In the spring of 2001, syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd expressed her frustration with the World War II generation. That year not only witnessed the beginning of construction on the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C., it also brought World War II drama to the Silver Screen with the release of Pearl Harbor, and to the Small Screen with the debut of Band of Brothers. All this proved too much for the curmudgeonly Dowd, who complained that the so-called “unsung generation” had suddenly become “the singing generation,” far too enamored of its own tales of glory and valor.
My hometown newspaper was foolish enough to publish not only Dowd’s silly column, but also a response to it by a younger me, as overconfident in my writing ability as I was my grasp of history. In my criticism of Dowd’s piece, I wrote that people like she were suppressing “one of the greatest episodes in human history.”
Educated as I was by popular history books and fictional films, that’s how I thought of World War II – a great episode in human history. World War II evoked in me a sense of nostalgia that was entirely inappropriate for someone who had not lived through it. The experience of the war was accurately captured, I believed, by the great World War II films like Saving Private Ryan, The Great Escape, and The Dirty Dozen. World War II was bravery and sacrifice and absolute victory over evil.
And not just any evil, but perhaps the greatest evil of all time. The inhumanity of the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, the mass killings and, most of all, the Holocaust were so vile that I viewed, not without justification, the war that overthrew these depraved regimes as a righteous crusade. World War II seemed to be the quintessential story of good versus evil. Like an old western, I knew exactly who the good guys and the bad guys were. What’s more, the bad guys were completely bad and the good guys were completely good.
And we, the good guys, won.
The Rest of the Story
I would venture a guess that my interpretation of World War II was not unique then and that it wouldn’t be out of place now. This is still how Americans remember World War II. The problem is that, as historian Thomas Fleming has written, “memory is not history.” The American remembrance of the war makes for great cinema. It makes for comparatively poor history.
At best, American memory of the war is incomplete. Forgotten in the Hollywood version of World War II are the prior interventions that led to the war and vitriolic debates that preceded American entry into it. Ignored are the diplomatic gaffes, the national disunity and the questionable morality that plagued America’s war effort. Gone from memory are the wartime restrictions on Americans’ economic and civil liberties.
In particular, Americans pay little attention to the repeated blunders of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration, which first botched opportunities to avoid war in the Pacific, then adopted policies that prolonged it in both theaters and, finally, appeased Joseph Stalin in his lust for an expanded postwar empire. While Americans are well-acquainted with their country’s role in bringing about the fall of Adolf Hitler and the Japanese militarists, they are less aware of its role in the rise of an equally brutal communism from the ashes of World War II.
This memory hole wasn’t always as gaping as it now is. For a time, prominent Americans, faced with the nuclear age and the specter of communist hegemony in Europe and Asia, candidly criticized the war’s legacy. No less a figure than Winston Churchill lent validity to these criticisms when he admitted after the war that, “The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted.”
But as time went on these voices became faint in the echo chamber of the national narrative. The idea that there was a bad side to the Good War went out of fashion.
The Enduring Object Lesson
American glorification of World War II would be an innocuous national quirk if all it entailed was a rose-colored perspective of the past. But the popular memory of World War II is more than that. Even today it serves Americans of all political stripes as the unassailable case study for military intervention. Remembering the war as we do – as one without any negative or unintended consequences to speak of – leads inevitably to the conclusion that if the American military saved the world once, we can do it again. And perhaps, we think, it’s even our duty to.
Just how deeply this idea is embedded in the American psyche was brought thundering home to me a decade after I word-warred with Maureen Dowd. By 2011, I had become a Ron Paul-supporting, non-interventionist libertarian, convinced that the founding generation and traditionalist conservatives had been correct to view military intervention with skepticism. But as I sought to communicate these ideas to my friends on the right and the left, a unanimous response greeted me in return.
“But what about World War II?”
At the time I had no good answers and I subsequently found no single source entirely satisfying. While non-interventionists have made salient counterpoints to the traditional narrative, they have just as often focused on unprovable conspiracy theories and absolute judgments against the war’s necessity. Whatever merit these arguments may have, they rely too much on conjecture and often seem too callous to effectively rebut the claim that World War II invalidates a non-interventionist foreign policy. They furthermore concede far too much ground to the interventionists who, having flippantly dispensed with the non-interventionist perspective on the Good War, jubilantly ignore that case on all the others.
Fortunately, the non-interventionist perspective on World War II doesn’t rely on conniving politicians secretly trying to get the United States into the war, nor on proving unequivocally that the war was unnecessary. The non-interventionist position has always been founded on a skeptical view of what military action can accomplish. It has understood that war poses a grave threat to liberty, community, the family and humanity. It has suggested that war will always generate unintended consequences that are impossible to control, and that wars to perfect society or humanity are destined to fail. Because of all this, non-interventionists view war as a last resort, valid only insofar as it is defensive in nature and limited in objectives.
That World War II, a good war if ever there was one, proved all these beliefs true is a both a powerful argument for non-intervention and a badly-needed counterbalance to the half-truths Americans believe about it. Historian Paul Fussell, a veteran of the war, wrote, “The Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”
The antidote to the ailment Fussell diagnosed is simply to remember the war as it was, to peel away the romanticism and allow the unsanitary truth into the light.
The Non-Interventionist Appraisal
The series of articles that follows will not attempt to prove that Roosevelt goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor or that he had foreknowledge about the attack, nor will it try to prove that the war itself, or even American involvement in it, was unnecessary. Professional historians have debated these topics for decades and not only is there no end in sight, but these arguments inevitably lead down a labyrinth of counterfactuals that prove and solve nothing.
Nor will this series be an attack of the collective character of those who fought the war. The bravery and sacrifice of the World War II generation, the members of which often held a cynical view of the war, has left an honorable legacy for their descendants. But, for the sake of those who fought and died in the war, Americans should know – and should want to know – if that bravery and sacrifice accomplished all that we have been told it did. More importantly, Americans should seek to understand the full effect of World War II on their country and the world before using it to justify new interventions, new sacrifices and new deaths.
The aim of this series will be to vindicate the non-interventionist position as it relates to World War II. For too long interventionists have used World War II against the non-interventionists in the smug confidence that it thoroughly disproves their arguments. For too long have both groups been unaware that the war itself proves the non-interventionist case.
Note: This article is the introduction to a series on World War II. For the complete series, click here