The most documented event in history, World War II, consumed 15 years of Rick Atkinson’s professional life.
For a historian, its records -- 17,000 tons generated by the Army alone -- are a deep and rich mine.
“You’re drilling down, you’re searching for granularity,” Mr. Atkinson said today while presenting dozens of fascinating facts about America’s involvement in that six-year war to a riveted audience of 298 in the Main Library's McMaster Center.
“A fact is not a truth until you love it. We’re looking for facts to love … to bring the dead to life,” he said.
Mr. Atkinson, 61, whose latest book is the third in his Liberation Trilogy about the war that left 60 million dead, spoke for 45 minutes, then answered well-informed questions from the audience at the Authors! Authors! lecture, a series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
He is driven by how the extravagant stresses of war reveal a man’s character, but he tossed out dozens of tidbits that were oddly compelling.
It cost $564.50 to bring home the body of a soldier killed in Europe, which only a rich country could afford; 61 percent of Americans chose to have their loved ones returned.
They came home in metal boxes, 5,000 at time in the holds of ships. A warehouse in Kansas City handled dead soldiers' personal effects. Inspectors pawed through their belongings, removing items such as bullets, pornography, or a letter to a girlfriend that might distress a widow.
Found were thousands of diaries, walrus tusks, a shrunken head, a sack of diamonds. Laundresses removed blood stains from uniforms and helmets.
But in a macro view, the war was an unparalleled agent of social and political change, Mr. Atkinson said. It ended the British and French empires and European supremacy, led to the creation of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created Israel, and spawned independence movements in countries ranging from India to East Africa.
Moreover, it displaced American isolationism while nurturing American exceptionalism, turned the United States into a military and manufacturing powerhouse, ensured American prosperity and optimism for decades, and sent millions of men to college on the G.I. Bill.
The U.S. military, "a democratizing organization," was officially desegregated in 1948, leading within a few decades to the civil-rights and women's-liberation movements.
Next in the Authors! Authors! lineup will be Henry Winkler, actor and author of a series of children’s books about a boy who has dyslexia, as does Winkler. He’ll speak June 18 at 7 p.m. in the Stranahan Theater. Tickets ($10 general, $8 for students) may be purchased at any library branch or at the door.
Mr. Winkler originally was scheduled to speak May 14.
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