Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2012
World War II stands as the greatest event in the history of the United States. The country poured all its energy into an intense effort that resulted in the defeat of one of the odious embodied political philosophies ever. As the years pass and we learn more and more about Nazi Germany, the more grateful we can be for the ignominious end to the “thousand year Reich.” This war also led to an almost equally ignominious end to the extraordinarily vicious Japanese imperial regime.
World War II also proved to be the catalyst that finally brought the deprivation of the Great Depression to and end in the U.S. and ushered in an extraordinary era of economic prosperity—prosperity for once that reached down into the middle classes and beyond. The U.S. not only contributed impressively to the defeat of these terrible enemies, but the country actually came through the War relatively unscathed. At the end of the War, the U.S. stood with unprecedented economic power and unmatched international prestige as the bearer of the ideals portrayed to great effect in statements such as the Atlantic Charter and the initial declaration of the “United Nations.” These statements rallied people to defeat forces in the world that stood implacably against ideals such as self-determination and disarmament.
World War II as a moral disaster?
So, in what senses, then, was World War II after all a moral disaster for the United States? I will suggest that what World War II actually did for the United States was (1) decisively corrupt the American democratic polity, (2) decisively empower the forces of militarism in the country that have since 1945 led the U.S. into foreign policy disaster after foreign disaster and visited so much violence and destruction on major sections of the world that the term “American holocaust” (William Blum, Killing Hope) may not in actuality not be much of a hyperbole, and (3) decisively shift the economic center of gravity in the country toward the corporate sector, setting the country on a path of long-term corruption, exploitation, and—in a genuine sense—economic self-immolation.
The basic moral lesson World War II for Americans is that they must find ways to resist the lure of trust in military action. Certainly the rise of the Axis powers created the need for decisive resistance to their politics of extraordinarily destructive nationalistic brute power and nihilism. But the path of resistance that American society took, while in a superficial and short-term sense victorious, actually led to the long-term victory of “nationalistic brute power and nihilism.” If even this “good war” leads to such a moral disaster, then Americans (for their own sake and for the sake of the wider world) must find ways to resist the evils of aggressive militarism that do not rely on the use of aggressive militarism.
The War was unjust
In my previous post, “Was World War II an Unjust War?,” I make the case for seeing American involvement in the War being a case of prosecuting an unjust war. The main point I want to make here is to suggest that pursuing an unjust war, as you would expect, had numerous long-term morally devastating consequences. I will mention just two.
When a democracy pursues a war that does not clearly have a just cause, it is inevitable that the democratic processes will be corrupted. In theory, a just war approach should enhance democracy because if the benefit of doubt is against going to war, it will take clear and persuasive evidence to justify the war. This evidence should be publicly presented, with open debate, and if the case is not made the decision that follows should be negative about entering the war. And just causes should be factors that are consistent with genuine national security and the best interests of the nation.
In the lead up to World War II, though, what we see from the democratically elected government led by Franklin Roosevelt was not an honest setting out of the factors for and against intervention and an illumination of the democratic values at stake. Rather, what happened was a propaganda campaign that was an exercise in pro-war advocacy that distorted the facts and, perhaps most tellingly, fanned unwarranted fears of American national security being breached through the dangers of invasion.
Anti-democratic regimes in, for example, Poland and China, were valorized. Their being under threat from Axis powers was presented to the American people as a case of our own values of self-determination and democracy being under threat.
As a consequence, when the War did come, the stage was set for on-going policy-making that paid little heed to democratic practices and would long outlast the “emergency” that initially justified it—probably most notably the creation of the atomic weapons program and the insistence upon unconditional surrender as a non-negotiable war goal. Ironically, it is impossible to imagine that the large majority of the American people would not have supported these policies (the War was, after all, extraordinarily popular). However, the sidestepping of democracy in these cases set precedents that gained more and more significance in the years to follow.
The War itself was, as discussed in the previous post, fought using many unjust means. The prosecution of World War II permanently transformed the American way of fighting. A main example would be the reluctance to target civilians that characterized the philosophy of the emerging American air warfare. This reluctance was completely gone by the end of the War; witness the firebombing of Tokyo and the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ensuing wars—Korea and Vietnam most notably—saw unrestrained air warfare that completely disregarded the just war criteria of proportionality and noncombatant immunity.
And, of course, the continued development and willingness to deploy ever-more destructive nuclear weapons witnesses to such an utter disregard for just war constraints. Numerous times (e.g., Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, even Central America in the 1980s) major policy makers in the U.S. actively advocated for the use of nuclear bombs. The fact that they were in the end not used does not change the reality that they easily could have been.
The transformation from a non-militarized to a militarized society
In 1937, the United States military was small and peripheral to the society as a whole. It ranked in size 16th in the world, between Portugal and Romania. This seemed pretty logical to many Americans. After all, the country was still struggling to overcome the economic devastation of the Great Depression and did not have the excess wealth needed to divert resources into a large standing army. And why should it? The United States faced few threats to its security from adversarial nations. It had a seemingly permanent peace with its neighbors.
It is virtually impossible to imagine the United States as such an non-militarized society. Important people in the country did not approve of such “unpreparedness.” They were ready to take advantage of the deteriorating international order to move the country toward what proved to be an extraordinary transformation that moved the American military from the periphery to the center of the society—permanently.
The first step was to heighten awareness of, and fear of, the growing power of the authoritarian German and Japanese dictatorships. A self-conscious effort was joined by the Franklin Roosevelt administration and various cultural leaders to raise awareness of the Axis powers expansionist actions. The key factor in this effort was to pitch these actions as a direct threat to American interests. Even though it was never a serious possibility that either of the Axis powers would actually attempt to invade the United States, the public stance by the pro “preparedness” forces focused on the present dangers to American security.
Despite the campaign to move the country towards a more militarized approach to these identified threats, in general public opinion and Congressional policies remained reluctant to move from the official neutrality and non-intervention of American foreign policy. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and America’s close British ally declared war, the pro-intervention campaign increased its intensity, and Roosevelt moved the country closer toward engagement. Even two years later, though, while the U.S. was actively supporting the British war effort—as well as the Chinese struggle against Japanese aggression—the votes still were not present for Roosevelt to move the country the final step into open warfare.
However, the momentum toward militarization kept growing. In a fateful decision, the government decided to build a new military headquarters. Ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941—at a location, both symbolically and geographically, some distance from the center of the federal government across the Potomac River. The huge physical structure was completed remarkably rapidly, and the stage for set for the American military gaining a large measure of freedom from the constraints of the democratic checks and balances of Washington politics and governmental oversight.
In October 1941, Roosevelt approved the establishment of a program to create atomic weapons. Called the Manhattan Project, this program remained top secret but soon absorbed tremendous resources and inexorably moved the country into a future of tremendous peril.
Both of these initiatives that transformed American society actually began before the United States entered World War II. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, not only destroyed America’s Pacific fleet but also obliterated the last vestiges of politically powerful opposition to greatly heightened militarization of American society.
The War itself saw an irreversible transformation. Never again would be thinkable that the American military would rank with second- and third-rate militaries such as Portugal and Romania. By the end of the War, the U.S. military was the world’s most powerful. Only the Soviet Union even remotely compared. In retrospect, it is clear that Soviet military power never actually came close to rivaling America’s, all elements considered. And with the end of that nation in the early 1990s, the U.S. military stood alone. Eventually, the United States came to the point of spending as much on its military as the rest of the world combined.
World War II provided the “shock” that empowered those supportive of the armed forces to establish and empower these key engines for on-going militarization. The Pentagon and the nuclear weapons program gained their sense of legitimacy from the “needs” of total war—and then, when the War was over—devoted their energies to retaining and actually expanding their domination of the American body politic. They were joined by a couple of post-war institutions that would never have been invented apart from the War: the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council.
Precious few of the decisions to establish and to continue to empower these key institutions of militarization were made through democratic processes. They, in fact, owed their on-going viability to subverting the democratic processes. It truly is mind-boggling to imagine the restraints that democracy actually placed on Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s and early 1940s as he sought an ever-expanding military response to the world crises. Roosevelt was continually frustrated until Pearl Harbor. However, his actions and their consequences (surely some unintended) created a political economy where not succeeding presidents would ever face such constraints.