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Reexamining the “Good War”

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The Second World War is considered America’s “good war” of the 20th century.

The First World War is considered the tragic war. President Woodrow Wilson intended the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” but instead it generated the rise of communism, fascism, and Nazism.

The Korean War cost the lives of more than 30,000 Americans but is the “forgotten war” of the Cold War. And the Vietnam War, which took the lives of more than 50,000 Americans, is considered the immoral war, fought for the wrong reasons, for the wrong cause, with the wrong methods.

But World War II continues to be portrayed as the just war for a just cause that was fought with harsh but necessary and unavoidable methods. On their course for world domination, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had set Europe and Asia on fire with war and conquest. America had tried to steer a course for neutrality, hoping to remain above and outside the political whirlwind enveloping the globe.

But Japan forced war on the United States with its unprovoked and sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, followed a few days later by a declaration of war against America by Hitler. Reluctantly and against their will, the American people were pulled into the Second World War.

But sometimes things are not all that they seem.

As Thomas Fleming points out in his new book, The New Dealers’ War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II, in one public opinion poll after another up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, between 75 and 80 percent of the American people had expressed their desire to remain out of the wars in Europe and Asia.

Moreover, when Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as president of the United States in 1940, he reassured the American people, “While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

But in spite of the wishes of the American people and the public rhetoric that FDR used to win reelection, the truth is that he and his administration were actually searching for a successful “back door to war” to bring the United States into the global conflict.

As Fleming documents, in early 1941 Roosevelt had his military and political subordinates prepare plans for an American invasion of Europe in 1943 in conjunction with the British, in violation of the neutrality acts passed by Congress and signed by him.

When he could not find a way to justify asking Congress for a declaration of war against Nazi Germany, FDR turned to the Pacific and followed a diplomatic and military course that forced the Japanese into a tight corner. Tokyo could either accept American terms for peace in Asia or face economic strangulation when the United States froze Japanese assets in July 1941 and imposed an oil embargo on Japan in collaboration with the British and the Dutch (who controlled the oil supplies in Indonesia).

FDR’s rejection of all compromise gestures by the Japanese government in the autumn of 1941 set the stage for Japan’s desperate attempt to force America into peace terms with its attack on Hawaii.

Imbued with a spirit of moral right against the forces of evil, FDR then insisted upon unconditional surrender for both Germany and Japan. When it became clear that there was a large anti-Nazi movement at work in military and political circles in Germany, made up of people willing to risk their own lives to kill Hitler and end the war, FDR refused to recognize them or explore whether there was some way to end the war sooner short of unconditional surrender.

And in spite of strong opposition among many American political and military leaders to instituting and continuing civilian terror bombings of German cities — which they called “baby killing” — Roosevelt insisted on intensifying the air campaign against Germany.

FDR’s dream of a world set right by America has remained a lasting legacy of his New Deal, with U.S. political, military, and economic intervention around the world for more than half a century. Indeed, the policies that led America into both the Korean and the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia all have their origin in the precedents set by FDR and his New Dealers.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).