertion. Photographs in the book appear from journalists and artists (and soldiers) on _both sides_ of the conflict. To make things even more interesting, at least for a literary junky like me, modernist heavy-weight John Dos Passos opens each chapter with a short topical essay. But it's the pictures and art that matter most here, and the book moves well beyond coverage of the well-known battles and spends a good deal of space on places that are now mostly forgotton. Even America's anti-war movement finds space here (two pages), detailing the height of the America First Isolationist movement, spearheaded by the likes of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin, author of the book Social Justice, "which backed America First" (77). The picture of an October 1944 rally at Madison Square Garden showing some 20,000 American Isolationists ready to hear Lindbergh is especially telling of _that point_ in American history, with Pearl Harbor still months away, and the issue of whether to go to war still very much in doubt.
Picture book enthusiasts will not be disappointed in this offering. To me, this book is an invaluable resource of period combat artwork. Much of the work is reminiscent of the documentary They Drew Fire (2000). Casual readers may well be surprised to know that over 12,000 pieces of art were produced during the war period, many exceptionally realistic in ways that black and white photography can only begin to hint. There is art of German thrusts and retreats through Russia, of Americans slogging through dense pacific jungles (perhaps the darkest art of the book), and through the battle worn streets and countrysides of Europe. Of the many notable paintings, one that stands out in my mind is of U.S. First Army tanks and soldiers marching through St. Lo after a 2500 plane bombing raid. Gray clouds mark the backdrop with "decapitated" buildings, among them a 14th century cathedral (286-287). The soldiers and material in the foreground seem less important than the complete wreckage and murder of the town, of its culture and history really, wrought by conflict.
If you can find a copy of this 368 page gem, get it, if only for the masterful works of art. Copies are available on ebay from time to time and sell for reasonable amounts.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939