Monday, December 04, 2006

Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex & WWII

Author: Jane Mersky Leder
Publisher: Praeger Publishers
ISBN: 0-275-98879-1

The USA’s official involvement as a combatant nation in World War II lasted just over 3.5 years. During that period, approximately 16 million young adults, males and females, enlisted in the various branches of the US armed forces. They trained in military bases scattered across the USA. They served in Europe, Africa and the Pacific. They left loved ones behind and met loved ones abroad. Their lives were brutally disrupted and they inevitably disrupted the lives of others. In Thanks for the Memories, Jane Mersky Leder examines the numerous ways in which World War II changed American soldiers, families, communities and culture. She explicates the war’s immediate effects on American society and argues that wartime disruptions laid the foundations for the later cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Using material gleaned from magazine articles, news clips, contemporary advertisements, hundreds of interviews with elderly veterans and dozens of intimate letters, Leder immerses readers in the mindset of mid-twentieth century America. She describes the rapid alteration of social and sexual mores as young men and women, liberated from the customary constraints of family and community life, and spurred by deep uncertainty about their futures, explored their burgeoning sexuality. She describes hastily contracted marriages and the ordeals of wives who followed their husbands across the USA from one base to another, never knowing when overseas assignments would precipitate long separations. She describes the loneliness of soldiers spread around the globe, the longings of spouses left behind, and the inevitable infidelities that followed on all fronts. She discusses cultural and military prejudices against gays, lesbians and ethnic Americans, particularly African Americans, who fought for democracy abroad yet endured fierce obstacles in their own pursuits of life, love and a little bit of happiness. She discusses the ravages of sexually transmitted diseases and the dilemmas of unwanted pregnancies. And she describes, heartbreakingly, the difficult transitions of soldiers who returned home to wives who were reluctant to leave the workforce and surrender the delicious independence they had tasted for the first time in their lives. In short, Leder examines every aspect of love, sex and marriage as they were transformed throughout and after World War II.

In addition to being based on a substantial, well-documented body of research data, Thanks for the Memories is very well written. Leder captures the reader’s attention quickly and keeps the reader engaged throughout a well constructed, well paced presentation. The material is appropriately balanced between statistical information, scholarly discussion and heartwarming anecdotes. The text is enhanced by two photo essays depicting wartime couples, advertisements and celebrities. The stories of the photo subjects are shared throughout the book and the significance of the celebrities and advertisements is explained at appropriate points. All of the material – photos, interviews, advertisements, personal correspondence, etc. – is well integrated and easily digested.

Thanks for the Memories is one of those rare books that one can either read quickly or savor slowly. At times it is fun and witty; at other times it is poignant and thought-provoking. All who read it will gain insights into the natures of humanity, war, peace and love. Readers who enjoy social history, as well as World War II buffs, will want to include it on their reading lists.

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