The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy

Ted Grimsrud—EMU University Colloquium—9/29/10

[During the 2010-11 school year, I am taking a sabbatical and working on a book project on the topic covered in this lecture. This is kind of a preliminary report. I hope to post drafts of the chapters of the book on this website as I get them ready. Comments are coveted!]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into Harrisonburg and kills 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was—40,000 people killed every single day for five years.

But World War II wasn’t a natural catastrophe—it was something human beings did to each other. These 75 million people didn’t just die due to impersonal nature run amok. They were killed by other people. World War II was an intensely moral event. Human choices. Human values. Human actions.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just one example. In Barak Obama’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, just last December, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight our war in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as one key rationale. That war was obviously a necessary war, our nation’s “good war,” and it helps us see our current wars as necessary as well.

So, to come to terms with our moral stance concerning our present wars (and all wars require a moral stance of one kind or another), we need to come to terms with the moral legacy of the big war, World War II, the one that stands, in this country, as the paradigm for war’s necessity. This is my focus during this sabbatical year.

As I work on this project, I reflect on this war’s impact on my own life. World War II brought my parents together. My father, Carl, grew up in Minnesota. My mother, Betty, in Oregon. In early 1941, Carl enlisted in the Army and was first stationed in eastern Oregon. He met Betty, they fell in love, and promised to join together as soon as the War was over. This is their wedding picture. Carl fought with distinction for three years in the Pacific war, was promoted to captain, and actually asked by the army to stay in. But he’d had enough of guns and wanted to build a life with Betty, who had spent the war years also in the army as a recruiter.

They started having kids right away, ultimately contributing five to the baby boom generation. It took until 1954 to come up with a boy. Betty wanted to name him Carl III, but Carl said no, I want to name him Ted, after my best friend who was killed in combat.

I didn’t hear a lot about “the War” growing up; it was always in the background though, as something important and good that my parents had played their part in. The one conversation I remember came when I was 17. My dad urged me to apply to attend one of the military academies. He said his military service was a terrific experience and he thought I’d value it too. I didn’t agree, and he didn’t press the point.

A few years later, I came to clarity about my moral views on war, and affirmed a pacifist stance. This brought a new angle for me in thinking about World War II. I have heard hundreds of times over the past 35 years that this “good war” shows why pacifism is naïve and how war can be necessary, even good. When it came time for me to decide on a Ph.D. dissertation topic, I thought about World War II. My dad had recently died, and I realized his generation was passing away. So I decided to try to honor those who had said “no” and wrote on conscientious objectors to World War II.

So this topic has always been kind of lingering in my consciousness . And I have decided I want to work more self-consciously at figuring it out. Which is like trying to figure out the stars. You can learn more, and you can come to terms with your own beliefs—but you’ll never truly figure them out. But I am trying….I’ll offer some preliminary thoughts now, with a lot more to come this next year.

I have five questions that I want to speak to concerning World War II’s moral legacy. I raise these as an American, most interested in the War’s present meaning:
(1) Was our involvement in World War II necessary? Were there just causes?
(2) Were the means we used to fight this war just?
(3) What were our costs in fighting this war?
(4) What was the aftermath of the War? How did it impact our nation, especially our foreign policy and attitudes toward war and peace?
(5) Were and are there alternative stories, alternatives to seeing this war as necessary and as justifying wars since 1945?

Was the war necessary?

In traditional moral reasoning concerning warfare, two central categories shape the discussion. Were the causes just (in Latin, the jus ad bellum—just entry into war)? And were the means just (the jus in bello—just actions in war). When we ask, was this war necessary, we ask the first question, about just cause.

Many people insist that it is simply a no-brainer. These are the words of historian Eric Bergerud: “I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would claim to discover moral ambiguity in World War II….Machiavelli…was quite right when describing a necessary war as a just war. If World War II was not necessary, no war has been.”

Others do believe there is moral complexity but conclude that the war was necessary, all things considered. Another historian, Kenneth Rose, expresses it this way: “World War II was the greatest disaster in human history, but was this a just war that Americans had to fight despite its appalling price?” Well, yes, Rose concludes. Because the Germans were perpetuating “an abomination on the human species….The dire consequences of a German victory don’t make this war ‘good,’ but they do make it just, and necessary.” For Rose, indeed this war was necessary because of what we learned about what the Nazis did. But is that actually why we entered the War? Did it determine our tactics during the War? These are important and complicated questions.

I know of three main reasons people give for this war’s necessity. (1) To maintain our national autonomy. “If it wasn’t for this war, we’d all be speaking German now!” (When I was in grad school, I would have loved to have grown up speaking German). (2) To protect democracy in the face of global tyranny and totalitarianism. (3) To save the Jews from the Nazis. Do these points fit the evidence? I am not convinced they are.

Neither Germany nor Japan appear actually to have intended to invade and conquer the U. S. Crazy both nations may have been, but their leaders all knew such an invasion would be impossible. The incredible logistical challenge faced by the Allies in invading France in 1944 where they had to negotiate only a few miles across the English Channel show that invading the U. S. across vast oceans simply couldn’t have been done.

Plus, neither Germany or Japan seem to have wanted to conquer the U. S., in any case. Both wanted to dominate their own regions, not the entire world. They desired some sort of coexistence with the U.S.—and decided war was necessary when we had no interest in that kind of coexistence and actively opposed their actions.

But weren’t we then mostly wanting to back democracy against totalitarianism? Wasn’t that why we aided the British against the Germans and the Chinese against the Japanese? This is a complicated question. Certainly, most Americans supported global democracy. But in terms of U.S. foreign policy, the picture is ambiguous. China under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek was an authoritarian dictatorship. Britain was a democracy—internally, but also ruthlessly ruled over a global empire that, at least for its non-white subjects, utterly resisted ideals of genuine self-determination.

And, during the war, we made common cause with the Soviet Union. Stalin’s empire was about as far from democracy as any major nation has ever been. Our fight against Germany actually furthered the reach of Soviet totalitarianism. As well, in defeating the Japanese we helped open the path for a Communist takeover in China.

Then there is the fate of Poland. In the 1930s, Poland was a military dictatorship. Britain allied with Poland against Germany for reasons of realpolitik, not out of a quest for democracy. Germany invading Poland trip-wired World War II and caused Britain to declare war on Germany. This war utterly devastated Poland. It led directly to 20% of the Polish population being killed. When the war ended, the Western Allies acquiesced to the annexation of Poland into the Soviet Empire and the imposition of a totalitarian Communist government. Poland was on the “winning side”—and was crushed.

What about saving the Jews? This is also complicated. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander in Europe said, on the site of a newly liberated concentration camp at the end of the war, “This is why we were fighting.” But in fact, Eisenhower’s own policies during the War ignored the fate of the Jews in the Nazi death camps, even though the Allies’ leaders knew from early on at least some of what was happening. Nothing was done to stop the holocaust as it was happening.

The Allies’ position was that the best hope for the Jews was to end the war in decisive victory as soon as possible—and only then turn to liberating the camps. In fact, though, by insisting on “unconditional surrender,” the Allies prolonged the war for many months, during which time the Nazis desperately accelerated the killing.

So, if our involvement in World War II was not about protecting ourselves from invasion, not about furthering democracy in face of totalitarianism, not about rescuing Jews—was it really necessary? Why did we fight? Maybe by this time next year, I’ll have a definitive answer to these questions. I don’t yet. I suspect that the answer will have a lot to do with American interests in being the world’s dominant power.

Were the tactics just?

Now to my second question. Were the means just? Is a “necessary war” just regardless of the tactics? The moral tradition of thinking about warfare has insisted that necessity alone does not make a war just. Two key criteria in particular measure the justifiability of tactics in warfare: the criterion of proportionality (that the damage done by the tactics does not outweigh the good accomplished by their implementation) and the criterion of noncombatant immunity (wars should not be waged on civilian populations).

American military people were aware of these moral criteria concerning the waging of war. At the beginning of the European war, President Roosevelt broadcast to Western Europe a call for the belligerents not to target civilians. He feared “hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities” would be killed. Let the belligerents “determine that [their] armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”

By early 1942, the U.S. joined the European air war. The British were intentionally bombing population centers, and the Americans argued instead for focusing on military objects. For several of the American leaders, moral considerations played a central role—you simply don’t directly target noncombatants.

However, by the summer of 1943, new American leaders were in place who were more open to civilian bombing. The British created a list of German cities to be smashed, beginning with Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg. In July, for the first time, air attackers intentionally created a firestorm that incinerated everything in its path—including tens of thousands of old people, children, and other non-combatants.

The second intentional firestorm was loosed on Dresden early in 1945—an attack immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut, a prisoner of war, witnessed the destruction of this undefended, “unfortified,” city that was full of war refugees.

In the cases of both Hamburg and Dresden, Allied awareness of jus ad bellum criteria was seen in attempts to present the attacks as having military purposes. However, with Hamburg, which was a center for war manufacturing, the attacks actually focused on the city center. As an ironic consequence, survivors of the bombing, deprived of their normal livelihoods due to the destruction of the central city, flocked to the suburban weapons plants for work, alleviating what had up to that time been a chronic labor shortage in those plants. So, the bombing actually assisted the German war effort.

With Dresden, the only possible military-related significance of the city was its role as a transportation center. Again, the actual focus of the bombing mostly ignored the railroads. Within three days, Dresden’s transportation facilities were back in full swing and in fact large numbers of German troops and supplies passed through the city not long afterward on their way to battle to the east.

Whatever reluctance Americans had for targeting civilians was gone by the time the we attacked the Japanese mainland early in 1945. The first and most destructive attack was on Tokyo, March 9. We dropped nearly 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs. They burned Tokyo’s most densely populated districts to the ground in a ferocious firestorm that killed more than 85,000 people. Over the next five months, the Americans pursued a city-bombing campaign across Japan. Up to 900,000 people were killed and maybe 20 million rendered homeless. “The principal cause of civilian deaths,’ says the postwar US Bombing Survey, “was burns.” The commander for this campaign was General Curtis LeMay. This is what he had to say about the campaign: With our attacks, hundreds of thousands of people were “scorched and boiled and baked to death.”

It was only one more step to the attacks that obliterated any pretense of operating according to moral criteria in war tactics—the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Debate continues about the military necessity of those bombs. Regardless of its military necessity, these weapons brought immediate death to tens of thousands of noncombatants and brought lingering death to tens of thousands more in the months to come, and poisoned the genetic legacy of most who were exposed to that radiation. Their use clearly violated the jus in bello criteria.

Not only do we see during the years of World War II steady accommodation to tactics that drastically violated the criteria of proportion and noncombatant immunity, the use of these tactics had a major impact on the practice of warfare for the United States in the years following. I’ll offer just one example. During the entire course of World War II, with the kind of devastating consequences I have alluded to, the United States and Britain dropped about 3.4 million tons of bombs on Germany and Japan. Twenty years later, during the Vietnam War, we dropped 6.7 million tons of bombs on Indochina.

British philosopher A.C. Grayling’s careful consideration of the evidence in his book Among the Dead Cities concludes that the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II constituted a war crime. Former American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who worked during World War II analyzing targets for the American air war, stated not long before his death that the firebombing of Tokyo was also a war crime.

After World War II, the Allies conducted war crimes trials and executed several German and Japanese war leaders. Part of the rationale for those executions was the assertion that no war requiring war crimes is ever “necessary.”…

What were the costs of this war?

Actually determining the “cost” of World War II is, of course, an impossible task. However, if we are to conclude that the good the war achieved in some genuine sense surpasses its cost, we must have some sense of what that cost was.

We may start with the number of deaths. Of all the major belligerents in the War, the United States suffered by far the fewest. Even so, over 400,000 American soldiers died. Great Britain lost about 450,000 (proportionately about three times more than the U.S.) and the Soviet Union perhaps as many as 26 million (65 times more than we did). Of the Axis powers, Germany lost as many as 10 million lives and Japan close to 3 million.

Some of the nations caught in the crossfire sustained casualties greater than most of the belligerents—most notably Poland (5.8 million), China (20 million), the Philippines and Yugoslovia (1 million each), French Indochina [Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos] (1.5 million), India (2.6 million), and the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] (4 million).

We have no way of knowing the total deaths caused by this war, especially when we factor in famine and disease that were direct consequences of the War. Estimates now run upwards to 78 million. On top of the direct deaths, we should also factor in the tens of millions of people who were injured, driven from their homes, suffered disease or severe hunger. Not to mention the incalculable weight of grief and other emotional traumas. On top of the human casualties, we must also note the deaths of domestic and wild animals plus the immense damage done to the physical environment. I am aware of no estimates of these costs.

One notable fact about the death toll of World War II is the astounding number of non-fighting civilians who lost their lives. Eighty percent of the deaths caused by the War were noncombatants. Perhaps one reason Americans can call this a “good war” is that only 1,700 American noncombatants were killed. A second notable fact about the death toll is the high percentage of deaths that came to people who lived in nations who were not partisans in the conflict. For example, the number of British, American, and Japanese war deaths combined were fewer the war deaths suffered by Indonesians. India suffered six times the deaths that Great Britain did.

Let me very briefly touch on three other kinds of cost from this war. I have already mentioned the Holocaust—an atrocity totally to be lain at the murderous feet of the Nazis. However, the war itself made the Holocaust possible. This is the conclusion of Holocaust historian Doris Bergen: “War…exponentially increased the numbers and kinds of victims….War provided killers with both a cover and an excuse for murder; in wartime, killing was normalized, and extreme, even genocidal measures could be justified with familiar arguments about the need to defend the homeland. Without the war, the Holocaust would not—and could not—have happened.”

I have also alluded to another cost of the war—the spread of Communist totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia. We cannot imagine how the creation of the Warsaw Pact and the “Iron Curtain” could have happened except for World War II. The United States supposedly went to war for the sake of democracy and disarmament. As far as Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia were concerned, in relation to these purposes, the War was an abject failure.

Another cost may be seen in its impact on American democracy. President Roosevelt saw his role being to figure out what the best course of action was and then to move the country in that direction. He didn’t worry about contravening the will of the people and their congressional leaders, or willingly subverting democracy and engaging in ever increasing clandestine behavior and public misrepresentation of the facts.

In American history prior to World War II, we would enter a war, mobilize, and then at war’s end demobilize and return to a civilian-centered, more democratic political economy. Not this time. Directly linked with Roosevelt’s desire for more unhindered power we may see American military leaders also seeking unhindered power. As a consequences of key moves—mostly taken by unilateral presidential actions without passing through the legislative process and without informing the public—the United States moved seemingly irrevocably from a democracy to a “national security state.”

A key step was the construction of the Pentagon, which expanded to become the true center of power in the U.S. government. The centralization and tremendous expansion of military power in the United States were central costs of the War.

Another key structure was the nuclear weapons program. It absorbed enormous amounts of resources—all hidden from Congressional scrutiny. To indicate how top secret this program was, Vice President Harry Truman himself knew nothing of it until after Roosevelt’s death and Truman ascended to the presidency. Truman’s decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan was made in complete secrecy with no input from Congress. The decisions to expand our nuclear arsenal and to share nuclear capabilities with various countries (including, most notably, Israel) have all been made outside of democratic processes—and have had a profound impact on our nation.

In the late 1930s, the U.S. had a relatively small military and the president felt constrained by the Constitution and democratic accountability to rely on a formal declaration of war by Congress before committing American forces to war. By the end of the War in 1945, both of these elements of American politics were gone and have not returned….

What was the aftermath of the war?

In understanding World War II’s moral legacy, we need to ask not only about the 1940s but also the long-term impact of that war, especially on how the U.S. has related to the rest of the world since 1945—that is, the War’s “long shadow”.

At the end of the War, we stood as the world’s dominant power economically and militarily. Our political system had unmatched prestige in the world. More than any other time in our history, we were in a position to move the world toward the ideals we based our war effort on—self-determination, disarmament, genuine democracy.

We also had a monopoly on the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen. In the months after August 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson advocated that we treat our nuclear capability as a kind of global trust. We should ask the Soviets and the British to join us and have joint stewardship over this new mega-weapon. In the end, those who wanted to expand our nuclear arsenal and retain our monopoly defeated this proposal. We can only imagine our world now if Stimson had carried the day.

Up until 1947, the U.S. had a War Department. This name implied a role that would to come into prominence only in the rare instances where America found itself at war. After 1947, it was the Defense Department, with ever-expanding prominence. We always need to pour major resources into defense. So, World War II bled into the Cold War, the Cold War bled into the War on Terror, never-ending war footing fueled by war-oriented agencies permanently expanded by World War II: the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, the nuclear weapons program.

In 1947, President Truman announced what came to be known as the “Truman Doctrine.” This doctrine locked us into an adversarial path in relating to the Soviet Union. It said, in effect: Anywhere in the world where Communism arises, it constitutes a direct threat to the security of the United States and must be met with force. This doctrine led to interventions against many peoples’ efforts at self-determination worldwide, since virtually all such efforts would be labeled “communist.” The past 60 years are a litany of one Truman Doctrine-inspired intervention after another.

Soon, the doctrine was invoked to justify massive military engagement in faraway Korea, in which about 4 million Koreans lost their lives; 75% of whom were non-combatants. Many military interventions were more covert—such as overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. Both interventions led to decades of violent, authoritarian, anti-democratic governments.

Another intervention begun in the 1950s ultimately became the greatest American foreign policy disaster in our history—our war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s, we expanded our military role. This war brought down both President Johnson and President Nixon. It resulted in 50,000 American deaths and millions of deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Finally in 1975, the Vietnamese drove us out.

In the late 1980s, a great-power leader emerged who genuinely understood the intense danger the U.S./Soviet arms race had placed the world in and purposed to do something about it. Mikhail Gorbachev stands as one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century. He played a key role in ending the Cold War, and, though this wasn’t his initial intention, presided over the peaceful dismemberment of the Soviet empire.

With Gorbachev taking the Soviets out of the arms race, the U.S. emerged as the world’s one superpower and, as we had in 1945, we stood in a position to exert immense influence in moving the world toward genuine peace. And, as in 1945, the actual choices of American policy makers moved the world in the opposite direction.

The moment that focused these choices came in the summer of 1991. Many hoped for the dawning of a new era. One symbol of this hope was the clock of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This clock, using minutes to the midnight of nuclear war, measured the world’s danger. When the clock was first created, in the late 1940s, it showed just six minutes until midnight. It got as close as two minutes. But in 1991, it showed seventeen minutes until midnight.

Even though the George H. W. Bush Administration supported militarism, they faced increasing pressure to draw down. And they seemed to relent. However, just days after major American military cuts were announced, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, who had operated for years with American support, invaded Kuwait. This problem could have been resolved diplomatically; Saddam was susceptible to American pressure. But his move presented the war forces with an opportunity not to be missed. Early in 1992 the Gulf War erupted, resulting in a great victory for the U.S. military—especially by reversing the movement toward disarmament.

Ten years later, the attacks of September 11, 2001 provided more opportunity for the forces of militarization to expand their power, to the point that about a year and a half later they could lead the U.S. into a war of naked aggression on Iraq.

So, back to the moral legacy of World War II. That war permanently enhanced American militarism. It led directly to the creation of new, extraordinarily powerful structures devoted to sustained dependence on force: the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons regime. Most recently, President Obama, elected as a peace candidate, has expanded military spending, even in face of huge budget deficits and a general economic crisis.

In a nutshell, we may characterize the impact of World War II on America’s way of being in the world this way: it powerfully pushed our policy-makers to view problems that arise in international affairs as problems to be solved mainly through the projection of force. Military might worked well in the 1940s—and that success seems to justify trying the same kind of approach over and over….

Is there an alternative story for postwar America?

Well, the story as I’m telling it thus far, it seems to me, evokes an image I learned from my friend, Andy Schmookler. This image is what Andy calls the parable of the tribes. Imagine several tribes living as neighbors. Then one tribe wants what another has and takes it by force. The attacked tribe has two options, both tragic: fight back and be like the attacking tribe or flee and allow the attacking tribe to get what it wants. In either case, violence wins. This initial attack, Andy says, sets off a dynamic in social evolution that leads to a continual victory for violence and force, and becomes the ever-expanding dynamic of human social life.

So, we have an ever-growing momentum toward un-freedom, increased coercion, movement toward the abyss. Well, I want to emphasize two themes in the concluding section of my book to counter the fatalism and despair this story seems to point towards. I believe that with this section, the book will make its best contribution—but for today I’ll make just the briefest comment. The first theme will be to give an account of a counter-narrative, an alternative story to the story of American militarization that exists side-by-side with it over the past seventy years. And the second will be to reflect more theologically on the meaning of this alternative story and to suggest that, while clearly the alternative story is tiny and marginal compared to the dominant story, it does provide a basis, when seen with eyes of faith, for possibilities for what visionary David Korten calls “the great turning.”

The alternative story has roots in World War II as well. It is, you could say, the minority report on the moral legacy of that war. Some 16 million Americans served in our military during this war—and about 18,000 formally refused to serve (that includes 12,000 who performed legally accepted alternative service and 6,000 who went to prison as draft resisters). So, for every potential soldier who said no to participation in this war, nearly one thousand said yes.

However, this tiny group of objectors provided the spark, provided inspiration, and certainly provided people power for the emergence of powerful efforts to construct a different kind of legacy than ever-expanding militarization and unending violence, a different vision of politics, a method of seeking self-determination and disarmament directly, rather than indirectly through the state’s coercive force. The key starting point that unites all who take part in the counter-narrative is simply to refuse to consent to the warring state—in the 1940s and ever since.

There were two distinct tendencies among most of the objectors: those with predominantly “servant tendencies” who focused more on addressing hurting people’s needs and those with “transformer tendencies” who focused more on social change. These tendencies may be seen in two different types of activity in the postwar years—though they complement each other and many have embodied elements of both. The transformer tendencies, for example, may be seen in direct action for social change such as civil rights and peace movements.

Examples of servant emphases may be seen in the relief, development, and witness efforts of several organizations that emerged from World War II primed for peace work in a severely damaged world. Three “servant” groups are the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Catholic Worker. Quite different from each other in many ways, they nonetheless share an emphasis on caring for people in need, a grounding in faith traditions and communities, and a desire to impact the surrounding world in ways that remain consistent with their core nonviolence-centered values.

These two peacemaking streams, the servants and the transformers, have contributed in major ways to the emergence of a tremendous amount of ferment around the world—the possibilities of people power, the world’s other superpower, the civil society movement, a force more powerful, world and local social forums. These movements have created possibilities for a different kind of story, a different kind of moral legacy that could yet emerge from the rubble of World War II.

Finally, theologically, I am thrown back to the book of Revelation. Chapter 13 gives us as vivid an image of the spiritual power behind World War II and the momentum towards the abyss as we could ask for: “A beast rising out of the sea” with heads, and horns, and crowns, the epitome of militarist violence. “Who is like the beast, and who can stand against it?” Indeed, as we look at the last seventy years of American foreign policy from the perspective of peace, we can’t help but join in this question. “All the inhabitants of the earth will worship it”—the power of the sword reigns supreme.

But Revelation then shows a counter-vision. “I looked, and there was the Lamb!” The imagery here is complicated, but I believe that we are being shown, standing with the Lamb, multitudes from all nations who trust in his way instead of the Beast’s. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, even in the face of the mighty power of the Beast. They are the ones who trust in “the force more powerful,” the force of love and compassion, of human solidarity and the rejection of weapons of war.

Those who said no to the “good war,” small as their number may have been, witnessed to this force more powerful. We see this force emerge even in the face of the seemingly all-powerful story of redemptive violence that is generally taken to be World War II’s moral legacy. This other moral legacy, one of genuine peace, can become history’s final verdict on those terrible events that marked the twentieth-century.

4 thoughts on “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy

  1. Pingback: Sit up and take notice! « the way of ignorance

  2. dale hess

    Ted, Howard Zinn in his book, People’s History of the United States, says: ‘It was not Hitler’s attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861. Italy’s attack on Ethiopia, Hitler’s invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland-none of those events caused the United States to enter the war, although Roosevelt did begin to give important aid to England. What brought the United States fully into the war was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane concern for Japan’s bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt’s outraged call for war-Japan’s attack on China in 1937, her bombing of civilians at Nan king, had not provoked the United States to war. It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it.
    So long as Japan remained a well-behaved member of that imperial club of Great Powers who-in keeping with the Open Door Policy- were sharing the exploitation of China, the United States did not object. It had exchanged notes with Japan in 1917 saving “the Government of the United States recognizes that Japan has special interests in China.” In 1928, according to Akira Iriye (After Imperialism,), American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese troops. It was when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States became alarmed and took those measures which led to the Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron, a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.
    As Bruce Russet says (No Clear and Present Danger): “Throughout the 1930s the United States government had done little to resist the Japanese advance on the Asian continent,” But: “The Southwest Pacific area was of undeniable economic importance to the United States-at the time most of America’s tin and rubber came from there, as did substantial quantities of other raw materials.” ‘


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s