Captain America is a symbol, and Steve Rogers is an ideal. The former is the manifestation of the best that the United States of America can be, and the latter is the exemplar of citizenship that creates it. Yet this iconic character was born in defiance, and is inextricably linked with the largest and most horrific conflict in the entirety of human history. World War II left between 70 and 85 million people dead, or somewhere between three and four percent of the world’s population at the time. European Jewry was all but eradicated by a systematic, industrialized genocide. The infrastructures and economies of Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and the Philippines (among others) were largely smashed. In Great Britain – one of the victor nations – food rationing continued until 1954, nine years after the war had ended. How then, did Captain America, the paragon of American humanist and egalitarian virtue, spring from such poisoned fields?
Part of the answer is that World War II was good for the US as an economic and geo-political entity. Instead of being nearly obliterated, our national infrastructure and industrial capital had actually grown, and had reached a productive capacity unparalleled in history. With the end of the war, that capacity was maintained and even increased as American industry began turning out millions of tons of basic industrial material (steel, bricks, machine tools, machines, etc., etc.) needed to rebuild Western Europe and Japan. Military production was scaled back but still remained historically high for peace time as the Cold War heated up and the Soviet Union moved from being our ally to our enemy. All of this production insured that employment remained high in a booming economy that supported high wages, which in turn fueled a massive increase in the production and consumption of consumer goods from electric ovens to golf clubs, and spurred booms in housing, service, and entertainment industries. Finally, as the only nation state capable of standing against the military and economic force of the Soviet Union, our position as a global superpower capable of exercising not just influence over, but often able to command other nations was insured. All of this coming not just after World War II, but also after ten years of the Great Depression, made for one of the greatest comeback stories in history, and one well within living memory.
These two historical realities: World War II as the most appalling bloodletting the world had ever seen, and World War II as the event that ended the Great Depression and catapulted the United States into unprecedented prosperity and primacy, exercised a profound influence on the ways in which the war was remembered and interpreted in American culture. Seventy years after the end of the war, American culture deals not so much in the historical realities of World War II as in American memories of it. The phrase bears repeating and additional emphasis: American memories. This means a very nationalistic interpretation of the war, and one that is more concerned with ideology rather than historical accuracy. In the United States, World War II is sometimes known as “the good war” which was fought by the “greatest generation.” It is framed as a war with clear good guys (us) and clear bad guys (the Nazis), and one of self-evident good against undeniable evil. As such, the war was both just and noble, and victory evidence of American moral superiority and exceptionalism. This is also inescapably a white, male narrative. During World War II, Jim Crow still ruled the American South with laws even harsher than the Nazis’ infamous Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, and despite having won the right to vote in 1919, even middle-class white women were still second-class citizens, often unable to even sign contracts (including rental agreements) without a male co-signer. The propaganda about fighting for freedom overseas rang hollow in a nation and military hobbled by structural and institutional racism and sexism.
Also conspicuously absent in this vein of popular memories of America in World War II are our allies (with the exception of the British), particularly the Soviet Union, which did more fighting and dying in Europe – by far – than did the Western Allies, including the US, combined (US war deaths: 419,000. Soviet deaths: over 27 million.) Nor is the war in the Pacific emphasized, due in large part to its rapid devolution in propaganda and front-line attitudes into a true race war. This interpretation of the war grew out of official propaganda in the years before and during the war itself. The binaries of good v. evil, freedom v. slavery, right v. wrong were the mainstay of the Office of War Information (OWI) from workplace posters to Frank Capra’s astonishing Why We Fight film series. Hollywood film studios, in close cooperation with the OWI and War Departments, were some of the first, and perhaps most effective, organizations to spread this version of the war, along the way creating an entirely new film genre to do it. What Hitler and Tojo claimed were our weaknesses: a nation of immigrants, democracy, plurality; the vast cultural propaganda machine turned into our greatest strengths. Pick any Hollywood World War II war movie centered around a platoon or other unit of men, and you will find that group made up of a diverse cross-section of representative Americans: city and urban, white and Latino and/or African American, recent immigrants and several-generation natural born citizens, saints and sinners, tough guys and intellectuals. In the end, despite their differences, they come together as Americans to defeat the common foe finding unknown reserves of courage and ingenuity from each of their different backgrounds.
Again, what we are dealing with here is a cultural construct, not historical facts. This is how the government and Hollywood depicted the war and Americans in it, not how things actually were. These were not the only interpretations of the war, however, either during or after. Many, many voices were raised in counter-narratives that emphasized the brutality, suffering, and meaninglessness of the war, and its terrible physical, mental and spiritual effects on the Americans who fought it. Indeed, many of these voices were those of combat veterans who were unable to reconcile the Norman Rockwell-esque official narrative with the realities of death and horror they had experienced. James Jones, E.B. Sledge, Robert Leckie, and Samuel Fuller are just a few of the more famous examples. Hundreds of thousands more “spoke” daily to their families and friends, as vets returned to civilian life and millions dealt with usually undiagnosed neuropsychological conditions caused by their wartime experiences. Yet time has a way of blunting sharp edges. The 1950s and early 1960s were boom times in America, seeming like a reward for our victory on the side of light. The late sixties and 1970s provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on how we had lost our way after World War II, and needed to return to the supposed sureties and values of the past in order to correct the seeming chaos of the present. By the 1990s, with fewer and fewer World War II veterans still living every year, a new generation of filmmakers and writers like Stephen Spielberg, Steven Ambrose, and Tom Brokaw, and with the increasing invocation of World War II as an example of American victory in a just war to condone our involvement in modern conflicts, the propagandists won, and the triumphal narrative of American virtue and valor in the face of evil has largely prevailed in pop culture.
Steve Rogers as Captain America has been a part of this process of memory construction for almost 75 years. Timely Comics’ Captain America Comics #1 hit newsstands in December of 1940 (with a cover date of March 1941), roughly one year before Imperial Japan’s attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii brought the US into World War II. The issue’s famous cover showed the Star-Spangled hero leaping into a hail of bullets to land a powerful right hook square on Adolf Hitler’s jaw. The real world had served up a super-villain, and two first-generation Jewish Americans, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, had responded with a four-color comic book character who would outlive his foe for seven decades and counting, and become an integral part of the popular memory narrative of America in World War II. Cap’s war was just beginning, and would change several times in the coming years, each retcon linking him more closely to the conflict, and more tightly to the American myths that surround it to this day.
Coming in Part II:
I’ll be tracing the origins and evolution of Cap in the comics, from 1940 – 2015, and the ways in which the various artists and writers have, over the decades, strengthened his ties to World War II, and made him a symbol for the enduring American memories and myths of that war which are often called up to serve current social or political ends. Finally, I’ll look at the history and character elements that inform the MCU’s version of Captain America and Steve Rogers on the big screen.