The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part I)

[I am just about done with a book I have written about World War II: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. My last step is writing a conclusion. One part of the conclusion will be to speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. This blog post (Part I) contains some of that speculation. Here is Part II.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion (“Was World War II a Just War?” + “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1” + “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2”). I will conclude the conclusion with some reflections on what this all means for us today. I hope to post some of those reflections within the next several days. Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—May 29, 2013

I have tried in this book to focus on the actual events that happened in the lead up to World War II, in the War itself, and in its aftermath. I have argued that what did actually happen was a moral disaster for the United States—both the War itself and its aftermath. Here I want to spend a bit of time on a thought experiment. I will imagine various events leading up to and during World War II that could have been handled differently and possibly led to a morally better result.

I hope to make the point here that nothing was inevitable, that the disastrous events need not have happened like they did. More than make a case concerning the moral failures of decision makers, though, I want more simply to emphasize that we need not continue on the same spiral toward continuing disasters that the U.S. seems stuck in. If those decisions could have been different, so too could current and future decisions.

As well, I argue in this book against the mythology that valorizes World War II as a necessary war, a good war, that was fought in the morally most just way possible. To suggest a number of ways things could have been different might lead us even more to question the necessity, goodness, and justness of the War in ways that could lead us to reject the logic that links the “goodness” of World War II to the need today to prepare for future possible “necessary” wars.

Finally, this exercise might also stimulate we who are not directly involved in foreign policy decision-making to recognize our need to treat with suspicion  claims by the foreign policy elite. We should especially doubt the claims they make that decisions to resort to violence are necessary or even pragmatically appropriate. If we treat such claims for necessary violence with skepticism we might be freed to refuse consent and to seek both to challenge the elite to less violent policies and to seek ways outside of the governmental structures to further self-determination and disarmament.

I have chosen ten examples of how things could have been different—with less disastrous results. I tried to avoid series of hypotheticals where one is dependent upon one or more earlier hypothetical. Generally, each example accepts that earlier alternative scenarios did not happen. I focus mainly on decisions Americans made (or did not).

Almost all of these follow from just war criteria and ideals. None assume pacifism. All would have been pragmatically preferable for American interests (that is, the interests of the American people, if not the American business and political elite).

(1) Don’t enter World War I. Many people are now saying that what we call World War I and World War II were not actually two distinct conflicts but more one extended struggle. At the least, it seems certain that the devastation wrought by World War I set the stage for World War II. Had the first war not happened surely the second would not have either.

And unlike with World War II, World War I did not begin with overt acts of aggression and conquest. The beginnings were much more ambiguous. The spiral from local conflicts to the extraordinary conflagration that this war became followed in large part from loyalty to alliances by numerous countries that entered into the conflict for reasons not having to do with immediate national defense.

The Great War was well underway before the United States entered it in 1917. However, the U.S. entry did tip the balance toward Great Britain and France, leading to their victory. Had the U.S. not entered this war, we can easily imagine a less definite outcome. While we can’t say what the long term consequences would have been had this war ended in something closer to a draw, it does seem likely that the seeds for World War II that were sown due to the type of peace that was established following the Great War might well have not been sown. Germany might not have faced the bitterness-enhancing punitive damages. It is possible to imagine an outcome that might have been less problematic for future peace. So, the U.S. choice to enter the Great War had negative consequences—and it certainly was not inevitable.

If the U.S. had truly played a neutral role, focusing its energies on creating a peaceful outcome rather the victory of one side over the other, it is also quite likely that the U.S. would have been positioned to play a major role in the post-Great War world. Plus, the possibility of playing such a role likely would not have aroused the hostility toward international engagement that the actual fighting in the war did. So the U.S. would have been situated to play a more significant role in international affairs than they did in the event, and the role would have been more likely to be as a peacemaker rather than partisan.

(2) Work for better postwar relationships. Because the U.S. was a late entry into the war, and because President Woodrow Wilson was not a particularly effective negotiator, the U.S. did not play a major role in the formulation of the Versailles Treaty and other postwar arrangements. However, especially in light of subsequent events, we still could say that the U.S. could have worked harder and more effectively for a more just and peace-fostering peace after the war ended—maybe especially resisting more forcefully the insistence of the British and French to treat Germany so punitively. At the last, the Americans could have done more to aid Germany in postwar reconstruction and to support democratic forces in the Weimer Republic.

As well, the U.S. could have done more to seek a positive relationship with the ultimate victors in the Russian Revolution. A more positive relationship with the Bolsheviks may have helped strengthen more moderate forces in what became the Soviet Union and prevented the disastrous takeover by Stalin and his supporters. And even after Stalin gained power, the U.S. could have done more to reduce the fears the Soviet government justifiably had that the Western powers sought their overthrow—fears that surely made life much worse for people in the Soviet Union and strengthened the position of the most militaristic and tyrannical forces there.

(3) Cultivate a positive relationship with Japan. This point may be the most obvious one on this list. Not many Americans today realize that Japan had been an ally of the Allies during World War I. Japan had an especially strong relationship with the British. Japan’s desire to sustain this relationship may be seen in its willingness to sign treaties that limited the size of its navy in relation to the U.S. and Britain shortly after World War I.

However, the U.S., with its ambitions to heighten its economic presence in the Far East tended to see Japan as a rival. In the 1920s, the Americans exerted strong pressure on the British to distance themselves from the Japanese, despite the recent history of close alliance between the British and Japanese. This was a fateful move by the Americans, as it understandably distressed the Japanese to be pushed away.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, forces in Japan that favored positive relationships with the Western powers determined most of Japan’s foreign policy. When the British severed the alliance under American pressure, forces that were much more suspicious of linking too closely with the West became ascendant.

In the background to the American role in driving a wedge between the British and Japanese we can perceive the history of American antipathy toward Japanese immigrants. This antipathy was transparently racist—its echo may be seen during World War II with the concentration camps that Japanese-Americans were forced to relocate to (often with the loss of property and business holdings) while nothing similar was established for German-Americans or Italian-Americans.

Japan during the 1920s and 1930s endured intense political struggles between those more inclined toward cooperative relationships with the West and those who sought a militarized style of Japanese independence and dominance of the Far East. The latter forces tended to have the upper hand, partly due to a series of assassinations of more moderate political leaders. As the Japanese military grew in power, it’s ability to do so was greatly enhanced by the Americans’ efforts to prevent the sustenance of the Japanese/British alliance and in other ways to exacerbate tensions between the two nations.

(4) Prevent American corporations from fueling the German and Japanese military buildups in the early and mid 1930s. Paradoxically, at the same time American policies undermined possibilities of sustaining the positive World War I alliance with Japan, U.S. corporations did not hesitate to do business with Japan—and with Nazi Germany, especially trafficking in materials useful for those nations’ intense military expansions.

It is hard to know how much difference more severe American limitations of arms trade with Germany and Japan might have made. However, it cannot be denied that the “threat” that pro-interventionists vehemently warned about from the mid-1930s on was actually enhanced by American corporations supplying many of the materials that fueled that threat.

A factor that helped make such business dealings acceptable to many among the U.S. elite was the anti-communist ideology that had characterized American leaders going back to the nineteenth century. Both Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan were seen as bulwarks against the spread of communism. Hence, direct and indirect military aid not only made money for the Americans, it also strengthened global resistance to the Red threat.

(5) Prevent Britain (and France) from making a treaty to go to war with Germany in light of military action against Poland. It probably is doubtful that the United States had enough leverage in relation to Britain and France to prevent the war-treaty they made with Poland in the late 1930s that provided the trip-wire to begin the European part of World War II. However, if somehow the U.S. had successfully sought to prevent this treaty the unfolding of events that followed—utterly devastating to Poland both in terms of the immediate consequences of being at war with Germany and in terms of the ultimate consequences of the War (absorption in the Soviet empire)—would likely have been less destructive than what actually happened.

The treaty with Poland locked Britain and France into a declaration of war on Germany, which in time triggered the German invasion of Holland, Belgium, and France, leading to millions of deaths and adding hundreds of thousands of victims to Germany’s genocide of Jews. We of course can’t say what would have happened without this treaty. But perhaps Poland would not have tried its resistance to German aggression with hopeless military actions that made the German victory much more hurtful than capitulation would have (and made possibilities for effective resistance once the Germans occupied Poland less possible—in contrast to Denmark, for example). Without the Polish-German war in western Poland, the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland and consequent massacre of thousands of Polish leaders would have been much less likely as well.

[Part II (points 6-10)]

9 thoughts on “The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part I)

  1. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, on these 5 points. Everyone, when presented with the Anabaptist pacifist view on war always asks, “Well, what about Hitler?” and they ALWAYS pooh-pooh the argument of “Well, there’s a lot of stuff that could have been done BEFORE hand to prevent Hitler from even becoming an issue… where was the church, the USA, etc, then? While perhaps not a pacifistic author, Eric Metaxas’ book “Bonhoeffer” gives a little insight into a lot of the inner turmoil in Germany post WWI that made Hitler “inevitable”… and the many opportunities that the churches OUTSIDE Germany, if they had set aside their nationalism, would have been able to move and act to stop the stream of events before they became untenable.

    Thank you, Ted, for writing this… when the book is published, I’d LOVE to read it and offer up a blogged review… just say the word.

  2. Thanks, Robert. The book (to be published by Cascade Books) should be out shortly after the first of the year. I’d love to have you review it and should be able to arrange for you to get a review copy.

  3. When I look at the political situation today, with major portions of the US citizens focused on short sighted self interest. And in that focus, prisons are more attractive than stronger emphasis on money for a workable education and on money for rehabilitation outside of prison.
    US welfare and medical policies that are willing to spend money on government policing structures, but again not really willing to spend the money to help people recover to a working level.
    I heard our Illinois Senator, Mark Kirk, say he could not support “Oboma Care” because like medicare he would have received only 4 therapy sessions to treat his major stroke, and he would never have recovered functionality with that limit. At the same time, those limits were built in from the focus to “save” money. Major corporate money, the kind that funds campaigns backs options that spend money in ways corporations can profit, is not seeing the benefits from rehabilitating instead of punishing.
    Ted, I know you look at this as a secular book, trying to make arguments independent of pacifism and discipleship following Jesus. Yet, I wonder if any such argument will change the hearts of US citizens, if anything other than the good news of a new King with a new Kingdom right here right now, growing and sprouting as committed members of the Body of Christ. We citizens of God’s new Kingdom must follow in Jesus steps, willing and actually sacrificing our money, our jobs, where we live, sacrificially relating to our spouse and family.
    This sacrificial life is the way we find new life for ourselve and participate in Jesus/God’s work of redeeming/calling/inviting sinners to participate themselves in God’s Kingdom here and now.
    To change the US morality, I wonder if it doesn’t require the Jesus kind of sacrifice. I wonder if we will not find the sacrifices increasing as we really see how the US/Empire exploits US and other countries driven by a fear of losing place, losing money, losing jobs, losing opportunities for our children. This fear moves the US to consider offering citizen ship to illegal immigrants who have served in combat for the US and its Empire.
    Ted, I know I’m repeating some of what you have said, and others have said, its not new.
    May we be willing to sacrifice all to receive the peace of Jesus.

  4. I read both parts 1 and 2. I found them thoughtful and well presented. I wonder, though, if in your book you address the status of contrafactual arguments. I bring this up because there is a minority view of the Civil War which argues that if that war had not happened slavery would have disappeared on its own due to economic pressures. I have always found this line of reasoning somewhat suspect (while not supporting the Civil War myself, for moral, pacifist, reasons). In a similar vein, I wonder if the contrafactual scenarios you have suggested would be sufficient, in themselves, to lead to a lessening of conflict. I realize this is a philosophical issue, but I’m just wondering if the nature of this kind of reasoning is part of your presentation.



  5. Ted, you point out the collusion between US corporations and the axis war machines – But the aiding and abetting of the German buildup after 1934 (called ‘Appeasement’) also needs more research.

    The argument that explains ‘Appeasement’ by the myth of ‘war weariness’ we know only too well – maybe so well that we can suspect it is an over-simplification?

    Because Ted, when has the rulership party ever let the common people put an end to the permanent warfare state and ‘Great Game’ by reason of weariness?

    The Gazillionaires who owned and operated Great Britain also ran the British government from about 1928 until the war I think, and their unspoken idea (made explicit, to much embarrassment, by King Edward and some other landed gentlemen) was that Germany (and Italy) – being anti-communist – represented Britain’s logical military buffer against the Bolshevik state (Russia).

    Hitler was to be our first line of defense against the USSR. Russian diplomats and social scientists have been trying to explain this to the Western people for a long time (but before the fall of the USSR it was considered a silly communist theory).

    Now that the USSR is history, we can find more Western studies that examine ‘Appeasement’ as a conscious effort to build up a strong anti-communist buffer state to be a first line of defense against communism.

    This of course implies that Hitler’s military power was a product of capitalist diplomatic gaming against the USSR (which is such a scandal that we cannot expect it to be discussed by anybody).

    Of course they weren’t planning on the Holocaust – nor did they expect the German-Soviet treaty of 1939. This treaty is what finally pulled the wool away from the eyes of Chamberlain and his cartel. By then it was too late, Britain (whose government believed they had Hitler to fight their first battles) was caught in a state of ill-preparedness for war, and Churchill used this embarrassing situation to take the government away from the conservatives for the duration.

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