Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 28, 2012

[This post is a continuation of a two-part set of reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Part one may be found here. An earlier post in the series, “Was World War II an unjust war?” may be found here.]

The national security state and the quest for world hegemony

The years immediately following World War II were determinative for the moral legacy of that war. The rationale given to the American people for the extraordinary costs paid to execute such an all-out war combined a strong dose of fear with an equally potent emphasis on idealism. As postwar events proved, fear won out.

The idealism found succinct voice in President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address on the “Four Freedoms” in January 1941 and in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up by Roosevelt and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in August, 1941. Out of these statements came the mantra that the U.S. was fighting this war to provide for the self-determination of people from throughout the world, to defeat tyranny and spread the possibilities of democracy.

The public relations efforts of the American and British governments focused on the ideals of these two purpose statements. The Atlantic Charter was agreed upon by all the nations who allied themselves with the Americans and British in the war effort (including the Soviet Union!). These allies took the name, the “United Nations.” After the War ended in an Allied victory, the Charter provided the core values for the formalizing of the United Nations as an international organization of all the nations of the world for the purposes of peace and cooperative relationships.

Many people who had been anxious about negative consequences of total war for democracy and international peace put a great deal of hope in the newly formed United Nations in the immediate postwar years. Regardless of what was thought about the War itself, it could be seen as serving a good end should it lead to an effective and widely embraced United Nations. And the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms ideals provided bases for such hopes.

At the same time, many among the American leadership class believed that decisive victory in the War provided a not-to-be-missed opportunity for establishing their country’s economic and military domination. They faced a crossroads in the years immediately following the War. Would the U.S. demobilize in the dramatic manner that characterized the country after the Civil War and World War I? Or was this instead an opportunity to sustain the extraordinarily powerful status the country had achieved through its war effort (and, of course, through the devastating losses all its possible rivals had sustained)? Continue reading “Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)”