A single month determined the course of the 20th century.
That’s what historian Craig Shirley writes about in his newest book, “April 1945: The Hinge of History.”
It’s Shirley’s follow-up to “December 1941,” in which the author and political consultant recounted stories from the lives of leaders and everyday Americans during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the days that followed.
The events of April 1945 are the bookend to the greatest war in human history, as Shirley outlines on this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
President Franklin Roosevelt died, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was captured and executed by his angry countrymen, and Adolf Hitler shot himself in a Berlin bunker alongside his mistress, Eva Braun, as the Red Army and Western armies closed in. Discovery of Nazi death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz revealed the depth of evil committed by the Nazi regime.
“What’s really interesting,” Shirley says, “is that The New York Times and The Washington Post rarely, if ever, reported that it was Jews who were primarily being exterminated by the Nazis.”
What followed was a world wholly changed. As the German Reich crumbled and the war drew down to its last days, the United States found itself in a new position as the unquestioned leader of the free world.
Listen to Shirley’s take on the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Fred Lucas: We are here with New York Times bestselling author and historian, author of many books on Ronald Reagan, Craig Shirley. His newest book is “April 1945,” about the month of April 1945, a hugely significant month in the history of the world, [which] came as World War II was coming to an end. Welcome to the show, Craig.
Craig Shirley: Thank you, Fred. Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be with you.
Lucas: If we could talk about a little bit about the book. This was a month that the world lost three hugely important world leaders: [Franklin D. Roosevelt] died, [Adolf] Hitler committed suicide, and [Benito] Mussolini was executed. Could you just talk about that a little bit in terms of what impact this had on America and the world and the outlook people had?
Shirley: Franklin Roosevelt’s death was one of those events that—there are times in America’s life where you remember where you were. You remember where you were on Dec. 7, 1941. You remember where you were on Sept. 11, 2001. You remember where you were on Nov. 22, 1963. And you remember where you were when—and my mother, God bless her, still alive and she remembers where she was when she heard that Franklin Roosevelt died.
Franklin Roosevelt had been omnipresent in Americans’ lives for 13 years, going back to the beginning of 1933. You saw him in the newsreels, you heard him on the radio, you saw him in the newspapers. He defeated Republican presidential candidates Alf Landon and Herbert Hoover and Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey. He defeated them easily and everybody knew.
Bob Dole wrote in his book “A Soldier’s Story” about being in a [foxhole] in Italy in April of 1944 and … trying to sleep there in the cold dirt at night and hearing the sound of soldiers around him weeping as the news spread of Franklin Roosevelt’s death.
His death touched everybody in America—and in fact, everybody in the world. [Winston] Churchill mourned him, [Charles] de Gaulle mourned him, Chiang Kai-shek mourned him, [Josef] Stalin mourned him.
They lowered the flags to half-staff in Moscow for an American president, if you can imagine that. Flags were lowered around the world. The war stuff kept going on, but it was burdened by the knowledge that Roosevelt wouldn’t be there to see the final victory over Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.
Hitler’s suicide was something else. Even though he committed suicide, interestingly enough, a lot of people didn’t believe it. They thought he had gone underground. They thought it was a body double that had committed suicide.
There was a lot of disbelief surrounding the suicide of this cowardly and odious man. And of course, for years mysteries surrounded him and conspiracy theories surrounded him, that he was still alive. That body remains, of course—when he left instructions that his body was to be burned after he committed suicide in the most cowardly fashion, he took a suicide pill and shot himself in the head.
And Eva Braun, who he married in the last few minutes of his life, she also committed suicide. Their bodies were taken outside the bunker where he was in Berlin and doused in gasoline and burned. They were later identified and taken back to the Soviet Union, where they were kept in refrigeration, the bodies were kept in refrigeration for many, many years. And in fact, they’re still there.
There were a lot of Germans who went through a period of remorse, like children being caught doing very naughty things and then being caught. And the German people, in fact, I think still today, even to this day, there’s a lot of remorse on the part of Germans.
And of course, the mere fact that no German emblem, no German swastika … you’re not allowed to print those in Germany. That’s their form of retribution, is to almost deny the existence of the Nazi state.
Mussolini, less so. He was a nasty, mean-spirited, evil man. He was overthrown in Naples by the mob, was dragged through the streets, was shot, was clubbed, was killed, was urinated on, had his jaw broken, all while he was dead. The mob did this to him and to his mistress.
But I mean, Hitler, we know he committed suicide. We’re glad he, I mean to be frank, we’re glad he committed suicide. If only he’d committed suicide years before, a lot of lives could have been saved—14 million, maybe more, could have been saved.
But the one who’s the longest lasting, whose legacy is the longest lasting and had the longest impact in terms of the mourning of him, but also his impact on international politics and national politics, is Franklin Roosevelt.
The New Deal has, for better or worse, become the extension of, today, the Build Back Better [Act], which is a macabre interpretation of the New Deal and, fortunately, has died in the Senate.
But he made the Democratic Party, the modern Democratic Party, what it is today, which is the party of, as Harry Hopkins said, “Tax and tax. Spend and spend. Elect and elect.” And that is the mantra of the Democratic Party and has been ever since the New Deal. His stamp is all over the modern Democratic Party and to some degree, the Republican Party, too.
He made both parties, and not consciously, but by the act of Dec. 7 and the acts of Dec. 10, of Germany and Italy declaring war on the United States, he then made America, then the Democratic Party, then the Republican Party, internationalists. And we have been ever since.
Lucas: Following up on a point that you made a little earlier about, for a lot of Americans, FDR was the only president they knew in their lifetime. Was there a lot of trepidation in America when Harry Truman stepped in this role, whether he was ready for this role?
Shirley: Yeah, yeah. Fred, that’s a great question. It is amazing how Americans can seamlessly move from one era to the other. Before 1962, we hadn’t launched a man in space. And in 1962, we launched John Glenn into space.
This is an astonishing thing, a man in space, a man outside the Earth’s gravitational pull. And yet we moved seamlessly from, we were men of the Earth, to being men outside the Earth, to being galactic men. And yet we went about our lives as if nothing ever happened. People went to work, they rode buses, they cooked meals, they raised babies. And it was the same thing with FDR dying and Truman becoming president.
There was a period of mourning on the part of all Americans. And they listened to it on the radio and looked at it in the newspapers and things like this. And they went to church and that.
But the American experiment is astonishing and miraculous because tanks don’t roll in the streets, troops aren’t deployed, there are no house-to-house searches. We move seamlessly from one president to another and take it as simply as a matter of course, that this is the way things happen. This is the way things are done in the United States.
So there was speculation, “Well, Truman will be more conservative”, or, “Truman will be less isolationist,” or, “Truman will be more anti-communist.” All of which are true. Truman was more anti-communist, because the communists at Potsdam and other places acted like royal a——-. And of course, they tried to invade Greece right after the war. And Truman was forced to send the Eighth Fleet to the Mediterranean to repulse them.
So there was the idle chatter, the parlor game about what kind of president he was going to be. But the mere fact that he had become president was an accepted fact.
Lucas: In this book, you write about how the Holocaust was really discovered, the horrors of all this out there. Could you talk a little bit more about that and how that was a shock to so many people?
Shirley: You know what’s interesting? The Russians discovered Auschwitz; Dachau was discovered, I believe, by the Americans; but there were all over Western, Eastern Europe 200 or 300 death camps. It wasn’t just Auschwitz, it wasn’t just Dachau, it wasn’t just Treblinka … there were hundreds of death factories for killing all over Europe.
And of course, the Jews of Europe, but also anybody who’s a political opponent of the Third Reich, anybody who opposed. Russians, homosexuals, gypsies, they also—it was 6 million Jews, but it was also 4 million people in the other categories who were put to death in these factories for killing.
But what’s really interesting, Fred, is that The New York Times and The Washington Post rarely, if ever, reported that it was Jews who were primarily being exterminated by the Nazis. They would say, “Well, these people died at Auschwitz,” or, “These people died,” “News report: Dachau,” blah, blah, blah. But they never reported there was Jews.
It’s a really tragic thing that they chose to ignore this faith and these people and this creed, and it’s almost like killing them a second time by denying their existence as a people, but just merely reporting them as numbers. It was a terrible thing done by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Of course, The Washington Post was, at the time, a Jim Crow newspaper, was a paper of the South, and when a black person was arrested or died or became a firefighter, any other thousand ways they were reported, the newspaper would say, “John Popp, Negro, today was arrested for breaking and entering,” or ” … today was hailed as great hero in Europe.” But for a white person, they would simply say, “John Popp today was hailed for his breakthrough discovery in cancer medicine.”
So they didn’t report that a white person was white, but they reported that an African American was a Negro. And that, of course, is a holdover of its Jim Crow past. And it was a terrible thing.
Lucas: Yeah. And there have been books about The New York Times, their treatment of the Holocaust and other things as well.
Lucas: If you can talk about a little bit, you’ve always been a great storyteller and gotten into—
Shirley: I don’t know about that, but thank you, Fred.
Lucas: Well, kind of the next layer of history, which is how it affects real people, can you talk a little bit about that beyond just the politicians, how this book really gets into the story of America during that time?
Shirley: Oh, well, it talks about marriages and divorces of women; record keeping was a lot more specious, a lot more dubious in those days, we didn’t have computers, it was all on card files.
So a woman might marry a man who was going overseas to then get his military pay and then she’d go on to marry a second man and then he’d go overseas and she’d get his pay. And then she’d marry a third man and they’d get married and he’d go overseas and then she’d get his pay. And she might marry up to 10 different men and get the overseas military pay of 10 different men. And then only to be later discovered.
The Japanese internment camps. I always wondered what happened when they were sent to internment camps. All recording devices, anything that was deemed, Fred, of being of danger to the state was collected and archived.
So if you were Japanese and you had a modest income and you were working in the fields in California and you were sent to an internment camp in Montana or Nevada or New Mexico, they would confiscate anything you had, like a camera or a tape, a wire recorder, not tape recorder, but they had wire recorders then, or any material. Maybe you had a little tiny newspaper and you used to print it, that would be confiscated. All cameras … were especially property to be confiscated by local police, by the state police, or by the FBI.
And of course, something like, they didn’t keep accurate records at the time, but maybe 100,000, maybe about 150,000 Japanese Americans were sent to these internment camps under Herbert Hoover or under Franklin Roosevelt and Earl Warren. And I always wondered at the end of the war, after they were released from the internment camps, did they get back their cameras and wire recorders, printing presses, and things like that? What happened to it all? I mean, can you imagine?
Now, they don’t know how many went to the internment camps because sometimes the FBI had jurisdiction, sometimes state police had jurisdiction, sometimes the local law authority organization had jurisdiction, so it wasn’t always coordinated. It was never kept on computer files. So they don’t know accurately, but they estimate about 150,000 were sent to internment camps. And I always wonder what happened, if they ever got back their cameras.
Lucas: We talked about before, the GI Bill came out this year. And this was something that the Ivy League presidents had opposed at the time.
Lucas: Could you, I guess, elaborate on that a little bit?
Shirley: Yeah, sure, Fred, of course. And it’s outside the parameters of “April 1945,” but I am aware of it, is that under Truman and I think the then-Republican Congress, somebody came up with the brilliant idea, we owe these guys something, who just spent maybe four or five, six years in war, because in World War II, it wasn’t like Vietnam where if you got a splinter in your finger, you were sent home.
If you were injured, they’d patch you up and then you went right back in the fleet, or you went right back in the Army. They had leaves and stuff like that, but otherwise, you served for the duration of the war. So we really owed these guys, what was called the Greatest Generation, we owed these guys something. And that was a college education paid for by the U.S. government.
And it was the state universities that welcomed them, Michigan State University, or Indiana State, or Idaho State, or Arizona, or Arizona State, or Texas, they welcomed these returning GIs.
But it was the effeminate elites of the Ivy Leagues who testified before Congress against the American GI trampling around on their pristine lawns and college campuses. They were the ones who were most vociferously, the elites were most vociferously against the people—which is kind of the story of all time, is that the elites of Washington today are, on issue after issue, we see them fighting the needs, wants, desires of the people.
Lucas: Last question. We’re still a few months away, of course, from the atomic bomb in Japan.
Lucas: Could you kind of talk about, in this book, what do we have in terms of the story, where they’re building up to that point?
Shirley: Well, Roosevelt had appointed [Douglas] MacArthur supreme commander for the southeast area of Asia and [Chester W.] Nimitz was appointed supreme commander of the Pacific fleet. And so you can see the two of them together moving their forces slowly, slowly, using the Seabees, using island hopping, moving toward an eventual invasion of Japan.
And you cannot underestimate the work of the Seabees at all, what they did in all these hundreds of little tiny islands that we needed to have as landing bases.
So they would go, an island would be taken from the Japanese, and then the Seabees would come in and—think of these islands down in the Pacific, they’re hot, they’re humid, they’re infested with poisonous snakes and mosquitoes and bugs and things like that.
And they would go in and they’d chop down trees and they’d dig out roots and they would level the field and pave it over, at least with dirt, smooth it over with the machinery and bare hands and equipment and axes and hammers and things like that, and make a rudimentary airfield for big and small planes to land. And then they’d finish their work and move on to the next island that MacArthur or Nimitz captured.
Proceeding across the Pacific, up the southeast peninsula, and every island taken is then an airfield and a base was put in there in maybe just a few weeks.
And the Seabees were interesting because they were made up of mostly older men, men who … maybe they’d been a schoolteacher for 20 years, but they wore glasses, they couldn’t go into active service because they were either too old or they had bad eyesight, or they had a limp or something, but they could work in Seabees.
And there’ve been lots of books written about them and thank God, because what they did—their unofficial motto was, “Can do. Did. Done.” And they’re just a marvelous branch of the U.S. Navy and the invasion across the Pacific and up the coast was impossible without their work.
I guess one of the things that really sticks in my craw, many things stick in my craw, how the Japanese treated Americans, the monstrous ways they treated Americans in the Bataan Death March, the horrible monstrous ways.
Like they might take an American prisoner and tie him down and throw little seeds of bamboo sprouts under his body, knowing the bamboo sprouts would grow overnight and they would literally grow through a man who was staked out. They would grow through and kill him. And depravations of water and the beatings and the killings.
There’s one story where they had a detachment of Marines as [prisoners of war], and they made them dig a hole, a large trench in the sand, and told them to get down in. And then when they got down in, they threw gasoline on them and burned them to death.
There was an island of peaceful Polynesian people who were very friendly to the Americans, but they weren’t really involved in the war. I mean, they might pass a message along or something like this, or a token or something, but they were pretty primitive people. But the Japanese came in and one day, it was in the Fijian island chain, and machine-gunned them all to death, the entire lot.
… The one thing, too, Fred, that I’d like this book to clear up is, the Germans have always gotten a better treatment of POW camps, especially of American and British flyers, than they deserved. They were just as monstrous to their POWs as the Japanese were.
I remember, I recall one story that what was called Malmedy France, where a group of about 75 American flyers were trotted out in the open ground and then, for no reason, machine-gunned to death by the Germans. And then the Germans went, the dead men or the dying men, they went through and they shot them. And then they went through their pockets and pickpocketed, looking for money and pocketknives and pocket watches, things like that.
So don’t think for a minute that the Germans were kind to their POWs. They weren’t. They were monsters, just as the Japanese were monsters.
Lucas: Really appreciate your joining us today.
Shirley: Sure, Fred. I hate to end on a down note.
Lucas: Well, we’re talking about a world war, so there’s not a great way to end it.
Shirley: No. I’ll tell you one thing. Let me just tell you one thing that your readers will like, or your listeners like to hear, is that, this is a fun fact: Lou Gehrig died in April 1945 and he left his estate when he died, his estate, he left his widow Eleanor Twitchell Gehrig with only $171,000. That’s all.
And interestingly enough, there was some trophies, obviously, that he got that were left and they went up for auction. And for instance, the trophy he got when he announced to the people at Yankee Stadium that he was the luckiest man ever born, when people knew that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease and was going to die, that statue only went for $5 and his most valuable player trophy, which he got several years earlier, only went for $1.
Can you imagine? Those things must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars now, maybe even millions of dollars, and they went for $1 and $5 in April 1945.
Lucas: That’s amazing. OK. Wow. Sounds like a great book. It’s “April 1945” by Craig Shirley.
Shirley: Thank you. Good talking with you.
Jarrett Stepman contributed to this report.
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