Carruthers_GoogOccupationThe Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace

Harvard University Press; Nov. 2016

Waged for a just cause and culminating in total victory, World War II was America’s “good war.” Yet for millions of GIs overseas, the war did not end with Germany and Japan’s surrender. The Good Occupation chronicles America’s transition from wartime combatant to postwar occupier, by exploring the intimate thoughts and feelings of the ordinary servicemen and women who participated—often reluctantly—in the difficult project of rebuilding nations they had so recently worked to destroy.

When the war ended, most of the seven million Americans in uniform longed to return to civilian life. Yet many remained on active duty, becoming the “after-army” tasked with bringing order and justice to societies ravaged by war. Susan Carruthers shows how American soldiers struggled to deal with unprecedented catastrophe among millions of displaced refugees and concentration camp survivors, while negotiating the inevitable tensions that arose between victors and the defeated enemy. Drawing on thousands of unpublished letters, diaries, and memoirs, she reveals the stories service personnel told themselves and their loved ones back home in order to make sense of their disorienting and challenging postwar mission.

The picture Carruthers paints is not the one most Americans recognize today. A venture undertaken by soldiers with little appetite for the task has crystallized, in the retelling, into the “good occupation” of national mythology: emblematic of the United States’ role as a bearer of democracy, progress and prosperity. In real time, however, “winning the peace” proved a perilous business, fraught with temptation and hazard.

“Based largely on previously unseen diaries and letters, the book poses the question: was the good war followed by the “good occupation” of the book’s title? As ever, there is no easy answer and from Professor Carruthers’s lucid and elegantly written account, a picture emerges of muddled thinking and ill-thought out policies as often well-meaning men and women struggled with the conundrum that the people they were trying to help were representatives of countries they had only recently been attempting to destroy… In addressing this problem from the world 70 years ago, Professor Carruthers does not shy away from more recent events… If only this excellent book had been available in 2003 things could have been very different; for as the author makes clear, there is no such thing as a good occupation.” Trevor Royle

Herald Scotland

A disturbing look at the experiences of the ‘after-army’: the American service people who stayed on active duty after the Second World War, charged with rebuilding the places they had helped to destroy. Frank, often harsh voices from letters, diaries and memoirs serve up ‘inconvenient truths’: the armed forces caste system and racism; casual cruelty and venality trumping conscience; ‘fraternisation’ (and prostitution and rape) with ‘blowsy frauleins’ and ‘anxious to please’ Japanese maids. Were these good occupations of Japan and Germany? Carruthers subjects needed no reminding that it wasn’t all sweets and flowers , but something less saccharine and fragrant.” Karen Shook

Times Higher Education

“Carruthers brings together the American experiences of occupying both Germany and Japan as no other historian. In this lively, superbly researched account, we see not the magnanimous, square-jawed GIs and officers we recall today, but rather war-weary, bewildered Americans who confronted bombed-out cities and millions of hungry displaced people. To these very human occupiers, the successful rehabilitation of the enemy that we now celebrate appeared closer to Mission Impossible.” Sheldon Garon

Author of Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life

In The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace, Susan Carruthers demolishes the stories Americans told themselves, exemplified by Teahouse of the August Moon, which was a hit novel, play and movie, the last starring Marlon Brando, who played an Okinawan interpreter in yellowface. One of the movie’s laugh lines was delivered by a frustrated American officer who vows that ‘these natives’ are ‘going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them.'” Thomas Ricks

The New York Times

“It is a book for the reader who enjoyed the notion of a ‘greatest generation’ but may well be ready for a more complicated understanding of that period.” Marilyn B. Young

Author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990

“Susan Carruthers asks how the legend of the beneficial American military presence in Europe and Asia after World War II was created despite contemporaries’ observations of ‘destruction, confusion, despair and hopelessness.’  Based on impressive and enlightening archival researches, this lively book urges us to add a permanent question mark to the phrase, the ‘good occupation.'” Werner Sollors

Author of The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s

“With characteristic brilliance, Susan Carruthers has written a critical history of military victory. Using letters and memoirs, she illuminates the interior life of American occupiers in Europe and Asia, showing the way military governance came to be imagined as a form of altruism. Highly recommended.” Mary L. Dudziak

Author of War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences

What inspired this book:

For six months before the launch of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in March 2003, President George W. Bush, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other key advocates of a war to topple Saddam Hussein made repeated references to postwar Germany and Japan. Their intention was to reassure doubters about the wisdom of a war in Iraq with a reminder that, nearly sixty years earlier, American forces had managed to transform two of the most noxious and fanatical foes into peaceful, prosperous allies. If the Axis powers could be completely remodeled thanks to the United States’ military power and financial largesse, how much simpler to oust Saddam and make over Iraq as a democratic state? Summoning images of V-E Day euphoria, advocates of Iraq’s invasion went so far as to suggest that American troops entering Baghdad would be greeted with “sweets and flowers.”

As a professional historian, I paid close attention to this mobilization of the past. For one thing, the analogy didn’t seem to fit. An invaded country would surely not submit to the presence of foreign troops in the same way as exhaustively defeated enemies had done decades ago. Prominent scholars, most notably John Dower, author of a Pulitzer-winning book on the occupation of Japan, Embracing Defeat, made the same point. Iraq in 2003 did not, and would not, resemble either Germany or Japan in 1945. Subsequent events proved the point.

But I was more intrigued by another question: not whether the comparison itself was justified but precisely how Bush and other advocates of war with Iraq invoked the past. Something was odd. Because even as these politicians kindled rosy visions of postwar Germany and Japan, they hesitated to acknowledge the depth of the US military footprint there. Both countries remained formally occupied from 1945 until 1952. After that date, the Japanese island of Okinawa remained under US sovereignty until 1972, home to tens of thousands of American troops throughout the Cold War, as was Germany. Bush’s insistence that “we left only constitutions and parliaments” not “occupying armies” omitted a good deal. (Listen to his radio address of March 2, 2003.) His reluctance to acknowledge that occupation troops had stayed put in Europe and Asia, in large numbers and for long years, was part of broader phenomenon. No advocate of war with Iraq seemed willing to call “occupation” by name. The word was taboo– with reference to the past, present, and future alike. L. Paul Bremer, who spent a year as Iraq’s provisional governor, later explained that the White House avoided the “O-word” as it sounded so “ugly” to American ears. Even though past exercises in military government supplied positive historical lessons, the word itself remained somehow unutterable.

This paradox caught my attention. So, too, did one other aspect of the pre-war debate in 2003. For all their other disagreements, supporters and critics of the invasion of Iraq agreed on one thing. They shared a belief that postwar Germany and Japan were indeed shining success stories– miraculous makeovers that were apparently as effortless as they were instantaneous. Could it really have been so? And did Americans understand things that way while those occupations were in progress? It struck me as most unlikely. After all, we know from writers like Paul Fussell and Studs Terkel that many of those who fought the “good war” didn’t possess nearly such high-minded notions about America’s wartime mission as retrospect would have us believe. The “moral clarity” so often attributed to World War II is largely an artifact of hindsight. If it required time for the “worst war in history” (in Fussell’s phrase) to become the best war ever, then was the same not true of its sequel, the “good occupation”?

How this transformation happened is the subject of The Good Occupation. Its central protagonists are the American men and women in uniform tasked with occupying the defeated Axis powers and countries wrested from their control during and after World War II. How did they make sense of their assignment? What did it mean to be part of an occupying army? Meanwhile, what stories did civilians tell about how well– or poorly– their soldiers were “winning the peace” in Europe and Asia as the occupations unfolded? And how did these stories mutate over time?

To answer these questions, I spent five years tracking down unpublished letters, diaries, oral history interviews, memoirs and photo albums of soldiers who served in Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and other less well remembered sites of occupation. My aim was to locate material by service personnel of both sexes, multiple ethnicities, and of every rank from private to four star general. This quest took me to about thirty archives in fifteen different states across the country, yielding an amazingly rich trove of material, as unfamiliar as it is eye-opening.

—Susan Carruthers

"The Good Occupation" Research

Writings and Talks on Postwar Occupation
Resources for Research on Postwar Occupation

The Good Occupation draws extensively on the private papers and oral histories of hundreds of men and women who served with the armies of occupation after World War II. I traveled to about thirty different archives across the country in search of these materials. Many institutions have excellent online catalogs, and there are also some great online collections of oral history interviews and letters.

  • U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, PA
  • The Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, Veterans’ History Project, Washington, DC — The Veterans’ History Project contains rich resources for historians of occupation soldiering. It has gathered thousands of oral history testimonies, some of which are digitized and can be viewed through their website. The Project has also made accessible some written materials bequeathed to the Library by veterans and their relatives, including letters, diaries and photographs. See especially, John Katsu and the End of WWII.
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC — The USHMM has a large and growing collection of oral history interviews. I drew on these in researching the chapter of The Good Occupation that deals with American soldiers’ interactions with Displaced Persons in Germany. The Museum’s database of photographs is also a phenomenal resource, with images of postwar Europe and the DP camps, giving a graphic sense of life after catastrophe.
  • Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum and Archive, Madison, WI — The Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum has an excellent collection of oral history interviews and donated private papers. These are made easily accessible to researchers in its reading room with personalized assistance from archivist Russell Horton.
  • Rutgers’ Oral History Archive — For thirty or so years, Rutgers’ archivists and historians have been interviewing New Jersey residents about their life stories: “Men and women (either New Jersey residents and/or Rutgers University alumni, faculty or staff) who served on the home front and overseas during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the nation’s most recent conflicts.” The keyword searchable database provides ready access to hundreds of digitized transcripts of these interviews with veterans– dozens of whom spent time in occupied postwar Europe or Asia.
  • University of Tennessee, Knoxville — The university library hosts a large collection of World War II materials which spill into the postwar era. These materials include both oral history testimonies and donated collections of private papers (letters, diaries, typescript memoirs and photo albums).
  • The MacArthur Memorial, Norfolk, VA — Those interested in the occupation of Japan may want to explore the collections at Norfolk’s monument to General Douglas MacArthur.
  • Dear Mudder and Dad: The World War II Letters of William Wellington Taylor, Jr. — Bill Taylor served in World War II, spending several months in Germany after VE Day, until returning home in April 1946. His son has done a wonderful job of digitizing Bill’s candid letters home to his parents about the tribulations, and intermittent (incompletely recorded) pleasures, of occupation. Since Bill was also a terrific cartoonist, his sardonic take on occupation soldiering is vividly captured in both words and images.
Film Resources

Army orientation films for soldiers

Your Job in Germany

In 1944, Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, then a Major in the Army’s Morale Division, collaborated with Hollywood director Frank Capra on a 15-minute long orientation film. Their goal was to instruct enlisted men on the appropriate mindset they should bring to the task of occupying Germany after the war. Germans, GIs were warned, had invaded neighboring countries time after time for centuries. They had also managed to pull the wool over the eyes of a previous generation of American occupation soldiers after World War I. This time, to prevent a third world war, Americans would need to be less gullible, maintaining a stern demeanor and skeptical mentality. With Germans deemed “collectively guilty,” non-fraternization was the order of the day.

Read more about Geisel’s role in this production and watch the film, courtesy of the National Archives and YouTube.

Our Job in Japan

A counterpart to Your Job in Germany, this Army Signal Corps film was also scripted by Theodor Geisel and edited by Elmo Williams. According to John Dower in Embracing Defeat, General MacArthur was unhappy with their first attempt, which delayed release of the film until 1946, making it a rather belated orientation tool.

Die Todesműhlen (Death Mills)

The initial policy adopted by American occupation authorities in Germany was that Germans bore collective responsibility for Nazi atrocities which became horrifically visible as advancing Allied soldiers liberated the extermination and concentration camps in the early months of 1945. But how were Germans to be convinced of this “collective guilt”? And how could the British and US occupation forces ensure that no Germans in the present– and no one in the future– would dispute the fact of industrialized slaughter of Jews, Roma and Sinti, gays and other persecuted groups? British and American personnel working within the Allied “psychological strategy” machinery turned to film as the answer. (Hollywood director Billy Wilder was among those involved.) Using footage shot by Red Army and British military cameramen, American Signal Corps photographers, and incorporating evidence from other sources, including those produced by or for the Third Reich, the War Department made films intended to “re-educate” Germans about their responsibility for the atrocities viscerally documented on screen.

I wrote about this topic in an article published some years ago: “Compulsory Viewing: Concentration Camp Film and German Re-education,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30, iii (Dec. 2001), pp.733-759

Watch one of the key films, Die Todesműhlen.


Photography Resources

Photographs of occupied Germany:

  • Tony Vaccaro —Tony Vaccaro’s photographs of wartime and postwar Germany capture the multiple dimensions of ruination, industrialized death, despair and survival that Allied soldiers found in the spring of 1945 and what they confronted, and contributed to, in the aftermath of the “worst war ever.”

Photographs and films of occupied Japan: