The “Good War” That Wasn’t…. A new book on the way

Ted Grimsrud

October 30, 2014

After a wait that lasted much longer than I expected, I finally have finished (I hope) my part of my book on World War II called The “Good War” That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. The book will be published by Cascade Books and will hopefully be ready in time for Christmas (!). [Here are earlier rough drafts of the chapters and other writings that working on this project spawned.]

I take an approach in this book that might seem a bit paradoxical. I am a deeply committed pacifist. Had I been a young adult in 1941, I would have refused to participate in that war no matter how “necessary” or “justifiable” it might have seemed. Yet in The “Good War”… , I develop my argument using pragmatic reasoning, including direct use of just war criteria. Why would pacifism not play a central role in my writing on World War II? Why would I work mostly within an ethical framework (the just war tradition) that I do not affirm myself?

Problematizing easy assumptions about World War II

Partly, my decision to use just war rationality has to do with the intended audience for the book. I do not seek to present a logically airtight argument that will persuade those who reject pacifism. But I also do not seek simply to remind pacifists of why we continue to reject warfare. Certainly, I hope those who reject pacifism will nonetheless read this book and be persuaded by it to change their mind—and I do hope to offer comfort and courage for pacifists. Most directly, though, I write to those troubled with contemporary American militarism and who wonder about World War II. I hope to problematize easy assumptions about World War II’s status as the war that shows war can be a morally appropriate choice, operating within the moral framework of a typical American. If pacifism is to enter the picture in this discussion, I intend for it to enter as a conclusion, not as a pre-requisite for being part of the conversation.

The structure of my basic argument is this: Let’s look at World War II on its own terms, asking what moral rationale American policymakers gave to gain support for participation in the war. We should be able to isolate some basic values that the war was alleged to be upholding. These values then will provide our bases for evaluation. The basic question will be, did World War II succeed in furthering the stated values that justified it?

We may operate with the assumption (directly implied in just war rationality) that war is problematic and not ipso facto good and necessary. Fighting in war requires a rationale—with the attendant possibility that a war can be judged not to meet the demands of the rationale. The just war tradition gives us bases for scrutinizing the actual war, evaluating how the war measures up to the stated values for which it was fought. After we look at the war itself, we will also need to spend time considering the consequences of the war, its aftermath. What impact did World War II have, for example, on American foreign policy and military practices in the generation following World War II? These consequences are also part of the war’s moral legacy—and will be evaluated according to the stated values the war was fought to further as well.

Two key sources for the moral rationale

Of course, the actual causes of World War II and of U.S. entry into this war are quite complicated. However, we do have a couple of concise, widely circulated statements that provide a nutshell summary of the main moral values that were stated up front and often. These provide only one part of the picture in relation to motivations, but they certainly were intended to have a wide appeal. They remain potent for our present-day sensibilities concerning World War II.

The two key documents both were first formulated in 1941 in the months leading up to the formal entry of the United States into the war. President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech in January 1941 articulated what came to be known as “The Four Freedoms.” Protection of these freedoms (from want, from fear, for free expression, and for worship)—everywhere in the world—provided the core vision for “kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

Months later, in August 1941, Roosevelt held a summit meeting with Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill. One fruit of that meeting was a common statement of purpose that came to be known as the “Atlantic Charter.” The Charter listed eight points that echoed Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and added important goals such as movement toward free trade and ultimate disarmament in the context of rule of law. Probably the most widely noticed point was an affirmation for all peoples of the world of the right to self-determination.

Moral rationality internal to world of World War II supporters

By focusing on the values articulated in the Four Freedoms speech and the Atlantic Charter, I utilize moral rationality that is internal to the world of World War II participants and supporters. We can agree, as a kind of common moral framework, on the values of these documents as our bases for evaluating the moral legacy of World War II.

As a means of applying this common moral framework to a consideration of the events of World War II, I follow the core criteria used in the just war approach. First, I us the jus ad bellum criteria (just cause for war) in considering the causes usually thought of in the present when we discuss World War II. I actually leave unexamined the question whether these “just causes” truly were just, accepting for the sake of the discussion that they could have been. My focus is to argue that they actually played a minimal role in shaping the true motivations and actions of the Allies.

With the second main emphasis, the jus in bello (use of just means in warfare), I take a more critical approach in applying the just war criteria. I ask whether two of the main jus in bello criteria (noncombatant immunity and proportionality) may have been profoundly violated in the execution of the war.

A third element of the discussion of the war will focus on assessing the cost of the war. Recognizing the complexity of this kind of discussion, I nonetheless insist that if we are going to evaluate the moral legacy of World War II we must at least attempt in some general sense to take account of what it actually cost (both in tangible and intangible senses). Again, this insistence stands fully within just war reasoning. How can we make a moral evaluation of this war unless we actually try some kind of accounting. Was it worth it? To answer this question, central to a serious moral reckoning, we must have at least some kind of general sense of the “it”—was the war worth the cost?

Finally, the fourth basic element of the discussion will be to assess the aftermath of the war—again in relation to the core moral values that were expressed as the bases for prosecuting the war (i.e., the Four Freedoms and Atlantic Charter). If indeed the aftermath of World War II points away from the core moral values stated for going to war, then the moral legacy of that war will have to be seen in more negative terms. This will especially be the case if we discern that the dynamics that led to undermining the core moral values stemmed from the war itself. That is, if what we did in fighting the war (regardless of how “necessary” to win the war) led to outcomes in the long run that contradicted those core moral values, then that weighs against a positive moral assessment of the war. Here one important just war principle needs to be taken seriously—that to be a just the war must be fought for the sake of long-term peace. If the war does not achieve that long-term peace, its justifiability is suspect.

I do not intend to deliver a conclusion concerning whether World War II was a ‘just war” or not. My purposes are focused on the present and future. I want to help a present-day assessment of the moral legacy of World War II—for the purposes of being self-conscious about what role this war should play in our contemporary thought and practice concerning our military policies and national priorities and personal moral choices.

In the end, I argue that World War II profoundly failed in relation to its own moral standards. Hence, it should not serve as an exemplary example of how war can serve the good. It should not underwrite our nation’s choices to continue to prepare for and (when necessary) fight in wars. It should not influence us as citizens to support and when appropriate participate in current wars.

As it turns out, I use just war rationality in service of pacifist conclusions. When we use the just war criteria critically and objectively (that is, applying them equally to all sides in the conflict), and apply them to this actual war, we will have a very difficult time accepting the moral legitimacy of even World War II, the paradigm of the allegedly “just war.” If even this supposedly “just war” falls short—as certainly does every war the U.S. has engaged in since 1945—there really is no room left for the acceptability of warfare.

Thinking about alternatives

The first section of the book looks at World War II itself and the second section considers the aftermath—that is, the ways that engaging so wholeheartedly in this most destructive war ever transformed the United States into a much more militaristic state. The conclusion to that part of the story is decidedly discouraging.

However, I believe that the story of World War II and its moral legacy is not complete until we also consider the way that its destructiveness also stimulated peaceable responses. So I tell a parallel story in the third section, the story of resistance to the War itself and the ways that resistance fed into a stream of peace work: the civil rights movement, various peace movements, and greatly expanded service work by agencies such as the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, and the Catholic Worker.

I wouldn’t call this counter story hopeful in that clearly the trajectory of World War II’s legacy is toward darkness, not light. However, there is some light as part of the story as well. I hope the reader puts down the book with a sense that indeed peace work is necessary—and can fruitfully be pursued.

2 thoughts on “The “Good War” That Wasn’t…. A new book on the way

  1. Congratulations Ted! I know you’ve been working on this for some time and I’m sure it feels good to send it off to the press. Plus…I’m really looking forward to reading it.


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