The various newspaper digitization projects have allowed intellectual historians an unprecedented look into the codification of ideas. Previously, scholars argued that, through the careful study of texts transmitted over the wire, they could track the dissemination of a phrase from New York to the Canadian wild. The problems with this approach were, first, that it was an argument, not a comprehensive database; second, that it assumes ideas transmit best in print; and third, that as an argument it relied on a unidirectional model in which everything invariably flowed from the same source, through the same channels, to the same destinations. When common sense suggested otherwise, that is, when an idea clearly originated in Savannah instead of New York, the means of dissemination remained the same, only now the idea worked its way north to New York before being routed into the same pool and distributed through the same channels to same destinations.

I’m oversimplifying, obviously, and I’m not even trying to account for concepts primarily transmitted via the spoken word. The Great Awakening, for example, began anywhere people felt pain and had tents. It spread down from upstate New York and up from Florida and out from Appalachia with ease because it took the form of a common recognition, as if everyone woke up one morning and convinced only God could improve their awful lot. The lazy way to account for such mass recognitions invokes the language of biological warfare: weaponized ideas contaminate air and water alike, such that those who breathe what’s “in the air” swiftly follow Derrida, while those who drink what’s “in the water” embrace Foucault. Evidence that someone dumped a francophilic compound into the cooling system or water supply never consists of an epidemiological study of all breathers or drinkers; instead, we are presented with a measurement, in decibels, of the howls produced by the ecstatic afflicted. Measuring how intensely people predisposed to shouting actually shout is not, I contend, the best means of discussing the pervasiveness of a certain idea.

Suppose we wanted to know when Americans first came to realize that wars to their distant east and west were not two very large conflicts but one world-historical war. As mass realizations go, this one falls under the category of ideas anyone could have had, had he but thought about it a bit; and after 1 September 1939 everyone thought about it a bit more. But they didn’t call it World War II or the Second World War. Newspapers spoke of the Sino-Japanese War and the European War, but as 1939 came to a close, America does not seem to have connected the two—at least not idiomatically. If you want to know when, precisely, Americans understood they were in the midst of a second world war, there are two ways to find out:

  1. find the first mention of “World War I” (not “the First World War,” for reasons I’ll explain shortly)
  2. find the first mention of “World War II” or “the Second World War”

Lest I seem too gushing about these databases, let me preface my remarks on the first search by noting that finding relevant entries for “world war i” in a database is a damn chore. Even when you limit the search to the years in which the shift would’ve most likely occurred—say, 1939 to 1941—you’re still presented thousands upon thousands of false positives. You have your memoirs and editorials:

During the World War I enlisted for service and went to France . . .

You have your academic studies:

Fluctuation of the Populations During the World War I: Germany and France . . .

You have your OCR artifacts:


With all that noise, you might think it best to change the signal to something louder but equally ordinal, like “the first world war,” but then you encounter another difficulty: Americans, always a confident lot, flipped fate the bird by referring to WWI as “the Great War” or “the First World War.” They meant “the First World War” not as we do, i.e. “the first of two,” but as “the first in which the entire world became a combat theater.” Our best bet, then, would be to look for the first appearances of “World War II” or “the Second World War.” So when did Americans come to understand that the wars raging on opposite sides of the globe were different aspects of a single conflict?

Not immediately. After Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the LA Times wrote of “the European crisis” (”British Mobilize Army and Fleet,” 1) and the New York Times provided “Bulletins on Europe’s Conflict” (1). By 2 September, the United Press Syndicate noted that “[w]ithin a few hours the British and French parliaments are likely to declare war on Adolf Hitler’s greater German Reich and the second great world war may be under way (”Allies Ready to Enter War,” 1) and Walter Lippmann’s “Estimate of the Situation” was that the conflict would come to be known as either “the European war” or “the white war” (LA Times, A4). Lippmann was hesitant to call the conflict a world war because—presentist accounts of eurocentrism to the contrary—most people refused to consider a war fought by Britain, France, Germany and Italy sufficiently worldly. Japan had taunted the British, but instead of continuing that fight, Britain recalled the Royal Navy and, alongside the prides of the Polish fleet, prepared for the European war. This meant the war would have a largely European theater, because, as Lippmann wrote, “[t]he United States is too strong for Japan.” The Sino-Japanese War would continue, but because the western powers wouldn’t be drawn into it, this was to be a fight for “mastery of the Old World,” not the whole world.

I lean heavily on Lippmann here, but only because he’s representative of the consensus that was forming prior to Japan’s attack on Changsha in late September 1939. The Chinese had been stalling the Japanese by means of scorched earth and slow retreat: the Japanese would “win” a battle by forcing the Chinese ever deeper into their own briar patch. By early 1939, the Japanese Army was in such disrepair that the threat of an American embargo effectively ended Japanese hostilities against the British. The New York Times reported that “[t]he impression in diplomatic circles was that Japan, in view of the European war and the turn-about by Germany on the Russian question, was feeling isolated and was turning toward the United States” (”Japanese Bid Seen for U.S. Friendship,” 1). On 16 September, it seemed that on the basis of the alliances then being hammered out, the conflict could not go global. Exploratory discussions and mutual non-aggression pacts mean little once they end, but for the moment it seemed as if the discussions were as fruitful as the pacts were binding. Acting on the latter belief, Japan took advantage of its pact with Russia to move troops from Manchukuoan border and resume active hostitlities against China.

Thus on 19 September, Americans were faced with the European Crisis and the China Affair. In a letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, Walter Parker urged that “[n]o matter what else the United States may do to keep out of war, and to deal with the effects of World War No. 2, it should prepare for the peace that will come some day” (”Letters to the Editor,” 4). Catchy name, “World War No. 2,” and important because it demonstrates that some people—even if they’re limited to Walter Parker—had begun to think of the present wars as a singular sequel to the earlier conflict. The sentiment was there, even if the locution was clunky. In its 31 December edition, however, the LA Times would christen it proper:

Ill-omened and fateful, the year 1939 wove into the pattern of history a chronicle of war and violence. Marking, as it did, the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the World War, it became in itself a starting point for the calculation in the future of the state of “World War II.” (”Review of the Year,” A5).

It’d be better were it stripped of scare-quotes, but those scare-quotes aren’t meaningless. They point to the tentativeness that precedes any codification, and in such surveys, pointing is imoprtant. Anyhow, I know these aren’t the first two iterations of the phrase, but as the databases expand, so too will our ability to pinpoint the exact historical moment when a thing became The Thing.

All of which is an extremely round-about way of asking when, exactly, will we see “the Great Depression II” or “the Second Great Depression” naked in a major media outlet?  Moreover, when we feel like we ought to be, and how will future generations figure out when that was?