Was World War II an Unjust War?

Ted Grimsrud—January 10, 2012

In uncountable discussions I have had over the years about the ethics of war and peace, it seems that when pacifism comes up, so too does World War II. At least for Americans, this war stands not as the “war that ended other wars” nearly so much as the “war that justified other wars.” World War II shows, in the American “good war” mythology, that sometimes going to war is the best option when it comes to dealing with the “bad guys.”

Unfortunately, seeing war as sometimes the best option leads to empowering the societal structures that are needed to prepare for those war—and such empowerment has loosed on American society forces that have transformed what in the past seemingly was an attitude that you go to war as a last resort to our present attitude where so many conflicts throughout the world seem to require a militarized response. Hence, the extraordinary American military presence around the world, the extraordinary way the United States spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and the extraordinary situation facing American voters in the 2012 presidential election where their choice will surely be limited to two versions of militarism (note the remarkable dynamic in the Republican presidential race where the candidate getting attention for speaking overtly against this militarism, Ron Paul, has as his major source of contributions current military people).

Borrowing from social critic Naomi Klein’s analysis of recent American history, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, we could say that the “shock” of total war in the early 1940s led directly to the takeover of the United States by advocates of the American national security ideology. At that point of vulnerability, permanent structures such as the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons program were established. As a consequence of the transformative influence of these entities, in the United States, “all politics is a politics of war” (Walter Wink).

It is also the case that seriously to question the justness of World War II is almost entirely unheard of. Even historians who are willing to as question the War’s justness for the U.S., almost invariably conclude that indeed the War ultimately was just—even so running the risk of being dismissed by other historians simply for asking the question. The sentiment expressed by Eric Bergerud is typical for many: “I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would claim to discover moral ambiguity in World War II….The vast bulk of the population [in the West]…may regret the violence of the war but do not question for a minute its necessity. Machiavelli…was quite right when describing a necessary war as a just war. If World War II was not necessary, no war has been” (“Critique of Choices Under Fire,” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society 9.4 (March/April 2008), 41).

Certainty such as that expressed by Bergerud, though, does not free us from critical moral reflection on World War II, especially given the impact of beliefs such as his on attitudes about militarism in the generations since that war. Though we do not see much evidence of it actually working this way, the just war tradition has at its core claims that should lead to a rejection of Bergerud’s naked claim that a war stands as a just war simply because it is deemed “necessary.”

The way just war analysis—and moral reflection in general—should work is to establish stable criteria for moral evaluation and then apply those objectively to the actions of both one’s enemies and of oneself and one’s friends and allies. Norman Davies, a rare historian who does apply this principle to his account of World War II, expresses it this way: “All sound moral judgments operate on the basis that the standards applied to one side of the relationship must be applied to all sides” (No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 [Penguin Books, 2006], 63).

The two basic categories of a just war analysis are “cause” and “conduct.” If we think in terms of the United States, then, we ask, did the United States engage in World War II for a just cause? And, was the conduct of the U.S. in this war just? These are of course huge and complicated questions that require careful explanation far beyond what I can do here. But even superficial reflection on these questions that leaves many nuances unexplored still can be beneficial.

Did the United States have “just cause”?

The question of American just cause in World War II is actually much more complicated that the “good war” mythology assumes. It is true that the official entry of the United States into the War as a full-fledged protagonist came about due to two events that few would question provided just cause: (1) the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and (2) the German declaration of war on the United States a few days later.

However, neither of these events marks the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the War—involvement that clearly was anything but an expression of genuine neutrality (the official status of the U.S. in relation to the conflicts prior to Pearl Harbor). The U.S. was strongly on the side of Great Britain in the conflict with the Germans and on the side of China in the conflict with the Japanese. The events in early December 1941, thus, were actually more simply steps of acceleration in an ever-growing conflict between the U.S. and the Axis powers.

So, we should be asking if the American entry into the conflict prior to the overt declarations of war had just causes? But when we do, things get more ambiguous. The “good war mythology” tends to cite three main reasons why the U.S. involvement in the War meets the criterion of just cause: (1) the need to protect the U.S. from a direct invasion by Germany and/or Japan; (2) the moral imperative to stop the domination of the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the cause of furthering democracy; and (3) the need to do all we could to rescue the Jews who were being annihilated by the Nazis.

In the actual event, though, it appears that none of these three reasons actually played a major role in American involvement. We have no evidence that either the Japanese or the Germans had in mind an attempt to conquer and occupy the United States. Both nations went to war against the United States in order to stop the U.S. from intervening in their imperial moves in the opposite direction from North America—Germany moving to the east to dominate Central and Eastern Europe and Japan moving toward China to dominate that nation.

And no one who understood military possibilities could have imagined a successful invasion of the United States that would have to cross either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The logistics of simply invading Normandy from Great Britain across the brief expanse of ocean separating Britain from France proved extraordinarily daunting, underscoring the impossibility of the infinitely more daunting task the Germans or Japanese would have faced in taking on the North American continent.

Surely, many Americans (including political leaders) unalterably opposed the tyrannical dynamics in Japan and, especially, Germany. However, the policies of the U.S. showed little evidence of being fueled in a decisive way by the principled desire to defeat tyranny in the hopes of establishing democracy. The two nations whose invasions triggered the War, China and Poland, were already under tyrannical dictatorships. And even though the Allies won the War decisively in the end, both nations remained under tyrannical dictatorships.

This is not to mention that one of the major background motives for America’s main ally, Great Britain, engaging the conflict was the sustenance of its vast empire, scarcely a quest for democracy. After the War ended, the U.S. acted in several contexts to support wars on behalf of European colonialism—France in Vietnam, Holland in Indonesia, and Britain in east Africa.

Even more obviously, the United States and Britain joined in alliance with a regime equally tyrannical as Hitler’s Germany—the Soviet Union under the dominance of Josef Stalin. Insofar as this alliance actually helped sustain and even advance Soviet tyranny, we can scarcely say that the cause for the U.S. engaging in the conflict was to defeat tyranny.

The issue with “saving Jews” is perhaps even more clear-cut than the other two. Many American and British leaders actually were somewhat positively disposed toward the Nazis when they first came into power in Germany in 1933—largely because the Nazis were seen as a bulwark against Communist influences. This was true even though dating back to Hitler’s initial emergence a decade earlier, the Nazis were explicit about their antipathy toward Jews. And once the Nazis came into power they immediately began implementing anti-Jewish policies. As the violence toward Jews increased, humanitarian voices were raised to offer aid for the  beleaguered Jews. Mostly the humanitarian efforts were thwarted by U.S. and British political leaders. When the War actually began and the genocidal violence increased, political leaders continued to resist efforts to offer help. Even if this resistance reflected political realities and was not itself based on anti-Semitism, the fact remains that the western Allies simply were not motivated by a desire directly to save Jewish lives. In fact, the War’s expansion likely had the impact of making the lot of Europe’s Jews even worse.

Why, then, did the U.S. engage in policies that made war inevitable and then engage in a total war to defeat the Axis powers? I would suggest four main factors—and further suggest that these factors do not obviously meet the criteria for just cause for warfare. (1) The United States was involved in a clash of imperialisms with Japan dating back at least to the 1920s and accelerating with competing desires for dominance in China. The war with Japan happened because of a series of escalating moves taken by both sides in the conflict. The Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor (ultimately disastrous for them) was simply one move following upon many others. Even at the last minute, in the summer and early autumn of 1941, the Japanese Prime Minister wanted to meet with President Roosevelt to try to defuse the conflict—and Roosevelt refused to do so.

(2) The U.S. developed close ties with Great Britain, and so offered ever-increasing aid to the British after September 1939 and the outbreak of war in Europe. This aid took an ever-more overtly militaristic cast and involved the U.S. in the conflict as a partisan ally of the British. The British war with the Germans initially most overtly stemmed from the British war-alliance with the Polish dictatorship, an alliance entered into largely due to British imperial concerns (not due to noble motives such as self-determination and disarmament as later claimed). Certainly, Nazi German was a ruthless, tyrannical, expansionistic power—but German interests were mainly toward the east, not toward the U.S. or even Great Britain.

(3) American business interests were heavily invested in Nazi Germany during the early years of the Hitler regime. Again, they saw the Nazis as a useful alternative to Europe moving in a more socialist direction. However, in the late 1930s the Nazis focused ever more on economic self-determination, and with the widening conflicts, Germany’s usefulness to American corporations was lessening greatly. American business interests as a whole did not necessarily advocate going to war, but they recognized that it was not good for them for Germany to become ever more an economic free agent.

(4) In time, it became clear that the United States would benefit greatly from this war and that the forces within the United States who would benefit the most were the military and business elites. The War was an opportunity for the military to move into an unprecedented place of power and influence within the federal government, and it was an opportunity for American corporations to profit immensely from the U.S. becoming the one global economic superpower.

None of these four dynamics come very close to satisfying the traditional criteria for just cause for going to war (e.g., self-preservation, defending innocent victims, serving the interests of the entire county, leading to a better peace than existed before the war).

Did the United States use “just means”?

Many who write about World War II seem to assume that the causes were just—and then act as if that ends of the process of moral discernment. Even if the causes were clearly just (and in the above section I argue that they were not), the just war tradition—based on its stated values—should insist that the moral discernment is only beginning.

The second area of concern for just war thought, after reflection of whether the cause is just, is to reflect morally on how the war is conducted. In brief, the two main criteria used to judge conduct are proportionality (that the damage caused by the fighting not outweigh the good the war accomplished) and noncombatant immunity (that those not engaged as soldiers in the conflict not be the direct object of military actions).

In relation to both of these criteria, the conduct of the United States military clearly crossed the line into forbidden behavior. Shortly after the British declared war on Germany, September 1, 1939, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt gave a radio speech broadcast throughout Western Europe that called upon the belligerents to, in effect, follow the just conduct criterion for waging war. Specifically, he asserted that there should be no aerial bombardment of civilians, no attacking of unfortified cities. This speech shows that the just conduct criteria were in the consciousness of political leaders.

At the same time as Roosevelt’s speech, however, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) had at the center of its tactical philosophy the use of air war to terrorize its enemy’s civilian population—a doctrine first formulated at the tail end of World War I and implemented in various colonial situations in the 1920s and 1930s. Even before the conflict between Germany and Britain began in earnest in May 1940, the British strategy for defeating Germany relied on targeting civilians.

When the Americans joined the British, the Americans at first argued for focusing on military rather than civilian targets. However, the U.S. did offer supportive actions when the British attack the inner city of Hamburg and intentionally created a firestorm that killed tens of thousands noncombatants. Near the end of the European war, the Americans cooperated fully with the attack on the defenseless German city of Dresden, a city with no military significance—an attack that likely killed well over 50,000 noncombatants.

As the U.S. turned its focus on Japan in late 1944, the scruples that limited the Americans participation in the bombing of civilians in Germany were nonexistent. The first of a series of attacks on defenseless Japanese cities, March 9, 1945 on Tokyo, created another firestorm, greatly surpassing the deaths caused in the bombing of Dresden.

The climax of the American attacks on Japanese civilian populations came in August, 1945, with the first use of atomic bombs—first on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. With these attacks, any pretense of adhering to standards of proportionality and noncombatant immunity was ended.

One factor, an inherent violation of the moral philosophy underlying the just conduct criteria, that pushed the Allies toward their extreme conduct, was Roosevelt’s insistence upon unconditional surrender as the goal of the War. Just war philosophy assumes that wars are to fought in ways that inflict the minimal damage necessary in order to defeat the enemy. Part of this process is an openness throughout the conflict to a negotiated end to the conflict. When Roosevelt insisted on unconditional surrender, he assured that there would be no negotiations possible short of simple surrender without conditions. This insistence, then, led directly to tactics the focused on the maximum damage possible. The nuclear holocaust visited upon Japan reflected the fruition of this approach.

We might also add to our catalogue of just conduct violations the practices of America and Britain’s key ally in the War, the Soviet Union. The Soviets, of course, played a much greater role in defeating the Germans than did the western Allies (around 80% of German military deaths came at the hands of the Soviets). And their conduct was extraordinarily brutal. That is, in allying with the Soviets the U.S. actually empowered a spirit at least as vicious as the spirit of Nazism—the spirit of Stalinism. As the Soviets turned back the German invasion and moved toward Berlin, their tactics were some of the most brutal violations of just conduct criteria that had ever been perpetrated upon enemy noncombatant populations—murder, rape, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and more.

This is what historian Michael Bess concludes: “The triumphant powers at the end of World War II included one of the most ruthless, pathologically murderous regimes in the history of humankind: our Soviet allies. Badness was actually having a very good day on May 8, 1945 [when the European war ended]” (Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II [Knopf, 2006], 168).

So, what if the War was unjust?

When I apply the just war criteria to the American involvement to World War II, I conclude that it was not a just war. This conclusion of course is highly debatable. I acknowledge that the Axis powers were guilty of aggression and many atrocities and, thus, that those who would try to stop them would be doing so with justice on their side. However, it does not actually appear that the main focus of the aggression of the Axis was aimed toward the United States, certainly not until after the Americans had devoted much effort to opposing the Axis. And it also does not actually appear that the Allies were motivated by the need to stop the atrocities—and in fact one of the three main Allies (the Soviet Union) had engaged in extraordinary atrocities itself in the years prior to the War.

And even if the Axis powers did egregiously violate just conduct standards from the start of the conflict, that does not justify the violations by the Allies. For the United States, World War II probably was not entered into for just cause, or prosecuted with just means. The moral legacy of the War does not just have to do with what had happened through August, 1945. We also need to consider the impact of prosecuting the War on American society and the aftermath of the War in relation to American foreign policy (more on that in my next post).

But what if I am right, that World War II was an unjust war? Obviously that judgment cannot change the past (I will reflect in a later post on how we can imagine different policies, though, and the limited relevance of such imagining). The main issue related to how we now think about World War II is how this might impact our current disposition toward American military policies and toward warfare in general.

If we conclude that World War II was unjust, and if we join with that conclusion a conviction that we should never act unjustly or support unjust actions (which should be part of the set of assumptions just war philosophy affirms), then we will no longer use that war as a basis for arguing for the necessity of warfare. If we can’t use World War II as such a basis, we will have a much more difficult time making such an argument in general. Certainly the wars the U.S. has engaged in since World War II have no chance of meeting the criteria for just wars better than that war.

So, what are the implications of determining that we don’t have examples of actual just wars in our society? That will be the focus of my fourth and final post in this series.

[This post summarizes some of the ideas from my forthcoming book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. Early drafts of the chapters of the book and other thoughts regarding World War II may be found on my PeaceTheology.net website.]

16 thoughts on “Was World War II an Unjust War?

  1. Another angle from which to appraise the “What about WWII?” question is to see it as The Great War, Part 2. WWI was an “unnecessary war” in many eyes across the spectrum. It certainly was an unjust war.
    A line was crossed that never should have been crossed. The end of the war brought a merciless ‘peace’ and the soil was prepared for the rise of a ‘Hitler’ that made Part 2, in some sense, ‘inevitable’ by the militaristic pride of the victors. We reap what we sow.
    Some reflections on this in Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914

  2. Your absolutism against war would make more logical sense if you were an absolutist against abortion as I am. You are either for against killing people, and unborn children are people.

    1. So, Jerry, why then are almost all anti-abortion people pro war? Maybe there is a logical connection in your mind, but there doesn’t seem to be for the vast majority of everyone else.

    2. According to the Bible the soul takes up occupancy at around 13 weeks. Therefore, when it comes to abortion, perhaps we agree, the sooner the better?

  3. Hi Ted,

    I have been introducing myself to the work of John Howard Yoder (similar to you, it seems, I started with Preface to Theology, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution and The Original Revolution), and recently found myself struggling with using his work in church given his violence towards women for a part of his life. I have spent the better part of today reading what you, Mark Nation, Ruth Krall and others have written about it. I have greatly appreciated your and other’s seriousness, honesty and ultimately moral and edifying intentions for the present. I hope to be able to continue to learn from Yoder, while being aware of this issue.

    I have a question with regards to the ‘Did the United States have ‘just cause’ section. Your analysis is concerned with the actual political motivations for the United States for entering the war. But couldn’t ‘just cause’ be conceived in more consequentialist terms? Assuming that one isn’t involved in the actual decision to go to war or not at the time, but looking back at the U.S.’s involvement in the war itself, aren’t the consequences such as liberating concentration camps and Nazi power in Europe more relevant than the intentions of politicians? I know I am not justified in assuming that the consequences of the U.S.’s involvement in the war had better consequences than if they would have stayed out of it, especially given the points you raise in the second section, but how would you respond to the claim that the consequentialist understanding of the ‘end’ of just war is more relevant than a deontic understanding?

    Another set of questions I have has to do with the fact that you answer the question ‘Was World War II a Just War?’ by analyzing whether the U.S.’s involvement in the war was justified or not. Is the only way to think about the justness of a war from the perspective of a nation that could potentially be involved in it? I can’t remember clearly, but I believe Rousseau defended certain (theoretical) wars as legitimate in themselves because each political group was being true to the general will to which they were committed. Then you could also look at the justness of war from an individual perspective more in terms of virtue ethics, couldn’t you?

    As it stands I agree with you about World War II, but I am trying to think it through from different angles.


    1. Robert, I don’t know if you are still there. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I’m sorry to have not responded sooner.

      I do believe my argument combines consequentialist and deontological elements. Part of what I argue in my book is that in fact the Allies did not go to war in order to help the Jews (and in fact the consequences for Europe’s Jews of the Allies warring on the Germans were worse). I also don’t think we went to war to fight against tyranny (given the impact of the Soviet victory in the post war years).

      I can imagine lots of different ways to think about the “justness” of any war, including WWII. I was mainly trying to use the mainstream general understanding of the principles.

  4. As far as war against the civilian populations, you are incorrect about the origins. The Union armies during the civil war started war against civiliams during Shermans and Sheridans terror campaigns in the south.

    1. I agree, Richard, that the Civil War saw a terrible advance in warring on civilian populations. I actually discuss that in the introduction to my book. I don’t intend to suggest that the “origins” of this came in WWII. And I also don’t mean to imply that the Axis did not also war against civilians in WWII.

  5. I do not believe there is such a thing as a “just war.” At the very least, those on the receiving end of its violence, whether they are guilty of anything or not, have been deprived of due process and often all they have or ever will have.

    But your argument is fundamentally a straw man: If the justice of a action is based on the worst of the motivations of its actors and the worst of its mechanisms, particularly as evaluated in hindsight, than there is no such thing as a non-trivial just action. Anyone can create a bar that none can clear in order to justify a point of view.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andy. I don’t understand the distinction you are making here, though. If there’s no “just war,” how is my concluding WWII wasn’t a “just war” a “straw man” argument?

      I certainly don’t believe my argument is asserting “the worst of motivations” or “mechanisms.”

      Maybe, actually what’s at stake is the issue of whether concluding that a war is unjust means one should not fight in it, support it, or see it as a good thing after the fact.

  6. I believe that WW II was just because Japan attacked us without just cause. The reason why they attacked us was because they needed oil which we cut off to them. And if we did declare war on Germeny just Japan Hitler could’ve send forces to the East Coast then we’d have to fight anyhow. Remember a part of the last verse of our National Anthem, ” and conquer we must, when our cause it is just.”
    When our rights out in jeopardy and war is the only option then yes it is just.

    1. It is my understanding from recent FOI releases that Washington was very much aware of the upcoming attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a surprise in Hawaii however. Washington wanted a clear cut provocation and Japan supplied it. So was the US doing all it could to stay out of a war with Japan?

      1. In complete truth Hawaii Got a telegram warning of the attack but chose to ignore it because they didn’t believe that the Japanese would attack pearl harbor wit the size and strength navy that was stationed there but that was actually the reason they attacked because the wanted to end American naval Supremacy in the Pacific.

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