Here’s an imposing, continuing 2020 challenge for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans: Many of these 366 days represent landmark anniversaries as the calendar turns, month to month. It is no easy task to pay due attention to all.
Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge, Adolf Hitler’s last offensive to Germany’s west and what Winston Churchill called the “greatest American battle” of the war. One of the key players: Gen. Troy Middleton of Baton Rouge, who issued the vital order to hold the Belgian town of Bastogne at all costs.
That was monumental.
The United Nations observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, 75 years after prisoners were liberated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a day to recollect and ponder that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. That’s monumental, too.
February brings the 75th anniversary of the Yalta Conference, when Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin met as three to discuss the direction of post-WWII Europe. Mark the month, too, for the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ invasion of Iwo Jima. And on it goes.
Here’s why this year weighs especially heavy — a “call to arms,” for the museum staff: 2020 will be the last important anniversary year in which there will be significant participation by the war’s participants. Rob Citino, museum senior historian, said, “The war will pass from living memory into history. Words on a page — that’s how they end up.”
Lose that tie to living veterans, Citino suggested, and it’s tougher to make the case for WWII’s breadth and relevance to succeeding generations. It will become more difficult for people to distinguish it, at first glance, from World War I or from other epic wars.
Consider this, though: American complacency in 1941 was rocked by Pearl Harbor’s devastation. The nation converted its economy to wartime mode, then fought formidable enemy forces on opposite sides of the planet.
“Sixteen million people put on uniforms; 400,000 plus paid the supreme sacrifice”: That’s what Citino says is crucial. With that, we must all agree.
How to remember that? How could we forget?
What’s made it easy to keep front of mind is WWII veterans marched in our parades or spoke out about national defense or even passed along war stories. Those voices have turned to whispers or, with time, been extinguished.
Veterans Affairs projects that living veterans will hover around 300,000 this year, dwindle to 570 in 2035, 20 in 2040. In 2045, they’ll be gone.
Remember WWII and the people who waged it or forget at our own peril.