How Should a Pacifist View World War II?

Ted Grimsrud—January 21, 2011

In my writing project, The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy, I take an approach that might seem a bit paradoxical. I am a deeply committed pacifist. Had I been a young adult in 1941, I would have refused to participate in that war no matter how “necessary” or “justifiable” it might have seemed. Yet in The Long Shadow, I develop my argument using pragmatic reasoning, including direct use of just war criteria.

As it turns out, at the same time I have been working on this World War II project, I have put the finishing touches on a couple of essays that spell out in some detail my pacifist convictions: “Christian Pacifism in Brief” and “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism” (these both may be found here). So, I remain as committed to pacifism as ever. So, why would pacifism not play a central role in my writing on World War II? Why would I work mostly within an ethical framework (the just war tradition) that I seemingly do not affirm myself?

Problematizing easy assumptions about World War II

Partly, my decision to use just war rationality has to do with the intended audience for The Long Shadow. I do not seek to present a logically airtight argument that will persuade those who reject pacifism. But I also do not seek simply to remind pacifists of why we continue to reject warfare. Certainly, I hope those who reject pacifism will nonetheless read this book and be persuaded by it to change their mind—and I do hope to offer comfort and courage for pacifists. Most directly, though, I write to those troubled with contemporary American militarism and who wonder about World War II. I hope to problematize easy assumptions about World War II’s status as the war that shows war can be a morally appropriate choice, operating within the moral framework of a typical American. If pacifism is to enter the picture in this discussion, I intend for it to enter as a conclusion, not as a pre-requisite for being part of the conversation.

The structure of my basic argument is this: Let’s look at World War II on its own terms, asking what moral rationale American policymakers gave to gain support for participation in the war. We should be able to isolate some basic values that the war was alleged to be upholding. These values then will provide our bases for evaluation. The basic question will be, did World War II succeed in furthering the stated values that justified it?

We will operate with the assumption (directly implied in just war rationality) that war is problematic and not ipso facto good and necessary. Fighting in war requires a rationale—with the attendant possibility that a war can be judged not to meet the demands of the rationale. The just war tradition gives us bases for scrutinizing the actual war, evaluating how the war measures up to the stated values for which it was fought. After we look at the war itself, we will also need to spend time considering the consequences of the war, its aftermath. What impact did World War II have, for example, on American foreign policy and military practices in the generation following World War II? These consequences are also part of the war’s moral legacy—and will be evaluated according to the stated values the war was fought to further as well.

Two key sources for the moral rationale

Of course, the actual causes of World War II and of U.S. entry into this war are quite complicated. However, we do have a couple of concise, widely circulated statements that provide a nutshell summary of the main moral values that were stated up front and often. These provide only one part of the picture in relation to motivations, but they certainly were intended to have a wide appeal. They remain potent for our present-day sensibilities concerning World War II (see, for example, various recent celebrations of World War II such as Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book The Greatest Generation and the widely-viewed Ken Burns documentary, The War).

The two key documents both were first formulated in 1941 in the months leading up to the formal entry of the United States into the war. President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech in January 1941 articulated what came to be known as “The Four Freedoms.” Protection of these freedoms (from want, from fear, for free expression, and for worship)—everywhere in the world—provided the core vision for “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.” Clearly, Roosevelt meant to imply that it was the furthering of these freedoms that fueled his push for a much more active foreign policy and a willingness greatly to strengthen American support for Great Britain and China in their wars against Germany and Japan.

Months later, in August 1941, Roosevelt held a summit meeting with Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill. One fruit of that meeting was a common statement of purpose that came to be known as the “Atlantic Charter.” Since the U.S. was not quite yet formally at war, the Charter could not at that time be termed a statement of “war aims.” A few months later, after the U.S. did fully enter the war, the Atlantic Charter did approach the status of a statement of the Allies war aims. The term the Allies used for themselves was “the united nations.” When they took the next step after the war of forming the organization that took the title United Nations, the Atlantic Charter provided the core vision for the mission of the U.N. and stood as the clearest statement of why this war was fought.

The Charter listed eight points that echoed Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and added important goals such as movement toward free trade and ultimate disarmament in the context of rule of law. Probably the most widely noticed point was an affirmation for all peoples of the world of the right to self-determination.

The importance of these two documents and the role they played in the publicizing of the Allies war purposes may be seen, for example, in the commissioning of a series of four paintings by popular American artist Norman Rockwell that captured the four freedoms and became the linchpin of the government’s campaign to sell war bonds. Rockwell’s paintings gained wide circulation and remain well known. The British government printed millions of pamphlets containing the Atlantic Charter and circulated them across Western Europe’s war zone in an attempt to appeal to people in Axis-controlled areas to resist the Axis in hope of a better, more just future.

Moral rationality internal to world of World War II supporters

So, by focusing on the values articulated in the Four Freedoms speech and the Atlantic Charter, we will utilize moral rationality that is internal to the world of World War II participants and supporters. We can agree, as a kind of common moral framework, on the values of these documents as our bases for evaluating the moral legacy of World War II.

As a means of applying this common moral framework to a consideration of the events of World War II, we will follow the core criteria used in the just war approach. First, we will examine the jus ad bellum (just cause for war) in considering the causes usually thought of in the present when we discuss World War II. My point here will not be so much to evaluate whether these stated “just causes” were truly just as to evaluate how central these causes actually were for the Allies in their entering and executing the war. I will basically leave unexamined the question whether these “just causes” truly were just, accepting for the sake of the discussion that they could have been. My focus will be to argue that they actually played a minimal role in shaping the true motivations and actions of the Allies.

With the second main emphasis, the jus in bello (use of just means in warfare), I will take a more critical approach in applying the just war criteria. I will ask whether two of the main jus in bello criteria (noncombatant immunity and proportionality) may have been profoundly violated in the execution of the war—with the concomitant awareness that Allied policymakers (at least in Britain and the U.S.) were aware of these criteria and saw violating them as problematic (or at least saw being perceived by their people as violating them as problematic).

A third element of the discussion of the war will focus on assessing the cost of the war. Recognizing the complexity of this kind of discussion, I will nonetheless insist that if we are going to evaluate the moral legacy of World War II we must at least attempt in some general sense to take account of what it actually cost (both in tangible and intangible senses). Again, this insistence stands fully within just war reasoning. How can we make a moral evaluation of this war unless we actually try some kind of accounting. Was it worth it? To answer this question, central to a serious moral reckoning, we must have at least some kind of general sense of the “it”—was the war worth the cost?

Finally, the fourth basic element of the discussion will be to assess the aftermath of the war—again in relation to the core moral values that were expressed as the bases for prosecuting the war (i.e., the Four Freedoms and Atlantic Charter). If indeed the aftermath of World War II points away from the core moral values stated for going to war, then the moral legacy of that war will have to be seen in more negative terms. This will especially be the case if we discern that the dynamics that led to undermining the core moral values stemmed from the war itself. That is, if what we did in fighting the war (regardless of how “necessary” to win the war) led to outcomes in the long run that contradicted those core moral values, then that weighs against a positive moral assessment of the war. Here one important just war principle needs to be taken seriously—that to be a just the war must be fought for the sake of long-term peace. If the war does not achieve that long-term peace, its justifiability is suspect.

Hopefully, what I have just written makes it clear the uses to which I put the just war rationality. I do not intend to deliver a conclusion concerning whether World War II was a ‘just war” or not. My purposes are focused on the present and future. I want to help a present-day assessment of the moral legacy of World War II—for the purposes of being self-conscious about what role this war should play in our contemporary thought and practice concerning our military policies and national priorities and personal moral choices.

In the end, I will argue that World War II profoundly failed in relation to its own moral standards. Hence, it should not serve as an exemplary example of how war can serve the good. It should not underwrite our nation’s choices to continue to prepare for and (when necessary) fight in wars. It should not influence us as citizens to support and when appropriate participate in current wars.

Problems with just war thought (and practice)

Now, I certainly recognize major problems with the just war tradition—especially in relation to Christian faith (though also in relation to other faith traditions as well as humanist philosophies). In using that tradition to the degree I do, I run the risk of implicitly endorsing it as a whole. However, I hope to be clear that I am using just war rationality in a critical way meant to challenge the acceptance of warfare—a use deeply in tension with the origins and general career of the tradition. The just war approach began as a tool of the Roman Empire and for most of the years since has been used in service of empire and the political status quo. Only very recently can we find extensive use of this approach in ways that do actually challenge the status quo and actually offer potential for people saying no to specific wars as those wars occur.

As it will turn out, I use just war rationality in service of strongly pacifist conclusions. When we use the just war criteria critically and objectively (that is, applying them equally to all sides in the conflict), and apply them to this actual war, we will have a very difficult time accepting the moral legitimacy of even World War II, the paradigm of the allegedly “just war.” I will argue that if even this supposedly “just war” falls short—as certainly does every war the U.S. has engaged in since 1945, there really is no room left for the acceptability of warfare.

Those who think of themselves as non-pacifists who apply just war logic critically and draw negative conclusions about even World War II face a major question: does allowing for the theoretical possibility of a just war not simply end up justifying American preparation for warfare that inevitably leads to participation in unjust wars? Would it not actually better further the concerns of a critical application of just war rationality simply to assert ahead of time that our nation is not capable of fighting in a just war? That is, should we not all end up as pacifists (those who in principle oppose warfare)?

Reworking how we understand “just war”

Considering this actual test case of the application of the just war theory, where we have a war largely acclaimed as obviously a “just war” that nonetheless in the face of scrutiny turns out to be extraordinarily unjust with a devastating moral legacy, leads me to suggest that we need to rework our understanding of the just war. I suggest that the just war theory in actuality is highly unstable. Those who would use the just war criteria actually tend to move in one of two possible directions—neither of which ends up being “the just war theory.”

Use of just war criteria inevitably leads either towards pacifism or towards what I call “the blank check” (where we give our government our support and let the government determine how to prosecute the war, in effect subordinating our moral criteria to the demands of the warring state). Only in the last half of the twentieth century have there been appreciable numbers of people who have followed the former path. This almost universal tendency to allow the warring state to take priority over moral criteria concerning war is one good reason to be deeply critical of the just war tradition in history.

The “just war” has served warring states, almost without exception, from the time of Cicero, the great political philosopher of the Roman Empire. However, the fact that finally just war rationality has been utilized for those resisting warfare provides an important challenge to pacifists not to write the tradition off. The way has been opened for just war rationality to serve peace for the first time.

Use of just war criteria can lead to pacifism when they are applied consistently (“with teeth,” as termed by John Howard Yoder, a great pacifist ethicist, in his book challenging just warriors to do just this, When War is Unjust). When the criteria are violated, it is possible that some following just war ethics would indeed say that a particular war is indeed “unjust” and must be rejected (even actively resisted). In fact, this is what the just war approach should lead to.

As we see with regard to World War II, when even the “best” of wars systematically violates myriad just war criteria, we should be pushed ever closer a de facto pacifism. When we then realize that the main effect of resisting the final step to a principled pacifism will be to remain committed to preparations for warfare and that in practical reality such preparations make participation in unjust wars inevitable, the only logical step would be to embrace pacifism. Another way to make this point would be to say that should just war criteria be rigorously applied, we would ultimately have to reject each actual war (and the preparation for such).

On the other hand, when just war criteria are applied by those who are unwilling to challenge the prosecution of their own state’s wars, what will inevitably happen is that those criteria will be minimized. We see this dynamic illustrated in the air war during World War II. Many American military leaders did understand and attempt to apply just war criteria in arguing for refusing purposely to target civilian targets (in opposition to British practice in Western Europe). However, over time this refusal fell by the wayside, with the ultimate outcome of the use of an atomic bomb on the completely not militarily significant Japanese city of Nagasaki.

When the priority is on loyalty to one’s nation state vis-à-vis the objective moral values that supposedly underlie the just war philosophy, what results is a version of the blank check approach. We see strong evidence of this dynamic when look at moral philosophers such as Paul Ramsey, James Turner Johnson, and George Weigel. These philosophers argue for an approach to just war that recognizes war as inevitable and necessary and that seeks to limit the violence of warfare. For each of these writers, though, the wars of their own country (the United States) turn out to be, all things considered, just and worthy of support. That is, they end up offering their state a blank check in practice. Even if they may voice occasional criticism over a specific tactic, the criticism never undermines the fundamental affirmation of the war and hence the practical sense that it is up to the state to fight to win in whatever way its sees fit.

A priori” and “evidential” paths to pacifism

Reflection on World War II and the use of just war rationality ultimately to make the case for pacifism leads to a sense that we may refer to two different paths to pacifism. I will call one “a priori pacifism” and the other “evidential pacifism.” The actual outworking of these two may well lead to very similar conclusions and sets of convictions. But they are arrived at differently.

A priori pacifism is arrived at more or less deductively. It begins with a basic conviction that war is wrong. This conviction could be arrived at on the basis of a religious insight or a set of embedded religious beliefs from one’s family or faith community. Or it may be a more mystical or non-religious ethical certainty. In any case, the commitment to pacifism here is the starting point. The world is viewed through pacifist eyes.

Probably a large majority of the American conscientious objectors to World War II were a priori pacifists. They did not have clear pragmatic reasons for opposing what many would have accepted as a war against terrible evil (or at least these pragmatic reasons played a relatively minor role in their decision to refuse to fight). They simply knew that fighting would be wrong. It didn’t matter how justifiable the war might be or how much good it might do. So, for these pacifists, just war arguments were mostly irrelevant.

Evidential pacifism, on the other hand, is based more on weighing of evidence, considering arguments, and using pragmatic tests concerning the possible value of warfare. Pacifism then becomes more a conclusion than a starting point. For such an approach, the use of just war arguments (even if not voiced as such) will likely play a major role. The evidential pacifist will conclude based on data (including personal experience) that war is always wrong, that the good achieved by war never matches the cost of war.

However, once a person following the path of evidential pacifism comes to a firm conclusion about war always being wrong, they do enter a different epistemological world. One can move along an evidential path to a conclusion that then becomes a principle. With this operating principle in place, one will then operate with a sense of certainty that forbids allowing for war or even the preparation for war. One will realize that warfare can never be morally acceptable. Hence, the pragmatic conclusion based on weighing evidence ultimately becomes a bedrock conviction that helps define a person’s sense of oneself.

9 thoughts on “How Should a Pacifist View World War II?

  1. I am currently on the fence in regard to this topic. Does your view of pacifism extend down to an individual level? If being physically assaulted yourself what do you do? If you see a women about to be raped to what extent does a pacifist intervene? When Poland was attacked how should they have responded? Seeing the carnage from the attacks on Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Holland, etc., what should France have done reasonably assuming they would also be attacked? If the US sees a country slaughtering millions of innocents should we do nothing but talk? These questions are not meant to be argumentative, I am legitimately curious to your responses, as I struggle with coming up with anything but guesses at the lesser evil. I realize that the Allies may not have had completely pure motives, prosecuted the war entirely free of hypocrisy, or handled the post war situation in a way that promoted long lasting peace but that doesn’t mean that when Hitler began his terror a “just war” wasn’t warranted. Said another way, just because a “just war” (if even possible) wasn’t accomplished doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t cause for one or it wasn’t possible. I appreciate fair and honest thoughts from both sides on this as I am honestly seeking myself.

  2. If the case for or against World War II consists of balancing the human cost against the good achieved–or the evil averted–I find it impossible to conclude that the war was not justified and necessary. However, pacifism ultimately aims at eliminating war and injustice. So we might argue that sticking to nonviolence in the 1940s, while it would have had disastrous consequences in the short term, would in the long run have contributed to a peaceful world. I haven’t heard another argument against the war that, imho, holds up. I don’t think we can reasonably hold that there was a moral equivalence between the two sides, or that the cost of stopping the Axis was as great as the cost of not resisting them would have been.

    1. I tend to think that the “balancing the human cost against the good achieved—or evil averted” equation is much more complicated that you seem to assume, Aaron.

      We need to take seriously the actual human cost. Perhaps 80 million people were killed and countless others profoundly traumatized. All of Central and Eastern Europe ended up under tyrannical governments—as did the Chinese. The physical earth was pummeled. Nuclear weaponry was loosed on the world, an invention that could well end all human life on earth. The United States, with the creation of the CIA, nuclear weapons system, and an enormous expansion of the military-industrial complex, was transformed into a society centered on permanent war footing—and into a global hegemon. If we weigh all these costs (and more could be cited), it’s not so obvious that the War was worth it.

      As well, I don’t think we should assume that Axis powers would have wreaked the total havoc you seem to take as a given. For one thing, my argument would not at all be that opponents of the Axis should not have resisted at all—it’s that nonviolent resistance would have had a much different kind of impact than total war did. Though on a small scale, there were numerous acts of effective and essentially nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in Europe. It stands to reason that such acts would have increased in volume and effectiveness over time. The Nazi society was built on many internal contradictions and most likely would have devoured itself in a fairly short time. The costs of that society existing for any length of time would certainly have been enormous, but not obviously greater than the costs of the War itself.

      My point in thinking about all this is not to imagine we could rewrite history. It is to suggest that the war-first response to evils such as the Nazis is counterproductive. What we need is to think of other ways of responding to evil that do not exacerbate the evil.

      1. I don’t feel that non-violence could have been effective against the Nazis. Having resolved to exterminate enormous numbers of people, it doesn’t seem credible that they would have been dissuaded by their victims staging sit-ins or such things.

        I feel that only a limited number of the deaths in Europe can be considered as the cost of the war. The greater number were the cost of Nazism. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union Himmler said he was going to kill thirty million Slavs. In 1943 he said that they had to kill the entire population of the Soviet Union. Some might say that Himmler said this because the Soviets were fighting so fiercely, but I doubt it. The Jews and Gypsies weren’t exterminated because they were resisting. The Nazis hated Slavs and Communists and wouldn’t require much excuse for slaughtering them.

        In my humble opinion the best argument against World War II is this: if we had practiced non-violence in the 40s the immediate consequences would have been disastrous, but in the long run(maybe the very long run) it would have contributed to the creation of a non-violent world.

        One more thing I’d like to mention–the tally of the dead in Asia often includes famine deaths in Vietnam, the Dutch East Indies, China(Henan province) and Bengal that would have occurred if Japan hadn’t been resisted. They were the result of Japanese colonial policies, Kuomintang policies, and (especially in Bengal) environmental factors. So I don’t think they should be counted as part of the cost of the war.

  3. Funny, in all those words not a word about the concentration camps or the annihilation of 6 million people. Or Hitlers plans to not only kill all Jews, Gypsies and gays but all Slavic people as well. I wonder, if I come to your door with a knife to in a gruesome way slowly kill your whole family will you refrain from violence as well?

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