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The Causes and Consequences of World War II, Part 3

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In 1945, Nazi totalitarianism was destroyed by the military might of the wartime allies. But within a few months of victory, our comrade-in-arms, “Uncle Joe” Stalin (as he was affectionately to by President Franklin Roosevelt), was making it clear that the postwar period would not be an era of global peace and international harmony.

Within months of the German surrender, Stalin was tightening his grip on the Eastern European countries that had been “liberated” by the Red Army. There would be no free elections, no democratic pluralism, no market economies in the nations now in Moscow’s orbit. By 1948, with the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, every one of the Eastern European countries had been turned into a socialist “People’s Republic.”

We now know that this was Stalin’s intention from the beginning, despite the promises he gave to President Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. In early April 1945, less than two months after the signing of the Yalta agreements, a Yugoslav communist delegation led by Tito was in Moscow. At a late-night banquet in their honor, Stalin reflected on the postwar era. In his book Conversations with Stalin, Milovan Djilas recounts that Stalin at one point explained, “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system.”

In Asia, the corrupt Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of China was soon in a fatal civil war with Mao Tse-tung’s ruthless communist armies. The Soviets, after “liberating” Manchuria from the Japanese in the final days of the war, had given safe haven to Mao’s forces and supplied them with military hardware captured from the Japanese. And in the United States, a vocal segment of the intellectual community tried to assure the American public that Mao and his followers were simple and honest agrarian reformers. When China fell completely into communist hands at the end of 1949, the Chinese people soon experienced the truth, as Marxist terrorism and economic planning turned them into a nation of slaves.

The communist guerrilla movement in French Indo-China under Ho Chi Minh, the communist insurgency in Greece, the Berlin blockade of 1948, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 all served to convince a growing number of Americans that an international threat was confronting the United States and that it required a determined and unique response on the part of the nation. Thus, America assumed the mantle of global policeman and protector of the world.

The communist threat under Soviet leadership in the postwar era was, without a doubt, unique in modern history. Here was an ideology that claimed to transcend all national boundaries and insisted that there could be no lasting peace in the world until socialism was victorious on every continent on the globe. And the carriers of this Marxist message had no moral scruples about the means and methods they used. Human life had no value to them other than as tools for the achievement of their collectivist utopia.

But in choosing political alliances and military intervention as the methods for combating this ideological evil, the United States radically transformed itself from everything it had been before the Second World War. The respected classical-liberal historian Arthur A. Ekirch, in his book The Decline of American Liberalism, explained the nature of this transformation:

“As a part of the struggle against communism, the American people were won over to the necessity of military preparedness on a virtual wartime basis. In America as well as in Europe, the individual citizen accordingly continued to live in a near-war atmosphere, in which his own aspirations were subordinated to the demands of the state. Tremendous expenditures, largely for military needs, mounting national debts, military conscription, a vast bureaucracy of civil servants, and the growing official nature of thought and culture were some of the evidences of the growth of statism and the decline of individualism.”

The result therefore, was that in the name of opposing the threat of aggressive socialism, the United States increasingly adopted in its domestic and foreign policy a defensive socialism. The state increasingly gained control over the lives of the American people and their property.

And why did the United States select this as the most appropriate method to fight foreign socialism? Because most people in American intellectual and political circles believed in socialism-whether or not they were willing to assign that label to their beliefs. The Great Depression had convinced them that capitalism did not work and that to a greater or lesser degree the government had a responsibility to oversee and manage the economic affairs of the citizenry. Their dispute with the Marxists, ultimately, was not over the issue of “big government,” but over their abhorrence to the “undemocratic” methods employed by Marx’s followers.

And in line with their socialist premises, America’s political leaders attempted to use socialist methods to combat socialism in those countries on the “battleline” of the communist threat. Foreign governments were told that the only answer to preventing their own people from going over to communism was to adopt socialist policies: redistribution of wealth, a managed economy, public works, and the welfare state. Statism became the means of combating statism.

For forty-five years, the American political authorities insisted upon the implementation of such policies by “friendly” governments as a condition of receiving U.S. economic and military aid. It can only be wondered how many countries around the world have been plagued with oppressive and manipulative governments during the past four decades as a direct result of American foreign policy.

As a consequence, the United States has probably been the most successful exporter of socialist ideas in the world. Cloaked in the rhetoric of “democracy” and “free enterprise,” the cumulative effect of America’s example and prodding is that there is now, in fact, not one country in the entire world that actually practices the principles of limited government and an unhampered market economy.

And worst of all, the American people themselves no longer have a vision of what a free America should and can look like, nor do they even conceive of what a noninterventionist policy in foreign affairs would mean. The regulated economy at home and the interventionist state abroad have become their conception of “freedom.”

The tragedy is that the foreign policy of a free society is the simplest to understand and the easiest to enforce. The government in the free society has two functions: the protection of the life and property of the citizenry from the aggression of others and the adjudication of legal disputes that arise among the citizens of that society. Beyond this, the government has no proper role to perform. In the free society, all “social problems” are matters of voluntary arrangement and mutual consent among the people themselves.

The only foreign policy in a free society is for the government to protect its citizens from foreign aggression in the form of threats to the territorial integrity of the nation. All other matters are personal and private affairs of the people. If some in the United States believe that the people of another country deserve assistance from oppression, then they as private citizens are free to volunteer to fight for freedom in that other nation. They are also free to contribute their income and wealth, by themselves or with others of like mind, to provide the requisite material assistance so that those in another country may gain their freedom through their own efforts.

But what is inconsistent with a belief in freedom is a foreign policy that taxes or conscripts some Americans so that other Americans can have their favorite foreign cause subsidized. No matter how it is labeled this remains a forced redistribution of wealth. If it is wrong in domestic policy for Peter to be taxed or conscripted by Paul so that Luke may gain, then it is equally wrong for Peter to be taxed or conscripted by Paul to benefit some Luke who happens to live in another country.

But forty-five years of the Cold War have left Americans incapable of recapturing in their minds these most fundamental principles of freedom. And in spite of the apparent American victory over communism in the Cold War, if Americans do not regain this understanding, the Cold War will have, in fact resulted in the defeat of liberty in America.

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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).