WWII has gone down in American popular memory as "the Good War" (later criticized by authors like Studs Terkel, etc.).

But who coined this term? I don't mean the concept, which refers to the idea of "just war," but the particular term.

Was it already used in wartime media and propaganda? Or was it coined later as a contrast to the Cold War, Korean War, or Vietnam?

I've searched academic articles on the subject but they take the term for granted, never addressing its origins.

  • 1
    Welcome to History:Stack Exchange. Thank you for your question; please consider revising it to be more in line with our community expectations. Like many other stacks, we expect questions to provide evidence of prior research. That helps us to understand the question, and avoids our repeating work you've already done. Our help center, and other stacks provide additional resources to assist with revisions.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 19:30
  • 4
    Have you checked Google ngram?
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 19:32
  • 3
    Just War Theory is at least as old as ancient Egypt. Considering that's the first place that had writing, probably as old as humanity. Also, calling a philosophical position a "myth" is a pretty good way to convince users the question is pushing an agenda, rather than seriously asking a question. Might consider making the language in the question much more neutral.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 21:13
  • 10
    "WWII has gone down in American popular memory as "the Good War"..." Not in my experience as an American born in the late 60s who grew up in the U.S. (various parts) and remained there until 2000. I still watch a lot of American TV, read American novels, etc. This is the first time I've heard that usage. (There's "The Great War," but that's primarily British and refers to WWI.) The Wikipedia page for WWII doesn't mention it. So while Studs Terkel may have thought that was common, I really don't think it was or is. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 14:12
  • 3
    "popular memory" It must not be that popular, since I have never heard it referred to as such as an American. I agree with TJ.
    – TylerH
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


From what I can see, the term "The Good War" when used for WWII was coined by Studs Terkel. If you look at the Google ngrams as Mark C Wallace suggests, you see two spikes, one small one starting in late sixties, and one large one starting in the late eighties.

In 1965, Marian Maury published The good war: The UN's world-wide fight against poverty, disease and ignorance. This is not about WWII.

In 1984, Studs Terkel published "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II.

In this interview, Terkel says "In the book about World War II, I call the good war. but you notice there quotation marks around the phrase". This is not concrete, but it does sound like he feels he originated the phrase. Here's another interview clip that talks a lot about the feelings about the war. There's no implication that "The Good War" as a phrase is other than Terkel's "ironic" title.

It seems as if most usages of the term "The Good War" originated from one of those two books, so I think it's safe to say that the term was coined by Terkel himself when used for WWII. It is hard to prove a negative, but I don't think it was ever used directly before this, or as propaganda. It looks to me that it has always been used after this with a hint of irony.

  • Two of your links are commercial, obfuscated by SE and blocked on my network. Could you upgrade them to a free alternative? A screenshot of the ngram-view would also be helpful. (From ngram alone this depiction seems not very convincing, as is over-reliance on Google. Not having looked too deep into it, your take seems still correct, from a few angles. Although on the "irony", I'd also point towards Nietzsche… perhaps without a need to upgrade the A. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 1:13
  • Apologies. Those are the Amazon pages for those two books. Let me find something less corporate
    – user15620
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 2:02
  • (And you are completely correct that this answer is just the result of some google searches)
    – user15620
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 2:07
  • 16
    And FWIW, I've never read that book by Terkel, and have never heard/seen WWII referred to as "the good war", so it's perhaps not something in common use.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 6:18
  • 4
    @LаngLаngС Do note that you aren't allowed to include a screenshot of ngram in a post on SE as the license isn't compatible and the SE license requirements preclude US fair use from applying. Linking or manually recreating the chart are the only correct solutions. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 8:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.