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60 Years Ago: Spinning the Casualties After D-Day

As the tally of American dead in Iraq moved in fits and starts toward the 1,000 mark, both opponents and proponents of the war geared up for the potential effects that the millennium number would have on public opinion. Intriguingly, it was exactly sixty years ago that the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced its own "threshold number" -- of 1.5 million casualties -- during World War II.

The increased tempo of combat operations following D-Day in France and the invasion of the Mariana Islands in the Pacific generated a steep jump in dead and wounded Americans that the U.S. Army called the "casualty surge." This increase was not only beyond what the Army anticipated but was so politically sensitive that the Roosevelt War Department changed, for the second time in 1944, how it reported losses to the American public through the civil press, and to the troops, through the Army publication Yank, which distributed up to 2.6 million copies weekly to reading-starved soldiers.

The War Department, through the administration's Office of War Information or its own Bureau of Public Relations, seldom released cumulative casualty data during the first year and a half after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, preferring instead to present this information at the conclusion of individual campaigns like Guadalcanal. By the middle of 1943, cumulative figures began to appear more regularly and were released on a monthly basis starting in the spring of 1944.

From the beginning, the extensive "nonbattle" losses due to sickness among troops in disease-ridden overseas theaters and psychiatric breakdowns, popularly known as "battle fatigue," were never included in these totals because there was no public demand for this information -- no squeaking wheel -- and because of fears that their inclusion would provide the enemy with a much fuller picture of the U.S. Army's effective fighting strength. Wounded were also removed from the totals for the latter reason after a brief appearance.

The exclusion of figures for both the sick and wounded, however, created problems because it drove down the number of reported military losses. At this point in the war, many Americans believed that the United States was shouldering far less of the war effort than its allies. This was a very sensitive subject, often raised in the media, that had a profound impact on everything from congressional elections to global war-planning with Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The Roosevelt administration's diligent efforts to manage this perception ultimately affected what the public was told about the U.S. Army's overall losses.

In the spring of 1944, the criteria for what the War Department publicly released as U.S. losses was expanded to include "honorable discharges" and "other separations" -- categories that had nothing to do with combat but implied that we were pulling a greater share of the load. In the space of one month, the published figures through April, 1944, jumped from 156,676 to 1,163,000 by the next release. The clear implication, if you didn't look too closely at how the number was constructed, was that most or all of these losses were combat related.

Unfortunately, the increased tempo of combat operations following D-Day simultaneously caused real casualties to soar. The casualty surge had begun. By the end of the first three months of fighting in France, it was clear that publicly released -- and inflated -- figures for the Army's total losses were on track to pass the 1.5 million mark late in 1944.

Such huge numbers would not escape notice by a public uneasy over the mounting local, name-by-name casualty lists appearing in nearly every hometown newspaper. The release of loss figures in this range would not only provide a long string of "zeros" guaranteed to command the attention of news writers and pundits, but also coincide with fresh combat along Germany's western frontier and in the Pacific.

Beginning in the fall, the Army publicly experimented with various formulas that narrowed the criteria for the casualty data it made public. A commonality of these new formulas was that they all had the effect of both (1) restarting the publicly released casualty counts from new, lower baselines, and (2) masking the rate of growth. Even this, however, did little to obscure the fact the U.S. was suffering an average of 65,000 casualties each and every month during the casualty surge with November, December, and January figures standing at 72,000, 88,000 and 79,000, respectively, in postwar tabulations.

In January 1945, the end of the war in Europe was in sight but the Roosevelt Administration announced its intention to induct 900,000 men by June to use as "replacements" for the continued effort against Japan. Battles raged in Congress over the tightening of draft deferments and the drafting of women nurses as even the newest casualty formula produced astronomical numbers in spite of its more restricted criteria.

The last cumulative U.S. casualty data released during the war were displayed in Yank's March 9, 1945 edition although Congress continued to receive escalating figures in closed session. Those final published casualty totals reached 782,180 seven months before Japan's surrender.

An irony of the casualty controversy sixty years ago was that a man lauded in the speeches of both American presidential candidates today, Harry S. Truman, has been savaged in recent years as having "made up" huge casualty estimates for the planned invasion of Japan to justify the dropping of atom bombs on Japan. This in spite of the fact that the New York Times and other newspapers ran front-page stories on the near doubling of the draft in January 1945.

The downward manipulation of casualty data in the fall of 1944 -- on the heals of creating radically larger numbers months earlier -- also had nothing to do with that year's presidential elections which the Roosevelt-Truman ticket was expected to win handily. Instead, it was the product of Roosevelt administration fears that the public would become "war weary" after the defeat of Germany and not be willing to fully prosecute the war against Japan, which it was then believed could last into 1947.

In more recent times, the conventional wisdom has been that as the number of Americans coming home in body bags climbs, the popularity of a serving president sinks. The theory, first postulated during the Korean War, seemed all but confirmed after President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to run for reelection in 1968. It received added weight when Richard Nixon defeated his Democratic rival in 1972 amid a steep downswing in American's Vietnam casualties which saw all-causes deaths shrink from 16,508 in 1968 to 551 in 1972.

But while pollsters have expressed surprise at the public's willingness to accept casualties in the "war on terror," and Americans have never thrown out a wartime president, much can happen to obliterate the slim lead that George W. Bush holds over his rival. On November 2, Americans will decide if he is to become the first U.S. president to be voted out of office in the midst of a war.

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    This article has drawn facts and figures from the upcoming"Spinning the Casualties: Media Strategies During the Roosevelt Administration," which will appear in the December edition of Passport, published by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.