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The Consequences of World War II

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The hysterical reaction to Pat Buchanan’s hardly unique views on World War II reveal more about his critics than about him. Why are they so afraid of this man?

World War II is often viewed as the last good war. In contrast to the wars that followed it-Korea and Vietnam, primarily–World War II is said to have had a clear purpose: the smashing of Nazism and fascism and all the horrible things for which they stood. The description “last good war” also implies that the outcome, unlike those of later wars, was an unambiguous victory for America and its Allies–a victory for freedom and democracy.

Unfortunately, history is not so simple, and the consequences of World War II were much more complex. This is not to say that the defeat of Nazism and fascism was not a good thing, but only that even a war with such an outcome can have disastrous consequences. Yet few people understand this.

In 1989, author Paul Fussell, a veteran of the war, wrote that even those who fought “knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied.” Now, fifty years later there has been so much talk about “the Good War, the Justified War, the Necessary War, and the like, that the young and the innocent could get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all. It’s thus necessary to observe that it was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic.”

There is a simple reason for all the effort that goes into portraying World War II as “not such a bad thing after all.” Government ultimately cements its hold over society by promising to repel the barbarians who always seem to be about to storm the gates of civilization. If we believe this, we will eagerly surrender liberty and treasure to the state’s officers in return for safety. And in case we wonder whether the barbarians really are plotting to storm the gates, the state can point to recent episodes when the state protected us from them. Thus, the function of the “World War II as the last good war” line is to keep the people from asking uncomfortable questions about the legitimacy of Leviathan.

The war took some 50 million lives. More civilians died than combatants. They died horrible deaths from explosion, firestorm, vaporization, suffocation, exposure, and starvation. Area bombing of Germany and Japan set a new standard in the indiscriminate killing of civilians under color of combat. The atrocities were not all on the German and Japanese side. At least five million people from eastern Germany and the Baltic states died-from murder, starvation, and exposure-after being expelled from their homes. People who had fled the Soviet Union during the war were forcibly repatriated-sentenced to death-by the British.

There was also the moral cost exacted from America’s befriending the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin was responsible for a minimum of 20 million deaths resulting from the terror famine in Ukraine, the purges, and the Gulag. By becoming Stalin’s ally, the United States gave him a respectability he never could have earned, provided military assistance that may have saved his regime, and enabled his army to occupy half of Europe for 45 years. Stalin and his successors could boast that the Soviet Union was part of the noble crusade to defeat fascism. If you wish to experience the deep obscenity of that in stark perceptual form, simply study the famous photograph from the Yalta conference, where FDR, Churchill, and “Uncle Joe” (as Roosevelt referred to Stalin) sat side by side, satisfied smiles on their faces, as Poland, the alleged reason for the war against the Nazis, was delivered into tyranny.

Is it really so peculiar to wish, as Buchanan does and as Harry Truman did, that Hitler and Stalin had been permitted to beat each other to a bloody pulp, possibly sparing the West the catastrophe that was World War II?

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Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.