|Rick Atkinson and Jared Frederick at the National WWII Museum.|
Analyzing D-Day to the dwindling days of the global conflict, Atkinson has uncovered some new and surprising facts from the deep recesses of the National Archives. For instance, Allied and Axis fears of biochemical weapons were very much a reality in 1944. Wartime London was scoured by bounty hunters trapping rats to check their carcasses for bubonic plague harvested by the Germans. Geiger counters were discretely placed throughout the city to detect radioactivity. Gratefully, such weapons were never introduced. Meanwhile, the Allies conceived of a plan to construct an invasion route tunnel under the waters of the English Channel as a means of covertly reaching the shores of France. This plan, too, never met fruition. Finally, rumors of a diehard Nazi fortress built within the Alps as a last stand location of the Third Reich swirled around the Allied high command. Atkinson called this ungrounded fable as one of the "WMD" myths of its time. All of these intriguing tales and many more will be discussed in his book to be released this week.
Following his talk, Atkinson replied to numerous inquiries from the audience. All of them were thought-provoking and generally well-informed. A majority of them dealt with hypotheticals and alternative history. What if the Normandy Invasion had failed? What were the contingency plans? What if more Germans had been stationed in that region? Wishing to gain a better comprehension of Atkinson's historical methodology, I decided to pose a question myself. I asked, of all of the thousands of primary sources that he utilized in his work, was there one in particular which especially surprised, shocked, or inspired him? His answer was perhaps the best of his many personal and insightful comments of the evening.
Atkinson conveyed the story of General Lesley J. McNair, an American commander instrumental in Operation Cobra--the Allied effort to breakout of Normandy's dense hedgerow country. Observing the movement of his troops on July 25, 1944, he and hundreds of his subordinates came under heavy friendly fire from the 8th Air Force. McNair was killed in the misplaced bombardment. His subsequent funeral was held in secret. On a trip to the National Archives, Atkinson encountered the map McNair was holding at the time of his death. The paper was covered in the reddish-brown stains that was once the blood flowing out of the general's body. Atkinson admitted that tangibles as such serve as a stark visual reminder of the war as a whole. These artifacts make the horrendous history more palpable, more emotional, and more human. The task of the historian, he said, is to present the intimately personal within the macro narrative and analysis. If one does not conduct their work in such a manner, the deeper meaning of the story will be lost amidst statistics and maneuvers. Furthermore, if a historian is not dramatically moved by the individual stories of tragedy, humor, or the triumph of their subject matter, they truly need to reexamine their mission. So there you have it.
I enthusiastically had Atkinson sign all three copies of his Liberation Trilogy for me and I highly anticipate reading the final installment. His talk was engrossing and I look forward to discussing more history with him in the future. My visit to the museum in which the talk was held was equally captivating and edifying. That will be the subject of a blog post to come. Stay tuned and carry on!
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