The middle decades of the 20th century were a time of great prosperity and optimism for the United States; it was, by many measurements, the strongest nation in the world, with a healthy economy, a growing population, and a vital culture that was the envy of many other countries. However, this era of peace and contentment only arrived after the horrific bloodshed of the second World War, in which more than 400,000 Americans lost their lives in the service of their country.
The poet Archibald MacLeish was especially aware of the importance of this sacrifice. As a young man, he had served as an artillery officer in World War I and had witnessed suffering and death on the battlefields of Europe. During the second World War, he took up public service once again, serving as the Librarian of Congress while still writing poetry. When the Library of Congress held a memorial service for all its staff members who had died in the war, MacLeish contributed a powerful poem that not only commemorated the dead, but also made it clear that those who survived bore a special responsibility to make the deaths of these soldiers meaningful.
As you read this poem, think about what the poem suggests as possible ways to live up to such a great sacrifice. You might also think about the sacrifices that other people have made for you.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.