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). Continue reading “The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part I)”

Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?

Ted Grimsrud

This election season is (or should be) an agonizing time for pacifists and other people in the United States who care deeply for peace on earth. Perhaps as much as any time in the history of this country, an uncritical embrace of militarism as a way of life is on display. We have a president running for re-election proudly trumpeting his success in one military intervention after another (including direct assassination of “national enemies”)—and being harshly criticized by his main opponent for being a wuss on national security issues.

Except for people like us on the fringes, Obama’s militarism is not seen as a problem in the national discussion. The country faces extreme economic difficulties and the two main options in this election are giving the military either a somewhat greater share of the national treasure or a much greater share.

Peace advocates’ discouragement with Obama

American peace advocates’ discouragement is heightened by the reality that we thought we might be getting something better four years ago. And we weren’t alone in the world—how else to explain Obama’s clearly premature Nobel Peace Prize (now a distant memory) other than as a statement of hope from the selectors that he truly would provide a new direction in American foreign policy? Yet, when all is said and done, what we see over the past four years is a slight decrease in the bellicose posturing that characterized the Bush administration, but overall a continuation of the trajectory of empire as a way of life.

So, it is understandable that many peace advocates who supported Obama in 2008 (with admittedly varying degrees of enthusiasm—no one I know or know of expected Obama to tack very far toward a truly new, peace-oriented national security agenda; but we did hope for some major positive shifts) are now asserting that they will not vote for him this time. None of these folks, of course, are remotely interesting in voting for Mitt Romney—they talk either of voting for a third (or fourth or fifth) party candidate or of abstaining. Continue reading “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”

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)? Continue reading “Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)”

Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part one)

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2012

World War II stands as the greatest event in the history of the United States. The country poured all its energy into an intense effort that resulted in the defeat of one of the odious embodied political philosophies ever. As the years pass and we learn more and more about Nazi Germany, the more grateful we can be for the ignominious end to the “thousand year Reich.” This war also led to an almost equally ignominious end to the extraordinarily vicious Japanese imperial regime.

World War II also proved to be the catalyst that finally brought the deprivation of the Great Depression to and end in the U.S. and ushered in an extraordinary era of economic prosperity—prosperity for once that reached down into the middle classes and beyond. The U.S. not only contributed impressively to the defeat of these terrible enemies, but the country actually came through the War relatively unscathed. At the end of the War, the U.S. stood with unprecedented economic power and unmatched international prestige as the bearer of the ideals portrayed to great effect in statements such as the Atlantic Charter and the initial declaration of the “United Nations.” These statements rallied people to defeat forces in the world that stood implacably against ideals such as self-determination and disarmament.

World War II as a moral disaster?

So, in what senses, then, was World War II after all a moral disaster for the United States? I will suggest that what World War II actually did for the United States was (1) decisively corrupt the American democratic polity, (2) decisively empower the forces of militarism in the country that have since 1945 led the U.S. into foreign policy disaster after foreign disaster and visited so much violence and destruction on major sections of the world that the term “American holocaust” (William Blum, Killing Hope) may not in actuality not be much of a hyperbole, and (3) decisively shift the economic center of gravity in the country toward the corporate sector, setting the country on a path of long-term corruption, exploitation, and—in a genuine sense—economic self-immolation. Continue reading “Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part one)”

Someone else who has problems with World War II…

Ted Grimsrud—April 20, 2012

As I have been working on my research and writing project that I am now calling, “The ‘Good War’ That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters,” I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from a book from several years ago that also expresses deep skepticism about the moral legitimacy of this war. I posted the following reflections on this book almost four years ago when I first started my site. I think it’s worth a revisit as I put the finishing touches on my book.

As could be expected, Nicholson Baker’s  Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2008) has received mostly hostile reviews both in the mainstream media and among academic historians. I think it is a terrific book, though. It was one of the most absorbing 400+ page books I have ever read.

Describing the lead up to World War II

The book is made up of hundreds, probably close to 1,000, short vignettes that trace the events leading up to World War II and its prosecution until the end of 1941 (which, for the U.S., marked our country’s entry into the War).

These vignettes are mostly simple, descriptive statements; only rarely is Baker’s voice apparent. An example of an editorial comment, though, may be found on page 452: A December 10, 1941, Gallup poll had shown that two-thirds of the American population would support the U.S. firebombing Japanese cities in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. “Ten percent—representing twelve million citizens—were wholly opposed. Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deeds of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.” Continue reading “Someone else who has problems with World War II…”

Was World War II an Unjust War?

Ted Grimsrud—January 10, 2012

In uncountable discussions I have had over the years about the ethics of war and peace, it seems that when pacifism comes up, so too does World War II. At least for Americans, this war stands not as the “war that ended other wars” nearly so much as the “war that justified other wars.” World War II shows, in the American “good war” mythology, that sometimes going to war is the best option when it comes to dealing with the “bad guys.”

Unfortunately, seeing war as sometimes the best option leads to empowering the societal structures that are needed to prepare for those war—and such empowerment has loosed on American society forces that have transformed what in the past seemingly was an attitude that you go to war as a last resort to our present attitude where so many conflicts throughout the world seem to require a militarized response. Hence, the extraordinary American military presence around the world, the extraordinary way the United States spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and the extraordinary situation facing American voters in the 2012 presidential election where their choice will surely be limited to two versions of militarism (note the remarkable dynamic in the Republican presidential race where the candidate getting attention for speaking overtly against this militarism, Ron Paul, has as his major source of contributions current military people).

Borrowing from social critic Naomi Klein’s analysis of recent American history, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, we could say that the “shock” of total war in the early 1940s led directly to the takeover of the United States by advocates of the American national security ideology. At that point of vulnerability, permanent structures such as the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons program were established. As a consequence of the transformative influence of these entities, in the United States, “all politics is a politics of war” (Walter Wink). Continue reading “Was World War II an Unjust War?”

Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder

Ted Grimsrud—July 31, 2011

With Gordon Kaufman’s passing, an era in the Mennonite world is nearing an end. Kaufman, like his contemporaries, was decisively shaped by his personal experience with World War II and its immediate aftermath. (The era isn’t quite over given the still-productive pen of the remarkable Norman Kraus, an exact contemporary of Kaufman’s and John Howard Yoder’s—here’s Norman’s most recent book.)

In an interview given near the end of his life, Kaufman talked briefly about how as a young adult he was planning to pursue a career in mathematics. Then he was drafted in the midst of World War II and chose to be a conscientious objector. He served for several years in Civilian Public Service in lieu of entering the military. By war’s end, he had redirected his aspirations.

John Howard Yoder, the other Mennonite theological giant of the 20th century, also had his life’s aspirations redirected by World War II-based service. Yoder, who was a couple years younger than Kaufman and thus not liable to the draft during the war, went to war-devastated Western Europe on a service assignment shortly after the end of the war, an assignment that determined his educational and vocational pursuits.

With all their differences, Kaufman and Yoder shared something quite profound. They both obviously were brilliant and ambitious young men who had multiple options for career paths. Both also were deeply committed Mennonites. Contrary to the stereotype of Mennonites as withdrawn, “sectarian,” and purity-focused, both of these two extraordinarily gifted people decided to devote their lives to grappling with the world’s most complicated and relevant issue: how to live humanely in a war-devastated environment still in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence. Continue reading “Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder”

Are we living under totalitarianism?

Ted Grimsrud – 5/23/11

Well, probably not. In the United States today, we still are able to express ourselves freely. I don’t feel any anxiety about posting this essay, for example, even though it will end up being quite critical of the powers that be in our society.

We still have a lot of power, though more so on the local level, to practice participatory democracy. We still have freedom of the press, problematic as our media might be in practice. I am writing right now in Phoenix, Arizona, and will be traveling home to Virginia tomorrow—I may be annoyed at the airport “security” measures, but I have a great deal of freedom to come and go as I please, to travel thousands of miles across the continent whenever I want.

And yet… Continue reading “Are we living under totalitarianism?”

The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (09. Social Transformation)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

9. Social Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—February 25, 2011

The first phase of the 1950s Civil Rights movement

If we would capture the moral impact of World War II in just a few words, perhaps we could say it like this: as never before, the War simply obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. It simply boggles the mind to list the countries where at least one million people were killed: Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany, perhaps others.

Many would have said that one of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive. Even our criminal justice systems in some sense could be seen as founded on the belief that life is precious.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, the wars of the twentieth-century treated human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization focused on killing, not on enhancing life. And, as we have seen in the present book, certainly at least in the United States, the moral legacy of World War II underscores that transforming our nation’s priorities from death toward life seems impossible.

At least some of those who have recognized this problem have tried to overcome it. For these people, in the words of historian Joseph Kip Kosek, “the problem of the twentieth century…was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness.”[1]

Continue reading “The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (09. Social Transformation)”

The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (08. No to the War)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

8. No to the War

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2011

The roots of war resistance

From colonial times, the population of North American has always included significant numbers of people who by conviction believed they could not participate in war. These pacifists varied in how they believed those convictions should be applied to public policy, some actively engaged in seeking for governments to repudiate warfare, others focusing their energies primarily on encouraging those within their own faith communities refusing to participate.

Pacifism established itself in the North American colonies when the British government granted William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a charter to establish the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682. The Friends emerged as a distinct movement in Britain in the mid-1650s under the leadership of George Fox. Fox combined a close adherence to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a mystical sense of the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer’s heart, in the hearts of all other human beings, and in the broader creation.

The combination of placing the highest priority on the message of Jesus with the belief in the active work of the Spirit throughout the world, inspired many Friends to affirm at the core of their faith the belief that all human relationships should be characterized by compassion, respect, and mutuality. This belief led them to repudiate warfare as a legitimate way for human beings to settle their differences.

In its early years, the colony of Pennsylvania operated under the leadership of people who were part of the Society of Friends. The colony sought to establish peaceable relationships with the Natives who were living within its borders. The colony also saw itself as a haven for other religious dissenters who shared similar values as the Friends, thereby becoming a pioneering political community that practiced genuine religious freedom and did not center its policies around the sword. Continue reading “The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (08. No to the War)”