History seems pretty sure of itself now that it’s all over. Custer had a last stand; “Bloody Mary” would seem to have got up to something untoward; and the Crimean War may well have had something to do with the Crimea. The clue is in the name. When these events were happening, however, they had not yet been named and people didn’t quite know what to call this thing going on around them. They were probably too busy screaming and running away. And yet amidst the chaos, one man dared to make a stand for correct nomenclature: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On the 3rd of April 1942, President Roosevelt announced to the American press that “World War II” and “Second World War” were simply not good enough. He called for a new name for the war, something concise and descriptive that could be used in official papers. Personally I cannot see the President himself being the prime mover of this demand. They say that behind every great president is a great marketing department, and I feel sure that somewhere behind Roosevelt was the war’s imagineer: “World War II? I don’t think so. It lacks pizzaz, vavoom, sparkle motion. What this war needs is a makeover.”
And so it was on, the quest to rename the Second World War. Within the day the White House was flooded with telegrams suggesting new names for the war. Everyone had their own opinion about what it should be, from the sensible to the bizarre to the flat-out ridiculous. From the respectable camp we have the Freedom War, Liberty War, War of Awakening and the Anti-Nazi War. From the bizarre camp we have the All-Out War, War of the Hemispheres, War Against Japanism, Muss-Hiro-Hitler War and the Anti-Jig War (JIG being Japan-Italy-Germany). This leaves us with the bottom-of-the-barrel, grade-A crackpots of the first water, which are of course my own favorites: Evil Madness, Rat Killing, Totally Totalitarian War and War of the Universe. One veteran from the First World War even suggested Hell on Wheels, so that one could use it as an acronym and thus toast “Here’s HOW”.
Some contestants made comical attempts to out-do each other in cleverness. Chairman Sol Bloom of the House foreign affairs committee put in his vote for Your War, because “no matter who you are, where you are, or what you are — this is ‘your war.’” Former Congressman John McClelland had a bash at some ecclesiastical cleverness instead. He proposed to call it the War of Deliverance, after the line from the Lord’s Prayer to “deliver us from evil”. This thought is said to have struck McClelland as he was driving in his car, and I can well believe it. However neither of these (nor any of the other reaching attempts at cleverness) fulfilled Roosevelt’s requirements that the name be concise and descriptive.
Roosevelt’s own suggestion, “The Survival War”, is one of the more tolerable ideas: “That is what it comes pretty close to being — the survival of our civilization, the survival of democracy, the survival of a hemisphere — the newest hemisphere of all of them — which has developed in its own ways.” As to which hemisphere is newer than the others (and how many it might be competing against), I shall cast no speculation. Roosevelt’s words clearly moved many to propose names like War of the Hemispheres, but not everyone was inspired by Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for playing Name That War. Within a day of Roosevelt’s speech, George Bernard Shaw had already snapped back at the US President, saying, “Since you asked, it’s ‘The’ war now, and despite your disapproval probably will go down in history as the Second World War.” He even went so far as to dismiss the whole war as “ballyhoo”. Ballyhoo indeed, Mr. Shaw.
For all of Roosevelt’s insistence, nothing could stop his efforts sinking without a trace. Shaw’s prediction was correct. George Gallup conducted an opinion poll in 1942 and discovered that Second World War and World War II already topped the bill, followed by War for World Freedom. The Survival War ranked 8th most popular, just ahead of Australian Prime Minister John Curtin’s suggestion, the People’s War. Such grand designs were clearly not meant to be. By 1945 the term “World War II” was in such common usage that it had already been used in seven public laws. The Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy wrote to the President, now Harry S. Truman, that the government may as well bite the bullet and accept World War II for all official designations. Truman approved the very next day, and on the 11th of September 1945 the name of the war was finally made official.
- “Call It ‘People’s War’ Because We’re All in It?”. The Youngstown Vindicator 4 April 1942: 9. Print.
- “Designation of World War II”. Federal Register 10.184 (19 September 1945): 11881. Print.
- “Diary of Our Own Pepys”. The Evening Citizen 25 April 1942: 32. Print.
- “Flood of War Name Suggestions Pours In on White House”. The Youngstown Vindicator 4 April 1942: B4. Print.
- Gallup, George. “Many Suggest Names for War”. Spokane Daily Chronicle 30 April 1942 (Inland Edition): 2. Print.
- Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Excerpts from the Press Conference, April 24, 1942”. The American Presidency Project. Web. 4 July 2011 <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16247>.
- “Shaw ‘Settles’ Name of War”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 13 April 1942: 18. Print.
- “‘Survival War,’ is F.D.R. Choice”. The Painesville Telegraph 15 April 1942: 1. Print.
- “‘War of Deliverance’”. The Portsmouth Times 12 April 1942: 9. Print.