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

[This is the second of a two-part post. 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. Yesterday I posted Part I that discusses five aspects of the lead up to World War II that could have been different—and less disastrous. This post will discuss five more aspects.

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 30, 2013

(6) Overtly work to aid threatened Jews in Germany after the Nazis came to power. The plight of Europe’s Jews actually had little effect on the American entry into the conflict nor on the way that the War was prosecuted once the U.S. became a full participant. So more early efforts to help threatened Jews would not have themselves provided an alternative to going to war in the actual event.

However, to the extent that the War is at least after the fact justified as necessary for the sake of the Jews, we could say that earlier intervention would have made the war less necessary. One of the great ironies of the events in the lead-up to the War is that it was in fact the principled pacifists who worked the hardest to try to address the emerging crises for Europe’s Jews. Some Quakers even intervened directly, drawing on their positive reputation in Germany due to post-World War I relief efforts to lobby with Nazi leaders for openness for Jewish emigration. The hold up came not from the Nazis but from the American and British leaders who refused to make allowance for more than a tiny number of Jewish immigrants and, later, refugees.

It would seem that hundreds of thousands of Jews who perished in the Holocaust could have escaped that fate had the nations of the world been willing to allow them refuge. The tone-setters for the refusal to do so were the Americans and British.

Even more ironic, then, is that the main response America had to German tyranny was military-centered, ultimately total war. This response pushed the Nazis toward genocide rather than deportation as their means of dealing with the “Jewish problem.” Even after it became known on the outside that the genocide was happening, America’s war leaders insisted on ignoring that set of atrocities in favor of focusing on simply winning the war and achieving “unconditional surrender”—making it possible for the Nazis to come much closer to their goal of total eradication of Europe’s Jews.

(7) Don’t move the Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor. The U.S. took what was surely an intentionally provocative step in moving the core of its Pacific naval force to the base at the American colony of Hawaii in the late 1930s. This occurred in the midst of growing tensions with Japan and only added to the Japanese sense that the Americans were moving to dominate the Pacific region militarily.

Now, certainly the Japanese aggression on China and expansionistic policies in general heightened the sense of conflict between the Japanese and U.S. The move to Pearl Harbor could reasonably be justified as an effort simply to enhance American preparedness in face of the growing problems. However, a different strategy could have been to take steps diplomatically to reduce the tensions rather than act directly to exacerbate them.

When the Japanese made their move to attack Pearl Harbor, they took a step that made the ensuing war inevitable. However, if the U.S. had not so greatly expanded their Hawaiian presence, it is almost certain the Japanese would not (nor could not) had undertaken the kind of attack they did. Many U.S. military leaders had opposed the move to Hawaii partly because they believed it would make the American forces more vulnerable to such an attack—and partly because they believed that that move would not actually noticeably enhance American military readiness.

(8) Don’t begin the Manhattan Project and don’t build the Pentagon in Virginia. The two steps that most decidedly moved the U.S. toward its permanent war footing both were taken before the U.S. entered World War II. These were the initiation of the effort to construct nuclear weapons—the Manhattan Project—and the decision to build the Pentagon. Neither of these steps were necessary at the time, but once taken proved to be irreversible.

When the initial proposal to create nuclear weapons came to President Roosevelt, no one knew whether such a weapon would work. But it was clear that the effort to make nuclear weapons would be require an extraordinary expenditure of finances and scientific creativity—and that such weapons would be destructive on an unimaginable scale.

Roosevelt could have decided not to pursue this path—maybe on pragmatic grounds that the success was not assured and that it was difficult to imagine any other nation being able to create such a weapon and that the resources could be better spent elsewhere. Not to mention, Roosevelt could have decided that the nation’s best energies should be spent in creating peace and preventing the expansion of the War.

Roosevelt could also have decided on moral grounds that such a weapon must not be built. He could have recognized that a bomb of such a magnitude would by definition wreak unjustifiable destruction on civilian populations and the physical world.

With the Pentagon, American political leaders could have insisted that the tradition of keeping the military under civilian control meant that moving military headquarters away from the center of the federal government in Washington would not be acceptable. Surely, if it truly was necessary for the military leadership to expand its footprint in face of the emerging “emergency,” space could have been found for new construction in the District of Columbia nearer the civilian centers of government.

Roosevelt could have recognized and shaped his actions with a concern that once the military was allowed the kind of autonomy the construction of the Pentagon would provide it would be impossible to reign the armed forces back in. At the least, he could have insisted more firmly on his initial command (which was ignored by Pentagon builders) to greatly reduce the size of the facility and made more sure that the military headquarters would move back to DC once the War ended.

(9) Respond positively to Japanese initiative just prior to Pearl Harbor. We seemingly have no way of knowing how seriously to take the peace initiatives taken by Japanese prime minister, Fuminaro Konoe, in the summer and early fall of 1941. However, it is difficult to excuse the Roosevelt administration for not at least meeting with Konoe and seeing what possibilities for avoiding a military confrontation he might have offered.

Konoe was scarcely a peace advocate, and he likely had only limited control over the dynamics within Japan. He may not actually have been in a position to resist the movement toward war that characterized the military leaders. However, it does appear that Konoe recognized the likelihood of a major conflict and sensed that this would disastrous for Japan. He did have the role as the official leader of the Japanese government and may have had the ability to shape the direct things would go.

The tragedy here lies in Roosevelt’s unwillingness even to try to find a path around the impending conflict. What we do know is that finally, following one American rebuff after another, Konoe resigned as prime minister and was replaced by one of the military’s most extreme militarists, Hideki Tojo. Within a couple of months, under Tojo’s leadership, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

(10) Don’t insist on unconditional surrender. One of the central elements of the just war criteria for waging a just war is the expectation that when one goes to war, one seeks to resolve the conflict as soon as possible and that one does as little damage as necessary. The American commitment to make unconditional surrender a non-negotiable commitment in how the War would be prosecuted violated this just war expectation.

Had the Americans not insisted on the centrality of unconditional surrender (and it is important to note that neither Churchill or Stalin were happy with Roosevelt’s decision), the War more likely could have been fought in ways that satisfied just conduct criteria.

It would have been more possible to remain committed to noncombatant immunity and refrain from joining in the British saturation bombing of German cities and, especially, to refrain from the fire-bombing of Tokyo. These excesses not only did not succeed in directly leading to surrender, they also set terrible precedents for the practice of air war in future conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam.

Being open to “conditional surrender” would also have empowered more moderate forces within the German and Japanese governments. The unwavering pursuit of unconditional surrender meant that the most extreme factions in those countries were justified in insisting on fighting to the death, since they would have to be totally at the Allies’ mercy no matter what.

The Allied insistence on unconditional surrender had its worst consequences for the European war in the scorched earth practices the Soviet military pursued in driving the Germans clear back to Berlin. Besides the enormous death toll, these events also led to even more devastation of the “innocent” nations who happened to reside in between the Soviet Union and Germany.

Being open to “conditional surrender” would also have freed the Allies to be more positive in their response to the peace feelers the Japanese government sent out in the spring and early summer of 1941. Had the Allies been open to making peace with Japan earlier (and by this time the main condition sought by the Japanese seemingly was the continuation of Emperor Hirohito in office—ironically, a request that was honored after the unconditional surrender was achieved), they would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and pre-empted the use of the atomic bomb. In other words, they would have come closer to meeting the just war criteria.

Postwar. After August, 1945, the nuclear weapons program was firmly entrenched. The Pentagon was established as the center of power for the now triumphant, permanently expanded American military. The momentum toward the National Security State ended up being unstoppable. However, we can still imagine that things could have been different.

For example, Secretary of War Harry Stimson’s proposal to create a cooperative arrangement for managing the new nuclear weapon capabilities with the Soviet Union and Great Britain could have aborted the arms race at the beginning. The United States could have been more committed to making the United Nations live up to its charter rather than being another tool to advance the interests of the American economic and military elite.

President Truman could have refused Britain’s encouragement to take over their military intervention in support of the reactionary forces in that country. The U.S. could have affirmed and acted in accordance with the Geneva accords that sought to provide for self-determination in Vietnam after the defeat of the French in 1954. And so on down to embracing the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s as a chance to abolish nuclear weapons and deeply reduce the American military imprint around the world and to seeing 9/11 as a opportunity to strengthen the emerging international law system.

We may think of many reasons why these more peaceable options were not chosen—not least simply the hegemonic dynamics unleashed once the American military was unleashed without significant restraint during World War II. However, we must also recognize that there have always been (and continue to be) options to turn from the ever-accelerating spiral of violence the United States have been subject to for the past seven decades.

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