The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (2. Jus ad bellum)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

2. Jus ad bellum: The reasons for war

Ted Grimsrud —12/29/10

The storm clouds gather

My father, Carl Grimsrud, graduated from high school in the tiny western Minnesota town of Hitterdahl in 1934. Those were challenging times. On a personal level, just days before high school graduation, Carl’s mother Dora died of cancer. The mid-1930s were the height of the Great Depression. Carl’s father, Carl, Sr., had served for years as a Lutheran pastor in rural congregations mainly made up of farmers whose economic depression actually dated back to the early 1920s and had only gotten worse and worse. Western Minnesota was at the northeastern edge of the Dust Bowl, environmental devastation that gave dramatic visual expression to the economic devastation shaking the Great Plains.

Lurking in the background, but surely in the consciousness of a socially aware person such as young Carl, deeply problematic global political dynamics were foreshadowing profound crises to come. In 1934, Adolf Hitler was in his second year of power in Germany, consolidating his National Socialist dictatorship. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was in the midst of government-imposed famine meant to consolidate its power over the Ukraine. Japan’s effort to expand its power in China was building into a full-scale attempt at military conquest.

With the global economic crisis and the growing power of militaristic, dictator-led nations spreading fear and anxiety, many Americans with international awareness were beginning to advocate that the United States turn its sites to the wider world. These internationalist Americans had a kindred spirit in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt had been swept into power in November 1932 with a landslide victory over the incumbent Herbert Hoover, who was widely seen as ineffective in dealing with the economic crises.

Roosevelt, however, was greatly constrained in his abilities to move the U.S. in a more internationalist direction. As Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the Democratic Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920, Roosevelt had identified deeply with the Wilsonian vision of the U.S. taking its place as a major player in world politics. So, he had felt deep disappointment at the rejection in the U.S. Senate of the U.S. joining the League of Nations when it was founded in 1920.

Recognizing the strong anti-internationalist sentiments in the U.S. that had only strengthened in the midst of the Depression, Roosevelt had run for President on a platform that said little about international affairs. Nonetheless, his vision for American as a world leader, though dormant, remained alive, waiting for the opportunity to move toward fruition.

In 1934, though the likelihood of major international conflicts became ever more apparent, the United States as a whole remained focused on internal concerns. The philosophy stated in various ways by American founding fathers to “avoid foreign entanglements” retained a great deal of force.

While certainly the focus on finding a way through the Depression provided the main impetus for Americans paying limited attention to world problems, other factors also played important roles. The Wilson Administration had whipped up widespread support for American joining in the Great War—and actually playing a decisive role in the Allied victory. However, this support, while widespread, had not run very deep. When World War I ended without obvious benefit to the U.S. and at the cost of thousands of lives, the anti-interventionist forces had gained ascendency. They defeated the proposed membership in the League of Nations and elected Republican Warren Harding to the presidency by a wide margin. Harding’s successors as President, Republicans Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover shared the reluctance to push American into a global leadership role. Roosevelt, the first Democratic Party president since Wilson, did not share that reluctance, but his election—popular as it was—did not include a mandate to make significant changes in America’s foreign policies.

So, deep-seated American reluctance to engage in global affairs existed already and was only exacerbated by the economic crises of the 1930s. As a third factor making Americans reluctant to imagine engaging in possible future global military conflicts, the less than happy outcome of World War I, at least in many people’s consciousness, brought with it a more general sense of aversion to war.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the child of German immigrants who was to become America’s most influential public theologian, had strongly supported U.S. involvement in the Great War—in part, at least, as a means of establishing his identity as a full-fledged American.[1] He began to become disillusioned as the post war peace conference unfolded and Wilson’s ideals failed to impact the proceedings. Within a couple more years, Niebuhr came to be totally negative about the Great War, and all other wars. Upon visiting Germany in 1923, he wrote: “This is as good a time as any to make up my mind that I am done with the war business.”[2]

Though Niebuhr came to change his mind, decisively, his sentiment in 1923 reflected that of a great many others. In the following decade, this sense of being “done with the war business” only grew in the U.S., especially among young people and those involved in mainline Protestant churches.

Still, just as American support for Wilson’s enthusiasm for the Great War did not run very deep, these pacifist sentiments proved also not to run very deep. When Americans finally were faced with an actual war 1941, almost all of them joined in, with commitments that this time proved sustainable and unshakeable. But the path to the full-fledged support of the American people took time, and followed a tremendously unsettling series of international crises, including a few that directly impinged on the lives of just about all Americans.

Maybe not so much in 1934, but by 1937, many internationally aware Americans were feeling like the outside world was closing in on them. At this point, while Roosevelt had been making efforts to increase both internal spending on the American military and external military aid to threatened American allies such as Great Britain, France, and China, the U.S. remained relatively disarmed. The American military in 1937 was about the same size as Turkey’s.

This was soon to change, because the global trajectory moved ominously toward new wars. Some had already begun.

Japan in China. In the fall of 1931, Japan embarked on a military action in Manchuria, a large, semi-autonomous area between China and the Soviet Union, gaining victory by February 1932. This action resulted in direct political control by Japan of this area and served over the next several years to provide a base of operations for Japan’s expanding aggression toward China. The U.S. protested Japan’s takeover of Manchuria, asserting that it would not give political recognition to the new arrangement—but the protest had little practical weight. The League of Nations also expressed opposition to the Japanese action, but with little effect. In 1936, China’s government led by Chiang Kai-shek formally declared war on Japan.

Italy in Ethiopia. In the mid-1930s, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italian state looked for ways to exert their force and settled on the northern African nation of Ethiopia, one of the few African countries that had not been colonized. After much saber rattling, the Italians finally invaded Ethiopia in October 1935, completing their conquest by May 1936. Again, the League of Nations (in which both Ethiopia and Italy held membership) protested ineffectually. The world saw pictures of the terrible military mismatch that saw thousands of Ethiopians slaughtered, heightening the sense that the fascists were on the move.

Germany in the Saarland, Rhineland, Austria. Adolf Hitler led the German Nazi Party to the highest vote total in the 1932 national elections (though less than a majority). He refused President von Hindenburg’s offer of the position of Vice Chancellor initially, but within a year was instead offered the Chancellor position, accepted, and moved quickly to consolidate his power as Germany’s leader. Many in the West, while dubious of Hitler’s abilities and character, welcomed the Nazi ascendancy as an alternative to the growth in popularity of the German Communist Party.

From the start, Hitler appealed to Germany’s need to exert its power, strengthen its military, and break free from the constraints of the post-World War I peace treaties. In 1935, Germany repudiated the Versailles Treaty and reinstituted compulsory military service. The Germans took over the Saarland, a state in western Germany that since World War I had been under French administration. The German area near Holland called the Rhineland, was also occupied by the French following World War I. The occupation ended in 1930 with the understanding that the area would remain demilitarized. In 1936, the Nazi government repudiated that understanding and began to expand Germany’s militarization into the Rhineland.

Hitler himself was born and grew up in Austria. He only became a German citizen formally in 1932. He understood Austria to be part of greater Germany, and moved to absorb Austria into Germany in 1938. He also desired that the traditionally German city of Danzig, which had been established as a “free city” under League of Nations oversight after World War I, return to Germany. For Danzig to be part of Germany, the area between Danzig and the German border would also have to become part of Germany. The Poles refused (though the political leadership of Danzig had fallen into the hands of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers and had convinced many of Danzig’s general population to want to be part of Germany), setting the stage for violence to come.

The Spanish Civil War. In 1936, a number of Spanish generals attempted a military takeover of their country, setting off a civil war that lasted until 1939. The leader of the generals, Francisco Franco, had strong fascist sympathies and his Nationalist Party eventually prevailed. They were greatly aided in time by the Germans, who took the opportunity to test their military weaponry and tactics. The Soviet Union offered some assistance to the Republicans who opposed Franco, but the Western democracies remained by and large on the sidelines—again happy to see the anti-communists prevail.

Soviet Union in Finland. In the years following World War I and the Russian Revolution that ended with the Communist Party in absolute power in what became the Soviet Union, relations between the Soviets and their neighbors to the northwest, Finland, remained tense. By 1937, it was clear in light of Soviet propaganda that characterized the Social Democratic leadership of Finland as hopelessly fascist, that a major conflict was impending. It was not until after the European War started with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 that the Soviet’s finally took action, invading and with difficulty finally conquering Finland.

Many American pacifists, like their British and other European counterparts, were profoundly aware of these conflicts. In fact, they spoke directly about them, worked at possible responses, and sought to have an impact on American policy-makers with far greater urgency than probably any other segment of the American population.

Today, we reflect on the internationalist pacifists’ activities with no little sorrow, desiring that their influence had been much greater. Perhaps their central message was calling upon American and other world leaders to respond to these heightening conflicts with diplomacy, with creativity, with the desire to find ways both to keep the peace and address the various problem areas. Our sorrow should be focused, at least in part, on the either/or thinking characteristic of most people in power. Either acquiesce or respond with military force. The pacifists did offer genuine alternatives, but alternatives that would have required a different kind of worldview than characteristic of world leaders.

Even recognizing with great respect the insights, the commitment, and the creativity of the pacifist internationalists, we also must recognize that for members of the general population in the United States in the late 1930s, in particular those who were increasingly paying attention to the world outside of their country’s borders, this was indeed a tremendously frightening time. As we will see later in the chapter, those American who advocated military intervention were prone to hyperbolic statements meant to enhance the fearfulness (and channel it in a militaristic direction). Nonetheless, many of the fears were well founded. Wars and rumors of war were all too real. If political leaders failed to work very hard at creative responses to the conflicts, they also faced genuine crises. Profoundly violent men—Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the Japanese generals, Benito Mussolini—exercised tremendous power, with hearts set on destruction.

In reflecting on the moral legacy of World War II, we will not be aided by attempts to minimize the threat to human wholeness posed by these authoritarian leaders and their nations in the lead up to World War II. Our question, rather, is what kind of lessons should we learn from how the U.S. and its allies responded to the extreme violence of the authoritarians. Was the total war that ensued a victory for humane values over tyrannical values? Or did the means used to defeat the tyrants in fact transform those who used them? What won with World War II? Democracy and human rights—or the myth of redemptive violence?

The arguments for “intervention”

In face of Germany, Italy, and Japan moving ever more aggressively during the 1930s, strong arguments emerged in the U.S. pushing for American intervention in opposition to those aggressive moves. President Roosevelt, who from the start strongly believed in intervention, nonetheless moved cautiously in pushing the country in a more interventionist direction.

The possible intervention could have taken various forms, basically involving more overtly “taking sides” against the Axis powers and expressing that opposition through providing logisitical and economic aid for those under attack and, perhaps, ultimately overtly joining in the conflicts with troops.

Roosevelt’s caution stemmed from several sources. He recognized that the American people as a whole remained strongly resistant to American again becoming “entangled” in other people’s wars. The United States itself was not under direct threat from anyone, and reluctance to jeopardize American lives and devote American resources to conflicts that did not directly involve national defense clearly characterized the nation as a whole. While Roosevelt’s Democratic Party in general would have been more open to intervention than Republicans, many within the Party remained opposed to intervention, and Roosevelt had to respect the power of that opposition in order to hold his New Deal coalition together. Roosevelt also clearly remembered the fate of Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party in the aftermath of World War I (Roosevelt himself, as the candidate for Vice-President, being on the Democratic ticket that was crushed following World War I) when Wilson’s push for American internationalism bumped disastrously against the nation’s inclination to avoid “foreign entanglements.”[3]

Nonetheless, Roosevelt and his allies did gradually build the case for increasing intervention. They did not wait for a national consensus, taking small but ever-lengthening steps to add American weight to the opposition to the Axis’ aggressive acts. These steps of opposition first took the form of steady growth in American arms spending, expanding the size of the American military, and strengthening ties especially with the Nationalist China government of Chiang Kai-shek in East Asia and Great Britain in Europe.

When the Japanese moves toward China reached the point of overt war in 1936, Roosevelt supported military action against the Japanese in principle, but felt he could not actually pursue that path for the time being. He did not believe that the American Navy had grown to the strength that would make such action effective, and he recognized that such action would meet with sharp opposition in Congress.[4]

The Roosevelt Administration also resisted getting involved in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 even in face of direct German involvement and the ultimate victory of the quasi-fascist forces of Francesco Franco.

These years did see a sharp increase in the public rhetoric supporting the need for Americans to face the threats that were arising throughout the world. Americans saw more and more newsreels and newspaper and magazine articles filled with frightening images and a sense of foreboding. The message was that darkness was spreading across parts of the world in an ever-widening path—and clearly was heading even towards isolated North America.

The fateful year of 1939 saw a great escalation of the debate in the U.S. over American intervention in Europe, what with Britain’s guarantee to Poland of military support should Germany attempt forcefully to take Poland over, the Nazi-Soviet anti-aggression pact (labeled by Winston Churchill as the “Devil’s Alliance”), and the German blitzkrieg of Poland that—although it led Britain and France to declare war on Germany—resulted in a quick defeat of Poland. And the continuing warfare in the Far East as Japan sought to subdue China and otherwise expand the Japanese empire exacerbated fears about conflicts to the East.

On the one hand, the pro-interventionists (including Roosevelt) stopped short of overtly calling for the U.S. officially joining the war against either the Germans or Japanese. But on the other hand, all of the rhetoric in favor of increased intervention assumed that the only way to deal effectively with the crises centered on military action. The issue on one level had to do with whether the U.S. would become more active in global affairs as a general question. But, though there were internationalists who advocated activity in global affairs of a nonviolent sort, by and large in the broader societal debate, the only type of intervention on offer was military centered.

In the intense debates of this time, those opposed to interventionist policies mostly took what was often called an “isolationist stance” that drew on the long American tradition of avoidance of foreign entanglements. One group that emerged to advocate against intervention was called “America First.” It was in the name of nationalism that America should avoid intervention. As the events proved, when Japan attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian colony, most of these nationalists immediately rallied to the flag and became strong supporters of the American war effort against both the Japanese and the Germans.

A much smaller element of the anti-interventionist side of the debate were internationalists who did indeed support American involvement in the world’s conflicts, but advocated for this involvement to be nonviolent, non-military focused, and seeking to find ways to avoid and resolve conflicts—rather than focus on military violence.[5] These anti-interventionists tended toward principled opposition to warfare (i.e., pacifism). Much of their argument was an argument based on moral principles and ideals. However, they also warned of severe damage to democratic principles should the U.S. pursue a more militarized response. Their immediate fears were not realized. However, Part Two below (“Aftermath”) will make the case that those concerns were indeed prescient.

At the heart of the arguments made in favor of a more interventionist stance[6] on the part of the U.S., lay a concern for what the pro-interventionists termed “civilization.”[7] The basic components of “civilization” included the realities of “justice and freedom,” religious freedom, “civilized decency,” liberties, “universal principles of justice,” the willingness to resist the “gangsters and bandits” who threaten democracy, and self-determination.[8]

From June 1940 when France surrendered to the Nazis until Germany violated its non-aggression pact and attacked the Soviet Union just about one year later, the focus of the European War and hence the focus for American pro-interventionist arguments was on Great Britain and the Battle of Britain. The clear perception was that Britain’s ability to repel the German attack (which was essentially an air attack—Britain continued to “rule the seas,” so a land invasion was not possible) was all that stood in the way of a complete German victory. Such a perception, of course, was fundamentally flawed. There was never a chance that Germany would not turn to its true enemy and attack the Soviet Union. A German victory in the Battle of Britain in actuality would mainly have meant Britain accommodating itself to German domination of Western Europe but otherwise remaining fairly intact—at least until the German/Soviet struggle found resolution.

Regardless, the pro-interventionists perceived that Britain resistance to the German attacks loomed as the decisive moment. Britain stood for civilization; Germany stood for barbarism. We should of course be honest about the failures of American society and British society, the pro-interventionists admitted, but these failures pale against both the accomplishments of the British (“The British Navy has been the protector of the liberties of the world; it has not been a menace to the freedom of man—on the whole, what a splendid achievement in freedom and law is represented by the British flag!”[9]).

The pro-interventionist argument went like this: Great Britain is the bulwark in Western Europe of democracy and the best of western civilization. The British are standing alone against some of the greatest forces for barbarism the world has ever seen. Should the British fall, the world will face an unimaginable catastrophe. The United States will find itself standing alone, an island of democracy and justice in a world of the darkest political tyranny. So we must support Britain in its dire need. Interestingly, for the public version of the pro-interventionist argument at least, even in the face of this terrible, terrible crisis, the U.S. is not called upon to travel the path to all-out commitment actually to go to war. We should offer generous military aid to Britain, clearly taking sides. But even though the crisis could not be more dire (in the rhetoric of the pro-interventionists) it still did not necessarily require American soldiers to enter combat.

The pro-intervention arguments, thus, had a limited purview. They focused primarily on the emotional level—challenging Americans to accept the call to support Britain in its fight against the Nazis and overcome their inclination toward noninvolvement. They mainly focused on preparing Americans for further involvement—without naming that shape that involvement would take.

Relatively little was said, before December 1941, about intervention against Japan’s military actions. And lurking in the background prior to Hitler’s June 1941 turn against the Soviets, but not named, was the challenge of how the fundamental incompatibility of Nazism with Communism (and the certainty that this incompatibility would lead to war in central and eastern Europe) entered into the discernment process of American intervention.

The pro-interventionist arguments provide present-day interpreters with some sense of the moral terrain being traveled by Americans who believed that their country’s active participation in what was rapidly emerging as World War II was necessary, just, and in some sense “good.” By considering the moral concerns reflected in the pro-interventionist arguments, we may begin to construct a sense of how to evaluate the actual events of the War and the War’s aftermath. What were we fighting for? How did we do in achieving those purposes?

At the heart of the pro-interventionist concern was a belief in western civilization, especially as embodied in the traditions of Great Britain of democracy, religious liberty, and rule of law. This is a war to protect those traditions, a war to further the cause of democracy, a war to protect human rights, liberty, rule of law, the basic institutions of free societies.

A major voice among the pro-interventionists, Lewis Mumford, emphasized the importance of all the nations of the world “submitting to the reign of law.”[10] Mumford wrote that he shared the ideal of the pacifist-inclined anti-interventionists that we could achieve universal disarmament. However, for the democracies to disarm unilaterally leaves the “gangsters and bandits” free to wreak havoc. So we need to achieve a world where all nations submit to the rule of law. This is one of the main purposes for intervening militarily against the Axis powers.

The “purpose statements”

After Germany’s blitzkrieg of Poland in September, 1939, though the British and French were officially at war with the Germans, western Europe settled into a time of uneasy stasis that lasted into the Spring of 1940—the “phony war.” The conflict flared up initially in the far north, where neutral Norway was coveted by both the British and Germans.

After a disastrous brief campaign initiated when the British violated Norwegian neutrality and ending with the Nazis defeat of the British and conquest of Norway, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced from office in early May. Ironically, the main instigator of the campaign, Winston Churchill, escaped blame and ended up taking Chamberlain’s place.

Chamberlain’s choice as successor was E.L.F. Wood (Lord Halifax). Chances are high that had Halifax been willing to become Prime Minister, the office would have been his. Chances are also high that with Halifax as Prime Minister, Britain would have reached a peace settlement with the Germans. Hitler took initiative after initiative toward the British in hopes of ending the war in the West, with the intent of turning Germany’s full attention to the East and the impending showdown with the Soviet Union.

Hitler offered that the British would retain a large amount of domestic autonomy and retain its empire and the Germans would be given a free hand on the Continent, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Halifax, a part of the more conservative element of the Conservative Party and throughout the 1930s fairly favorably inclined toward the emerging Nazi power in Germany as a bulwark against Communism, had himself been active in proposing peace initiatives toward Germany (though in general he was not so favorably disposed toward Hitler’s own role). As events unfolded, it seems believable that Halifax would have taken German peace initiatives quite seriously—certainly much more so than Churchill did. Churchill consistently responded negatively toward such initiatives.

With Halifax’s decision to stand aside and leave the Prime Minister’s position to Churchill,[11] the British path was established. Churchill, like most other British Conservatives, was strongly anti-Communist and had been favorably inclined toward the Nazis when they came into power. However, by 1940 he was unalterably committed to war against the Nazis and refused to consider capitulation.

This commitment was crucial for what was to come almost immediately after Churchill’s ascension to power. The same day Chamberlain resigned and Churchill stepped in, the German’s ended the “phony war” and began their attack on the Low Countries and France. Shockingly, that conflict ended only six weeks later with France’s surrender. With their main European ally out of commission, the Britons faced the onslaught of Germany’s air force in the Battle of Britain.

Churchill, whose mother was from the United States, had always been committed to a strong alliance with the Americans. When he was returned to the British government in 1939 and joined Chamberlain’s war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty (commander of the British Navy), Churchill established direct contact with Franklin Roosevelt. The two leaders found themselves of like mind in their advocacy of vigorous military responses to the Nazis.

As prime minister, Churchill moved quickly to deepen his relationship with Roosevelt. He “asked Roosevelt to modify the American position from neutrality to ‘nonbelligerency.’” That is, Churchill wanted the United States to become a close ally in terms of support and commitment, everything short of sending American troops to fight. Churchill asked for military hardware—destroyers to resist German submarines and as many fighter planes as possible—and raw materials. Roosevelt welcomed the close connection with Churchill and affirmed the British/American alliance, but for domestic political reasons responded with caution. Churchill continued to push for more American support.[12]

By August 1940, Roosevelt was ready to commit the U.S. to this “co-belligerent” relationship with Britain, though he insisted on waiting until after the November, 1940, presidential election to be totally open publicly about this commitment. Roosevelt’s ability to move toward such a role for the U.S. was greatly improved when the Republican Party, home for much of the American non-interventionist sentiment, surprised the country by nominating Wendell Willkie as its candidate for President. Willkie represented the fairly small pro-interventionist wing of the Republican Party, and his focus in the campaign would be on issues of difference with Roosevelt other than policies toward the European War (or the growing conflict in East Asia). This freed Roosevelt from having to restrain his interventionist tendencies in his re-election due to vulnerability to anti-interventionist public opinion.

Re-election safely and comfortably in hand, Roosevelt after November 1940 more actively pursued the policy of being Britain’s “ally in all but actual fighting.” As well, the U.S. pursued ever more hostile policies toward Japan and Japan’s expansionist policies, including giving direct military aid to China in the Chinese/Japanese War.

Between November 1940 and the formal entry of the U. S. into the European War and into war with Japan in December 1941, Roosevelt took several opportunities to lay out what we could call the philosophical groundwork for American participation in the War. The American people were not inclined to support such participation. They required persuasion, and Roosevelt offered that persuasion in large part on moral grounds, articulating the moral principles that would require military action.

Roosevelt and his colleagues presented a moral view of the world that established the need for military force to further certain key values. Of course, in the end, the decisive impetus for Americans affirming war came with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even that act, while certainly more than enough to get Americans behind war with Japan, may not have pushed Americans to affirm war against Germany. Hitler made that commitment much easier when he somewhat inexplicably took matters into his own hands and declared war on the United States a few days after Pearl Harbor.

Roosevelt’s statements of purpose during the months before Pearl Harbor established the values that the American people understood themselves to be fighting for. They also provide us today with important guides for our moral evaluation of American participation in World War II. The American people, especially American young men, were asked to make major sacrifices in devotion to these ideals. Simply to go to war in obedience to governmental decree, or to fight on behalf of other countries and peoples, would not have sustained the kind of effort people put forth. We need to take seriously the moral appeals; they provided impetus for finding meaning in the sacrifices and, after the fact, in establishing why this was a “good” war.

The two most important statements came, first, in January 1941 with Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, and then, in August 1941 in the agreement established by Roosevelt and Churchill that became known as the “Atlantic Charter.” These two statements are full of moral content that helps us establish our criteria for evaluating the moral legacy of World War II.

During the 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt continually reiterated that the United States would not be going to war, that his advocacy of support for Great Britain was intended to keep American out of the War. In an October campaign speech, Roosevelt asserted that it was an outrageously false charge that he wanted to push American toward war. “To Republicans and Democrats, to every man, woman, and child in the nation I say this: Your President and your Secretary of State are following the road to peace. We are arming ourselves not for any foreign war.” He pledged that the U.S. would only send troops into war in the case of a direct attack. “It is for peace that I have labored, and it is for peace that I shall labor all the days of my life.”[13]

The public stance Roosevelt took in the months after his re-election continued to emphasize that the U.S. would be an arsenal, not a combatant, in the War. He recognized that this was not a stable position. The focus of debate concerning America’s role in the War centered by the beginning of 1941 on the policy of supplying Britain with armaments “without reference to the dollar sign,” a policy known as “Lend-Lease.” This policy required Congressional authorization, which meant that a debate would indeed happen.[14]

Roosevelt got the debate going with his State of the Union address where he announced that he would be sending the Lend-Lease Bill to Congress on January 6, 1941. He concluded his speech by introducing what became an enduring statement of key values, what he called “the four essential human freedoms” that he was seeking to further with his policies: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The 1st is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The 2nd is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The 3rd is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The 4th is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

In the words of historian David Kennedy, “These Four Freedoms, promulgated in every then-known medium, including a sentimental painting and poster by the popular artist Norman Rockwell, soon became a sort of shorthand for America’s war aims. They could be taken, too, especially for the concepts of freedom from want and fear, as a charter for the New Deal itself. At this level of basic principle, there was unmistakable continuity between Roosevelt’s domestic policies during the Great Depression and his foreign policies in the world war.”[15]

Rockwell’s paintings were published early in 1943 and quickly became iconic. They were utilized in the campaign for selling war bonds and helped raise over $130 million. The pictorial vision of the American way of life that Rockwell captured were seen by many Americans to capture well the ideals of the nation and the principles they fought for[16]—both to protect domestically and, as Roosevelt had stated, to protect “anywhere in the world.”

In August of 1941, the U.S. inched ever closer to direct combat. Still the support in Congress was not clearly there and Roosevelt held back from the final step. For the last time in American history, a President assumed he must defer to the Constitutional requirement for a formal declaration of war by Congress. Roosevelt acted to solidify the connection with Great Britain even more with a secretive summit meeting with Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, August 14. Clearly anticipating that the U.S. would as soon as possible formally enter the War, Roosevelt and Churchill produced a document known as the Atlantic Charter.

The Atlantic Charter outlined the Allies’ eight main war aims—though Roosevelt at the time insisted they be called “common principles in the national policies of the their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.” Roosevelt avoided the term “war aims” in recognition that it would not be politic at this point publicly for the U.S., officially still “neutral,” to use language that would appear to assume that the U.S. was a belligerent. This statement shaped virtually everything that the Allies were later to say about their purposes for fighting and also played in huge role in the political organization of the post-war world (at least on the level of formal statements).

Historian H. W. Brands summarizes the eight points thus: “The first point eschewed aggrandizement, territorial or otherwise. The second forswore changes not in accord with the ‘freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.’ The third affirmed ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.’ The fourth promised equal terms of trade to all nations, with ‘due respect’ for the ‘existing obligations’ of the United States and Britain. The fifth endorsed improved labor and living standards in all countries. The sixth looked forward, ‘after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,’ to a peace ‘which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.’ The seventh supported free travel and commerce across the world’s oceans. The eighth called on the nations of the world to disarm, ‘pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.’”[17]

Together, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter portray what American participation in the War would seek. As such, they played a central role in the moral appeal made to American people to support and prosecute the War. This vision gives us bases for evaluating the moral legacy of the War. Though obviously, the statements most fundamentally served as propaganda for advocates of military action (all belligerents always couch their motives in the most idealist terms as possible), those who articulated these ideals must held at least somewhat accountable to them. These statements provided the moral legitimacy for the War at the time and decisively shape the mythology of World War II as a “good” war. They are good, strong, attractive statements that do capture the best of the American democratic tradition, what I would call the “democracy story” that is central to the American experience.[18]

In assessing the moral legacy of World War II, I will use the vision articulated in these two statements—both to consider the tactics used to prosecute the War and, more importantly, to consider the aftermath of the War. What kind of world did follow from World War II? Most especially, how did the United States participate in this world? In our moral assessment, we will seek honestly to examine the evidence. We will hold up the stated ideals as our bases for evaluation. The “success” of the War will be measured in relation to these stated purposes.

Using just war reasoning, we may say that Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and the Atlantic Charter provide bases to establish that this was indeed a “just war” that was fought for “good cause,” fought to bring about a peace better than the injustices of 1941. We have here just war criteria that need to be evaluated in order to ascertain the justness of this War. We have means to test whether the better peace that was sought was in fact achieved.

In brief, the “good cause” that America sought to achieve involved the highest ideals of American democracy. Freedom, specifically the ability to express oneself without fear of repression and the ability to worship without fear of repression, stands at the center. Also, the opportunity to pursue “happiness” (as stated in the Declaration of Independence) provides the essential meaning of freedom from want and fear. Roosevelt’s speech emphasizes that these freedoms are for “everywhere in the world.” He means that we, reluctantly, enter ever deeper into this War in order to protect and spread these freedoms to the ends of the earth.

These freedoms may also be expressed in terms of the universal right of political self-determination stated in various forms in the Atlantic Charter. To protect this right, the Allies also commit themselves to repudiate “territorial aggrandizement,” to disarm “Nazi tyranny,” and to follow Nazi disarmament by general disarmament in the context of “the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” This last point commits the Allies to creating structures that will establish such a system—pointing ahead to the United Nations.

These were worthy ideals. Small wonder they inspired many Americans to take up arms. Clearly, all these ideals were directly under attack as the German war machine cut its wide swath through Europe and the Japanese war machine did likewise in the Far East. We will see how the idealism underlying these key statements worked out.

Other factors

In the American collective memory of World War II, we tend to take the pro-interventionist arguments from the late 1930s and early 1940s as objective portrayals of the conflicts. However, as is to be expected for wartime propaganda, these arguments did not tell the entire picture. They were statements of persuasion and advocacy, not nuanced accounts of the situation in all its complexity.

In seeking to make sense of the moral legacy of World War II, we need to look beyond the rhetoric of war advocates—whose statements have kind of become the standard history because their side won both the debate in 1939-41 and the war that followed. We should think more critically about the lead up to American involvement in the War not in order to refute the interventionists but simply so we may better understand what fed into the War (and, maybe also, understand better why the War did not actually live up to the ideals expressed in the purpose statements).

If 1937 marks the beginning of America’s move towards war—the time when Franklin Roosevelt, safely re-elected and ready to allow his inclinations toward greater American involvement in the wider world’s conflicts, began to push for major increases in military spending and more active opposition to Japanese expansion—the conflicts that eventually did erupt into global warfare had a much longer history.

By the mid-1930s (and certainly this has become a truism in the years since) many people acknowledged the Nazi’s claims that Germany had been treated poorly by the peace treaties that ended World War I. These treaties were almost guaranteed to foster bitter resentment among the Germans and also made the economic and social health of the German nation difficult to attain. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the World War I victors rejected numerous opportunities to make the conditions placed on Germany less onerous. Especially during the difficulties of the Great Depression, the fragile democracy of the German Weimar Republic struggled to retain its legitimacy in the face of the growth of extremist movements on both the Right (the Nazis) and the Left (the Communists).

As the Nazis grew in strength, other Western Europeans and Americans looked on with mixed reactions. A few from the time of Hitler’s entry in public life in the early 1920s paid close attention to Nazi ideology and warned of the possible ramifications should this movement continue to grow. On the other hand, there were a few who also paid attention with positive appreciation from the start (e.g., wealthy American auto magnate Henry Ford).

More common, many perceived the rise of the Nazis as a mixed blessing. Hitler seemed a bit cartoonish and some of his rhetoric was alarming, and in the background always lurked the specter of a revival of traditional German/Prussian militarism. On the other hand, the Nazis stood tall as a much to be desired counter to the growing influence of Communists in Germany—and elsewhere. By and large, conservatives in Britain such as Neville Chamberlain and in France such as Philippe Pétain believed the benefits of the anti-communist counterweight superseded the risks in Nazi extremism. Even Winston Churchill, later portrayed as one who opposed Nazism from early on, as late as 1937 published a book that described Hitler in mostly positive terms: “Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.”[19]

The Nazis gaining power and immediately greatly expanding German investment into arms and expansion of the military, steps that played a major role in reviving the German economy, deepened the economic ties between Germany and American corporations. In fact, as late as February 1936, Germany bought more arms from American companies than any other country in the world except China and Chile.[20]

Then came the showdown between Britain and Germany in 1939. This was preceded by several aggressive moves by the Germans that met with only token opposition from Britain and France (such as re-arming the Saarland, repossessing the western areas that had been occupied by the French, annexing Austria, and, finally, taking over Czechoslovakia). Then, somewhat paradoxically, Britain (with the reluctant cooperation of France) made a war-commitment to Poland. Though Britain had no close ties with Poland and the British leadership tended to agree that the formerly German areas of northwestern Poland, especially the port city of Danzig, should probably be returned to Germany (given that the vast majority of the people of Danzig desired this return), Britain felt it was worth going to war should Germany use military force rather than diplomacy to regain Danzig.

Certainly it was not Britain’s commitment to democracy that fueled this war-commitment. Poland, just like Germany, was ruled by a militaristic, right wing dictatorship. Probably the most likely rationale behind Britain’s decision was concern for Britain’s “prestige” and the need to bolster Britain’s imperial standing. Regardless, the British commitment to Poland was the final step leading to the outbreak of the mother of all wars.

German aggression and militarism clearly were the main factors leading to the European War. The “democracies” had helped enable the growth of that militarism due both to the opportunity for arms dealers to make money from Germany and to welcoming the Nazi’s hostility to Communism. It’s difficult to imagine imperial powers such as Britain and France caring much about the principle of self-determination for the peoples of Central Europe given their decidedly anti-democratic treatment of so many of their colonies. By 1939, though, it was clear to the British (more than to the French; in 1940 they quickly gave up in their war with Germany) that their Nazi “anti-Communist bulwark” had become a terrible problem.

It is impossible to say, of course, how events would have played out had Britain not made their war-commitment to Poland. It’s quite likely that without the commitment, the Polish government would have given in to Hitler’s demands rather than rejecting them and going to war (it was a terrible irony that when the war on Poland actually came, Britain and France left the Poles pretty much to their own devices; Poland’s resistance was stiff but short-lived). Any imaginable alternative to what actually happened would have been better for Poland. As things turned out, Poland was utterly devastated by the war that followed, worse by far than any other country. And the War’s outcome left Poland on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, subject to a Stalinist dictatorship for nearly another half century (ironically, Czechoslovakia, which capitulated to the Germans, came through the War relatively unscathed).

Up until the British war-guarantee, Nazi aggression had been focused on reclaiming territories adjacent to the current boundaries of Germany that were made up of largely German-speaking people. This was also the case in the demands on Poland. Provoked by the British recalcitrance, Hitler decided to press much harder and for the first time move beyond territories that had earlier been part of Germany and extend German dominance over most of Poland.

Hitler did not seek war with Great Britain, and when the war nonetheless came, Germany never poured its full energy into defeating the British. Hitler’s desires concerning Britain were mainly that the British not actively resist the German expansion on the European continent. Quite possibly, as well, apart from Britain and France declaring war on Germany, the Germans would not have conquered the Low Countries and France right away in the Spring of 1940.

The further we proceed in our speculations, the more uncertain they become, but it is certainly imaginable that without the British war guarantee to Poland, Hitler would not have entered the “Devil’s Alliance” with Stalin (the non-aggression pact that secretly included an agreement to divvy Poland up). Even had the German/Soviet agreement been reached, in light of Hitler’s quick decision to abandon the “Battle of Britain” and turn the attack toward the Soviets (a decision made in September, 1940, though not implemented until June, 1941), it is quite possible that the War in Western Europe would not have happened, that the only full bore fight for the Nazis would have been with the Soviet Union.

Despite the mythology in the West about the importance of the U.S. and Britain in defeating the Nazis, we must admit as possible that the Soviet Union may have defeated Germany even without the involvement of the U.S. and Britain. Historian Norman Davies, for one, argues that by far the biggest force that defeated Germany was the Soviet Union.[21] The war in the East, for example, led to three times more German casualties than the war in the West. Had Germany first turned to their doom in the East, the democracies in Western Europe (e.g., France, Holland, and Belgium) would not have been directly overthrown. And had the Soviets indeed defeated the Germans, the post-war fate of Central and Eastern Europe would likely have been little different the actual events—forty-plus years of Communist dictatorships.

These points do not change the fact that by 1940-41, Britain was at war with Germany and the Roosevelt administration felt that the best policy for the U.S. was direct support for Britain, “co-belligerency” just short of full-fledged war. And that Roosevelt actually welcomed Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. shortly after Pearl Harbor. But they do complicate the story a bit.

I note one other issue related to the European War. I have not had anything to say up to now about the moral imperative humane people faced to resist Nazi treatment of Jews. In the mythology of the “good war,” the saving-Jews factor looms large. However, identifying that motivation came after the fact. As the War drew to a close, and Westerners learned of the evils that we now call the Holocaust, the story about why we were fighting the Nazis came to include saving Jews. However, one looks in vain for evidence that this problem motivated either the British or the Americans in the run up to the War or even in the decisions about how the War would be pursued. It’s a simple fact that America’s involvement in World War II had virtually nothing to do with “saving Jews.”

The actual reasons for the Far East war are even more complicated than for the European war. This part of the story could go back to the 1850s when American warships visited Japan with the demand that Japanese isolation from the Western world end—or else. The relationship between the U.S. and Japan from the 1850s until 1941 was filled with tensions.

Japan had allied itself with the Allies during World War I, forging especially close ties with Britain. However, as Japan emerged as a world power in the early years of the twentieth century, the U.S. perceived this emergence more as a threat to American power in the Far East than as something to be welcomed. In a crucial move after World War I, the U.S. insisted that the British terminate their alliance with Japan, which happened in 1922.

Exacerbated by American hostility, Japan’s military grew increasingly motivated to establish Japan as a genuine power in the world, imitating the imperial practices of the Western powers. This led to heightened tensions between two imperialistic states—Japan and the United States—over spheres of influence and domination in the Far East.

As Japan became more militaristic and expansionist, the U.S. acted with more and more hostility. These tensions found their locus in China, the largest nation in the world and a place that the British and Americans both had long traditions of exploiting. As Japan sought to join in that exploitation, things got more touchy.

At the same time, these points of tension did not do much to limit the role American corporations played in providing Japan with many crucial natural resources, much of which Japan turned into military hardware and expansionist policies. When Japan pushed harder in China, annexing Manchuria in 1932, and using that satellite state as a jumping off point for incursions into China proper, the U.S. increased its support for the Chinese government. Again, as with Britain’s “concern” for Poland, the Americans were not supporting democracy in China. The leader of the Chinese government, Chiang Kai-shek was far from a supporter of democracy. The basis for support for Chiang had mostly to do with economics.

A couple of key moments prior to the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941, pushed the tensions near to the breaking point. The U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Japan, leading to panic on the part of the Japanese regarding their access to vital materials. Roosevelt ordered the American Pacific Fleet greatly to expand its presence in the Pearl Harbor base that was located in the American colony of Hawaii—an expansion perceived by the Japanese as highly provocative.

Finally, Japanese Prime Minister Konoye, who had resisted extremist elements in the military and desired to avoid war with the U.S., desperately sought a meeting with Roosevelt in the summer and fall of 1941 to seek to find ways to resolve the differences. Roosevelt put these meetings off. Quite likely, Roosevelt actually desired a confrontation with the Japanese, at least in part as a way to make full-scale war on Germany more acceptable to Americans. With this failure, Konoye resigned as Prime Minister in October 1941. He was succeeded by General Tojo, one of the strongest of the hard-liners. Less than two months later the Japanese attacked.

As with the situation in Europe, the Eastern war was most of all the consequence of the aggression and extreme militarism of one of the Axis powers. Japan cannot be excused for those extreme acts of aggression. Certainly, once the American Navy was directly and viciously devastated, no one could have stopped the U.S. from declaring war and pouring immense resources into defeating those responsible for the attack.

However, when we take seriously the historical background and the immediate lead up to the Far East war, we can’t avoid the possibility that Pearl Harbor is best seen as simply a fairly small step of escalation following a mutual process of alienation for which the U.S. bears comparable responsibility with the Japanese.

The hammer falls—and the myth begins

After the U.S. Congress approved the Lend-Lease program with Great Britain, the Americans joined the European war as almost full-scale participants. We had not yet committed soldiers to direct participation and we had not yet formally declared war. Likewise, in the Pacific with the ever-escalating conflict with Japan. When the Roosevelt Administration ordered an economic boycott with Japan, including especially the suspension of deliveries of oil, the conflict ratcheted up and full-scale war seemed only a matter of time.

Yet American political forces in opposition to full out war remained strong even into the fall of 1941. In October, an American destroyer, the Reuben James, leading convoy of supplies-carrying ships on their way to Great Britain, was attacked and sunk by German submarines—the most serious direct encounter between Germany and the U.S. to that point.

Rather than immediately using this incident, which had resulted in the deaths of over 100 American sailors, as a trigger for further movement toward the all-in war he wanted, Roosevelt waited to gauge the response of the American public. As it turned out, the sinking of the Reuben James didn’t change much—interventionists yelled for war; anti-interventionists remained unconvinced, and powerful.

As Roosevelt biographer H.W. Brands reports, “the isolationists contended that the attack revealed why the neutrality law should not be revised. ‘If the losses are going to be this heavy in convoying in our defensive waters,’ [Ohio Republican Senator] Robert Taft said, ‘they may be so heavy convoying the rest of the way into British ports that we won’t have anything left to defend ourselves with.’ [Republican Senator] Gerald Nye [of North Dakota] said bluntly, ‘You can’t expect to walk into a barroom brawl and hope to stay out of the fight.”[22]

Brands then reports: “The opposition stopped Roosevelt in his tracks. He refused to take even the symbolic step of suspending relations with Berlin.”[23] Roosevelt believed that more direct involvement by the U.S. in the conflicts in Europe and Asia had become ever more necessary, but he still found the resistance of the anti-interventionists severely constraining. Roosevelt did apparently sense that he had just enough congressional support to overturn the neutrality legislation that formally limited American partisan acts in the conflicts. But, ever the careful politician, he knew that even as he got the revisions of the neutrality rules narrowly passed, he had nothing close to the support needed for a war declaration. Something more extreme than the sinking of the Reuben James would be necessary to turn the tide.

Roosevelt faced a major challenge in his negotiating the dynamics of America’s relationship with Japan in the late summer and fall of 1941. Prime Minister Konoye sought a direct meeting with Roosevelt, with the stated purpose of wanting to slow down the momentum toward conflict. He wrote, “Japan and the United States are the last two major powers who hold the key to international peace. That the two nations should fall into the worst of relations at this time would mean not only a disaster in itself, but the collapse of world civilization.”[24]

However, the Americans were not eager for this kind of meeting. Some historians argue that the main motivations for the Americans in avoiding the meeting with Konoye had to do with their uncertainty about how much power he actually had in relation to the powerful Japanese generals. The Americans did enter into negotiations with Konoye about arranging the meeting, however. Konoye suggested meeting in Hawaii, but Roosevelt countered with Alaska. Konoye accepted, urgently, but Roosevelt held off (he wasn’t “willing to risk a meeting that might make him look as foolish as Neville Chamberlain had looked after Munich”[25]). Finally, Konoye gave up and the proposed meeting fell through.

Almost immediately after this failure to get Roosevelt to meet with him, Konoye resigned as prime minister. His successor, General Hideki Tojo, represented the hardest liners of the Japanese militarists. He had commanded the Japanese army that occupied Manchuria and had directed the negotiations that led to Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy. Tojo became prime minister in October 1941.

As prime minister, Tojo spoke of America’s policies in early November: “Two years from now we will have no petroleum for military use. Ships will stop moving. When I think about the strengthening of American defenses in the southwest Pacific, the expansion of the American fleet, the unfinished China Incident, and so on, I see no end to difficulties. We can talk about austerity and suffering, but can our people endure such a life for a long time?”[26]

It seems clear that Roosevelt looked for opportunities to escalate the conflict to the point of getting American anti-interventionists to greatly decrease their opposition. He likely did expect some dramatic provocation from the Japanese or Germans, but expected this provocation not severely to damage the American war capabilities. That is, he likely did not expect the American fleet harbored in the American Hawaiian colony to be devastated by a sudden attack.

Of course, it was this sudden attack on Pearl Harbor that in fact did happen. Though the damage to the American navy was much more severe than may have been expected, the Pearl Harbor incident more than fulfilled Roosevelt’s hopes for an event that would transform American public opinion and reluctance in Congress and lead to support for deeper involvement in the War.  December 7, 1941 became one of the most famous dates in all of American history.

The next day, Roosevelt addressed the nation with his brilliant “Day of Infamy” speech given to Congress. His speech led to a unanimous vote in the Senate and nearly unanimous vote in the House to declare war on Japan. Only Jeanette Rankin, Republican House member voted against the War (as she had back in 1917 in response to Wilson’s request for a war declaration).

The situation with Germany remained uncertain at the time of the war declaration on Japan. Germany remained a much greater concern, but the U.S. still had no overt provocation to declare war also on Germany. Roosevelt began to push in that direction. He addressed the country on December 9 with the claim that the Japanese attack had been pushed by Hitler. He asserted “the Germans and Japanese conducted their military and naval operations according to a single global plan, one that treated any victory for an Axis nation as a victory for all. Japan had struck the United States more openly than Germany and Italy had thus far, but the danger from those countries was no less.”[27]

As it turned out, before Roosevelt could test Congress in this new situation with a request for a war declaration on Germany, Hitler solved the problem. Germany, somewhat surprisingly, declared war on the United States on December 11. With this declaration, soon matched by the U.S. in response, the world war truly began.

This is how Brands characterizes this final step toward war: “After years of warning Americans against the fascist threat, after months of stretching his authority and bending the truth in an effort to educate the American people, even while striving to prevent Hitler from completing his conquest of Europe, Roosevelt would receive his mandate to wage the fight in full earnest. ‘The forces endeavoring to enslave the entire world now are moving toward this hemisphere,’ he said. ‘Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty, and civilization. I therefore request the Congress to recognize a state of war between the United States and Germany.’”[28]

Roosevelt’s December 8 speech established the basic framework for the American understanding of the war with Japan. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of American was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with the government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific….

“This morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island. Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves….

“Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again. Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.

“I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”

Roosevelt’s basic message asserted: This attack was totally unprovoked (“and dastardly”). The U. S. was committed to peace until the fundamentally aggressive Japanese acted so treacherously to violate this peace. America’s “might” is “righteous.” Our response to this attack will be an act of national “defense,” even as we are now committed to “absolute victory.” The seeds were sown in this speech both for a strong sense of American innocence and pure motives in responding to Japanese aggression and for what would become a highly potent basis for motivation: revenge for the unprovoked and devastating violence of the Japanese.[29]

An awareness of the relationships between the U.S. and Japan in the years and months prior to December 7, 1941 make it clear that Pearl Harbor was not an “unprovoked” act by the Japanese. One may certainly question whether the provocation of the Japanese by American policies and rhetoric warranted such a major surprise attack. But we cannot deny that the Americans had indeed provided genuine provocation. Roosevelt had expressed desire for the Japanese to act in such a way that would make a military escalation by the Americans possible. As well, to state that the U.S. had been actively seeking peace with Japan flies in the face of many aspects of the America’s actually behavior, most obviously Roosevelt’s rebuffs of former Prime Minister Koyone that seem directly to have led to the prime minister’s resignation and opened the path for the extreme militarist Tojo to move directly into power.

A more accurate reading of Pearl Harbor, I suggest, would see it as simply another step in a long-running dynamic of escalation between two competing imperial powers. The U.S. resisted Japanese expansionism in ways that empowered the more extreme elements of the Japanese leadership. It does not appear that Japan actually was motivated by a desire to move into the Western Hemisphere nearly so much as a desire to end the U.S. resistance to Japan’s efforts in the East. Japan actually was quite dependent upon the U.S. as a major source of natural resources, especially oil.

The attack of Pearl Harbor was a terrible tactical miscalculation by the Japanese. They likely hoped that after receiving such a severe blow, the U.S. would pull back and withdraw more deeply into its isolationist shell, allowing Japan a freer reign. Surely no leader in Japan contemplated actual acts of conquest aimed at the U.S. In the event, the response of the Americans was exactly the opposite from what the Japanese expected. Pearl Harbor turned the U.S. toward an even more aggressive response toward Japan, one that ended only with the immense destruction visited upon the Japanese mainland and (nearly) “unconditional surrender” (“absolute victory”).

The revenge dynamic unleashed by the Pearl Harbor attack had a tremendous impact on American sensibilities in the war that followed—and in the years since.[30] I believe that we need to take seriously the moral grounding for the call for Americans to support the War—what I call the “purpose statements” above, especially Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech and the Atlantic Charter. However, we must also remember the role the powerful desire for revenge against the Japanese played in fostering support for the war.

We will need to reflect, though, on the moral significance of revenge motives. If indeed one key element of moral legacy of World War II was the actual empowering of desires for revenge, how did that empowerment play out—both in the War that followed Pearl Harbor and in the living memory of that war in the years since? One question is why a strictly military action on a colonial military base thousands of miles from the continental United States would have played such a potent role in the moral justifications of massive attacks on civilian populations in Japan that resulted in millions of deaths.

Certainly, the immediate effect of the quest for revenge against the Japanese centered on a target significantly different from the Japanese themselves. Ever since Winston Churchill’s ascent to the role of prime minister of Great Britain, the Roosevelt Administration had faced ever-mounting pressures to intervene in the war versus Germany. Roosevelt supported moving in that direction, but, as we have noted, had great difficulty given the democratic constraints of U.S. governmental processes in moving the country in that direction.

The overtly moral appeals to the need to save Western civilization and especially the English-speaking West from Nazi tyranny had made some progress, but not to the point where Roosevelt could initiate a war declaration (and, unlike Presidents who followed—beginning with FDR’s immediate successor, Harry Truman—Roosevelt felt constrained to send American soldiers to war without such a declaration). What it took to get the country totally behind a war with Germany were two additional steps—first, the horrors of being attacked (albeit attacked far away in the Pacific Ocean) that triggered strong revenge desires, and second, the actual initiative of Hitler to move the conflict into a declared war.

That the attack on Pearl Harbor served Roosevelt’s interests in joining the European War may be seen in the commitment made at the very start and followed for the duration of the War, for the U.S. to devote its main energies to the war with Germany, not Japan. Roosevelt’s actions gave this message: Certainly, the Japanese attack will live forever in infamy, being unprovoked and dastardly. And that attack has profoundly damaged and endangered the United States. Nonetheless, the war that we must turn our focus toward and devote the bulk of our resources to is not the war with our attacker, but the war in Europe, the war with Germany.

That is, the revenge spirit against Japan that transformed America-First isolationists (many of whom had German sympathies—e.g., Charles Lindbergh) into strong war supporters most of all served the purpose of destroying just about all opposition to American participation in the war against Germany.

My concern here is not to critique the policies of the Roosevelt Administration. I am not setting up an argument against the jus ad bellum (“just cause”) element of America’s entry into World War II. In terms of the overall argument of this book, I seek here to address the question of the moral legacy of the War and its continuing impact for us today. I can grant that Japan and especially Germany were highly aggressive militaristic societies that had to be resisted. In the real world of nation-states, it certainly makes sense that the only method of resistance that seemed relevant to political leaders, and indeed most people in general, was military resistance.

However, at this point in the story, the deeply problematic element may be seen in the combination of highly moral rationales used to advocate for involvement in the War with hidden and manipulative practices. When Roosevelt took to the air December 8, 1941, and established the template for America’s commitment to total war (the “unprovoked,” “dastardly” attack of a war-mongering tyranny against a totally “peace-oriented” democracy), he actually established a template for deeply problematic militarism and wars in the United States from the immediate post War years down to the present.


[1] Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 43-58.

[2] Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, 78-79.

[3] H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 357.

[4] Brands, Traitor, 370.

[5] For a representative collection of writings from these internationalist non-interventionists see Joseph Loconte, ed., The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 33-121. Though Loconte’s agenda is to present these anti-inventionists as a foil to the pro-interventionist arguments that constitute the second half of his book, to his credit he does let “The Peacemakers” (Loconte’s section heading) to speak for themselves.

[6] It is fascinating to note that none of the interventionists, including President Roosevelt in his public statements, overtly advocated direct military engagement for the United States. “We should support those fighting against the Axis with every means short of committing our own troops” was the common refrain. It seems clear that most (probably all, certainly Roosevelt himself) did expect and desire the U.S. to go to war. It is testimony to the political strength of the anti-interventionists that the arguments in favor of intervention could not openly articulate that expectation and desire.

[7] Reinhold Niebuhr made the defense of civilization central to his case for intervention. For example, see Reinhold Niebuhr, “An End to Illusions,” The Nation (Spring 1940), in Loconte, ed., End, 129.

[8] See Part Two of Loconte, ed. End, “The Prophets: Resisting the Evils of Nazism,” 123-249.

[9] Lynn Harold Hough, “Defending Justice Despite Our Own Injustice,” Christianity and Crisis (April 21, 1941), in Loconte, ed, End, 219.

[10] Lewis Mumford, “The Aftermath of Utopianism,” Christianity and Crisis (March 24, 1941), in Loconte, ed., End, 237.

[11] With Chamberlain’s loss of status (and his fall from power was extraordinary—he had been acclaimed for his role in the Munich accord in 1938 that had averted war with Germany over Czechoslovakia; after Germany continued its expansionary tactics, Munich looked more problematic and Chamberlain’s standing took a big hit; as it turned out his health disintegrated dramatically after his resignation and he died of cancer six months after leaving office) and Halifax’s reluctance to step up, Churchill more or less came into power by default. Alone among Britain’s major leaders, Churchill relished the chance to exercise power during this time of profound crisis.

[12] Brands, Traitor, 405-06.

[13] Quoted in Nicolson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 242.

[14] David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 469.

[15] Kennedy, Freedom, 469-70.

[16] Robert B. Westbrook, Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations in World War II (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004), 49-50.

[17] Brands, Traitor, 454.

[18] See Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

[19] Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries (Freeport, NT: Books for Libraries, 1971 [1937], 232; quoted in Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 200), 70.

[20] New York Times (March 15, 1936); cited in Baker, Human, 60.

[21] Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

[22] Brands, Traitor, 460.

[23] Brands, Traitor, 460.

[24] Brands, Traitor, 461.

[25] Brands, Traitor, 461.

[26] Quoted in Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007), 331.

[27] Brands, Traitor, 473.

[28] Brands, Traitor, 474.

[29] The potency of this motivation may be seen, in just one example, in the words of President Harry Truman after the U.S. use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: he asserted that one of the reasons he had no qualms whatsoever about using these weapons of mass destruction was because of the lack of qualms the Japanese had had in their unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor—implying that the killing of tens of thousands of Japanese (mostly civilians of all ages) was morally equivalent to the killing of several hundred American soldiers.

[30] Consider the controversies over the proposed fifty-year recognition of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki nuclear attacks at the Smithsonian Institution in 1995. See Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).

The Long Shadow—Contents of the entire book


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