Coinciding with the release of his final volume of The Liberation Trilogy, “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945,” Rick Atkinson, New York Times best-selling author and recipient of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for History, spoke at Campbell Hall this past Sunday, May 18. Atkinson’s talk on the impact of World War II on the United States included a post-lecture Q&A session and opportunities for attendees to get their books autographed.
Atkinson began his career in 1983 at the Washington Post. During his 25-year tenure, he served as reporter, foreign correspondent, and senior editor, covering both domestic and international events. His interest in military history began in 1999, with research into World War II.
Over the last 15 years, he has dedicated himself to completing his best-known work, The Liberation Trilogy, a recount of stories about American Servicemen during the liberation of Europe in the Second World War. Through his three books, Atkinson explores the roles of American Servicemen on the Western front and the impact on the civilian population.
His lecture focused on three factors–the magnitude, moral disposition, and enduring consequences of WWII–and over its duration, he explained to the audience why he considers WWII “the greatest catastrophe in human history.” Atkinson hinted at humans’ natural predisposition to conflict, citing the calculations of historian Will Durant, saying “in three-and-a-half millennia of recorded human history, there have only been 256 years where there has not been a war in progress somewhere.”
Atkinson believed WWII “defined a single generation,” considering this period a great and terrible epoch. The leadership of the war effort–George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley–were all born between 1880 and 1890, whereas many of the service men were born 20 to 30 years later.
By the end of the war, “if you were a German boy born between 1915 and 1924, the odds were one in three that you would be dead,” said Atkinson. “Fourteen percent of the soviet population was killed, [for a combined total of] 60 million dead over 6 years. [This equals] a death roughly every 3 seconds.”
Atkinson also touched on the effects the war had on race and gender during the time.
“The United States was so desperate for infantry during winter 1944,” he said, “[that the] high command agreed to measures that would have normally been unthinkable.”
The war created more than 50 platoons for colored soldiers, notably the Tuskegee airmen and the 761st Tank Battalion. Military service, specifically appointed by the rank of general, was a largely male dominated field of work, while “women were drawn into the workplace.”
Despite women not attaining the rank of general until 1970, Atkinson assured the audience that women played an integral role in the war effort by maintaining a strong domestic economy and filling the jobs their husbands had.
Toward the end of his lecture, Atkinson opened the floor to questions from the audience. When asked to evaluate the appointment of General Eisenhower to Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, Atkinson said that studying Eisenhower for 15 years now has allowed him to ultimately conclude that, “He [Eisenhower] was not a very good field marshal. He does not see the battlefield–spatially and temporally–like a great captain does; he is no Napoleon, and that really eats him.”
However, Atkinson went on and said, “His [Eisenhower’s] job was not to be field marshal; his job was to be Supreme Commander, which he defined as a ‘Chairman of the Board’ for the largest marshal enterprise in the western world, and he’s quite brilliant at that.” Atkinson’s viewpoint was echoed by former President Roosevelt, who wrote “[I chose] Ike [Eisenhower] to be Supreme Commander because he is the best politician among the generals.”
At the end of the program, Roman Baratiak, Associate Director for University of California, Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures, praised Atkinson’s public speaking and presentation skills, commenting that the lecture engaged the audience while discussing the lasting impact of the Second World War.
The Richard Atkinson lecture was presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures as their final event for the 2013-14 year. For information on this or future lectures, visit https://artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.