The Second World War is often called “the good war.” But was it?
After all, this “good war” brought mass destruction; death to tens of millions of men, women, and children; and enormous suffering to many more. How can such a horrible event be called “good?”
Well, that description comes from the war’s popular portrayal as a necessary Manichean struggle between the good Allied powers and the evil Axis powers. And indeed, the regimes the Allied forces ultimately vanquished were truly evil.
Imperial Japan fought a brutal and dirty war in its bid to carve out a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” in East Asia. According to the late historian Chalmers Johnson “the Japanese slaughtered as many as 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Burmese.”
Nazi Germany murdered and enslaved millions of people in its brutal crusade to establish a New Order in Europe. Moreover, the images of liberated Nazi death camps, their emaciated survivors, and the human corpses stacked up like cordwood helped sear into the collective conscience of the West the idea that the war was a righteous cause.
So it is understandable that many would see the Second World War as a morally clear-cut conflict between good and evil.
This view has persisted for almost 70 years, particularly in the United States — reinforced by countless motion pictures, documentaries, and books. As Yale University professor Bruce Russett writes,
Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology.… Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune. According to our national mythology, that was a “good war,” one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. Except for a few books published shortly after the war and quickly forgotten, this orthodoxy has been essentially unchallenged.
But how well does this idealized portrayal of the war stand up to close examination?
Well, suffice it to say the Second World War — which was waged in the skies, the oceans, and the lands on five separate continents, involved 21 combatant nations, lasted six years, and killed on average 27,000 people a day — was a much more complex and morally ambiguous event than is usually presented in standard historical accounts.
First of all, let’s look at how the war started in Europe.
The conventional view is that the Second World War began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. But that event itself did not trigger a general war. It was the decision by Great Britain and France to declare war against Germany on September 3, 1939, that transformed what was theretofore a geographically limited war into a Europe-wide conflict.
This of course is not to excuse Nazi Germany’s aggression against Poland, but the reality was that neither Great Britain nor France were in a position to enforce the fluid borders of central Europe. Nor were the imperialists in London and Paris in any position to lecture the warmongers in Berlin on their obligation to respect the territorial integrity of smaller nations.
Now let’s look at the entry of the United States into the conflict.
The United States officially entered World War II after the Japanese “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and Nazi Germany’s declaration of war four days later. Until then, the United States was officially neutral, a position most Americans supported. However, despite the U.S. government’s declared neutrality, the White House had already entangled the country in the conflicts then raging in Europe and Asia.
FDR pushed through Congress the massive Lend-Lease program, which provided copious amounts of aid to the British and the Soviets in their war against Nazi Germany.
According to British historian J.F.C. Fuller, FDR
left no stone unturned to provoke Hitler to declare war on the very people to whom he so ardently promised peace. He provided Great Britain with American destroyers, he landed American troops in Iceland, and he set out to patrol the Atlantic seaways in order to safeguard British convoys; all of which were acts of war.… In spite of his manifold enunciations to keep the United States out of the war, he was bent on provoking some incident which would bring them into it.
FDR’s policies vis-à-vis Germany were so belligerent that Admiral Harold Stark, chief of U.S. naval operations, was compelled to write in a September 1941 confidential memorandum to the president, “He [Hitler] has every excuse in the world to declare war on us now, if he were of a mind to.”
But Hitler refused to take the bait, and FDR was forced to find an alternative route to war.
This would be through the Pacific, where Japan was on the move and pressing the beleaguered European colonial powers. FDR took it upon himself to admonish Tokyo for its aggression, and throughout 1941 his administration carried out policies specifically designed to provoke a Japanese attack on U.S. military assets either in the Philippines or Hawaii. These actions included illegally embroiling the United States in the Second Sino-Japanese War, freezing Japanese assets, and imposing an economic embargo on the island nation.
As FDR’s war secretary Henry Stimson confided to his diary on November 25, 1941, the question regarding the Japanese was “how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”
FDR’s duplicity in the run-up to America’s entry into the war has been admitted even by his admirers. The American historian Thomas A. Bailey writes of FDR’s bellicose intrigues,
Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor…. He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good…. The country was overwhelmingly non-interventionist to the very day of Pearl Harbor, and an overt attempt to lead the people into war would have resulted in certain failure and an almost certain ousting of Roosevelt in 1940, with a complete defeat of his ultimate aims.
Professor Bailey’s justification for FDR’s duplicitous actions is particularly telling:
A president who cannot entrust the people with the truth betrays a certain lack of faith in the basic tenets of democracy. But because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests. This is clearly what Roosevelt had to do, and who shall say that posterity will not thank him for it?
In 1941, the sine qua non of FDR’s foreign policy was America’s entry into the war, and it didn’t seem to matter to the president how many lies were told or how many Americans were killed to achieve that end.
The Second World War is often characterized as a conflict between free and democratic nations on the one hand and totalitarian dictatorships on the other. But America’s principal allies were the British Empire and the Soviet Union, hardly archetypical democratic republics.
At its peak before World War II, the British Empire ruled over nearly 25 percent of the world’s land. Now, British rule may not have been as overtly brutal as Germany’s or Japan’s, but it was nonetheless based on force. And when Britain’s dominion was challenged by restless natives, the men in London could be every bit as ruthless as their counterparts in Berlin and Tokyo. This is an important point, because among the many causes of the war was Britain’s futile attempt to preserve its global primacy, which had been in decline since the first decade of the 20th century.
The Soviet Union was arguably the most tyrannical regime in history, and its dictator, Joseph Stalin, had far more blood on his hands than did Hitler. It is also important to remember that it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, that gave Nazi Germany the green light to invade Poland. That pact also called for sharing the spoils with Soviet Russia.
America’s participation in the war propped up Stalin’s regime, which used Lend-Lease aid not only to resist the German onslaught but also to forcibly resettle entire nations and send millions of “disloyal” ethnic minorities to the Gulag, a system of slave-labor camps every bit as horrid and lethal as the camps run by Hitler’s SS.
Among Nazi Germany’s allies was the democratic nation of Finland, which, like Poland, had been a victim of Soviet aggression in 1939. Finland was seeking lost territory and some retribution by joining Germany’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in June 1941.
And then there were those who sided with the Nazis against the Soviets because they saw the German invasion as an opportunity to break free from Stalin’s brutal reign. These included millions of Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and even Russians. They soon found out that Hitler was not in the business of liberation, but their choice to join the fuhrer’s crusade against Bolshevism was certainly understandable given their plight.
The total defeat of the Axis powers in 1945 exposed the enormities committed by those regimes, for which the victorious Allied forces instituted war-crimes trials. But there was scarcely a crime that Nazi Germany or Japan had committed that had not also been committed by one or more of the Allied powers in the course of the war. This was admitted by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who, while serving as the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, wrote to President Truman that the Allies “have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for.”
The British magazine the Economist seconded Justice Jackson’s observation in a provocative editorial published just after the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, citing Soviet war crimes and stating, “Nor should the Western world console itself that the Russians alone stand condemned at the bar of the Allies’ own justice.” The editorial continued,
Among crimes against humanity stands the offence of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations. Can the Americans who dropped the atom bomb and the British who destroyed the cities of western Germany plead “not guilty” on this count? Crimes against humanity also include the mass expulsion of populations. Can the Anglo-Saxon leaders who at Potsdam condoned the expulsion of millions of Germans from their homes hold themselves completely innocent?… The nations sitting in judgment [at Nuremberg ] have so clearly proclaimed themselves exempt from the law which they have administered.
Even Winston Churchill expressed misgivings about the war’s outcome. In 1948, as he gazed upon Europe’s shattered cities and blood-drenched landscapes, he lamented,
The human tragedy [of the war] reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted.
In his highly acclaimed “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, Studs Terkel published the interviews of several American World War II veterans, in which they were asked to share their experiences and feelings of the war 40 years later. One interviewee remarked,
World War Two has warped our view of how we look at things today. We see things in terms of that war, which in a sense was a good war. But the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.
Since 1945, American political leaders have frequently invoked the mythology of the good war to justify their bellicose, reckless, and arrogant foreign policy. Those expressing misgivings or skepticism toward Washington’s wars have often been accused of “appeasement” or forgetting the “lessons of Munich.”
This is why, before we heed any such “lessons of history,” we should ask ourselves, Whose history?