Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, although many people supported giving aid to England, most Americans opposed entry into the war against the Nazis. Americans still remembered the ravages of World War I (“the war to end all wars”), when American soldiers were drafted and sent to Europe to “make the world safe for democracy.” Many Americans recognized that U.S. intervention in World War I had even contributed to the conditions that had given rise to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis several years later.
Among those who ostensibly opposed entry into the European conflict in 1940 was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a speech delivered during his campaign for an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt declared, “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.”
The truth was, however, that Roosevelt fell squarely within the smaller percentage of Americans who believed that the United States should intervene in the European conflict because, he believed, a Nazi victory would ultimately threaten the freedom of Western civilization.
The problem Roosevelt faced, however, was that the chances of persuading Congress to declare war on Germany were virtually nonexistent because of the widespread opposition to entering the war among the American people. It was equally unlikely that Germany, already faced with a two- front war, would declare war on the United States.
Therefore, the question that some people have asked ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor is: Did Roosevelt deliberately goad Japan into attacking the United States as a “back door” entry into the European conflict? (Germany, Italy, and Japan had entered into an agreement that required them to come to the defense of each other.)
Remember: prior to Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had: (1) frozen all Japanese assets in the United States; (2) imposed an oil embargo on Japan in the midst of Japan’s war against China; (3) sent U.S. military forces (the “Flying Tigers”) to attack Japanese forces in China; and (4) submitted a peace proposal to Japanese diplomats shortly before Pearl Harbor whose terms were clearly calculated to humiliate Japanese officials.
In the face of mounting tensions that were reflected in Japanese communications (the United States had already broken the Japanese diplomatic code), why did Roosevelt leave tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers on Pacific islands that could not possibly be defended in the event of a Japanese attack? Indeed, why did he leave U.S. destroyers inside Pearl Harbor rather than ordering their withdrawal to safer waters? (Interestingly, U.S. carriers had been withdrawn from Hawaii before the attack.) Given FDR’s conviction that Western civilization was at stake and given Germany’s refusal to declare war against the United States, one cannot help but wonder whether FDR intentionally used U.S. forces in the Pacific as “bait” for a Japanese attack. Some Roosevelt apologists have argued that if FDR did in fact do this, he made the right decision because of the benefits that resulted from America’s entry into World War II. Let’s examine some of those “benefits.”
First, U.S. intervention saved very few Jews and others from the Nazi gas chambers. By the time the war was over, six million had died. Moreover, we cannot ignore Western indifference to the plight of the Jews both before and during the war, which was manifested in part by strict enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.
Second, for the next 45 years, Eastern Europe and East Germany were occupied by communist forces, who were as brutal as the Nazis. Keep in mind that England and France had declared war on Germany to save Poland from Nazi totalitarian tyranny. That goal was, of course, achieved, but at the cost of Poland’s having to endure Russian communist totalitarian tyranny from 1945 to 1989. That’s victory? And worth the sacrifice of American soldiers?
Third, China was also taken over by the communists, whose brutal tyrants have ruled that nation continuously for some 50 years.
Fourth, World War II gave rise to four decades of Cold War, plus hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, which cost the lives of tens of thousands of more Americans.
“But if the United States had not intervened in World War II, the Nazis would have conquered the world,” the interventionists argue. That proposition, of course, is of doubtful validity, especially since a nation grows weaker as it extends its empire through war. Moreover, throughout the Cold War the communists were determined to conquer the world and failed to do so. Why would the result have been any different with the Nazis?
But as the interventionists continue to regale us with the glories of World War II and its consequences, perhaps we should count our blessings. At least no one glorifies World War I anymore.