How does a devout Christian who has forsworn violence react when he’s asked to defend the United States in a global war? And not just any war, but one that ushered in death and destruction on a scale never before seen? That’s the question at the heart of Sergeant York (1941) starring Gary Cooper, one of the films featured in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new special exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust.
Sergeant York was based on the true story of Alvin York, a World War I hero who overcame his aversion to war and ultimately captured 132 German soldiers in the Battle of Argonne. Although the movie was set in World War I, its message was clear to audiences in 1941, who had been distant observers of World War II in Europe since September 1939. The United States had to intervene in another European war to stop a merciless German killing machine. (Alvin York insisted that Gary Cooper portray him in the film, even though Cooper was already 40 years old.)
Although the film made a plea for the United States to join the fight to defeat Nazism and save democracy, like almost every other Hollywood production of the era, it did not overtly attempt to generate sympathy for the victims of fascism. Major studio films like Sergeant York, Casablanca, andThe Mortal Storm were profoundly anti-Nazi movies, though none of them explicitly mentioned Jews. The reasons for this were many. Americans remained wary of intervening in war after the horrific losses experienced in World War I. The country was still trying to find solid economic footing after more than a decade of the Great Depression. And not least of all, antisemitism was pervasive throughout American society. As a result, some in Hollywood did not want to be perceived as advocating that the United States enter the fight against Nazism to save Jews targeted for murder. These films instead portrayed the fight against Nazism as necessary in order to preserve democracy and the American way of life.
The Best Actor Oscar that Cooper won for Sergeant York is on display in this special exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Cooper’s portrayal of York, a civilian reluctant to go to war who ultimately sees the necessity of doing so, mirrored the sentiments of a nation that largely wanted to avoid a second world war. Once York engaged in the war, he sacrificed mightily to win it. Millions of “Sergeant Yorks” also risked their lives to defeat Nazism during World War II, but they did not set out to save Jews. Through their service, western democracy triumphed over fascism. And while we owe them our eternal gratitude, we must also wonder what more could have been done to rescue the victims of Nazism had the message of films like Sergeant York been heeded earlier.
Daniel Greene, PhD, is curator of Americans and the Holocaust, a special exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. A web version of the exhibition may be found at www.ushmm.org/americans.