Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson is anticipating this month’s publication of The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, the final installment of his acclaimed Liberation Trilogy, partly because of the opportunity it’s sure to give him to resume valuable interactions with fans of his books, when he notes how often they–and in this case one gentleman from Texas in particular–actually aid in his writing.
“Governor Rick Perry, with whom I probably don’t have a whole lot in common, other than the fact that he is a reader of military history, called me several years ago,” Atkinson says. “Somehow he got my cell phone number and told me that he liked the first volume of the Liberation Trilogy, and that he had become interested in a relative of his wife–a guy named Jack Golden, who was a Texas A&M graduate, fought in North Africa, fought in Sicily, landed on Omaha Beach, fought all the way across Europe, and was killed in April, 1945, just a few weeks before the war ended.”
Turns out, Governor Perry had conducted a good bit of independent research into Golden’s military career, and he wanted to know if Atkinson was at all interested in seeing it. Atkinson told the one-time presidential contender that he was, indeed, interested in checking out everything the governor had found.
“It’s been very useful to me,” Atkinson says. “I use Jack Golden. He puts in a cameo on several occasions in the third volume. Multiply that by, I don’t know, hundreds and those are the kinds of interactions I’m talking about.”
Atkinson may refer to his approach to researching and fact-checking as a “hodgepodge” of techniques, but it’s an approach that has allowed the former U.S. Army brat turned crackerjack Washington Post reporter to successfully reanimate stories and events, that, while compelling, unfolded seven decades ago.
Still, even across the vast backdrop of a three-volume trilogy, Atkinson has always remained acutely aware that he could never include all of the fascinating things he’s learned about the Second World War.
“You can’t tell it all,” Atkinson says. “That’s a mistake. In fact, part of the narrative art is deciding what to leave out. And it’s hard because you’ve invested a lot time and effort frequently in rounding up material. Little brush strokes of detail that brings something to life. And omitting that or cutting it can be something that is very painful. But that’s part of the job.”
After emerging from the hell of an entire world at war, Atkinson says that the United States came away with at least the subliminal belief in its own fundamental righteousness–and the idea that military force could sometimes solve national problems. Two notions that have had a dramatic impact on the nation’s history, especially in the last 20 years.
“There’s that great line by John Adams, ‘Power always thinks that it has a great soul,’" Atkinson says. “We came out of the war thinking we had a great soul. It’s not to say that we don’t have a great soul, but when you connect it with power, that’s a dangerous thought.”
For a generation of young Americans growing up in the shadow of terrorist attacks and the longest war in the country’s history, World War II may no longer be the clear, historical touchstone that it once was. But according to Atkinson, the “reverberations from the war 70 years later are strong and continue.
“It changed the way we look at race in this country. It accelerated racial equality,” he points out. “It changed the way we look at gender. It accelerated women in the workplace. It obviously changed the map substantially. It brought the advent of the Cold War and a bi-polar world. It enhanced and opened the way for an American empire.”
Atkinson spent 14 years chronicling the Second World War in his Liberation Trilogy–now that it’s complete, he’s looking forward to finally moving on.
“I have been there a long time,” Atkinson says. “It’s taken me a lot longer to write about it than it took for them to fight it. But I do have to be careful in the same way that the soldiers who were there had to be careful not to get nostalgic for it. Particularly for the early campaigns in North Africa, which in retrospect can seem relatively simple and clean in the sense that the narrative lines are pretty direct. It’s been a privilege to have the opportunity to delve into that world, to live in it, and to live with these extraordinary characters, all of whom have feet of clay, for so long.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in New York City.