V-E Day – 76 Years Later

May 8, 1945 marked the end of the war in Europe 76 years ago. After almost six years of the bloodiest conflict in the 20th century and possibly all human history, German generals signed the instruments of surrender. The world rejoiced and breathed a sigh of relief. The war was not yet over. Not for four more months as the Allies pushed back Japan.

As a military historian, I am always analyzing but also memorializing. Recently, I have been thinking about the issues of popular narratives and how close they are, or not, to actual events. Back in 2012, I read Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, which recounted and corrected the pivotal story of the Battle of Midway in June 1942. I wouldn’t call them revisionists but they did address what people assert as “fact”. Sometimes a popular narrative becomes more reinforced because of a movie or two or three. However, now with access to written documents, especially those translated into English, and even better available only one Google search away, the real events come to light and often paint an even more vivid story.

Perhaps one of the most interesting about World War 2, even after 76 years, is that new revelations are coming to light. I mentioned the Battle of Midway and how historians gained more insights after gaining access to the Japanese archives. That is not the only area. Many books on the Second World War have been focused on the military, but how often do we consider other perspectives? Social and economic focuses – women and the shipbuilding and aviation industry – sure, but what about food?

Recently, the History Channel premiered a show called The Foods that Built America. Finally, the channel went back to its roots – American Pickers and Ancient Aliens – blehhhhhhhh! Can you make the vomit emoji?

Now in its second season, the Foods That Built America documented the American food companies that pioneered the food revolution – from McDonald’s and other fast food joints, Pizza Hut and its rivalry with Domino’s, Coke and its rivalry with Pepsi, to Stouffer’s and Swanson’s battle over instant meals, to cereal companies – Post and its rivalry with Kellogg’s, to Heinz’s Ketchup and how it pioneered food safety standards. How America and possibly the rest of the world eats in the 21st century can be traced to these men and women.

One constant theme from this show: how World War 2 changed the food industry in America and even the rest of the world. Take chocolate: chocolate was not just a snack in the soldier’s rations. It was also a goodwill treat from the US to the rest of the world. US soldiers often passed candy bars wherever they went. Sometimes it was truly for goodwill but sometimes I suspect it got them certain favors.

Or Coca-Cola; that too was a goodwill treat. By the 21st century, there is NOT a country in the world where a person has NOT seen the iconic bottle with the red label and white letters. Funny thing – my tour guide at the Sydney Opera House said he has never tasted a Coke; he knows what it is but never drank it because he heard it was too sugary.

I really do not see any stopping in studying this war, however horrible it was. This war redrew the map of the world. It created institutions like the United Nations and eventually NATO. World War 2 forced the creation of many military technologies which were adopted in the civilian world like radar and the microwave oven. And now, as I learned, it changed how we eat.

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