The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (04. What the War cost)

[These are rough drafts of the chapters from a book I wrote about World War II and its moral legacy. Here are all my recent writings on World War II.]

4. What the War cost

Ted Grimsrud —12/31/10

Death and destruction

In the popular story in the United States about World War II, we hear almost exclusively about the positive elements of the War—how we totally defeated the Nazi and Japanese threats, how the United States finally became a committed member of the international community, how the American economy kicked into full gear and lead the way to this decisive victory for democracy and the American way of life.

We may question this story on three levels. First, directly in relation to the popular story—did the War actually accomplish these positive things in such an unambiguous way? Simply to mention one issue—we tend not to realize just how small a role the United States and Britain actually played in defeating Nazi Germany. At least three-quarters of all German casualties came at the hands of the Soviet Union. The Nazi defeat was, if anything, a victory for totalitarian Communism not democracy.

On a different level, what about the aftermath of the War? Have the fruits of the American victory in World War II been as positive as the popular story would have us think? Part Two of this book will provide evidence for questioning just how unambiguously positive the longer-term outcome of the War has been for the United States. Our victory pushed us in the direction of embracing a role of the world’s greatest superpower. That embrace has pretty clearly contradicted the stated purposes of our involvement in World War II—self-determination and disarmament everywhere in the world.

We also would do well to consider a kind of cost/benefit analysis. Certainly, World War II accomplished many positive outcomes. It was beneficial—both in terms of the negative task of defeating these powerful aggressor states, Japan and Germany, and in terms of the positive task of expanding the role of the world’s pioneer democratic society, the United States. And, for Americans themselves, the War was mostly a fairly positive experience. Our economy expanded tremendously, decisively bringing the Great Depression to an end. Masses of people were put to work, many of whom were able to enhance their social and economic status immensely. The war effort fed directly into the tremendous expansion of higher education, of membership in labor unions, and of church membership.

However, even for Americans, there were many costs associated with the War. And for people in many other parts of the world, especially Europe and East Asia, these costs were overwhelming. Perhaps the costs were well worth gaining the benefits of the successful prosecution of the War for Americans—and the others. We should, nonetheless, take a moment to note the costs, with a willingness to be open to the question of whether they truly did outweigh the benefits of the War.

Of all the major belligerents in the War, the United States suffered by far the fewest casualties. Even so, over 400,000 American soldiers died (and slightly less than 2,000 civilians). By contrast, of the major Allied powers, Great Britain lost about 450,000 lives (a per capita rate about three times higher than the U.S.) and the Soviet Union perhaps as many as 26,000,000. Of the Axis powers, Germany lost as many as 9,600,000 lives, Japan as many as 2,700,000, and Italy as many as 450,000.

Some of the nations caught in the crossfire sustained casualties greater than most of the belligerents—most notably Poland (5,800,000), China (as many as 20,000,000), Yugoslovia (1,000,000), the Philippines (as many as 1,000,000), French Indochina [Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos] (as many as 1,500,000), India (as many as 2,600,000), and the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] (as many as 4,000,000).

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 78,000,000. On top of the direct deaths, we also would want to factor in the tens of millions of people (probably hundreds of millions) who were injured, driven from their homes, suffered disease or severe hunger. On top of the human casualties, we then could reflect on the death and destruction caused to domestic and wild animals plus the immense damage done to the physical environment. I am aware of no estimates of these costs.

How do we even approximate a cost/benefit analysis where we would try to assess the damage done to the world (human life, animal and plant life, the physical environment) in relation to the benefits accomplished by the defeat of Japan and Germany? The impossibility of answering this question, though, does not render it irrelevant. To avoid this cost-benefit question altogether too easily hides from our collective memory that reality that this War (like all wars, but this was the biggest and worst ever) visited incalculable damage on the world. We should never imagine preparing for any possible future war or supporting any present war without being very self-aware about these costs. Would Roosevelt or Churchill have made different choices if they had tried to imagine these costs?

One of the most notable facts about the death toll of World War II is the astounding number of non-fighting civilians who lost their lives, directly in the fighting or as a direct consequence of the fighting. Up to 80% of the deaths in the War came to non-fighting civilians—that is, for every soldier killed in the War, four noncombatants lost their lives.

A second notable fact about the death toll, is what a high percentage of deaths came to people who lived in nations who were not directly engaged in the Allied vs. Axis conflict—and how many of these were in colonies. For example, the number of British, American, and Japanese war deaths combined were fewer the war deaths suffered by Indonesians. Great Britain lost about one-sixth the number of people as did Britain’s Indian colony.

Again, the United States came through the War relatively unscathed. In one night’s bombing raid on Tokyo in March 1945, the United States killed fifty times more civilians (85,000) than the Americans lost for the entire war (1,700). We cannot accurately say how many deaths the United States was responsible for—certainly tens of times more than we suffered, especially when we note that over three-quarters of all war dead were civilians, and we lost virtually no civilians.

So, in a strictly numbers sense, the United States came through the War with a pretty good cost/benefit outcome. We killed way more than we lost. Our physical environment was untouched. We suffered no hunger or disease beyond those encountered by our soldiers in foreign postings. Our economy boomed. We were set up at War’s end to have an impact on the world as the one fully standing superpower left. Part of what we must examine is how we handled this power. And here we must keep at the front of our reflections the purpose statements that justified our entry into the War.

However, before moving on to that assessment—which essentially is to ask about the moral legacy of World War II—we need to linger a bit more on the costs of the War. In the rest of this chapter we will look at several particular themes (the Holocaust, the fate of Central and Eastern Europe and China, and the impact of the War on American democracy). Right now, let’s think a bit more about the immediate cost of the War even to America. Our benefits may have been larger, but costs there nonetheless were.

Military deaths for American soldiers during the years of the War totaled 416,000. Of these, 292,000 died in combat. Of the non-combat military deaths, 14,000 were Prisoners of War. The number of wounded and injured in the War might total around 1,000,000. Of these, many suffered long-term health consequences.

Historian Thomas Childers, in his book, Soldier from the War Returning, notes that though the use of the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for soldiers who suffer severe and often debilitating and lingering emotional trauma from their war experiences did not gain recognition until 1980, it certainly may be applied to many World War II veterans. “In the aftermath of the Second World War, depression, recurring nightmares, survivor guilt, outbursts of rage (most frequently directed at family members), ‘exaggerated startle responses,’ and anxiety reactions—all of which are recognized today as classic symptoms of PTSD—were as common as they were unnerving. With few psychiatrists to treat them and a cultural ethos that hardly encouraged open discussion of emotional problems, especially among men, many veterans simply suffered in private—often with devastating consequences for them and their families.”[1]

Childers points out that, contrary to the popular American story about World War II (he cites Tom Brokaw’s happy picture of marital bliss and commitment in his paean to America’s part in World War II, The Greatest Generation), the trauma of the experience of war for American soldiers was indeed reflected in marital disharmony. “Americans did marry in record numbers during the war, but they also divorced in record numbers when it ended. Between 1945 and 1947, the United States experienced a ‘divorce boom.’ Petitions for divorce skyrocketed, and the country registered the highest divorce rate in the world and the highest in American history. And…, the divorce rate for veterans was twice as high as that for civilians.”[2]

Not only did American veterans have to deal, often in silence, with their war traumas and with familial conflicts that, in part at least, seem directly related to changes in the veterans’ emotional and psychological states as a consequence of their war experiences, they also returned to a society not set up to integrate them comfortably back into the social and economic fabric.

Jobs were difficult to find. The government did establish programs to ease soldiers’ reintegration into the broader society, but even so unemployment was common for vets. The unemployment rate for veterans in 1947 was three times higher than for civilians. Many veterans also had trouble finding housing given the lack of building during the Depression and war years. “Returning veterans, many of them married, lived anywhere they could find—barns, trailers, decommissioned streetcars, converted military barracks, and even automobiles. Many moved in with parents or in-laws.” Perhaps 1.5 veterans lived with friends or family in the immediate aftermath of the War.[3]

Childers summarizes: “A journalist surveyed veterans from around the country in the fall of 1946 and found a mood of ‘appalling loneliness and bitterness.’ More than two million veterans had no work and ‘floated in a vacuum of neglect, idleness, and distress.’ A widespread sense of disillusionment left virtually half of all veterans in 1947 feeling that their military service had been a negative experience and that they were worse off than they had been before the war. They had lost the best years of their lives to the war, and for many even their homecoming was a disappointment.”[4]

The negative costs of World War II in the lives of American soldiers were immense. Hundreds of thousands died in combat. More hundreds of thousands suffered physical wounds—some that took a lifelong toll. And probably at least as many suffered serious and often long-lasting psychological trauma, including severe cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Well over one million soldiers suffered from diagnosed psychological damage. The rate of soldiers discharged for psychiatric reasons reached ten thousand per month by July 1943 and increased from that rate over the next two years. Twenty thousand psychological casualties emerged from the Battle of Okinawa alone, fought from March through June 1945. By 1947, fully fifty percent of patients in Veterans hospitals suffered from “invisible wounds.”[5]

I focus on the moral legacy of World War II mostly in relation to the United States in this book. However, I think it important to imagine, at this point, how this picture of immense costs in our society of the traumas of war on our soldiers could be seen as incredibly mild compared to just about every country in the world that directly participated in the War. If American soldiers, their families, and, by extension, the broader society were so damaged by their war experience, imagine what life after the War was like in places where the military casualty list was many times more extensive, where immense numbers of civilians were killed and wounded, and where the physical structures of the society were severely damaged.[6]

The Holocaust

In considering the “losses” of World War II, among the most tragic was the systematic destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. There were around nine million Jews living in Europe in 1939; fully two-thirds of those people were killed over the next six years. About sixty percent of the deaths came in Poland, Germany, and immediately surrounding countries (nine out of ten Jews in those countries were killed).[7]

The Nazi perpetrators of these unspeakable evils have justifiably come to be seen as paradigmatic examples of inhumanity. None of the questions I raise in this section are meant to minimize the degree of responsibility we should attribute to the Nazis for the Holocaust. What was done to Europe’s Jews (not to mention what was done to other populations labeled sub-human by the Nazis, most notably the Roma and Sinti peoples and those labeled “homosexual”) needs to be condemned without qualification—and all people of good will should be committed to devoting their energies to prevent anything resembling those evils from happening again.

Nonetheless, we do have questions to raise in relation to the western Allies (namely, the British and Americans). Certainly Germany and its collaborators must be seen as fully responsible for what happened. But did our side do what we could have done to prevent what happened—or at least minimize its effects? A challenging question for our reflection is whether the Allied war effort actually was part of the solution to the problem of the mass extermination of Jews or part of the problem? Despite the post-war assumptions by many that part of the reason this war was fought was in order to “save the Jews,” it is far from obvious in looking at the actual events whether that was the case.

Adolf Hitler had made it clear early in his public career that his ideology had at its heart a powerful hatred of Jews and a desire to “purify” Germany of its Jewish population (ironically, the Jewish population of Germany was relatively small compared to many other European nations and, as a rule, Jews in Germany were pretty assimilated—Germany had no large “Jewish ghettos”). As the Nazis rose in prominence in the 1920s and early 1930s, they made clear their hatred of Jews and their scapegoating techniques in blaming Jews for many of Germany’s problems.

So when Hitler rose to power in 1933, people who had been attentive to the Nazi message began to fear for the safety of Germany’s Jewish population. The Nazis wasted little time in beginning to implement anti-Jewish policies. As early as May, 1933, Hitler’s close colleague Joseph Goebbels led a public book-burning in Berlin, beginning with the words, “The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended.”[8]

Various humanitarian and pacifist groups, for example the American Friends Service Committee, tracked the threats to Germany’s Jews closely from the time the Nazis gained power. They worked hard to publicize the growing threat, and sought to provide material aid to the increasingly persecuted Jewish people, and advocated for liberalized immigration policies in the United States and Great Britain for the rapidly increasing number of European Jews who sought to immigrate.

These efforts, by and large, were resisted by the political leaders of American and Britain. In the United States, strict limitations on immigration had been established in light of strong anti-immigration movements in the 1920s. Even with the heightened dangers to European Jews, American leaders refused to relent on the strictness of those policies.

By 1938, the situation was becoming ever more dire. A key moment that made this clear was the so-called “Kristallnacht Pogrom” on November 9. This organized effort at intimidation involved massive violence against Jewish-owned property and Jewish persons. After this event, many more Jews sought to leave Germany and the nearby ethnic German areas—with ever-increasing difficulty as the restrictive policies of the British and Americans remained unchanged.

In December, three American Quaker leaders, including the well-known writer and teacher Rufus Jones, visited Germany hoping to relieve some of the problems. They met with Nazi officials and, because of the Quaker history of having saved millions of German lives in the aftermath of World War I with food relief, gained a hearing and were assured that concessions would be made. In their report upon their return, Jones and company emphasized the intense desire large numbers of Germany’s Jews had to leave—and the willingness of the Nazis to let them go.[9] Still, the government remained unrelenting in denying opportunities for migration.

A paradigmatic case of the American unwillingness to accept Jewish immigrants may be seen in legislation proposed in February 1939 by New York Senator Robert Wagner and Massachusetts Representative Edith Rogers. The Wagner-Rogers bill would allow 20,000 refugees under the age of fourteen to immigrate to the United States beyond the existing German quota for immigration. President Roosevelt refused to support this bill. After several months of debate, the bill died.[10]

Surely, part of the reason for the American and British unwillingness to open their shores to Jewish refugees was deep-seated anti-Jewish sentiment in those societies, beginning with numerous political leaders. As well, throughout the 1930s, Americans and Britons tended to downplay the racism of the Nazi regime, in part due to the attractiveness of the Nazis anti-Communism (here we must also note the stereotype of Communism and Marxism as being “Jewish ideologies” because theoreticians such as Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky came from ethnic Jewish backgrounds).

When the War with Germany began, concern for Jewish people in Germany and, then, in the countries taken over by the Nazis (most notably Poland, home in 1939 to 3.3 million Jews, over one-third of the European total) played little role in the Allied stated motivations. At this point (September 1939), the Nazis apparently had not yet formulated a policy of mass extermination. They did expect to “cleanse” their part of Europe of Jews, but seem mostly to have been thinking of forced migrations (though they seem to have been open still to voluntary migrations, too—if the migrants could find places in the world that would accept them).

The Nazis began to establish concentration camps, but these were not yet death camps. Perhaps it was necessary for the Allies to go to war to stop Nazi expansionism (see chapter two above). However, it certainly seems clear in retrospect that this war would have the effect of greatly exacerbating the violence against Jewish populations in Europe.

This is how Holocaust historian Doris Bergen states it: “War—in particular the Nazi war of annihilation to Germany’s east—exponentially increased the numbers and kinds of victims, as brutal programs of persecution, expulsion, and murder, bloated on carnage, demanded and created even more enemies. Mass killings of non-Jews were also part of the Nazi German war effort, a war launched for the related goals of race and space: so-called racial purification and territorial expansion. 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.”[11]

It appears that at least some of the Allied leaders were aware of the Nazi policies of extermination once they began to be implemented shortly after the German/Soviet war began in June 1941. This knowledge may not have been widespread, and clearly the Allies did not know of the massive extent of the genocide until the War ended and the death camps were discovered. However, the Allies knew enough pretty much from the beginning of the overt Nazi policies of extermination that the Allies could have tried to address those atrocities had they wanted to.

It is impossible for us to say now what difference such policies might have made had they been pursued. But the simple fact is that they were not. This failure to pursue overt policies that would try to stop Nazi genocidal practices does not, of course, imply that the Allies were in any way complicit in the killings. Likely a major reason such policies were not pursued was a matter of the philosophy of military strategy that required planners to identify their main objectives and then resist any attempts to divert their focus from those objectives. The core objective was the defeat of Nazi Germany—not rescuing Jews (or Roma or other victims of the genocidal policies). However, this makes my point: stopping the Holocaust simply was not part of the motivation for the Allied war with Germany. And, we must note, the execution of this war itself provided a major, even necessary, impetus for the German’s genocidal policies.

The Allied imperviousness to the plight of Nazi victims becomes more troubling as we move closer to the end of the War. We saw above how in the final months of the War, the Nazi air defenses were virtually non-existent. At this point, especially Britain’s RAF pursued an overt policy of massive bombing of civilian population centers—with very little resistance from the near-prostrate German military. We must ask, if at this point the Allies could bomb with such impunity pretty much whatever they wanted to bomb, why did they not use bombing to hinder the work of the death camps?[12]

Questions about the Allied actions near the end of the War also point back to our discussion in chapter three about the Allied policy of “unconditional surrender.” As noted there, this policy may actually have exacerbated the genocidal practices of the Nazis. By insisting on unconditional surrender, the Allies cut off the possibility of negotiating with the Nazis the possibilities of softening their treatment of the Jews.

Even if such a strategy of negotiation may not have necessarily been fruitful, certainly the insistence on unconditional surrender prolonged the War by many months. All we would need to do is move the ending of the war up six months to result in the saving of millions of lives—both those who were directly murdered during that final half year and those who died during that time due to starvation and illness. In James Carroll’s words, “the policy of unconditional surrender guaranteed that the war would last long enough for the genocide nearly to succeed.”[13]

The final point I will mention in relation to the Holocaust makes especially clear how this was not a war fought to save the Jews. As I have mentioned, the Allies did most certainly have an awareness that the Nazis had embarked upon a terrible campaign of massive death focused on Europe’s Jews and Roma populations. They may not have quite realized the extent of that campaign, but they knew it was massive.

Yet, there was virtually no planning for what to do with the survivors of this campaign. When the camps were “liberated,” many of their occupants, most suffering terribly from malnutrition and various diseases—and most now deprived of homes to which to return, were simply left to their own devices.[14] As it turned out, with no resources and no place to go, a scandalously large number of these “liberated” prisoners remained in what we could call “post-concentration camps,” and continued to suffer from lack of food and other necessities of life. In a terrible irony, some of these camps were located in Germany and the “liberated” Jews remained more impoverished than their defeated German oppressors.

In taking a moral reckoning of this incredibly destructive event, certainly (as I have tried to emphasize throughout this section) we must focus our assessing blame on the Nazis and their accomplices in the establishment and implementation of the organized massacre of these millions of people. However, along with this blame, if we are to make progress in a careful assessment of the moral legacy of World War II, we must not make the mistake of assuming that the actions that defeated the morally guilty executioners were hence by definition themselves moral.

In fact, it seems likely that we may conclude most accurately that the Allies did next to nothing to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust, even when they could have. They did not even have the human decency to put even minimal effort into caring for those survivors whose lives had been shattered by the Nazis’ actions. The Allies were not guilty of genocide, but they get no credit for trying to stop it and their tactics to defeat the Germans themselves seem to have exacerbated the Nazis’ genocidal efforts.

The spread of Communism

Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, September 3, 1939. This declaration came as a direct result of Germany’s military invasion of Poland. Britain and France had a mutual defense treaty with Poland, guaranteeing that should Poland be invaded, the Allies would go to war in defense of Poland. At this time, Poland was not a democracy. Its government had become a military dictatorship following a 1926 coup. The British and French supported Poland not because of a commitment to the Polish people’s self-determination but as a counter to German expansionism.

Likewise, in eastern Asia, the United States had sided with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of Chiang Kai-shek in the face of Japan’s war on China. Chiang had gained power in China through military action following the death of Chinese leader Sun Yat-Sen in 1925. Chiang’s KMT forces were engaged in a long struggle for domination in China with the Chinese Communist (CPC) party from the 1920s on. Though the United States had not supported Sun Yat-Sen’s government, after the conflict emerged between the KMT and CPC, the United States sided with Chiang’s forces, though the KMT government was also a military dictatorship. When Japan expanded its presence in China through its takeover of Manchuria (and the CPC withdrew to a desert sanctuary), the U.S. aid to China’s KMT government expanded greatly.

The American entry into war with Japan occurred only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. However, in the lead up to that attack, the Americans had purposefully provoked Japan, finally cutting off Japan’s access to American oil. The war between the United States and Japan resulted directly from the U.S. opposition to Japan’s aggressive acts toward America’s Chinese ally.

So, both in Europe with Poland and in Asia with China, the catalyst for the Allies going to war was their commitments to the recipients of aggression from the tyrannical Axis powers. Just prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. and Great Britain, in the meeting of Roosevelt and Churchill, had issued the Atlantic Charter that had given voice to the core values that were then presented as the bases for standing against the tyranny of the Axis.

One of the major states reasons for the War, then, was defending peoples of the world, most specifically in Poland and China, against the aggressions of Japan and Germany. In considering the outcome of World War II, I suggest that one measure of its success should be how the results of the War fit with the purposes given for it—purposes that stood at the center of the appeals in the United States for people to support and participate in the War.

Measuring the outcome of the War in relation to the fate of nations such as Poland and China is complicated by several factors. For one, as I mentioned above, neither of those nations was a functioning democracy in the 1930s. That is, whatever we were defending by going to war for the sake of those countries, it was not an existing society that functioned according to the democratic ideals expresses in Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech and the Atlantic Charter.

Another complicating factor, discussed above, was that after we entered the War, we found ourselves in a close alliance with a major power, the Soviet Union, that did not share the values the lay at the heart of our purpose statements. So, when the War ended, we were not in a position to shape the direction the post-war governments of the nations of central and eastern Europe, and also in eastern Asia.

We went to war for stated purposes that we ended up with limited ability to further. We faced these limitations even though we were decisively victorious in the War and able to impose unconditional surrender on both of our major enemies. It’s important to note this reality as we assess the moral legacy of the War. The United States government and its supporters made explicit and far-reaching moral claims in justifying devoting the resources and human lives required to enter into a full-scale war. The purpose statements that stood at the center of the campaigns of persuasion touched on the deepest ideals of the American democratic tradition.

And, certainly, the commitment that American society made—offering full support and mostly unconditional devotion to the war effort—paid off. The United States war effort fully succeeded, at least in terms of defeating our enemies. We demanded unconditional surrender from both the Germans and Japanese and got it.

However, we are then left with a big question. Did the unqualified success in defeating our enemies yield results in line with our purpose statements? Did our victory lead to “self-determination” and “disarmament everywhere in the world”? More specifically, how did the two nations who suffered invasions that served as catalysts for our entry into the War fare as a consequence of our intervention?

The fates of Poland and China were not happy outcomes. In fact, one of the major costs of the war was the loss of self-determination and the possibility of disarmament for the people of Poland and China—not to mention an almost unimaginable loss of life in both countries in this failed struggle for their freedom.

Even though the European war began as an effort to defend Poland, Great Britain and France only offered minimal aid to the Poles in face of Germany’s 1939 invasion. The Poles were forced to capitulate after several weeks of intense fighting. Unbeknownst to the Allies at the time, Germany had secretly agreed to share Poland with the Soviet Union as part of the Soviet/German non-aggression treaty. The Germans took over western Poland, the Soviets eastern Poland (as part of the Soviet takeover, tens of thousands of Polish military and societal leaders were massacred—for decades the Soviet Union denied responsibility for these acts, until after the end of Communist rule). After Poland’s fall, a government-in-exile was established in Great Britain, and many Polish soldiers joined the British military.

With Germany’s attack of the Soviet Union in June 1941, followed a few years later with the Soviets return invasion of Germany, Poland became a major battleground. As the end of the War approached in 1945, the post-war fate of the Polish nation-state was a major item of discussion among the Allied leaders. Famously, at the February, 1945, summit meeting at the Ukrainian resort town of Yalta, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin discussed the fate of the Polish leadership. The Soviet had a pro-Soviet regime on the ground in Poland, though it lacked popular support. The government-in-exile in London strongly opposed cooperating with the Communists, remembering very clearly the Soviet treatment of Poland in 1939 and throughout the rest of the War. For their part, the Soviets and their puppet-government evinced no openness to working with the government-in-exile. In the end, the Soviets prevailed.

So, Poland ended up with a Communist government—certainly far from the government the people of Poland would have supported had they been allowed genuine self-determination. The Soviet Union provided strong military support for the Communist government. From time to time, popular resistance in Poland surfaced, but it took until the early 1980s and the rise of the Solidarity Movement for Poland to move toward any measure of self-determination.

The Soviet Union also established similar satellite states in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. Nations that had been independent at least during the 1920s and 1930s (such as Czechoslovakia [which did have a functioning democracy], Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia) all become Soviet satellite states.

Symbolizing the lack of “disarmament” in Poland, as well in these other satellite states, the nuclear weapon centered military “alliance” the Soviet formed with their satellite states took on the name of the Warsaw Pact. When we consider both the enormous cost in lives lost and material resources expended paid by the Soviet Union, as well as the fully justifiable fear the Soviets had of invasions from the West (fear the United States only exacerbated in the years following World War II), we may understand both the sense of entitlement and the motivation that the Soviets would have had to establish this kind of arrangement. We also must consider the enormous power the Soviets had accumulated in the course of their amazing mobilization to turn back the Nazi invasion—along with the fact that by the end of the War Soviet forces directly occupied all these Central and Eastern European nations.

This is to say, we cannot imagine how the creation of the Warsaw Pact and the “Iron Curtain” could not have happened given the outcome of the War. In Part Two of this book, we will look much more closely at the history of the Cold War and the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. The point to make here, though, is simply to note this one extraordinarily negative direct outcome of World War II. The United States went to war for the sake of democracy and disarmament. As far as Central and Eastern Europe were concerned, in relation to these purposes, the War was an abject failure.

When we reflect on the costs and benefits of World War II, we must place the victory and consolidation of Communist tyranny as standing on the “cost” side of the ledger. One fruit of the expenditure our nation’s blood and treasure was to spread not democracy but tyranny.

The story of the fate of China as a consequence of World War II is much more complicated than what happened in Europe. The United States allied closely with the Chiang Kai-shek government in the course of the war with Japan. Chiang’s was essentially a military dictatorship that never established itself as a popularly supported government. The Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, split decisively from Chiang’s Nationalist Party in the 1920s, and the two forces engaged in a long-running struggle for dominance. The civil war surely weakened China in face of the Japanese threat as it grew in the 1930s.

The Communists entered a truce with the Nationalists, but the struggle with Japan was largely waged by the Nationalists with their American and British allies. Japan won major victories, but the sheer size of China and Chinese people’s unwillingness to acquiesce, prevented Japan from full victory. As the war lengthened far beyond the time the Japanese expected it to take, the tide began gradually to turn. Of course, after December 1941, Japan’s attention needed to turn toward the forces of the United States in the Pacific war.

Finally, in August 1945 the War ended with Japan’s defeat—and China was left more to its own resources. The Communists re-emerged from their withdrawal and intensified their confrontation with Chiang’s government. The United States continued to side with the Nationalists. However, it soon became clear that the Nationalists did not have the popular support or the competence to prevail.

While the Communists had bitterly resisted the Japanese, especially through guerilla warfare (gaining training for the civil war with the Nationalists), Chiang’s forces bore the brunt of the conflict with Japan—and were severely weakened thereby. Certainly in this way, at least, World War II contributed to the ultimate victory of tyrannical Communist powers in East Asia.

The Civil War essentially ended in 1949 with the retreat of the Nationalist forces to Taiwan. Besides the victory of the Communists in mainland China, Communist states were also established in several other areas formerly occupied by Japan, including North Korea, North Vietnam, and Manchuria.

As with Central and Eastern Europe, with China it is difficult to imagine what could have been done to prevent the dominance of Communism following the War. My concern here is simply to assess the consequences of World War II in that part of the world in light of our purpose statements for going to war. The corrupt and tyrannical Nationalists certainly were not forces for democracy in China—and the United States did very little to push them in a more democratic direction.

Nonetheless, it would appear that by pursuing our military objectives against Japan, we certainly did not achieve anything resembling a democratic outcome in China. When we consider the moral legacy of World War II, one (albeit complicated) outcome we need to remember is that a consequence of this war in China was to pave the way for the victory of the Communist forces in China—and that as a consequence of that victory the people of China faced extraordinary trauma, violence, famine, and mass deaths.

American democracy

In United States history, prior to World War II, several times the country entered wars (or, in the 1860s, engaged in a massive civil war). Typically, the pattern would be mobilization followed by engagement followed by demobilization. This pattern was followed earlier in the 20th century when the U.S. joined in what we now refer to as World War I (in the 1930s, this was called, in Europe, the “Great War”—typically in the U.S. it was called the “European War”).

President Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. into that war where the Americans played a decisive role in tipping the balance toward the Allies. Wilson desired that his country stay engaged in international politics in the post-war period (an involvement that presumably would have included continued military preparedness). But Wilson’s wishes were thwarted, partly due to principled isolationist sentiment, partly due to (not unrelated) anti-militarism sentiment. The 1920s were a period of demilitarization following the engagement in a huge war. In the 1930s, the inclination toward noninvolvement in international conflicts remained strong, strengthened by the economic crises that never really were resolved during that decade despite the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

When the U.S. had entered wars prior to World War II, the Constitutional process whereby the president requested a formal declaration of war from Congress before engaging in full-fledged military intervention had by and large been followed.

As the clouds of impending war began to darken in the latter half of the 1930s—potential conflicts with both Germany and Japan—the United States remained far from ready to engage in overt warfare with powerful enemies. The military remained small, about 250,000 soldiers—a force that was about the same size as Turkey’s (hardly known to be a military power). Numerous powerful Congressional leaders consistently expressed strong opposition to “foreign entanglements,” offering resistance to just about any move the Roosevelt Administration sought to make to bring the U.S. toward greater military involvement in these conflicts.

In this opposition, Congress seems to have accurately have reflected the broader sentiment of American voters. And everyone shared the assumption that Roosevelt would not be able to move ahead without public (and Congressional) support. That is, the checks and balances in the American republic seemed still to be functional, limiting the potential for unilateral presidential action to engage the nation in armed conflicts.

In the late 1930s, after Britain and France established their war guarantee with Poland, and even more after September 1939, when the war in Europe began, President Roosevelt saw the resistance from Americans to expanded support for the Allied war effort as a problem. Setting a precedence for presidential behavior down to the present, Roosevelt did not take his cues from public opinion or Congressional perspectives. He did not act as the people’s representative set with the task of seeing that the popular will would be enacted. Rather, he acted as if he knew much better than the people or even Congress what was necessary. He acted as if his task was not so much to figure out how to ascertain and embody the will of the people concerning military engagement but rather to figure how to change public opinion to be more compatible with his own wishes or, failing that, how to subvert public opinion.

Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to be more and more involved in the allied war effort from the start of the European War, and even more after Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s prime minister in May, 1940 (Churchill, being by birth half-American and being much more committed to all-out war with Germany from early on, invested immense energy in cultivating a close relationship with Roosevelt—a relationship centered on Churchill’s efforts to get American more involved in the War).

Roosevelt did move toward engagement with significant caution, and Churchill always respected that Roosevelt felt constrained both by the constitutional limits on his power to go to war on his own will and by public opinion resistant to war. Nonetheless, with regard both to the war in Europe and the war in the Far East between China and Japan, Roosevelt made many behind the scene moves to get the U.S. ever more engaged.

Roosevelt acted as though his role was to figure out what the best course of action was and then to move the country in that direction. He did so even if that meant contravening the apparent will of the people and their congressional leaders. This role led to an approach that was subversive of democracy and involved an ever-increasing amount of clandestine behavior and public misrepresentation of the facts.

Part of the vigorous public debate in the United States during the several years prior to Pearl Harbor included a reiteration of strong fears that should the United States move more and more into a war footing, the country would move perilously away from its democratic traditions and ever more towards a type of dictatorship.[15] Reading some of these pieces now, some seven decades later, we are immediately struck with the hyperbolic nature of the warnings. One wonders how literally the debaters meant their warnings about going war against Germany and Japan being a sure-fire path to dictatorship. However, when we make allowance for the tendency for debaters to overstate their fears and concerns, we can ask whether these anti-interventionists might have nonetheless been more prescient than they have typically been given credit for.

The pro-interventionists won the debate (we can now say that the “debate” actually played little role in the events as they unfolded; the decision-makers were already set on going to war and once the key catalytic event occurred [Pearl Harbor], the debate completely ended). America did go to war. And emerged victorious. And did not sink into a dictatorship. Relative to World War I, domestic life in the United States remained open and free. The widespread unity in the country in favor of the War made it much less likely that the government would need overtly to subvert democratic practices in order to sustain social cohesion behind the war effort. But in the long run…?

In Part Two below, I will make a case for seeing World War II as a key moment in the transformation of American political dynamics away from democratic practices. At least in relation to issues related to war and peace, the United States would never be the same after World War II. The tendencies of the country throughout its history prior to World War II to enter a war, mobilize, and then after the war is over to demobilize and return to a civilian-centered, more democratic political economy did not return. Something fundamental changed in our country with this war—and it has not changed back. This change has severely undermined American democracy. I will trace the post-World War II story starting in chapter five, giving evidence for how democracy has been subverted. For now, I will simply mention several of the ways the events of World War II contributed to this transformation.

Again, the key move that Roosevelt took was to approach democratic checks and balances on presidential power as a problem to overcome, not an inherent limit that must be respected and lived within. Directly linked with Roosevelt’s desire for more unhindered power we may see the desire of American military leaders also to exercise unhindered power. These two desires merged in the will to expand American war-making capability and the possibilities of exercising that capability with as few democratic limitations as possible in face of the beginning of World War II. And, as a consequences of the moves—mostly taken by unilateral presidential decisions without passing through the legislative process and without informing the public—the United States, in Garry Wills’s terms, moved seemingly irrevocably from a democracy to a “national security state.”[16]

A key step in the development of the national security state was the construction of the largest building in the world, the Pentagon. Work began on the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, and the building was dedicated and opened for business in January 1943.[17] Roosevelt intended that this building, built on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, would temporarily house the leaders of the American armed forces during the time of “emergency.” Following this time, the building was to be turned to some civilian purposes and the military leaders offices were to return to closer proximity to the White House and Congress. Roosevelt also ordered that the size of building be cut in half from its proposed size when he saw the plans. Colonel Leslie Groves, the director of the building project, ignored Roosevelt’s order. By the end of the War (that had seen the American military grow from 250,000 soldiers under arms to about fourteen million) all plans to move the military out of this building had been long forgotten.

As traced by James Carroll in his book House of War, the Pentagon expanded to become the true center of power in the United States government. And the Pentagon’s power had little accountability to democratic checks and balances. The centralization and tremendous expansion of military power in the United States was a central cost of World War II—especially since this time the expansion involved establishing permanent institutions such as the Pentagon with strong and irresistible interests in sustaining its expanded role in government and society.

During the War, Roosevelt initiated the establishment of what emerged after the War as another major, powerful, permanent institution with strong interests in sustaining a militarized national security state—also with little democratic accountability.[18] Originally called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), this entity was originally established as a wartime agency for the gathering of intelligence to aid the war effort.  The OSS’s work turned out to be only marginally useful to the war effort.  In any event, Roosevelt intended that the OSS would cease to exist at war’s end. After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, his successor Harry Truman expressed the desire to indeed terminate the OSS.

However, other officials thought the United States should have a permanent spying agency, and negotiated the bureaucratic maze in Washington successfully and confounded Truman’s wishes. These officials succeeded in transforming the OSS into the Central Intelligence Agency—again, without congressional input and through a process mostly hidden even from the president. In a few years, Truman decided he could not eliminate this new agency, and actually became persuaded of its potential utility. Presidents since Truman have come to embrace the work of the CIA as a fundamental resource for their circumventing constitutional checks and balances in order to pursue foreign policy objectives outside of democratic oversight—often with covert use of military violence.

A third key institution, along with the Pentagon and CIA, that emerged as a direct consequence of World War II and that has severely damaged American democratic traditions was the nuclear weapons regime. After several nuclear physicists determined the late 1930s that a super-weapon might be possible to construct, Roosevelt ordered the creation of an extraordinarily top secret program to construct this weapon. Called the Manhattan Project, and directed by the same Leslie Groves (now a general) who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and displayed his disdain for democratic limitations in his disregard for Roosevelt’s will that the size of the Pentagon be greatly reduced, this program absorbed a tremendous amount of resources—all hidden from Congressional scrutiny. To indicate how top secret this project was, we need only note that Truman himself, the Vice President, knew nothing of the Manhattan Project until after Roosevelt’s death and his ascending to the presidency.

The creation and on-going development of nuclear weapons has absorbed enormous resources and profoundly shaped American government and the broader society. As Garry Wills points out in his historical sketch that traces the role the bomb has played in undermining American democracy, one key role that nuclear weapons have played in American government has been to enormously expand the unaccountable power of the president.[19] Presidential authority to authorize nuclear war has never been subject to the constitutional requirement that Congress, not the president, be the sole authority to send the United States to war.

The decision that President Truman made in July 1945 to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan was made secretly with no input from Congress. The decisions to expand our nuclear arsenal, to engage in an “arms race” with the Soviet Union, to share nuclear weapons making capabilities with various countries (including, perhaps most notably, Israel) have all been made outside of democratic processes—and have had a profound impact on our nation, and the world.

Another way that World War II had a major impact on American democracy was the willingness by American leaders for the United States essentially to take the place of Great Britain as the great imperial power of the world.[20] This move by the United States was not the result of an official edict by any American leader or institution. It may not even have been a self-conscious step for anyone. However, from early on in the War it was clear that Roosevelt and the United States dominated the partnership with Great Britain. Churchill seems to have been aware of the dynamics. If he did not fully welcome them, he recognized their inevitability and deferred to Roosevelt’s superior power.

With the establishment of these power dynamics in the alliance between Britain and America, came implicit shifts in their respective role in international affairs. With the diminishment of British power that had been developing for some years but become starkly clear in the course of the War, the United States made policy decision after policy decision under the assumption that the United States of course would fill the vacuum and become the world’s major superpower.

As the world’s superpower, the U.S. moved decisively in the years following the end of the War to sustain and then expand America’s network of military bases. One of the major reasons both Japan and (West) Germany were able to make the transition into active members of the “Western alliance” in the years following the War was the enormous military presence that the United States sustained in those countries.

None of these steps that the United States took to take on the role of global superpower, a role that involved enormous commitments of military resources and set the U.S. on the path of Cold War with the Soviet Union followed by the global war on terrorism, involved genuinely democratic processes. The decision to transform the Pax Britannica to a Pax Americana was not a democratic decision—even though it has affected the American people in enormous ways.

Many of those Americans who argued against military intervention in the years prior to World War II nonetheless supported more international involvement for the country.[21] They envisioned an international structure of the nations of the world that would make genuinely peaceful relationships possible. These people, many of whom remained opposed to American participation in the War, believed that the formation of the United Nations would be a genuine silver lining emerging out of the dark clouds of total war.

It did seem possible that the War might ultimately serve genuinely democratic ends should a powerful, effective, and genuinely participatory United Nations be the consequence of the War. Many of the foundational statements at the forming of the UN seemed to support those hopes.

However, from the very beginning of the formal planning for the UN, the interests of the leaders of the major allied powers centered on sustaining their power far more than genuinely practicing internationally shared power. The dominant powers structured the UN in such a way as to protect the interests especially of the United States. Hence, the UN served for many years to reinforce American power. Hence, even in its best outcome, the formation of the United Nations, World War II had quite an anti-democratic outcome.

Back 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. In contrast, by the end of the War in 1945, both of these elements of American politics (the small military and effective constitutional constraints on war-making) were gone forever.

Time after time, presidents have sent American troops into battle strictly based on their own decision without a constitutionally mandated declaration of war. Our troop level has remained many times over what it was in 1937. For most of the era since 1945, we have remained on a level of high readiness for war. And, the added element the War provided to the destruction of American democracy has been the creation of nuclear weapons and their deployment outside the constraints of our democratic system of checks and balances.

Taking stock

Our evaluation of the moral legacy of World War II in relation to the United States will involve two parts. The first, which we have just completed, is to look at the War itself, the rationales given for the U.S. supporting the Allies and then entering the War as a full belligerent, the conduct of the War, and some of the costs of the War. The second part of this evaluation, to be explored beginning in chapter five below, will be to consider the aftermath of the War. What kind of world did World War II lead to? How did the events of World War II and their consequences shape the United States?

In my discussion of the rationales given for American involvement in World War II in chapter two above, I focused on the “purpose statements” given by President Roosevelt and others that articulated the values that the U.S. was seeking to further by this involvement.

In his “Four Freedoms” speech in January 1941, Roosevelt used freedom as the key motif—freedom from fear, from want, for free expression, and for worshiping the God of our choice. Here Roosevelt echoed the sentiments of the American Declaration of Independence with this affirmation of the rights for “the pursuit of happiness.” Roosevelt’s speech asserted that the United States must seek to further these freedoms “for everyone on earth.”

Several months later, Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill and the two leaders issued what became known as the Atlantic Charter. This statement served as a fundamental resource for Allied expressions of their war aims—and focused on two main points: the rights of all people on the earth for political and economic self-determination and the goal of achieving global disarmament grounded in a new international order characterized by the rule of law.

Both the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter were widely publicized and used throughout the War years as concise statements of the goals that the war effort was serving. For example, the U.S. government used the Four Freedoms and an accompanying set of paintings by the well-known American artist Norman Rockwell as the centerpiece of the U.S. War Bond campaign. And the British printed pamphlets by the million of the Atlantic Charter that were spread throughout Western Europe.

These purpose statements did with admirable brevity and clarity articulate a vision fully compatible with the highest ideals of the American republic. Virtually no one in the United States in 1939 or 1941 (or ever since) questioned Roosevelt’s various assertions that the Axis powers stood strongly against the values articulated in these purpose statements.

As a consequence, the insofar as these purpose statements provide the core of our moral stance in relation to world politics, insofar as the great democracies (especially Great Britain and the United States) seek to achieve these purposes “everywhere in the world,” and insofar as the Axis powers were in sworn enmity in theory and practice to these purposes, the case is strong that American involvement in World War II had just cause.

Certainly, as we have seen so far and as will reiterate shortly, the actual practice of warfare can never hope fully to embody the kinds of moral values that stimulate the entry into war. Everyone recognizes that those values are often stated in highly idealized terms in order to gather support for the cause of those articulating the ideals. Our moral evaluation should not hold the belligerents overly strictly to these obviously propagandistic purpose statements.

At the same time, we need continually to keep in mind that these purpose statements did exercise enormous practical influence in stimulating support for and participation in the war effort. Masses of people took them seriously and devoted themselves to the war effort hoping to serve those purposes. These statements were not “simply propaganda.” In taking them seriously, we insist that those who used them as bases to gain support for war are to be held at least somewhat accountable to those stated ideals.

I should also mention that part of the moral standing of the United States as a nation rested on the claim that from its founding, America has sought (with important successes) to embody those ideals. The Allied war leaders drew on a living tradition of democratic values and practices in making the case for this war. The moral legacy of the War rests in significant ways on how the actual conduct of the U.S. and its allies in the War and how the actual aftermath of this War measured up to those ideals.

So, we have a strong case for this War have a just cause (the traditional jus ad bellum of Just War thought): to defend nations that sought to embody these core values, to resist those powers that sought to repudiate those values, and to spread those values to places that had not yet had the opportunity to embed them in their political lives.

We must also be attentive, at the same time, to ways that the run-up to the War did not necessarily cohere with the expectations of the just war approach. The European War began when the British and French made a war guarantee to one dictator-led nation (Poland) in relation to a different dictator-led nation (Germany). Neither Britain nor France acted in self-defense or in support of self-determination or disarmament for the Polish people. And then, after making this war guarantee, a commitment that surely was decisive in the Polish government defying the Germans, the British and French did virtually nothing to aid the Poles. As a consequence, Poland quickly succumbed to the German invasion. So the beginnings of that war were full of moral ambiguities, ambiguities minimized in most accounts of those beginnings.

In the Asian conflict, the United States was far from the innocent, passive, peace-seeking victim of a “dastardly” and totally unprovoked attack Roosevelt claimed in his “Day of Infamy” speech on December 8, 1941. Certainly, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a terribly violent and immoral act of aggression. But it was scarcely unprovoked. Perhaps the most significant evidence against the assumption of U.S. “innocence” was Roosevelt’s unwillingness to meet with the Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye when the latter desperately sought to forestall the march to war in the Fall of 1941. Roosevelt’s refusal led to Konoye’s resignation and the installation of the extreme militarist, Hideki Tojo, as Prime Minister. The next step was Pearl Harbor.

The decades prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had seen a succession of hostile acts and policies by the United States toward Japan. These acts included racist legislation in the U.S. to problematize the status the Japanese immigrants and U.S. pressure on Great Britain to end its close alliance with Japan in the early 1920s. The conflict between the U.S. and Japan in the first half of the twentieth-century was more a conflict between rival imperial powers struggling for the spoils of empire than a conflict between a democratic state vs. a tyrannical state.

The background to the American/Japanese conflict and the misleading representation of that conflict in Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbor speech, however, surely do not justify the Japanese attack. Nor do they fatally undermine the American case for just cause in going to war on Japan. Nor do the ambiguities around the beginnings of the European War negate the genuine evils of the Nazi regime nor the fact that the official entry of the U.S. in the European war came as result of Germany declaring war on America.

When we turn to the conduct of the War, however, we cross the lines of ambiguity between just and unjust wars that we see in our application of the jus ad bellum (just cause) to World War II. The two central criteria generally used to evaluate just conduct (jus in bello) are proportionality (that the proportion of damage caused in executing the war should not outweigh the good that achieved by the war) and non-combatant immunity (that tactics should focus on those who are actually doing the fighting and supporting the fighting, seeking to avoid causing harm to those not involved in the conflict).

In relation to both these criteria, we have plenty of evidence of self-consciousness on the part of America’s war leaders about their existence. It does seem that at least some effort was made to operate, at least in a loose sense, within the parameters of these two criteria.

The most obvious example of this would be the strategies followed by the U.S. Air Force when they joined with Britain in the European air war. The Americans eschewed the British approach of intentionally bombing population centers to focus, as they could, on directly attacking military targets. Towards the end of the War, this emphasis paid huge dividends as American bombing virtually cut the German military off from its supplies of oil.

Now, the Americans always understood their strategy to be a compliment to the British strategy that did directly and intentionally target non-combatants in an attempt to destroy German “morale.” Since the Americans and British were working side-by-side in close concert, the Americans must also be held responsible to some degree for the Britons’ direct violation of the just conduct criteria.

When we turn to the war with Japan, we see a complete abandonment of both proportionality and non-combatant immunity by the Americans. The U.S. intentionally targeted Japan’s largest city, Tokyo, for a firebombing attack in March 1945 because of its tightly-packed wooden housing in hopes of maximizing the deaths on non-combatants—hopes that were successfully met (over 85,000 people died in one night’s bombing).

When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, neither of which with military significance (the main reason they were targeted was that neither had yet been bombed, thus their destruction would be more visible), the war was virtually over. The U.S. had essentially ignored efforts by Japanese leaders to call a halt to the fighting, likely due to the American desire to use this ultimate weapon of mass destruction in full view of the world.

In part, the American abandonment of limits to their destruction followed from President Roosevelt’s announcement in January, 1943, of the Allied intent to fight until gaining the unconditional surrender of the Axis—that is, to fight in the most destructive way possible for as long as it would take to render the Axis completely powerless.

By 1945, the costs of this war were enormous. As many seventy five million people lost their lives due to this war. Uncounted millions were injured, rendered homeless, and permanently driven from their communities. As the dust settled with the War’s conclusion, all of Central and Eastern Europe ended up under tyrannical Communist governments—as did, in a few years’ time, the country with the largest population in the world (China) and several of its neighbors. American democratic governance was transformed with the emergence of military-oriented institutions such as the Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, and nuclear weapons programs.

Were the benefits that were gained by these six years of overwhelming death and destruction greater than these (and many other) costs? Certainly most Americans in 1945 would have said so (of course, the United States bore few of the costs, at least in the short term, and in fact greatly benefited economically from the War). Most Western Europeans would also have said yes, and likely many of the anti-Nazis and anti-militarists in Germany and Japan. Probably not that many in the Soviet Union would have been so sure, given the extraordinary costs the Soviets bore—though surely once they were under attack by the Nazis, clearly bent on the destruction of the Soviet Union and most its people, victory was the only acceptable outcome. For hundreds of millions, even in 1945, the answer would have been no, the costs were too high.

In terms of the focus of this book, though, we have to recognize that for the United States, World War II was a tremendous success. We defeated two terrible enemies with remarkably little cost to ourselves. Our economy was transformed from long-term recession and depression to a full-out engine of growth and prosperity. Certainly those at the top of the economic pyramid benefited the most, but the wealth (for once in our country) spread pretty widely. The United States was poised to enter a period of extraordinary prosperity.

As well, the United States had put itself in a position of being the world’s great superpower. Maybe Americans had traditionally been reluctant to engage international affairs, but they now were in a position to engage those affairs pretty much on our own terms. We would be able to shape the world towards how we wanted it. Now would be the great opportunity to implement the ideals of the Four Freedoms and Atlantic Charter “everywhere in the world.”

What did the United States do with this incredible opportunity? This is will be the focus of Part Two (“Aftermath”) below. One theme we will consider is how the process of fighting World War II affected the way we handled the opportunity to exercise international power in the aftermath of that war. I will show that though we certainly had the potential to pursue furthering the values expressed in the purpose statements, the United States in the event did not do so.

In fact, the history of the impact of the United States on the world since 1945 is a history of the practical (if not theoretical) repudiation of self-determination and disarmament. I will suggest that one central factor in this history is a direct outworking of the American World War II war effort—the creation of permanent and ever more powerful militaristic institutions at the heart of the American nation-state: the Pentagon, the CIA, and the nuclear weapons program as the key examples.

[1] Thomas Childers, Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 8. This is an important book, though sadly written too late to be of much benefit for World War II veterans themselves. Childers’ concerns ring true in my own experience. My father was a combat veteran of the War, having fought for several years in the South Pacific. I cannot really identify any evidence of his suffering anything resembling PTSD. But several of my friends growing up also had World War II veteran fathers who I now see in retrospect having been damaged in significant ways from their experience. Since I have started working on this book, I have discussed this issue with several other friends who are children of World War II veterans. I have been startled at how common it is to hear of major problems in their fathers’ lives (and, hence, in the children’s lives) that seem linked to World War II traumas.

[2] Childers, Soldier, 8.

[3] Childers, Soldier, 7.

[4] Childers, Soldier, 7.

[5] Childers, Soldier, 8.

[6] One insightful overview for Europe is Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), especially “PART ONE: Post-war 1945-1954,” 13-247. For Japan, see John H. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 1999).

[7]The numbers come from Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (New York: Bantam, 1986), 403

[8] Quoted in Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 37.

[9] Baker, Human, 107-09.

[10] Baker, Human, 125.

[11] Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, second edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), vii.

[12] See David S. Wyman, “The Bombing of Auschwitz,” in The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, second edition (New York: The New Press, 1998), 288-307.

[13] James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 9.

[14] See William I. Hitchock, The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (New York: Free Press, 2008), 287-366.

[15] For one set of arguments expressing this fear, see the various articles published during this time and collected in Joseph Loconte, ed., The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 33-121.

[16] Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010).

[17] My main source on the Pentagon is James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006).

[18] My main source on the Central Intelligence Agency is Tim Wiener, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

[19] Wills, Bomb.

[20] On this theme, see Norman Moss, Picking up the Reins: America, Britain, and the Postwar World (New York: Overlook Press, 2008).

[21] See Loconte, End, 33-121. The same debaters who feared a wartime America moving toward a military dictatorship also advocated a peaceable internationalism—they repudiated isolationism.

2 thoughts on “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (04. What the War cost)

  1. Rev. Tony W. Bouwmeester

    Perhaps 1.5 veterans lived with friends or family in the immediate aftermath of the War.[3]

    I suggest changing 1.5 to a percentage or 1.5 in x number of. It is difficult for a half veteran to live anywhere.

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      Thanks for catching this Tony. Actually, I left out a word. It should read “1.5 million veterans.”


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