Learning from the 1940 Debate about War?

Joseph Loconte, ed. The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm. Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

“Even though you meant it for evil, God intended it for good.” These words, a paraphrase of Joseph’s finals words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, came to mind as I read this book that Joseph Loconte, a scholar on the staff of the Heritage Foundation, put together. Loconte meant for this book to serve the rhetorical campaign American militarists are waging to garner and sustain support for the “war on terrorism.” Though these purposes are highly problematic, the book (excepting Loconte’s introduction) is actually fascinating and important—though not for the purposes indended.

Loconte has gathered an extensive collection of writings from prominent American Protestant leaders (plus one Jewish writer) who engaged in a passionate debate in 1939-41 about the role the United States should play in relation to the war being waged in Europe between the Nazis and British. The first half of the book includes pieces from those who opposed military intervention, generally on pacifist grounds; the second half gathers materials from those who supported taking sides with the British and offering material aid for the Allied cause (though, since the materials all were published before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, even these latter writings do not overtly advocate American direct military engagement).

So, we have an important resource here that sheds light on Christian perspectives during what was a momentous time in American history. Despite his present day agenda, to Loconte’s great credit the introductions to the various writings are models of objective description that do a nice job of putting the articles in historical perspective.

“Part I: The Peacemakers” contains articles from seven pacifist authors making the case for the US remaining neutral in the European war, a case presented in explicitly Christian pacifist terms. These articles make it clear that their writers were not isolationists (a much more widespread and influential party in the wider American debate, but unrepresented in this collection) but rather internationalists, even interventionists of a non-military sort. The intervention they advocated, though, was not one seeking to aid a military victory but rather seeking to further humanitarian ends for all affected by the war.

It is also clear that the “peacemakers” definitely understood that Nazi Germany was perpetrating great evil in the world; they did not place the Nazis and the British on the same moral level. Several hint at a hope that the Allies would win the war. But they all fear that the outcome of the war would echo the outcome of World War I—only continuing the cycle of violence. So they advocate efforts to break that cycle. They didn’t really have much to offer in concrete terms, however.

Probably the greatest weakness in the pacifists’ arguments was their inability to separate the moral responsibility people of good will had to challenge evil and seek peace from the possible actions of nation-states. That is, they address all their “advice” to the US government and offer little in the way of specific guidance for those with pacifist convictions in the face of possible decisions by their governments to join the war. We are left with a sense that the main moral discernment that matters is that of public policy makers alone.

“Part II: The Prophets,” in turn, also has seven writers contributing articles advocating direct support for military engagement with Nazi Germany. This section includes several writings from theological giants Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth (Barth’s “letters” to French Protestants and to Great Britain were new to me and of great interest in revealing his pro-war sentiments)—and also contributions from the great social thinker Lewis Mumford.

These writings are characterized by great passion, strong certainty concerning the moral imperative of armed conflict in response to the Nazi threat, and dire warnings of complete disaster should Great Britain fall to the Nazis. The term “prophets” probably is meant to have the connotation of predictive insight and maybe even divine inspiration. Certainly the events that ensued during the next several years culminating in the unconditional surrender of the Nazis meant that the “prophets” won the debate and their perspective became conventional wisdom in the West.

A couple of questions came up for me, though, in reading the pieces from the military advocates. Were they not guilty of unhelpful fear-mongering in their characterization of what was at stake in the German/British conflict? It seems highly doubtful that their scenario of German total conquest was ever a possibility. Hitler only reluctantly entered into war with Britain (it was actually the British and French who declared war on Germany following the latter’s invasion of Poland), and he seemed always ready to come to some kind of accommodation with the British that would actually allow Britain considerable self-determination and even continued control of the Empire. This was certainly not a desirable outcome for Britain—or for anyone who valued democracy over totalitarianism. And it would not have been a stable outcome, with future conflict with the US highly likely. But it seems scarcely to have been the case, as presented in these articles, that should Britain fall Germany would simply run roughshod and exercise complete over dominance over most of the world with fortress America facing a hopeless future.

And this leads to a second question—where is the Soviet Union in this book? It’s simply never mentioned. I’m not sure what to make of this. Does the silence on the Soviet Union reflect Loconte’s agenda of selection because to add the Soviets to the mix would unhelpfully complicate the straightforward narrative of Allies:good vs. Axis:evil and thereby lessen the applicability of that story to our present story of US:good vs. Terrorists:evil? Or, is it more simply a fact that all the “prophets” thought simply in terms of Germany vs. Great Britain as the locus of concern in this war for the ages?

Regardless, to leave out the Soviet Union of any kind of accounting of World War II in Europe and the moral lessons to be discerned from those events is greatly to distort the story and also whatever lessons one hopes to draw from it. In fact, the Nazis’ agenda always had at its heart the destruction of the Soviet Union. Hitler turned to the West after invading Poland mainly as a tactic to lull the Soviets into complacency before springing his surprise attack to the East—an attack that did nearly succeed (but if it had, it would have been at a devastating cost to the Nazis that would have made them unable to turn around again and conquer the US). In the end, 75% of German casualties came on the Eastern Front. The Nazis were defeated most of all by the Soviets.

And, in terms of a moral reckoning of World War II, what do we make of the reality that in opposing Nazi tyranny in the name of “Western civilization” (a term highly favored by the “prophets”) we linked so closely with Soviet tyranny?

It is also interesting to note that the major figures among Loconte’s “prophets” were all people of the Left (e.g., Niebuhr, Barth, Mumford, John Bennett). Those who survived into the 1960s all were outspoken in their opposition to the US war on Vietnam. It is impossible to imagine any of these thinkers not turning in their graves to be drawn on by Loconte as allies in the current endless “war on terrorism.”

Where this collection sheds some of its most telling light is at a point totally missed by Loconte. To a large degree, what we have here is an authentic debate. Even if the weight of the pacifist voices are greatly exaggerated by linking them with the quite different impulses of America-first isolationists who were anything but pacifists, nonetheless, people such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Charles Clayton Morrison, and John Haynes Holmes played a prominent role in the public debate.

We can move forward nearly thirty years to the late 1960s and the debate about American involvement in Vietnam. Probably the only comparable voice in the public debate at that time that articulated a Christian pacifist perspective was Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s perspective was significantly more sophisticated than the pre-World War II pacifists both in its analysis of the issues related to the war and in its grounding in his vindication of the truthfulness of pacifism in his own public life. Nonetheless, his public stance met mostly with scorn and hostility. By 1967, the US was no longer capable of allowing pacifism to play a role in public debate.

In a little more than thirty years later, in the run up to America’s invasion of Iraq, we had no voices at all in the public debate overtly arguing from a pacifist perspective. Even those arguing against the war framed their case pretty much exclusively in pragmatic, just-war terms, seemingly assuming that appealing to pacifist sentiments would be a non-starter.

So, The End of Illusions, probably ironically given Loconte’s agenda, actually witnesses to a time when pacifism could be part of the public discussion in our society. If it could have been once, perhaps it could be again.

Our big question, then, is to understand what has changed since 1939-41. The main factors, I’d suggest, are (1) the mythology of World War II as proof of the moral efficacy of war and (2) the creation in our culture of overwhelmingly powerful institutions whose reasons for existence are war and militarism.

When President Franklin Roosevelt worked to make the case for American military intervention in what became World War II he could not draw upon the power and authority of the Pentagon because it did not yet exist. He did not have the Central Intelligence Agency to create and spin pro-war propaganda because it did not yet exist. He did not have a corporate mass media owned by major military contractors. He did not have a military-industrial complex that made immense profits from preparation for and execution of war. These entities emerged only during World War II or as a direct outcome of that war.

That is, FDR and his supporters in the quest for military intervention faced the challenge of making their case more on its own merits. So, in amazing contrast to our recent history, you had what was surely the strongest case ever in our country for a morally justifiable military intervention struggling to win the day. Only the direct attack on the American military base in its Hawaiian colony by Japan followed immediately by Germany’s declaration of war on the US overcome the extreme reluctance of the American people to enter this war.

With the success of the American war effort and the emergence and high prestige of the institutions of permanent militarism, the American government would never find itself in such a state again. So, though there was debate about the Vietnam War and about the invasion of Iraq, these actually had very little influence on the American government’s (disastrous) commitment to military intervention.

This book is strange in the sense that Loconte’s fears about the nefarious influence of Christian pacifism on the execution of the “war on terrorism” seem completely unfounded. And the parallels between now and the lead-up to World War II are non-existent. However, in a delicious irony, these writings can serve as an inspiration for present-day pacifists to intensify our efforts to challenge the forces of militarism. The militarists’ case in 1939-41 was not persuasive—and without a doubt the case in favor of American military intervention has in the years since never come close to being as persuasive as it was then.

One thought on “Learning from the 1940 Debate about War?

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews « Peace Theology

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