The Holocaust in the American Imagination 1945-1978

The image of the Holocaust in the American imagination, which culminated in the placement of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., has experienced a definite ebb and flow in the years following World War II. Attempting to define the place of the Holocaust in the American zeitgeist is an exercise in the analysis of memory construction. During the 1930's and early 1940's, Americans attempted to suppress the images of terror and oppression that were steadily leaking from Nazi Germany. Dismissed as propaganda by many, the reality of the death camps was an unimaginable open secret during the war years. After the camps were exposed, Americans were appalled, experiencing (wrote historian Robert Abzug) "an almost unbearable mixture of empathy, disgust, guilt, anger and alienation" (Linenthal 5). This outpouring of feeling was channeled into other sources and other fears.

After Allied troops liberated the death camps at the end of World War II, Americans were deluged with images of death and Nazi atrocities. This sparked a wave of fear and revulsion, but was soon subsumed into terror of Cold War nuclear annihilation. The American public transferred the feelings evoked by footage of concentration camps into fear of the bomb in the post-war period. The Holocaust was not prominent in the American consciousness because it was too unbearable to contemplate or assimilate into a rational framework. The impulse to forget was too strong, and the threat of nuclear extermination too immediate. West Germany became an ally in the Cold War, and the Holocaust was virtually forgotten in the 1950's.

This forgetfulness was a temporary sublimation, however, and images of the Holocaust in the American imagination began to recur. In 1961, Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann went to trial in Israel. The proceedings were publicized world-wide, and more than a hundred survivors testified in Jerusalem. Dorothy Rabinowitz analyzed the effect of the trial, writing that for many it was a "galvanizing force, bringing [American Jews] face to face with emotions theretofore repressed, with events whose full scope and reverberations had been kept, rumbling, beneath the surface of consciousness" (Linenthal 9).

The most salient event in the resurrection of the Holocaust in American memory, however, occurred in 1967 with the Israeli victory of the Six-Day War. The president of Egypt was quoted as desiring the extermination of the Jewish people, raising the unavoidable specter of a second Holocaust, but with one crucial difference-- the Jews effected a resounding victory. This provided the missing link in the story of the Holocaust-- that of destruction followed by redemption; the creation and fortitude of the state of Israel. The vision of the Holocaust was much easier to countenance if it was followed by the establishment of a Jewish nation.

The next event which spurred interest in the history of the Holocaust was the Vietnam War. Anti-war activists used images of Nazi atrocities to link the United States with the perpetrators of the Holocaust, equating the soldiers at My Lai with storm troopers. The lack of American action to destroy the camps during World War II was compared to the passivity of the public regarding military action in Vietnam. At the same time, universities all over the country began teaching courses focussed on the Holocaust. Raul Hilberg argues that "After the disorientation of Vietnam, [American students] wanted to know the difference between good and evil. The Holocaust is the benchmark, the defining moment in the drama of good and evil. . . Against this single occurrence, one would assess all other deeds. And so, memorialization began in earnest" (Linenthal 11).

The place of the Holocaust in the American consciousness was now firm. In 1978, NBC aired a miniseries, The Holocaust, which attracted an audience of 120 million people. Film historian Judith Doneson asserted that "people in Idaho, North Dakota, New York-- throughout the United States-- were now initiated, albeit in a simplified manner, into the world of Nazi genocide against the Jews" (Linenthal 12). Several weeks later, President Jimmy Carter announced the creation of a commission on the Holocaust, charged with deciding on a suitable American memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The fifteen members would attempt to plan a physical embodiment of the lessons of inhumanity.

continue to The President's Commission on the Holocaust
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