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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

The social, cultural, and historical events that surround the time “Kilroy” was written and the time it takes place are some of the most studied, researched, and talked about happenings in history. The 1940s literally erupted onto the planet, spurred by Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of World War II. But the war’s real origins preceded that invasion by a decade and had a direct tie to America. Although the United States remained out of the conflict until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the seeds of worldwide unrest were sown in the Great Depression that rocked the American economy after the stock market crash in 1929. Devastating economic conditions in the United States meant even more devastating economic conditions in other countries, both industrial and Third World. Production levels dropped dramatically in America and elsewhere, causing world trade to plummet and unemployment to skyrocket. Governments in Europe, Asia, and Africa tried to protect their nations by becoming isolationists and adopting anti-free trade policies, thereby worsening tensions with other countries and creating fear within the minds of their own citizens. Throughout the 1930s, political and social changes took place, particularly in Europe, that carried those seeds of American economic depression into the winds of all-out war.

“Kilroy” may have a naive reader believing that war for the American GI was a great adventure, full of excitement and exotic travel, and it is true that the cartoon character with a long nose peering over a wall was a favorite graffiti symbol for American servicemen during World War II. While there are various accounts of who, if anyone, the real Kilroy was, the most accepted story is that he was James J. Kilroy, a shipyard inspector from Massachusetts. After he had looked at tanks, ships, and airplanes, the inspector scrawled “Kilroy was here” in chalk on the side of each one. Servicemen who saw the markings when the military transports reached them overseas helped spread the phrase, and somewhere along the way, the little cartoon face was added to it.

But the portrayal of a real soldier’s life is hardly represented by this poem, regardless of his or her nationality. Both military personnel and innocent citizens of all the countries involved felt the terrible forces of death and destruction as the Second World War escalated. In Japan, the 1930s saw the return to power of imperialistic and military leaders after the assassination of liberal Prime Minister Yuko Hamaguchi. This created tension between Japan and China, leading to the second Sino-Japanese war even before World War II began. In Italy, fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in a move to fuel his nation’s spirit and economy, taking control of the African country with little resistance. Meanwhile, in France, a coalition of socialists and communists seized control of the government after democratic French leaders were accused of corruption and murdering their opponents. And in Spain, a civil war between left-wing liberals and right-wing fascists left dictator Francisco Franco in charge of the country in 1939.

While all this turmoil played out in Europe, Asia, and Africa, Germany was quietly building its Nazi government, poising itself for the invasion of Poland—the first step in Hitler’s pursuit of world domination. Within a year of that invasion, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France—the major prize—all fell to German forces. In 1941, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia were added to the list. Throughout this time, the United States remained on the sidelines, except for supplying the Allies with military equipment. But things changed on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked America, and the United States entered the war. The accounts of American involvement in World War II are well known, from the decisive battle of Midway in 1942 to the Allies’ victory on the...

(The entire section is 1,898 words.)