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)?

A key moment that may capture the crossroads as well as any is the decisions made about the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, well into his seventies and soon to retire after a long career in the corridors of power, offered a remarkable proposal. In late summer, 1945, he suggested that rather than exploiting its monopoly of nuclear weaponry, the U.S. would initiate efforts with their main World War II allies (Great Britain and the Soviet Union) to create a common guardianship of nuclear weaponry with the intent to avoid an arms races and possible nuclear conflagration.

Stimson’s proposal was taken quite seriously by President Harry Truman and other government leaders. Truman’s cabinet debated its merits and ultimately narrowly decided to reject the proposal—instead counting on a long-term monopoly of nuclear weaponry that would allow the Americans to exert their power in effective ways. Over the next couple of years, other crucial decisions were made to solidify the hegemony of the America-as-dominator elements of national leadership.

The National Security Act of 1947 established the Central Intelligence Agency and consolidated the various branches of the military. It also established the National Security Council as a top leadership group to guide the nation’s policies. Around this same time, President Truman delivered his famous speech that delineated the “Truman Doctrine” that asserted, in effect, that any resistance to American hegemony anywhere in the world would be seen as a Communist threat and a basis for military intervention.

The presenting issue for Truman’s speech was the need to “scare the hell out of the country” in order to head off possible resistance to the U.S. intervening militarily in the Greek civil war that Britain had found itself unable to shape due to its own exhaustion following the War. America’s joining this war on behalf of the right-wing royalist forces marked what may now be seen as the transition from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana (or, as in the title of Norman Moss’s book about this, Picking Up the Reins).

The die was cast. Rather than devoting themselves to empowering the United Nations to be an agent for genuine world cooperation and treating the nuclear weapons project as a global trust, America’s leaders turned instead to policies and practices that would, they hoped, lead to extraordinary power and benefits for their country (or at least its power elite). As it turned out, besides at the time being morally corrupt, this turn toward empire lead to grave consequences for American democracy and economic sustainability. It seems impossible to imagine such a turn toward empire without the events of World War II and the consequences (positive as they may have seemed at the time) of the decisive victory of the American war effort.

Disaster upon disaster

The American intervention in Greece in the late 1940s did lead to the ultimate victory of the forces the U.S. supported. However these forces were scarcely embodiments of the ideals of the Four Freedoms and Atlantic Charter. The victorious generals in Greece established a brutal dictatorship that exacted a terrible toll in Greece for years to come. Perhaps the current crises in Greece in 2012 that have much wider ramifications for Europe and the rest of the world have their roots in the victory of the generals—a victory they likely would not have gained if not for the British and American intervention to resist actual self-determination within Greece.

By the time Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952 and named John Foster Dulles Secretary of State, the imperialistic tendencies of the American superpower were well into gear. Truman had made a fateful decision to support direct American involvement in the Korean civil war. The U.S. came within a whisker of a terrible defeat, due in large part to the hubris of commander General Douglas MacArthur, and also within a whisker of crossing the nuclear threshold with an attack on North Korea. These disasters were averted, but the Korean War was nonetheless an unmitigated disaster for the Korean people—tragically still to this day without resolution.

In terms of what followed, the reliance upon militarized responses to international concerns represented by the Korean War became ever stronger for the U.S. And Eisenhower’s policies only accelerated that reliance (despite several famous public statements by Eisenhower against devoting resources to weapons of war and concern about a “military-industrial complex”). In the early years of the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. took actions that had disastrous consequences—both for the countries directly involved and for the Americans.

The U.S., led by the ever-expanding CIA, intervened to overthrow two democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. In both cases, terrible dictatorships moved into power as a consequence. In Iran, a quarter of a century later, the dictatorship ended with an Islamist revolution that has resulted in a long generation’s worth of tension and conflict. That situation remains quite volatile today and with continued inappropriate American actions could lead to unimaginably negative consequences, including nuclear conflict. In relation to Guatemala, the consequences of the overthrow have mainly been limited to within the borders of that country. But the devastation to the Guatemalan people as a consequence of the American intervention in the early 1950s could hardly be overstated.

Eisenhower’s administration took what proved to be irrevocable steps gradually to intervene in Vietnam, leading to the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history and a moral black spot on the soul of the nation whose consequences continue to grow. Again, the actions taken by the leaders of the U.S. contradicted the ideals of the Atlantic Charter and Four Freedoms and reflected the total victory of the forces of militarism unleashed by the American World War II effort.

The dynamics unleashed by the turn toward a national security state have also led to moral and political catastrophes in many other locations around the world—maybe most notably in Latin America, Indonesia, and the Middle East. The latest examples are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the inability of the United States to engage in international conflict in constructive and non-militaristic ways has become terribly apparent. Given the power of the institutions of national security established due to World War II (e.g., the Pentagon, the CIA, the nuclear weapons program, the National Security Council), it is difficult to imagine how it could have been otherwise.

Inability to end the nuclear regime

Even though the end of the Cold War twenty years ago has removed the nuclear threat from popular consciousness, the instruments of global destruction remain in place and still on hair trigger. The current approach by the world’s greatest nuclear power, the United States, to nuclear proliferation—to try to resist proliferation with threats of military force—almost insures that the proliferation will accelerate.

One of the main moral failures of the United States that relates to World War II has been the fueling of nuclear proliferation and the inability to turn away from nuclear weaponry even when the main stated rationale for nuclear weapons (the Cold War with the Soviet Union) was removed.

When President Roosevelt approved the Manhattan Project (again, note that his happened beforethe United States actually entered World War II), he set in motion forces that have remained largely unrestrained in their dominance of American policies and endangering of the entire world’s welfare. The use of nuclear weapons on two defenseless Japanese cities with incalculable consequences for the people in those cities stands as an unmitigated moral disaster. However, this disaster was then exacerbated by the unwillingness of American leaders to step away from a future of extraordinary danger and threatened violence.

At several stages, American leaders could have stepped away, starting with Stimson’s proposal to establish an international cooperative to manage nuclear possibilities. Each point of acceleration of the arms race with the Soviet Union was caused by American decisions to push ahead with the quest for domination. That this was the case was underscored when the Soviets, under the remarkable leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, did step away in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The unwillingness (or inability) of the United States to move away from the nuclear regime even when the Soviets did stands as a terrible legacy of World War II. The Americans have been exposed as terrible hypocrites following the establishment of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that dozens of countries signed, including many who thereby chose to step away from the feasible development of nuclear weapons. At the heart of the NPT was the commitment of the existing nuclear powers to move toward disarmament. With the Soviets standing down, the Americans has an undreamed of opportunity to turn the world away from nuclear weaponry.

However, the momentum begun with the beginning of the Manhattan Project, with its complete secrecy and absorption of incredible resources, simply could not be stopped.

What might we learn?

In my next post on World War II, I want to reflect on how things could imaginably have been different. If American engagement in that war truly was a moral disaster, shouldn’t we be able to imagine alternatives? Isn’t it to be assumed that moral disasters can be averted? Well, maybe….

To conclude this post, though, I want to focus on the current meaning of World War II. We could say, as today’s Memorial Day celebrations will mostly emphasize, that this was a necessary and a good war that teaches us how important and morally appropriate our current military is. Or we could be a bit more chastened and say that the War was a tragic necessity whose benefits outweigh its costs—though we should also take the costs seriously and seek to avoid mindless affirmation of the terrors of warfare (and we could regret some of the consequences of the War I have discussed in this post).

Or, as my next post will infer, we could see the War as something that was not only a moral disaster but also was unnecessary, could have been avoided, and alternatives that would have been much more constructive were more available that we might imagine.

For my conclusion right now, though, I want to accept the reality of what happened. It could even be seen as the best effort that sincere people could have realistically made. But what might we learn from it?

We could say that World War II was a test of whether war in fact can ever serve the moral good. It was a sincere effort to try out the hypothesis that war might occasionally be necessary and can even be good. After all, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, we can point to many reasons why this war was necessary. We probably cannot overstate the moral corruption of Nazi Germany and its aggressive efforts to spread that corruption. Imperial Japan was almost as bad. And, for the United States, at least, the war was won at relatively low cost and led to unprecedented prosperity and power in its aftermath—that is, the world’s pioneering democracy was in position to further its ideals of freedom and self-determination.

Yet, look what happened. The very effort of prosecuting this mother of all wars led directly to a transformation of the United States: from a non-militarized, relatively free and democratic nation to the global imperial power that evolved to being simply unable to turn away from a devastatingly self-destructive path of empire as a way of life.

What do we learn? That war does not work. War resembles the “one ring of power” of J.R.R. Tolkien’s justly acclaimed fantasy story, The Lord of the Rings. The One is a product of evil and ultimately can only serve evil. Many “good” people tried or imagined trying to wrest the One ring to life-enhancing purposes. But the ring always would win out and the wielder would be transformed.

The story of World War II as a moral disaster confirms Tolkien’s insights.

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

  1. Your probe into one of societies, “Holy Grails”, as I call them is much appreciated. As one who has at times probed into the Holy Grails, a sincere word of caution…You are treading where Angels fear to tread! As there were conspiracies that can be traced back for hundreds of years, as to America’s involvment in Wars; could not there also be conspiracies, even today, that don’t want “how” the story is told to fall into question.
    Willard Swartley challenged me onetime to look behind Holy Grails…things that are accepted as Fact; book closed, no discussion or presentation of any evidence to the contrary. Sort of like the theological ignorance that so pervades much of American Christendom. Willard’s challenge was to explore how things came to be this way. (following the money trail, and connecting the dots will often lead to roads seldom traveled.) This may mean to even be willing to lay aside the understandings of historians, thinkers and theologians we value greatly.
    General Patton was placed in charge of Germany after WWII, until his fateful vehicle, “accident”, one year later. How ironic that one who places himself in harms way in the bloodiest conflict of the Ages, should meet his maker one year later in a car wreck.
    Patton was not afraid to write his thoughts down. He did this in diaries, correspondence with his superiors, letters to his wife and other friends and acquaintances as well. His correspondence and letters during that final year of his rule over Germany may reveal some interesting things about the story.
    A side note…My uncle was captured during the Battle of the Bulge fighting under Patton. He was put in a German Concentration Camp. While no prison is a Sunday school picnic, he said they were not treated bad. The food rations werye scarce for both prisoners and guards alike. Finally to everyone’s exuberation, the Russians came to the rescue and liberated the camp…only to target practice on prisoners as the began running back to find their lines.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I like your suspicious-toward-“Holy Grails” image–looking behind them is not necessarily a recipe for “success” though!

  3. I am in awe of this post. And I find it terribly moving and disturbing to become aware that in it’s own way America has perpetrated some of that which it believed it was fighting when choosing to war the Nazi’s.

    May I humbly though bring a correction to the idea of this line?:
    “We probably cannot overstate the moral corruption of Nazi Germany and its aggressive efforts to spread that corruption.” This idea is so prevalent in our idea of Nazism that it has affected our ability to really understand the power and support for it. And even more so, understand the danger it represents..that it is the perpetration of what we absolutely believe to be good that allows for extreme evil to be manifest.

    It is difficult for those not within the German story to understand that to those who supported the Nazis and to the Nazi’s themselves that they were not at all determined to spread corruption, or evil. Their motive was to spread redemption,purification and correction to a world that they were convinced had become corrupt. That they could be so brutal to the Jewish nation , and to any else who did not fit into , or did not agree with their world view was because they genuinely believed that these represented the worst of corruption or supported that corruption and therefore deserved no mercy in order to, in their version of it…to save the world.

    Their own attitudes of honour and morality toward themselves and to their cause and their attitude to what constituted an ideal society were extremely high and even we, if we saw those attitudes, say in a mid American setting would find them admirable. As a small example ,my father told that when training for the SS the young soldiers would be severely punished for even stealing an apple from a neighbouring orchard.

  4. I think you exaggerate how grim and bleak the international order has been since 1945. But even if you are right about how bad it is, to make a case against World War II you would have to demonstrate that things wouldn’t have been any worse if Germany and Japan had triumphed. That is very hard to do. The Germans probably would have murdered tens of millions more people if they hadn’t been resisted. they would have wiped the Jews and Gypsies out of existence, and would have ruled Europe for generations. Asia might still be under Japanese colonialism today.
    While America’s position in the world changed a good deal because of World War II, we were already an imperial power before, as we had demonstrated in the Philippines, Guam, and Latin America. I don’t know if we really would have been a better country if we had stayed out of the war.
    Finally, while the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have often been violated, it is possible that the international order today is better than it would have been without them. That may be hard to prove, but I think there is more international cooperation and amity than there was before 1939.

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