56 pages 1 hour read

Studs Terkel

“The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II was published in 1984 and received the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction the following year. Written by Studs Terkel, the book is still considered a classic of oral history. Unlike traditional history, which tends to rely on written records and other material artifacts like works of art and literature or archaeological remains, oral histories collect information about past events through interviews with individuals who were there. Oral historians interview various people who lived through events or knew certain past individuals, and they preserve the details through transcriptions or audio and video recordings.


Like most oral historians, Studs Terkel casts a wide net. He talks not only to admirals, generals, famous film directors and critics, and former ambassadors, but also to people who lived through World War II as rank-and-file soldiers and sailors or as civilians. Terkel’s goal is to provide a comprehensive view of World War II through multiple individuals who had different experiences of the war; who came from various class, racial, and gender backgrounds; and who held different political views and life experiences. While “The Good War” is largely written from an American perspective, there are narratives from Japanese, German, British, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian individuals who lived through the war as well.


As the title suggests, “The Good War” focuses primarily on World War II (1939-1945). However, because the book was composed many years after the war ended, the interviewees also discuss the Cold War (1947-1991) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). “The Good War” is organized in four books. Each book is divided into chapters that concentrate on certain types of individuals. Also, each chapter can be further broken into subsections that focus on a certain interviewee.


The quotation marks around the title are crucial to understanding Terkel’s purpose. Because World War II was fought against the brutal and openly expansionist regimes of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, it is usually remembered as “the good war.” Further, World War II brought an age of unprecedented prosperity to the United States, and its social impact helped bring about the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s.


Terkel’s interviewees complicate this view. Although World War II was fought against nations responsible for atrocities such as the Holocaust, and though it did provide economic opportunities to women, African Americans, and people impoverished by the Great Depression, it was also a devastating war in which millions died, became physically disabled or disfigured, and were traumatized. It failed to deter any future wars, and it led directly into an era under which the entire world lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Through these interviews, the text asks whether any war, even if fought against an evil threat, can ever truly be a “good war.”