The Good That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. By Ted Grimsrud. Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2014. Pp. 286. $33.
Reviewed by James C. Juhnke, Bethel College, Kan.
Published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review 89.3 (July 2015) 501-3.
Nearly all Americans believe that World War II was a good war—U.S. engagement in the conflict was justified in intent and positive in results. In discussions about the justifiability of warfare, World War II has been the anti-pacifists’ trump card. Ted Grimsrud, a professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University, challenges the prevailing image of World War II. He introduces himself as the son of a military family who became a thoughtful pacifist during the Vietnam War. Hid Ph.D. thesis (1988) was titled, “An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious Objection to World War II.” The Good War That Wasn’t extends and summarizes his argument for the ongoing conversation about the moral significance of World War II and its relevance to our current situation.
Grimsrud writes as an ethicist as much as an historian. He begins with an introduction to the myth of redemptive violence in American history. The three major parts of the book deal with the origins, conduct, and costs of World War II; the aftermath of the war through and beyond the “Cold War” era; and alternative ways of thinking and acting that might help avoid another total world war in the future.
To evaluate the justice of World War II, Grimsrud uses as his touchstone the moral statements made in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech of January 1941 and in the institutional agreement of Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August 1941 known as the Atlantic Charter. Did America actually go to war on behalf of human freedom? Did the victorious Allies after the war pursue the goals of  military disarmament and self-determination of peoples? Grimsrud argues that the United States and her allies fell far short of their high moral goals.
Contrary to the beliefs of most Americans today, the United States did not go to war against Germany because of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. The liberation of the Nazi death camps was an unintended byproduct of the war. The claim of American propaganda that the war was simple opposition to tyranny was contradicted by the United States’ alliance with dictatorial regimes in the Soviet Union and in Nationalist China.
Grimsrud argues that moral considerations played no role in the conduct of the war. Before the war, President Roosevelt condemned indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, but during the war the United States undertook the most destructive bombing of civilian targets in human history. Roosevelt’s insistence on the goal of unconditional surrender lengthened the war in both Europe and in Asia. In Europe a million more Soviet soldiers died than necessary. In Asia the Japanese government signaled its willingness to accept conditional surrender well before the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan would have surrendered if they had been assured that they could keep their emperor—a condition that the United States granted after the war.
The obvious costs of World War II include the deaths of up to eighty million people and the dislocation of millions more. Relevant to the goal of democracy was the fact that Nazi defeat was a great victory for totalitarian Communism. The subjection of eastern European nations to Soviet Russia contradicted the goal of self-determination of peoples, as did the allied postwar willingness to allow Western European countries to reestablish control over their overseas colonies. France’s failed attempt to recolonize Vietnam ultimately led the United States to its own futile war in Southeast Asia.
Unlike the postwar demobilization that followed earlier American wars, after World War II the United States adopted the role of a world superpower with military bases around the globe. A nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union wasted billions of dollars, created a powerful and secretive Central Intelligence Agency, and resulted in a military-industrial complex with unprecedented economic and political power. The United States established Cold War alliances with authoritarian regimes if they were anti-Communist, and subverted democratic governments that allegedly threatened the interests of American capitalism.
Grimsrud’s coverage of these events is necessarily brief. Some readers might wish for more direct engagement with the arguments of prominent scholars such as John Lewis Gaddis, who celebrated American “victory” in The Cold War: A New History (2005). Gaddis argued that the Cold War made major wars between major states anachronistic while discrediting Communist dictatorships and radically increasing the number of democratic states.
Grimsrud’s book as a “presentist” character. Although the author covers the flawed intentions, conduct, and outcomes of World War II, his primary concern is that humanity find ways to resolve conflicts without warfare in the twenty-first century. In the third section of his book, which is somewhat less well organized than the first two sections, he explores “Alternatives” to war, looking  at the American pacifists who said “No” to war. He gives special attention to the historic peace churches and the Civilian Public Service program. He finds hope for the future in the nonviolent civil rights movement, in public protests against the development of nuclear weapons, in the Catholic Worker movement, and in the proposals of scholars such as Jonathan Schell, in The Unconquerable World (2003).
Could the disastrous march of warfare in the twentieth century have been avoided? Grimsrud does not engage in extensive counterfactual explorations. In a concluding section he briefly suggests alternative policies that might have been pursued. These include such suggestions as “Don’t Enter World War I,” “Cultivate a Positive Relationship with Japan,” “Don’t Begin the Manhattan Project,” and “Don’t Insist on Unconditional Surrender” (253-258). To imagine an alternative future without warfare, it is helpful to explore how warfare realistically might have been avoided in the past.
The conversation between pacifists and nonpacifists about World War II and its consequences has many dimensions and needs to be continued at many levels. Grimsrud deals with World War II from an American national perspective. Another task, even more daunting, would be to explore the justification of war from the viewpoint of the other countries that were involved. The nonviolent reinterpretation of World War II requires a reassessment of the historical course of worldwide international relationships. That agenda is beyond the purposes of The Good War That Wasn’t. It is sufficient that Grimsrud has written a provocative book about World War II’s moral legacy that challenges the dominant American viewpoint.
This would be a good book for Sunday school or other small group discussions. Grimsrud takes at least some of the alleged trump cards out of the hands of the defenders of World War II.