The U.S. and the Holocaust

I watched the new Ken Burns doc on PBS a few weeks back and I think it’s essential, powerful viewing. Like many other Americans, my knowledge of how the U.S. got involved in WWII had been shaped mainly by the standard, highly-simplified public school narratives that I grew up with. It was a version of history that generally treated America’s involvement as inevitable and steadfast, especially with regards to stopping Germany and Japan.

The U.S. and the Holocaust debunks that idealized story, instead presenting the much more complicated reality of a divided nation rife with competing factions of isolationists, antisemites, racists, nativists, progressives, and plenty of radicals on both the far left and far right. Burns makes the case powerfully that this internal dissent resulted in America’s tragically slow and ambivalent response to the Nazi and fascist conquests in Europe, inaction that led to millions of deaths that might otherwise have been averted. (I would love to see a companion series that focused on the Pacific Theater.)

I’ve been following Russia’s war on Ukraine closely since the most recent invasion in February and I can’t help but think of the parallels between what’s happening now in Europe and the U.S. and what happened in WWII. The U.S. and the Holocaust is a great lens into what America can do for the world when it acts justly (and swiftly) — and what can happen when it does neither.