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Rick Atkinson on Understanding the ‘Morally Indefensible’ Actions of WWII

In a web exclusive interview, author Rick Atkinson talks with PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez about what went into writing his latest book, “The Guns at Last Light”. Watch more of their interview on Thursday’s broadcast.

Knowing what we know now, says author Rick Atkinson, it might be easy to judge the actions taken during World War II, such as the deplorable treatment of black soldiers and the firebombing of inhabited cities.

But we shouldn’t let judgments block our understanding of what happened, said Atkinson. His new book is “The Guns at Last Light”, the final installment in the Liberation Trilogy, which also includes “An Army at Dawn” and “The Day of Battle”.

Around the time of World War II, the treatment of blacks in the U.S. military and on the home front was “morally indefensible,” said Atkinson. “I can’t begin as a historian to defend it, but I can try to understand it.”

As infantry units were depleting, the military allowed black soldiers to become privates and serve as riflemen in otherwise white units. It was an experiment of integration that worked well, he said, but after the war, the units dissolved and segregation returned.

Similarly, firebombing cities such as Dresden, Germany, was viewed as controversial even at the time, Atkinson continued, but many believed that in order to get the Germans to surrender, their cities had to be obliterated.

“I think when you walk a mile in their shoes it’s easier to understand, even as we can — 70 years after the fact — I think all agree that this is a pretty horrible way to make war.”

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