Matthew Litt is the author of the new book, Christmas 1945: The Greatest Celebration in American History. It is the story of the first Christmas following the end of WWII, with the soldiers coming home and President Harry Truman declaring an unprecedented four-day federal holiday.
The U.S. Military launched “Operation Magic Carpet” to get tens of thousands of GI’s in Europe and Asia home for Christmas, and at home, the U.S. Army and Navy launched “Operation Santa Claus” to process those thousands of GI’s for discharge in time for Christmas. The newly-discharged veterans set out for home, clogging rail depots, bus stations and airports creating, at that time, the greatest traffic jam in the nation’s history. Some of the more fortunate were driven thousands of miles home by grateful citizens doing everything they could to show their gratitude and create a happy homecoming.
Across the nation, people reached out to wounded veterans, children who lost fathers,and neighbors who lost sons. Americans in big cities and small shared their renewal of spirit and prayers for peace. Mr. Litt answered my questions about his project.
How did you get started in researching the first post-WWII Christmas celebration?
I didn’t intend this to be a book at first. Back when I started my research in 2004, I was practicing a different type of law – white collar crime / insurance fraud. I was on the good guys’ side, but I was dealing with a disappointing element of human nature on a daily basis. I had trouble leaving my work at the office, and needed something to help me unwind when I rode the subway home at the end of the day. I set out to find the best in human nature, and came up with the idea to research Christmas of 1945. I started printing out newspaper archives from the week of Christmas 1945 for my ride home, and became hooked.
What were your primary sources?
Mostly newspapers from December, 1945. I did everything I could to diversify the sources, drawing from papers from big cities, small towns, the east and west, north and south, etc. I also used Church bulletins from across the country, period magazines and Army and Navy newsletters.
Were you able to conduct interviews with veterans and their families?
I was able to conduct interviews with many veterans and their families thanks to the cooperation of senior communities throughout New York and New Jersey. These were indispensable in giving me an accurate context for Christmas 1945.
How many military were able to make it home?
“Home” is a loaded word relative to Christmas 1945. The military tried to get as many men as possible to their homes, but were overwhelmed by the sheer number. Storms at sea delayed transport ships, and delayed countless thousands. The services did a good job getting men home in the sense that they were on U.S. soil for Christmas, but countless thousands didn’t make it to the family dinner table in time for Christmas. There’s a great quote in the book from a soldier who had just hung up the phone with his mom. He exclaims to the newspaper correspondent that she’s holding Christmas dinner until he gets home; Christmas this year would be whenever he makes it back, whether that was Dec. 25, 26, 27 or beyond. The traffic jams were the worst in history, and there’s no telling how many men made it back to U.S. soil, but celebrated Christmas somewhere in-between their point of debarkation and home.
What led to Truman’s decision to declare a four-day holiday?
The federal employees had earned it. The War meant that new and plentiful jobs were available in Washington, which drew people from all across the country. Every job was viewed as critical during the War, so these people could not be spared during the wartime Christmases for the amount of time it would have taken them to go from Washington to their hometown and back again meaning that it had been as many as 4 years since many of these men and women had been home for a proper Christmas. With the War over, they could finally be spared for a four-day holiday.
How well did public transportation and communications work during this era?
Public transportation worked well, all things considered. They were packed far past capacity which caused fantastic delays. But they figured it out as they went along and plowed through. There were no major incidents.
What did communities do to welcome the soldiers home?
There are stories of communities welcoming their boys home with huge celebrations. But more often than not at Christmas 1945, the winter weather, over-crowding at military separation centers and traffic jams meant that no one knew precisely when their soldier was getting home. I came across many great stories of soldiers who snuck into their homes late at night – their parents found out they were home when they found their coat or shoes on the mat when they woke up the next morning.
Do you have a favorite incident in the book?
My favorite is a story about a young veteran in Philadelphia. He bought an engagement ring and planned to propose to his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, but had an idea for a unique proposal. So he bought a box of chocolate from the local candy store and asked the clerk to wrap the ring box within the box of chocolate. The clerk brought the ring and the chocolate and the box to the basement to be wrapped. She dropped the box, but didn’t realize that the ring had fallen out. No more than 10 minutes later, the clerk’s mom was in the basement and found an engagement ring lying on the floor! The clerk was mortified, but she had no way to find the soldier who had just left the store. She contacted the newspaper, and the paper ran a story with the hope that the soldier would read it and return to the store. The solider didn’t see the multiple articles, but it seemed as if the rest of the city of Philadelphia (and much of the country) had. At a few minutes past midnight on Christmas morning, the soldier proposed. His girlfriend opened the box of chocolates and saw the ring box. With bated breathe she opened it, and it was empty. The commotion that followed woke up the young woman’s little sister who had been reading the stories in the newspaper and explained what happened. The soldier didn’t know what to do, so he called the candy store and, at a few minutes past midnight, the clerk was there and answered the phone! She had resolved to spend Christmas Eve and morning in the store until he called so that she could answer the phone.
What did people in the US have to give up during the wartime Christmases?
Meat, coffee, sugar, gasoline (and other related commodities that limited private auto travel), shoes, rubber goods, canned goods.
What are the most important lessons we can learn from this moment in history?
I love this question. The most important lessons are that there is nothing this country cannot accomplish, and no challenge or divisions so great that we can’t come together to meet it. The domestic challenges facing this country at Christmas 1945 were unprecedented in scope, and nearly as great as the international challenges during the War. After four years of wartime selflessness, America had to deal with labor strife, issues of re-employment and unemployment, extreme housing shortages, clothing shortages and civil rights issues. At Christmas 1945, America was able to put these things aside, if just for four days, and come together as one for a curtain-call of sorts of wartime unity. I don’t want to minimize the domestic issues we face in this country in 2010, they are not insignificant, but they are nothing compared to what the nation faced at the end of 1945. If they could come together, then so can we.
This isn’t director Doug Liman’s first spy movie. The director of the first “Bourne” film and the movie that brought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” is among the best at showing us stunt-filled sagas with chases, explosions, and gunfights. But in this true spy story, Liman makes scenes of two people talking quietly as tense and scary as a shoot-out.
I spoke to Liman at Washington D.C.’s legendary Mayflower Hotel about “Fair Game,” based on the story of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, played in the film by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. I think it is one of the best films of the year.
I have met Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame and I think you and the cast captured them very well.
That’s one of the nice things about talking to the press in Washington. People here really do know Joe. It’s hard to find a reporter here who hasn’t met Joe Wilson. As portrayed in the film, it’s pretty accurate that he was out there. And not universally loved. But I love those people. Even when we’re at the Cannes film festival, Joe and Valerie were there, and people were asking, “Is it really real?” “What’s real and what’s not real?” — and we devoted a lot of effort to making sure that everything you see in the film did happen and is not exaggerated. So we’re at a party on the beach and right on cue you hear some squeal of feedback and Joe Wilson has found a microphone! On the beach! And Joe is giving a speech. People gathered, and “thanks everybody,” and then goes on to talk about how the Bill of Rights is really a Bill of Responsibilities — he is the character you see at the end of the movie.
I loved the way you gave us a spy who is not kick-boxing or attending glamorous events so she can sneak into the bad guy’s office and crack open his safe. She’s not “James Bondette.”
She’s not scaling the side of a building like Angelina Jolie does in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” But she still puts herself in harm’s way, getting into a strange man’s car in Kuala Lumpur. Being driven down remote windy roads with the nephew of an arms dealer. In real life, tht would be terrifying. In movies, we want to see someone hanging off the side of a cliff. But once you ground it in reality, the real-life things people do as spies are really extraordinary.
It’s not all that dissimilar to being a lawyer doing a deposition. You need to know everything about them before you walk into the room. It is preparation. It is methodical, hard work. That’s one of the reasons it was so outrageous what was done to our national security for political reasons. She was at the peak of her career. It takes 20 years to get to put the groundwork in to really accomplish things. The CIA is not like the movies where you get the assignment and an hour later you’re parachuting behind enemy lines. These operations take years and years of development of painstaking relationships and that all evaporate in the blink of an eye.
How do you respond to those who say this is a partisan film?
It’s not anti-Bush. It’s not partisan. I showed the film to one of Scooter Libby’s lawyers. The most villainy of the film is put onto Scooter Libby because we had the most facts about his guilt. I said, “Go ahead and poke holes in it.” I put it through a vetting process before making the film and even in post-production because new information was always coming in. The only hole the lawyer could find in the movie was he said, “You put scary music over Scooter Libby.” But the facts are in fact the facts; they cannot be challenged. Maybe telling this particular story versus telling a different story is an issue, but to me this is a film about an issue that should be unifying us not polarizing us, about the right we have as Americans to speak out and criticize our government without the fear of reprisal. That’s what it is to me to be an American. This is a story about someone speaking out against our government and the White House trying to destroy him.
David Andrews gives an extraordinary performance as Scooter Libby.
Casting is everything. I put a huge amount of work into casting and consistently across my career I am most proud of my bold choices I made in casting. You can’t say casting Sean Penn was a bold choice because he had just won an Oscar for best actor. But I was under a lot of pressure to put a movie star in as Scooter Libby because those are the only scenes without Joe or Valerie. They said, “If you don’t cast a movie star, those scenes won’t survive because people just want to watch movie stars.” I knew that from “The Bourne Identity.” A lot of great scenes ended up on the cutting room floor people Bourne wasn’t in them and people just wanted to follow Matt Damon. David Andrews did such a phenomenal job in his audition, I thought even though Sean Penn has just won the best actor Oscar, this was someone who could go toe-to-toe with him.
How do you maintain suspense when people know what really happened?
People don’t know, for the most part. Most of what’s being told in this movie has never been succinctly reported anywhere. Most people don’t know what Valerie Plame did for a living. And there has been so much intentional mis-information. It was crazy that people bought into it. It was self-referentially hypocritical. They said she was important enough to send him to Niger but not important enough to matter. Nobody was seeing that discrepancy. For me, this is a side of the story that’s never been told, what it felt like from their point of view.
My films are very rooted in specific people’s point of view. Some film-makers give a more global point of view, like God looking down at the characters. My films are more like you’re in the car with Jason Bourne and you only see what he sees. You very rarely cut to see someone else’s point of view. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” — every scene is from those characters’ point of view. They’re in literally every scene, very unusual in a big studio film. In keeping with that philosophy of film I’ve been developing, to see this story play out entirely from Joe’s or Valerie’s point of view, is a side of the story people have not seen before.
What about the other characters?
Because Valerie and Joe were participating, which is a bold move on their part. I’m an outspoken person myself and my films tend to be about anti-heroes, so they knew I was not going to sugarcoat it and show the bad stuff as well as the good stuff, and I’m forever grateful. Nobody in the White House would cooperate with me but because of the various criminal and Justice Department investigations I had an enormous amount of material that could be trusted.
People recounted specific scenes that took place inside the White House but there wasn’t enough material to balance the film the way I would have wanted. So I decided to borrow from Steven Spielberg. Most people know that when he was making “Jaws,” the shark never worked right, so he didn’t have nearly as much footage as he wanted. What he discovered by accident, which made him a superstar director, was that the less you saw of the shark, the scarier it was. So with “Fair Game,” the White House was going to be my broken shark. I wasn’t going to have enough material for inside the White House, but it would be scarier to see less of it. You’re on the outside looking at this monolithic building that houses the most powerful men in the world who are hellbent on destroying you. And you don’t get to see what they are doing. You can just be scared.
When it says “Inspired by true facts” at the beginning of a movie, we are warned that there may be little relationship between what we see on screen and what really happened. But in the case of next week’s “Unstoppable,” the runaway train movie starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, the real story is uncomfortably close to the heart-thumping adrenaline rush we see in the movie. While the characters and their situations and relationships are fictional, some of the most unbelievable moments in the movie are those that really did happen.
It happened in 2001, near Toledo, Ohio. (The movie is set in Pennsylvania.) A runaway SD-40-2 locomotive with 22 loaded and 25 empty cars amounting to a total of 2898 gross trailing tons ran for 66 miles carrying cargo that included molten phenol acid, a highly flammable and toxic substance. According to the official report on the CSX runaway train incident, as in the movie, the engineer got out of the cab to adjust a switch and was not able to get back on the train because it accelerated. And a very brave railroad engineer did jump on the moving train to go inside the cab and hit the brake. It was not going as fast as the movie-heroic rescue on screen, but it was plenty real-life-heroic for all who were involved.
Thankfully, in real life, no one was injured in the incident.