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The Cataclysm of World War II

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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 567 pages.

World War II was the great event of the 20th century. It greatly altered political boundaries, ushered in the Cold War, effected a total transformation in American governance, and consumed more lives than any other event of comparable duration. The Allied cause stands as the most celebrated of war efforts. U.S. mobilization for it is presented as the greatest government undertaking in American history.

If World War II was a just war, the antiwar cause has much to explain. For it was the bloodiest war of all, one where civilians constituted the majority of war deaths, where collective punishment was the norm, where western societies were most fully nationalized, and  where civil liberties were abolished to enable the war machine. The libertarian case would also be weak. If the most extensive government program in U.S. history was a success, why not trust government with far smaller projects?

American and British involvement in the war has rarely been questioned. The evils of the Axis Powers, particularly Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, were so grave, their crimes so unspeakably brutal and vast, that it is just assumed that the force that violently opposed their reign of terror must have had justice on its side. What’s more, Britain is seen to have been fighting a clearly defensive war for its own homeland as well as others’ against Nazi aggression; the United States was clearly defending its own turf after Pearl Harbor. Those in both Allied nations who had initially favored peace with the Axis Powers — most famously, Prime Minister Chamberlain and the America First movement — have undergone a smear campaign aimed at vindicating the belligerent and realist foresight of Winston Churchill and American interventionists.

The typical narrative on World War II is rarely questioned, but one recent book, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, has done an invaluable service in shedding light on the run-up to the war, giving much more context than is usually given. This book has received numerous positive mainstream reviews and marks the beginning of what we might hope to be a respectable and humanitarian revisionism of the Second World War. Its unique literary structure, in which short vignettes each provide a glimpse of the actions and thoughts of historical figures, both small and large, gives new perspective to the years up to the end of 1941 in a way both novel and exhilarating. Accessible and illuminating, Human Smoke is a serious accomplishment in pop historical literature on several fronts.

The reality of multiple aggressors

The Nazi state was unmistakably belligerent, but the Allies were hardly pure as the driven snow. The facts laid out by Baker illustrate that, on the eve of war, the British Empire had been a bellicose and cruel regime. Churchill had boasted of the hunger blockade against Germany in World War I that it “avowedly sought to starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.” The empire had been an oppressor of its colonial possessions for years. Churchill approved the use of “poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes” to pacify resistance in Iraq. In 1925 “the Royal Air Force dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India” and over the next two decades subjugated the Indian people and Gandhi’s followers with mass arrests, bombings, and crackdowns on dissent.

In the spring of 1939 Britain issued its war guarantee to Poland, promising to defend the Poles should the Nazis attack. The Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and two days later Britain declared war on Germany. The British, however, never saved the Poles, who suffered under Nazi occupation until being conquered by communists at the end of the war.

The summer before Hitler invaded Poland, an English spy, Frederick Winterbotham, had already arranged photographs of German “factories and aerodromes, so that the Royal Air Force could make target lists and maps.” Hitler had wanted to avoid war with Britain and wanted to focus his aggression eastward, ultimately against the Soviet Union. In late September he offered peace feelers toward Britain, suggesting that Britain attend to its empire and the Nazis be allowed to sort out Poland and Eastern Europe with Stalin.

Churchill, however, wanted a fight with Hitler. Months before the Battle of Britain and half a year before Germany’s blitz against British cities — a true war crime — Churchill concocted a plan to mine Norwegian waters, interfering with Germany’s acquisition of iron ore. Germany responded with its plans to invade Norway, which it previously had no plans to invade.

After the Germans, discouraged by a blockade, refocused their energies eastward, Churchill complained on July 8, 1940, “But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” Later that month, after Hitler had made a “final appeal” for peace with Britain, the German Press Bureau complained that Britain “had bombed civilian targets in Wismar, Bremen, Hamburg, Pinneberg, Paderborn, Hagen, Bochum, Schwerin, Wilhelmshaven, and Kassel.”

Churchill welcomed the mutual civilian bombings that followed and that the British had arguably started. At its peak, half of Britain’s industrial capacity was devoted to manufacturing bombs and bombers. By April 1941 Churchill boasted that his most recent air attacks were particularly violent: “In some cases we have already in our raids exceeded in severity anything which a single town has in a single night experienced over here.” He celebrated the casualties on his own side: “This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain.” Lord “Boom” Trenchard continued to advocate much more bombing, despite retaliations against innocent Brits, and his admission that “the percentage of bombs which hit the military target at which they are aimed is not more than one percent.”

Baker also explores U.S. belligerence up until Pearl Harbor. Nominally neutral, Franklin Roosevelt prepared for war in every way he could — mobilizing a huge peacetime draft, sending aid to Britain through Lend-Lease, and drawing up war plans. For years in the late 1930s the Navy worked out War Plan Orange, a secret plan for “an offensive war of long duration” against Japan. According to Adm. James O. Richardson, commander of the U.S. fleet, Roosevelt indicated on October 8, 1940, that U.S. meddling in the Pacific would eventually draw Japan in: “Sooner or later they would make a mistake and we would enter the war.

In the summer of 1941 the U.S. government worked to expand China’s air force toward the end of the “incendiary bombing of Japan”:

The plan was drawn up by Roosevelt’s economist and China expert, Lauchlin Currie. A front corporation, China Defense Supplies, formed by T.V. Soong and run by Roosevelt’s former aide Thomas Corcoran, was to buy the planes from American manufacturers; Claire Chennault would hire and train American volunteer pilots to fly the planes.

Along with cutting off Japan’s access to oil and freezing Japanese assets, Roosevelt’s provocations in the Pacific were clearly designed with the full knowledge and hope that they would goad Japan into firing the first shot.

War crimes and genocide: The ugly reality

Baker quotes Capt. Philip S. Mumford, formerly a British officer in Iraq turned peace activist, as saying, “What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none.” Although the British and American terror bombings of Axis civilians deserve our full condemnation, the Nazi Holocaust has justifiably received attention for being a particularly gruesome enterprise of mass murder, motivated by hatred, carried out in systematic fashion, taking the lives of millions of innocent people. Focus on the Holocaust is one reason the Allies come out of World War II looking like the good guys in relative terms.

Baker gives appropriate attention to the full criminality and deliberate nature of Hitler’s genocide of Jews and others. By late 1931 it was clear that the Nazis planned to rid Germany of the Jews. When Hitler came to power, his friend Ernst Hanfstaengl told U.S. Foreign Policy Association chairman James McDonald of the plan “to wipe out the entire Jewish population in the Reich.” Hitler said that his “enemies will be brutally and ruthlessly exterminated.” On Kristallnacht — night of the broken glass — in November 1938, about a hundred Jews were murdered and 30,000 rounded up.

Despite all the warning signs of his intentions, Hitler maintained some respectability on the world stage. That was partly because much of the world, from Churchill to Roosevelt, indulged in anti-Semitism, albeit of a far milder form. In terms of leadership, British leaders had expressed qualified admiration for Hitler in the 1930s. As late as August 1937 Churchill published an article expressing some hope that “we might yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age.” In November 1938, only days before Kristallnacht, Churchill said, “I have always said that if Britain were defeated in a war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among nations.”

Nevertheless, the Holocaust was a crime for which the Nazis bear full responsibility. Even so it would be a mistake to see the Allied effort as a war against that genocide. The British and Americans failed in most opportunities to help Jews escape. The British and Americans were unwilling to accept Jewish refugees at the Evian Conference in July 1938. Five days after Kristallnacht, Roosevelt said he had “given a great deal of thought” to liberalizing immigration standards and concluded that “the time is not right for that…. We have the quota system.” He also opposed a child-refugee bill in June 1939, rejected Jewish refugees from occupied France in December 1940, and specifically excluded refugees from Germany, Holland, Belgium, Norway, France, Poland, and the Balkans in a June 1941 State Department action.

Britain also excluded most Jewish refugees, going so far as to detain those who tried to reach Tel Aviv in September 1939, rounded up enemy aliens in Britain — most of them Jewish refugees — by the thousands, and deported Jews from Palestine to Mauritius, a disaster that took 250 lives. However, in February 1941 Britain admitted 10,000 children refugees on special permits, assisted by Quakers.

Moreover, the Allied war efforts themselves very likely exacerbated the persecution of Jews. The brutality inflicted on Germany increased anti-Semitism. Blockades on food punished Hitler’s Jewish victims in France. Churchill believed allowing aid to flow to the ghettos would weaken the resolve of the persecuted to overthrow their oppressors. Roosevelt’s money blockade hurt Jews in Poland who had gotten their money through Portugal and other countries. Historian Shlomo Aaronson concluded that the British “bombing offensive fed Hitler’s wrath, in direct connection with his concept of the ‘Jew’s war’ against him, and helped unite his nation behind him and justify further Nazi atrocities against the remaining Jews.” Despite the common understanding of World War II as a conflict between the Allies and the practitioners of the genocide, we should never forget that the war did not prevent the Holocaust. Indeed, the extermination only intensified with the amplification of the war effort and accelerated as the Germans facing demands for unconditional surrender became increasingly desperate and fearful of Allied retribution upon defeat.

The horrors of the good war

Nicholson Baker’s book is an important contribution to revisionist history. All who care about history, liberty, peace, and world affairs should have this on their bookshelves.

This article was originally published in the June 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley.