Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)

[This is the second of two parts of the final section of the conclusion to a just completed book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. The first part of this section is here.]

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2013

I believe that the critical reflection on the story of World War II that I have offered in this book might help in the needed (if impossible) work of redirecting our overwhelming spiral of militarism. I will briefly mention ways this story might help us reverse World War II’s moral legacy. Reversing this moral legacy will help us create space to be human—work that is not dependent upon the state, an institution in our current setting that seems unalterably wed to the dynamics of the National Security State.

Speak accurately about the War. We may start by naming World War II for what it actually was. It was not a necessary war, certainly not a good war, for the United States. It did not serve the roll of protecting American from invasion, of saving Jews in the midst of genocide, or of resisting tyranny and furthering actual democracy around the world. It was an exercise in extraordinary and largely out of control violence that transformed the United States into a militarized global hegemon and severely undermined American democracy.

Rigorously apply Just War principles. As we name World War II for what it was—an exercise in mass killing and unleashed militarism, we might also resolve to use the Just War philosophy that many people claim to honor in a way that has teeth. One of the assumptions of this philosophy has commonly been that we apply the philosophy in order to identify and reject unjust wars. In this book, I have attempted to apply criteria such as just cause, non-combatant immunity, and proportionality to the events of America’s involvement in World War II. I have concluded that the American war effort did not satisfactorily meet those criteria and hence that World War II was an unjust war.

Refuse to support unjust wars. I suggest in this conclusion that if indeed the War was unjust, we should name it as such and resolve never again to participate in such a war. To take this point a step further, many people agree that World War II was the most “just” or “necessary” war the United States has ever fought in. Part of the power of this myth of a necessary war has been to make it much, much easier to justify preparing for future wars. However, if we recognize that World War II was an unjust war and that adherence to the Just War philosophy requires us to say no to unjust wars, we quite likely will be led to conclude that the U.S. is almost certainly never going to participate in a just war. Hence, we will refuse to support the preparation for what would almost certainly be unjust wars.

Reject the National Security State. As we have seen, one of the main outcomes of the War for the U.S. was the permanent expansion and entrenchment of what we may call the U.S. as National Security State. Key elements that directly emerged from the War were the nuclear weapons program, the Pentagon and greatly enlarged military establishment, and the CIA. Application of Just War philosophy would lead to a repudiation of this arrangement. If we understand that human needs oriented states should be founded on and have the responsibility to seek “justice for all,” we will recognize that these institutions that emerged from the War are antithetical to what the U.S. government should be like.

Hold government to its stated democratic ideals. The purpose statements that emerged to explain to the public the reasons why the U.S. entered and fought World War II actually cohere pretty well with the values of authentic democracy and the Just War philosophy—especially the quest for self-determination and disarmament everywhere on earth. What was lacking during the War and in the generations since has been a steadfast effort to hold the democratically elected government of the U.S. to those stated ideals. One way to reverse the moral legacy of World War II is to insist on holding states to such ideals—and withholding consent when those ideals are ignored or violated.

Be skeptical of people in power. Like many others, I believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the best presidents the United States has ever had. Perhaps the title of H.W. Brands’s fine biography of FDR is a bit hyperbolic: A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, especially the use of the word “radical.” Still, Roosevelt’s New Deal, with all its limitations, moved the American state in a humane direction as much as just about any other presidency before and since. Nonetheless, as we have seen, Roosevelt probably more than any other person set in motion the dynamics that led to total war leading to Cold War leading to war on terrorism leading to the abyss. The lesson for peacemakers should be one of intense skepticism towards people in power. We should always assume the worst about what those in office say and do—things are almost always worse than they seem. We should never give people in power the benefit of the doubt, but treat what they say critically and require strong evidence of actual peaceable action before offering strong support.

Build communities of resistance. The flip side of skepticism toward people in power and the refusal to give consent to the National Security State is the need to cultivate communities of resistance. The work of creating space to be human generally is work that requires a critical mass of people to sustain the work in face of hostility from the System. Back in World War II, the people in the U.S. who most consistently said no to the War and most steadfastly refused to support the war effort were communities of Mennonites.[1] Though these communities had little political awareness and did not see themselves as directly challenging the policies of their government, they did sustain their resistance to participation in the War through consistent education of community members concerning their core convictions, through material support for those who performed alternative service at great financial cost to themselves, and through clear communication to the government and outside world that they would not compromise on their priorities regardless of the cost.

Prevent tyranny rather than war against it. The best answer to the standard “what about Hitler” question that is commonly thrown at peacemakers is surely to say that what is needed is work to prevent a Hitler from coming into power again. The idea that the best response to the Hitler question is to prepare militarily is to ignore the past seven decades where we have seen a gradual expansion of the spirit of militarism (one of the main elements of Nazism) in the name of stopping the next Hitler. This gives Hitler a posthumous victory. Instead, the best lesson to learn from World War II is that the conditions that made Hitler possible must be prevented through self-determination and disarmament. Perhaps the Atlantic Charter was mainly a cynical exercise in wartime propaganda and self-righteousness, but the ideals it expressed nonetheless provide one of our best blueprints for preventing the need for such exercises in cynical propaganda—that is, for preventing the quest for “peace” through total war.

Treat all life as precious. Resolve never to minimize the conviction that all of life is precious. Perhaps the greatest moral legacy of World War II was the practical repudiation of that conviction. The biggest cost of such a war was the loss of the sense of human solidarity, that we are all together precious beings who should be treated with respect and care. As a direct consequence of this War, as we have seen, the U.S. has embarked on a still accelerating process of diminishing the value of human beings by creating and deploying weapons of unimaginable mass destruction and seeking domination around the world as the cost of millions upon millions of direct deaths as a result of America’s wars—all fought for unjust causes using unjust means. An unwavering commitment to the preciousness of all life provides a powerful interpretive key for understanding and responding to America’s National Security State with clarity, conviction, and resolve.

[1] This story is told in Ted Grimsrud, “An Ethical Analysis of World War II Conscientious Objection,” Ph. D. dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 1988.



Filed under Empire, Just War thought, Militarism, U. S. foreign policy, World War II

3 responses to “Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)

  1. I have been following your blog for several weeks and find so much to agree with. If you visit my blog at you will see how much we have in common. I applaud your efforts to stimulate some new thinking about war. The old justifications are quite threadbare.
    Best wishes.

  2. Pingback: Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part one) | Thinking Pacifism

  3. I especially appreciate your point that it is better to prevent tryanny than to war against it. The conditions imposed on Germany after WWI created an atmosphere conducive to fascism.

    In the context of a discussion over whether Christians should participate in wars, WWII seems to always come up. But almost always (in my world at least) the folks who cite it seem to be assuming that the war began when the U.S. entered it. Whatever the merits of an argument that the war was “necessary” after Germany declared war on the U.S., it certainly wasn’t “necessary” that Germany invade Poland. The German military was almost entirely Christian. Without an army, Hitler could not have gone to war.

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