“This is our world to build, adorn, or destroy, not God's or anyone else's.”
These were the words of Hugh McClean, a Yale student both before and after the Second World War. When the war ended, McClean and thousands of his peers returned from duty in Europe and the Pacific to complete their education at colleges across the United States. They saw the world differently than they had before; they certainly viewed the world differently than their parents and grandparents. They had heard leaders of the world’s warring nations invoke destiny to validate their warfare. Some of these teenagers had even been behind the unprecedented killing machines that decided whose destiny would prevail. And now with the invention of the atom bomb, new questions about the future emerged, as humankind found itself on the brink of annihilation. Even if the fate of the American cause proved true in WWII, uneasiness came with the onset of the Cold War. The middle of the twentieth century was a time for questions. Where was God through it all? Could Nietzsche have been correct? And, if so, could man survive the Death of God?
Many of the boys who had liberated Europe returned to the States asking these kinds of questions. “The war was a catastrophic event,” one of McClean’s classmates recounted. “When you have catastrophic events, people think about whether the philosophies they had heretofore believed were true. It seemed to be unending because of the contest of beliefs between American and Russian ideas. And God Is Dead was a part of that.”2 Even as they coped with the wartime deaths of friends and rejected the beliefs of their parents, most American youths nevertheless remained optimistic about their future. For those who had survived the war, there was beautiful opportunity in being able to question beliefs and seek novel solutions to contemporary problems. It was their world to build, adorn, or destroy.
Lalka, Robert Tice, "Surviving the Death of God: Existentialism, God, and Man at Post-WWII Yale" (2005). MSSA Kaplan Prize for Use of MSSA Collections. Paper 4.