A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.6

[Presented as Keeney Peace Lecture, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, October 25, 2011]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and kills everyone, around 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, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight 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 war as necessary as well.

Because World War II was—and is—so big and devastating and epoch shaping, it is a theological issue. But we aren’t getting a lot of theological reflection on it. I am just completing the first phase of a long-term project on responding theologically to this war.

I have not yet actually begun to address one big type of question—what does World War II tell us about God? Where do we see God in this oh-so-big event—and what about the ways in which we don’t see God?

I have begun with another type of question—stated a bit facetiously: What does God tell us about World War II? But I haven’t really gotten to the “God” part. That will be step two, to reflect on this war and its long shadow in light of my explicitly Christian and explicitly pacifist convictions.

Moral values that justified World War II

Step one, though, is to ask the question more in terms of general and, we could say, public, convictions. What do key stated moral values in the United Stated say about World War II? Let’s start with this more general moral theology, which, I believe, gives us enough substance to begin a critical evaluation that could speak to many Americans.

The key moral values were stated famously on two occasions during 1941 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. These statements were circulated widely and provide us with stable moral criteria for our reflections on the moral legacy of World War II.

In his January 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt outlined his famous “Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear, the freedoms, he said, “we seek to make secure…everywhere in the world.” Then in August, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill drew up the Atlantic Charter. This agreement articulated what came to be the Allies’ war aims after the U.S. entered the war in December. The key goals were “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and that the nations of the world would disarm once “a wider and permanent system of general security” would be established.

So, these are the moral criteria for evaluating the war—did it lead to increased freedom everywhere in the world, to political self-determination, and to disarmament?

I will address five questions concerning World War II’s moral legacy:

(1) Was the American involvement in World War II necessary? Did it have just causes? (2) Were the means Americans used to fight this war just? (3) What were the costs of this war? (4) What was the aftermath of the War? How did it impact, for example, American foreign policy and attitudes toward war and peace? (5) Have there been alternatives to achieve freedom and self-determination apart from such violence?

Was the cause just?

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 were German atrocities actually why America entered the War? Did opposition to German abominations determine American strategy during the War? These are important and complicated questions.

In present-day conversations, Americans tend to give three main reasons 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!” (2) To further democracy in the face of global tyranny and totalitarianism. (3) To save the Jews from the Nazis. What about these reasons?

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 in negotiating 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 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 Americans had no interest in that kind of coexistence and actively opposed their actions.

But wasn’t the U.S. then wanting to back democracy against totalitarianism? Wasn’t that why America aided the British against the Germans and the Chinese against the Japanese? This is a complicated question. Certainly, most Americans supported 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, the U.S. made common cause with the Soviet Union. Stalin’s empire was about as far from democracy as any major nation has ever been. The American fight against Germany furthered the reach of Soviet totalitarianism. As well, defeating the Japanese 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 the U.S. involvement in World War II was not about protecting the country from invasion, not about furthering democracy in face of totalitarianism, not about rescuing Jews—was it really necessary? Why did the U.S. fight? This is a simplistic and brief answer, but let me suggest four main reasons: (1) The conflict of American imperialism with Japanese imperialism over dominance of the Far East, especially China. (2) The strong alliance the U.S. had with Britain and its non-democratic global empire. (3) Concerns on the part of American corporations that the Germans were proving after all to be a threat to their interests. (4) The growing awareness that a war would be highly economically profitable, as it proved to be beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. None of these reasons would pass muster with just war philosophy.

Were the means 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. By the summer of 1943, new American leaders 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 “unfortified” city that was full of war refugees.

In the cases of both Hamburg and Dresden, Allied awareness of jus ad bellum criteria led to 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 they attacked the Japanese mainland early in 1945. The first and most destructive attack was on Tokyo, March 9. The U.S. dropped 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, the U.S. 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. Is any war requiring war crimes ever “necessary.”…

What were the costs of the War?

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. It’s too easy to say, hey, we won, so it was worth it. An approach based on moral criteria has actually to weigh the costs before determining “it was worth it.”

We may start with the number of deaths. Of the major belligerents in the War, the United States suffered by far the fewest. Even so, over 400,000 Americans 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). Perhaps 80 million died in all.

On top of the direct deaths, we must note the tens of millions of people injured, driven from their homes, and who suffered disease or hunger. Plus 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 high percentage of deaths 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. Was the alleged good that resulted from this war possibly worth their deaths? How would this be answered from God’s perspective?

Let me very briefly touch on three other costs of this war. The Holocaust was 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.” Bergen’s assertion cannot be proved—but she reminds us that violent means generally tend to increase the situation’s violence.

Then there was the spread of Communist totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia. We cannot imagine the creation of the Warsaw Pact and the “Iron Curtain” except for World War II. The U.S. 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 the war’s impact on American democracy. President Roosevelt, in his quest to move the country in the direction he desired, often ignored the will of the people and their congressional leaders. He subverted democracy, engaging ever more in clandestine behavior and public misrepresentation of the facts.

Americans, prior to World War II, 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, American military leaders desired to leave behind the limits to military power that characterized the U.S. in the 1930s. Due to key unilateral presidential actions that did not pass 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 of militarism was the nuclear weapons program. It absorbed enormous amounts of resources—all hidden from Congressional scrutiny. This program was so top secret that Vice President Harry Truman knew nothing of it until after Roosevelt’s death and he ascended to the presidency. Truman then made his secret decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan with no input from Congress. The decisions to expand the American nuclear arsenal and to share nuclear capabilities with various countries have all been made outside of democratic processes.

In the late 1930s, the U.S. had a relatively small military. 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 forever.

The War’s long shadow

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. We may call this legacy the War’s “long shadow”.

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

The U.S. 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 America treat its nuclear capability as a kind of global trust. The U.S. should ask the Soviets and the British to join them and have joint stewardship over this new mega-weapon. In the end, those who wanted to expand the American nuclear arsenal and retain their 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. The country always needs 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 America 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 65 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 ever—the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. expanded its 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 the U.S. out.

The 1970s and 1980s saw massive American-generated violence in the Western Hemisphere, from the CIA-engineered coup in Chile to the U.S.-sponsored Contra War in Nicaragua; all justified by Truman Doctrine logic.

However, in the late 1980s, came an unexpected turn. Due in large part to the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union more or less unilaterally withdrew from the Cold War. Though it wasn’t Gorbachev’s initial intention, he actually in the end presided over the peaceful dismemberment of the Soviet empire.

With Gorbachev taking the Soviets out of the Cold War, the U.S. emerged again as the world’s one superpower. As in 1945, the U.S. 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 1990. 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 1990, 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. But Saddam’s move presented the war forces with an opportunity not to be missed. Early in 1991 the Gulf War erupted, resulting in a great victory for the U.S. military—especially in reversing the movement toward disarmament.

Ten years later, the attacks of September 11, 2001 provided more opportunities 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 U.S. 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….

Reflecting theologically on the War

I suggest the most elementary step in a theological response to World War II is to say we apply stable or objective values in assessing that event. We assume that these values apply to our side as well as the other actors. When we do this, we come up with a result that is disconcerting for Americans. The war effort violated the Americans’ stated values and aims, and it violated the generally accepted values of the just war tradition—not only the values of pacifists.

The U.S. war effort transformed the nation—and made the stated war aims of political self-determination and disarmament “everywhere in the world” impossible to attain. To come to such a conclusion is not about passing judgment on the past. What is done is done. But it challenges today’s assumptions that this was a just or necessary war that in some powerful sense validates our present wars and preparations for war.

Still, if we reflect theologically on its World War II’s damaging legacy, probably our key step will be to challenge negative fatalism. We do not live in a closed, iron-cage like universe. So, as we look at World War II, we ask for signs of life.

It’s true, the story 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 briefly to mention a theme that counters the fatalism and despair of this story. This is a counter-narrative, an alternative story to the story of American militarization that exists side-by-side with it over the past seventy years. 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

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 the 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 works of service to address 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.

In conclusion, let me mention 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.

[Master list of Peace Essays]

2 thoughts on “A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II

  1. Aaron Carine

    I don’t think it is honest to cite the huge number of deaths in Europe as evidence of the war’s immorality. The war in Europe saved lives. Despite the claims of Nicholson Baker, I don’t think the extermination of the Jews and Gypsies wouldn’t have occurred if Hitler’s opponents had surrendered. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union Himmler said that he was going to kill thirty million Slavs. In 1942 he talked about killing the entire population of the Soviet Union. IMO, it would be rash to assume he was only doing this because people were resisting. It had to do with Nazi racial ideology. Your estimate of twenty million Chinese dead in the war is higher than any other I have heard. The deaths in the Dutch East Indies occurred because of Japanese colonial policies, not because the Allies were fighting Japan. The famine in Vietnam was caused by flooding, Japanese requisition of rice, and French and Japanese agrarian policy. It isn’t likely that things would have gone differently if there had been no war. Wikipedia says that 87,000 Indian soldiers died in the war, so I assume your figure of 2.6 million includes the deaths in the Bengal famine. As with Indonesia and Vietnam, I think it is unlikely that Bengal would have been spared famine if the Japanese had allowed to conquer the country. You say that the war didn’t bring democracy everywhere. But the postwar world was more democratic than it would have been if the Axis had won. Also, it wasn’t just about democracy, it was about countries being free of colonial rule. Most of Asia gained its independence, and those European countries that weren’t occupied by the Soviet Union enjoyed an independence that the Germans would have denied them.


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