Memories of a war long over

March 19, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A half-century after World War II ended, the nations that suffered millions of casualties are struggling anew with memories of the conflict and how to honor the dead.

President Clinton is likely to travel to Moscow in May to join Russia's celebration of the end of the war in Europe. But the White House must figure out a way for the president to make the trip without offending Americans who plan celebrations for that same time in the United States, and without slighting Western European allies.

Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose plans are also unclear, would feel welcome at anniversaries planned in Paris and London that stress 50 years of peace in Europe. But he may not feel that way at the event in Moscow, which will celebrate Russia's victory over Germany.

Japan's government is uncertain about what kind of delegation, if any, to send to the commemoration in Hawaii Sept. 2 marking the end of the war in the Pacific. Like Germany, Japan is now a close ally of the Western powers that defeated it.

These leaders' political and logistical conflicts are relatively minor problems during a year that has buffeted veterans, their families and whole nations with memories of both triumph and horror.

To retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commemorations will celebrate how the United States and its allies "built the greatest war machine the world has ever known."

"And once we put it together," said the admiral, who as a Navy pilot was shot down over the Pacific, "the outcome was inevitable."

But this year has also brought painful reexaminations, with 50th anniversaries of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the beginnings of Soviet control over Eastern Europe and half of Germany.

"The outcome of World War II calls our attention to so many disasters and tragedies that 'celebrating' doesn't seem to be a word that is well-chosen," says Russell Weigley, a military historian at Temple University. Worldwide, the war claimed 53 million lives and cost $1.6 trillion.

U.S.-sponsored events are intended to "honor the veterans who served in World War II and those who served on the home front," says Michael Humm, a Marine Reserve lieutenant colonel assigned to the 50th Anniversary of World War II Commemoration Committee. The United States lost 405,000 people in the war.

In Britain and France, the official themes emphasize the 50 years of peace, and the political and social benefits the wartime generation secured for succeeding generations. Both countries want to stress the vast changes in Europe since the World War II era and friendship with the former enemy, Germany.

So does the White House. But if President Clinton attended events scheduled to take place in Britain and France, he would miss ceremonies on May 8 at Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. officials say.

"What's important is that the president represent the United States in efforts commemorating World War II," says Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the American Legion, which represents 3.1 million veterans. "The real issue is that he's not sitting in the White House playing video games."

White House officials suggested last week that Mr. Clinton will probably choose to attend the ceremonies in Arlington on May 8 and those in Moscow on May 9, and visit other European countries after meetings with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Russia plans to hold two ceremonies May 9, the anniversary of the war's end in Eastern Europe. In one, to which the foreign leaders are invited, a parade will include 5,000 veterans of the war but no military hardware. A second ceremony, at a war memorial outside the city, will include tanks, artillery pieces and an aircraft flyover.

"It's important to the Russian government and the Russian people that American leaders be there," a senior U.S. official said. "It's an important social and psychological event for them." But Russia's greeting for the Americans won't be one of unalloyed cheer. The former Soviet Union lost up to 27 million people in World War II, and many Russians continue to believe that the United States was late in launching the offensive that ended the war.

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