White Cliffs of Dover

“There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover/ Tomorrow, when the world is free.”

That’s one of those songs that makes me choke up every dang time I hear it. I can’t sing it through without crying. I think it is because of all the hopes and might-have-beens in the lyrics, of just how strongly the singer wants everything to be better, for the bad guys to be gone, and for Johnny to be home again.

And I know that’s not how the story ended.

I always want to stop teaching the class with V-J day, with the victory parades and home comings, with the sailor kissing the nurse, with men cheering because they will not be invading Japan. I want it to end with

“Homecoming Marine” (detail), Norman Rockwell, 1945 Oil on canvas. Cover illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” October 13, 1945 ©1945 SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

and they all live happily ever after, just like the song says.

But it didn’t happen that way, because of the Soviet Union, and the Chinese Communists and Chinese Nationalists, and European imperial powers that would not go quietly into history, and native peoples who wanted the imperialists gone so they could dominate the other tribes/clans/religions/what-have-you. Looking back, we know that for the US, the rest of 1945 was a respite, the quiet end of the chapter, and that in a very few years, China would be taken over by the Communists, Korea would explode into war, and “Love and laughter and peace ever after” would fade back into the realm of Plato’s Ideals, or of a future, better world that would only come after a great Last Battle and the coming of the New Jerusalem.

For some reason I’m having more trouble getting through this part of the teaching season than before. I think because last year I lost Grandpa’ Carl, Tex, Werner, and a number of other WWII vets that I worked with and whose stories and experiences I cherished. And because I want the story to end with a happily-ever-after, want it more than I can remember ever wanting it before. Dang if I know why. Perhaps because I’m watching the global situation, watching the shadows spread over Europe again, watching freedom of speech restricted in Canada and Germany and other places in the name of “protecting” people from “false news” or “hurtful ideas” and I want to yell, “D-mn it, don’t you remember how this ended last time?!?”

It’s hard to remember that for a lot of people, at least in the US and Canada and other parts of the free world, things did go very well after WWII, and they prospered, and raised happy families, and lived to see a better world, one where disease didn’t kill so many children, where everyone who wanted them could have electric lights, where food became plentiful and clothing cheap and speech was far freer than ever before, and more and more people had hope for an even better world. We hear so much about how bad things were in the 1950s-1970s that even I tend to forget that no, in many ways the world got better for a lot of people. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution “filled the mouth of famine” for millions of people (as Kipling put it.) The US and western Europe gave how many millions of people hope that an alternative existed? Untold numbers, no matter how hard the dictators tried to stop the word from getting through.

But I still want one happily-ever-after in history, just one day when the students and I can cheer, and celebrate a victory, and leave feeling like all will be well forever. But we have to wait for 1989 to do that. And I have to get through that lesson without breaking down with tears of memory and joy. I didn’t make it last year. Perhaps I never will.


4 thoughts on “White Cliffs of Dover

  1. November 9th, 1989 was a chilly Thursday night. A few hundred people crossed cautiously through the checkpoints into West Berlin. They got their two hundred Marks, bought radios and meat, and looked around in wonder. Then they went home and told their friends and families that it was all true.

    The world had changed. Friday evening after work, the party started, and several million people​ celebrated.

  2. Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history, well, we have to watch the fools try again with something that will most likely end badly.

    I know it’s fashionable to bash US and western society in the 1950s, but in many ways I would prefer it to that of today. And I certainly tend to read as much or more fiction from that era than I do contemporary works.

  3. That song is potent. Perhaps the more jovial “Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma” by Spike Jones might not trip whatever it is as much?

    And, oh yes. I had speculated on a person born in the USA about 1923 or so… he’d most likely be on a farm and the farm economy was lousy even during the “boom” – and then just as he became aware of The World.. the Great Depression hits things get worse. Then the war… and the USA gets involved in it and.. if he survived that, well, after the worst depression (the word ‘recession’ being invented to avoid using ‘depression’) the biggest war…. the rest must have seem easy. And then the Golden Age overall… atomics and the idea (if not the reality) of cheap, plentiful power. Rockets going into space – the stuff of fiction turning real. And drugs that really, really worked and entire wards being closed down as no longer needed. And the vaccines for what antibiotics couldn’t do. I related that to a fellow who pretty much lived that (he joined the army to get off the farm, in 1940, knowing full well war was coming – he wanted off the farm that bad.) He was on the ship home from “stringing wires through the jungle” when Truman gave the speech telling of the bombing of Hiroshima. He replied that “yeah, it was about like that.” He spent the next few decades with the power company, still stringing wires and such – but nobody was shooting at him.

    Much of the music and fiction of the 1950’s or so is upbeat and optimistic. One can feel the optimism. Despite the complaints of “cheap plastic” instead of metal or wood or whatever heard well into the 1970’s at least, there was something about new materials. My aunt gave us the old 1950 set of World Book Encyclopedia sometime in the 1970’s (still useful for much – and being closer to WWII, likely had more information on such) and included the yearly updates that I found very interesting. A couple throw-away blurbs of stories resonate. One fellow took a collection of pigs ears and with sufficient application of chemistry synthesized something resembling silk. No mention of it being made into a purse was there, though. Another fellow made some balloons of lead foil and at least some held enough helium long enough to float/fly – decades before MythBusters. It does seem a time of “That’s impossible!” being met with a grin and “Let’s just see about that!”

    But yeah, things weren’t perfect, much of the world was far worse off and some parts seemed determined to stay worse off. I’d rather have the enthusiasm than the despair. I do notice something. The music that was the go-to for older but not too old (like Big Band…alas) was the 1950’s stuff… and to a degree still is. There is another decade that is similar now. 80’s sets seem to be rather popular. Gee, what happened in the 1980’s? Oh yeah, we (USA) started feeling good again.

    • You make an excellent point about the 1980s. I remember a TV news story from 1980 or 1981 which talked about a resurgence of pride in our nation and how that would be the tone for the next decade as the upcoming generation turned from the excesses of the late 60s and 70s. (I was not here for the 1950s, thank you very much.)

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