On December 24, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast a Christmas message to Americans. Remarking on his recent conference with British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, Roosevelt announced that the Big Three “had devoted ourselves…to consideration of the future – to plans for the kind of world which alone can justify all the sacrifices of this war.” That world, Roosevelt said, would be nothing less than the fulfillment of the promises of Christmas. The president promised Americans that they could “look forward into the future with real, substantial confidence that, however great the cost, ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ can and will be realized…”

Approaching a century since the war’s end, Americans generally remember the war as if Roosevelt’s predictions had come true. In Americans’ minds, World War II was the Good War, the people who fought it the Greatest Generation. World War II was America’s moment of shining glory and moral clarity – when the country collectively identified evil, crushed it and saved the world.

This romanticizing of the war exerts tremendous influence on the way Americans understand their country’s duties and abilities today. Because the United States, it is believed, smashed not just evil people, but evil itself, World War II has become the single point of reference, the unassailable case study for an interventionist foreign policy. Many Americans conclude from the experience of the war that it is America’s job to be the world’s policeman. Conservatives especially hold this line, blissfully unaware that they are agreeing with Roosevelt, the liberal icon.

Such conclusions, however, collapse if the primary result of World War II was not, as Roosevelt promised it would be, peace on earth. And clearly it was not. The rose-colored glasses through which Americans view World War II filters out the many detrimental results of the war. They obscure that World War II, like all other wars, had a host of unintended consequences, that military victory did not result in peace and that evil reigned just as much after the war as it had during it. American accomplishments in World War II have been almost institutionally overstated and, no matter how many times interventionism has failed since, Americans are repeatedly told that the experience of the Good War validates the next one.

There are real lessons to be learned from World War II, lessons that should definitely guide policy today. But they can only be learned by taking a more realistic look at the full effects of World War II.

The End of World War II and the Rise of Communism

In May 1948, less than three years after World War II ended, New York governor Thomas Dewey and former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen, both candidates for the 1948 Republican presidential nomination, held a debate in Oregon. The debate was historically significant because it was the first presidential debate which was audio-recorded. But just as interesting as the debate’s historical importance was its content, which centered on the question, “Shall the Communist Party be outlawed in the United States?” While Dewey and Stassen differed on their answers to that question – Stassen argued yes, Dewey no – each candidate acknowledged that communism was a grave threat to the United States. Talk of drafting young men into the military as a preparation for World War III peppered the dialogue, as the two candidates argued over the best way to preserve American liberty in the face of this new menace.

After four years of war, of being told of the glorious, peaceful world that would follow the defeat the Nazis and the Japanese, how had Americans found themselves talking so soon about another World War? Much of the blame lay with Roosevelt, who had relentlessly pandered to Stalin during the war – funding and supplying his military while acquiescing in his demands for expansion. Stalin, who had entered the war in 1939 as Hitler’s partner, had ended it with control over all the territories he had gained in his pact with the Hitler – and then some.

Beginning with the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, the Red Army began slowly pushing the Germans back across Russia and Eastern Europe. Following the Red Army into “liberated” countries came Soviet officials to install communist governments and Soviet secret police to silence, deport and kill resistors. While the United States was perhaps not in a position to militarily stop the Russians (Roosevelt had promised Stalin he would not fight over Eastern Europe), the Americans enlarged communist gains by holding their forces back from key parts of Central Europe, including Czechoslovakia and Austria, despite the urgings of Churchill who was himself not blameless in appeasing Stalin. The American army even stopped short of Berlin to allow the Red Army to take the Nazi capital. The result of the war and America’s strategy, wrote former president Herbert Hoover, was that over 130 million Europeans found themselves under Soviet tyranny, from either outright annexation by Russia or by the installation of pro-Soviet communist governments.

With Soviet expansion came crimes against humanity that were every bit as heinous as anything the Nazis had done, as the Red Army brought terror and fury with them as they trekked west. In Hungary, wrote historian Keith Lowe, “Many women…were raped so violently [by Russian soldiers] that their backs broke under the force of the men’s attacks.”

But Russian soldiers saved their worst atrocities for Germany. When they had finished their rampage in one German town, wrote Lowe,

…the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere. They had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women…had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In [another town] a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. [Elsewhere] it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated…”

In still another German town, wrote Lowe, “a young mother…was raped and then hanged by a mob of soldiers in a hayloft along with her husband, while her children were strangled to death with ropes on the floor beneath her.” These were not isolated incidents. As the Red Army pushed into Berlin, over 100,000 women and girls were raped by Russian soldiers. “In Germany as a whole,” wrote Lowe, “almost 2 million German women are thought to have been raped in the aftermath of the war.” To this number can be added hundreds of thousands more from other Eastern and Central European countries.

The death tolls from the postwar Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe are difficult to estimate. Historian R.J. Rummel believed that in the first eight years following the war, deaths due to Soviet terror campaigns, mass deportations and gulags conservatively numbered around 5.9 million, though his calculations showed that it could have been as high as 15.6 million. While the exact number is impossible to know, it seems plausible that millions of Europeans died after the war as a result of communist tyranny. In fact, Soviet atrocities had started during the war, as Stalin deported roughly 1.5 million victims from conquered countries to his gulags, a pattern that continued after the war ended. Lowe wrote that “The indignities endured by these hapless prisoners were every bit as bad as those experienced by forced labourers in Nazi Germany.” In Hungary, from which 600,000 people were deported to forced labor camps in Russia, a local doctor reported that “If the Russians spotted a prisoner with usable boots, they took him out of the line, put a bullet through his head and pulled off his boots.”

The mass killings, the barbarities, even the concentration camps did not go away with the German surrender. Indeed, the Soviets repurposed at least one Nazi concentration camp for their own political prisoners. Political oppression likewise continued, as communist domination of Europe brought over four decades of political regimentation which crushed faith and freedom.

That these horrific events occurred is perhaps not surprising. The Germans had, after all, committed similar atrocities in their push across Eastern Europe and Russia. But that they were carried out by America’s ally, it’s full partner in the war, and a significant recipient of American Lend-Lease aid obliterated the claim that the war’s result would be peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

The Triumph of the Chinese Communists 

The communist aftershock was not confined to Europe. As a result of agreements with Roosevelt, Stalin had gained influence in Manchuria and northern China, areas that served as home base for Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong, who had been waging a civil war against the nationalist Chinese government since the 1920s.

The Soviets officially entered the war against Japan on August 9, 1945, “magnificently equipped thanks to American generosity” in the words of historian Thomas Fleming. Although the war only lasted five more days, that was enough time for the Russians to position themselves to accept the surrender of Japanese army in Manchuria, which was a coup for the Chinese communists.

After the war, as nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek strove to honor the agreements with Russia the Americans had imposed on China, the Soviets supported the Chinese communists in their continuing war for the country. After a cease fire between the nationalists and communists had been declared, Senior U.S. military officers in China told Hoover that Chiang

had loyally ceased all military action but Mao was continuing [guerrilla] warfare. …They further stated that the [cease fire] had benefited the Communists who needed time to train a new army of over a million men which could be provided with arms from the Russians. The Russians had acquired arms from two sources: the surrender of the Japanese armies and the United States lend-lease which had been sent to Russia. Thus their army would have completely modern equipment while Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were fighting with equipment greatly worn by his years of fighting both the Japanese and the Communists.

Chiang’s predicament had been exacerbated by American policy during the war, which had repeatedly deprioritized aid to his government in favor of supporting Stalin. After the war, American officials compounded their mistake by attempting to force Chiang to take communists into his government, ignoring what had happened to the governments of European countries in which communists gained positions of power. When Chiang resisted, American secretary of state George Marshall withheld financial aid.

In November 1948, Chiang wrote to President Harry Truman, pleading for help in his battle against the surging communists, saying,

The general deterioration of the military situation in China may be attributable to a number of factors. But the most fundamental is the non-observance by the Soviet Government of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, which as Your Excellency will doubtless recall, the Chinese Government signed as a result of the well-intentioned advice from the United States Government. I need hardly point out that, but for persistent Soviet aid, the Chinese Communists would not have been able to occupy Manchuria and develop into such a menace.

But by the time American officials recognized the dangers posed by the Chinese communists, it was too late. The Chinese Civil War, which ended in communist rule over China, dragged on into 1950, killing between 2.5 and 6 million Chinese.

American policy was not innocent in this outcome. As the Chinese Civil War drew to a close, General Albert Wedemeyer, who had commanded American forces in China at the end of World War II, was asked by a Senate committee if the United States had done everything possible short of war to help Chiang and prevent the communists from coming to power. Wedemeyer replied, “No, sir; I do not, sir. …we Americans did not give China all the aid that we might have given,” adding that “it is moral aid that is more important, in my judgment, than the material aid…”

The communist victory in China was a tragedy for the Chinese people, as many as 60 million of whom died as a result of intentional oppression or from the communists’ economic policies. This pattern of death and violence would repeat itself elsewhere in Asia, as communists rose to power in North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. It was in Asia that the West’s Cold War with Russia would explode into shooting wars, first in Korea and then in Vietnam, and just as in World War II these wars would decimate civilian populations. An estimated 2.5 million civilians died during the Korean War, and total deaths during the Vietnam War numbered conservatively over 1 million. In Cambodia, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime killed over a million of its own people, often executing them en masse.

Whatever followed World War II in Asia, it certainly could not be called peace.

Ethnic Cleansings

Communist expansion was not the only destructive force at work in the postwar years. The highest death tolls in Europe after the war were likely due to the ethnic cleansings that followed the waves of nationalism and revenge that swept across the continent after the hostilities ended. In addition to smaller deportations, there were three mass expulsions between 1944 and 1951. Over 1.5 million Poles were expelled from their homes in the former eastern Poland and roughly 500,000 ethnic Ukranians were likewise evicted from Polish territory. By far the worst mass deportation was of ethnic Germans, at least 12 million of whom either fled their homes or were forced from them in various countries across Europe. No fewer than 500,000 Germans died in this process, with other estimates reaching into the millions.

The largest and bloodiest ethnic cleansing took place in Poland and was directly tied to concessions the western Allies had made to Stalin during the war. At the Tehran and Yalta conferences, Roosevelt and Churchill had acquiesced without objection to Stalin’s demand for a significant portion of eastern Poland, the very territory that he had been promised in his agreement with Hitler. Poland was then compensated with a roughly equal amount of land carved out of eastern Germany. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt showed the slightest concern about the fate of the millions of Poles and Germans that would be affected by this redrawing of borders.

After the war, Poles quickly moved to evict Germans from lands that, in the words of Fleming, “they had inhabited for six hundred years.” Worse than the evictions was the adoption by angry Poles of Red Army and Nazi tactics against ethnic Germans. Oftentimes, wrote Lowe, German refugees, “were effectively kidnapped during their trek to the border to be put to work on farms or in local factories…” This slave labor, which Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to during the war, increased the incidence of sexual violence against German women, with Lowe remarking that “once they no longer had their families around them they became easy targets for the soldiers and foremen who were responsible for them.”

Refugees reported that, “The Poles robbed us of anything they found in our possession, swore at us, spat in our faces, and flogged and beat us.” As the deportations became more organized, Germans were expelled by train in conditions that bore horrific similarities to the Nazis’ transportation of Europe’s Jews to concentration camps. A German priest remarked that “men, women and children all mixed together, were tightly packed in the railway cars, these cattle wagons themselves being locked from the outside… The people were covered in excrement, which led me to believe that they were squeezed together so tightly that there was no longer any possibility for them to relieve themselves at a designated place.” The priest reported that upon the opening of one rail car, “ten corpses were taken and thrown into coffins which had been kept on hand.” He further observed “that several persons had become deranged.”

Like the Red Army, Polish soldiers robbed their victims, but one deportee wrote that

these raids on the part of the Poles were nothing compared to the sufferings we endured as regards hunger and cold. For three weeks we lived in the trucks, and the icy wind, the rain and the snow came through the chinks. The nights were dreadful and seemed endless. There was hardly enough room for us to stand, let alone sit down or lie down… Every morning at dawn the doors of the trucks were unlocked by the Polish guards and the dead who had not survived the night were carried out.

While there were political factors for these expulsions – primarily ethnic nationalism – they were also vengeful acts based solely on ethnicity. Lowe wrote, “No concessions were made for those who were actively pro-Polish, or who had opposed the Nazis during the war. Anti-fascists and German Jews were treated exactly the same way as any other Germans – they were defined by their ‘Germanness,’ not their war record or political outlook.”

The surviving Jewish population of Eastern Europe further found that freedom from the Nazis did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared. In Poland and other countries, Jews were attacked and thousands killed in official and mob violence directed at them. Conditions were so bad after the war that an estimated 300,000 Jews fled Eastern Europe, a number which Lowe called “a slightly conservative estimate.”

American Responsibility for the Aftermath

It cannot be said that American policy was wholly responsible for the spread of communism or for the millions of lives that it and the ethnic cleansings claimed after World War II. Communism had flourished in the chaos during and after World War I, with communists gaining power in Russia and nearly overthrowing governments in other European nations as well. Russian communists had furthermore perfected their mass murder techniques in the 1920s and 1930s, long before anyone appeased Soviet leaders or even saw another world war looming on the horizon.

But neither can it be said that American policy bore no responsibility for the horrific postwar world. Roosevelt had portrayed World War II as a crusade against evil and authoritarianism, but had conducted it as a crusade against Germany – not Hitler or the Nazis, but Germany itself. Even the Japanese took a back seat to Roosevelt’s hatred of the Germans, which blinded his eyes to the dangers of allying with Stalin and deafened his ears to anyone who tried to warn him. With this mindset, which Churchill too often shared, a strategy for winning the peace was impossible. Wedemeyer, who participated in strategic planning during the war, wrote that “having set our sights on ‘total victory’ as our one and only war aim, regardless of the consequences in both Europe and Asia, we perforce hitched our wagon to the Soviet Red Star.”

Today, some soothe themselves by saying that, in order to defeat Hitler, the United States had no choice but to ally with Stalin. But this belief ignores that the American government, and especially its president, did not simply form a military alliance with the Soviets. Roosevelt considered Stalin a full partner in the moral crusade against Germany and Japan, going so far as to suggest the Soviets as a reliable partner in his postwar plan to police the world. Because he would not – perhaps could not – acknowledge that Stalin was as murderous a tyrant as Hitler, Roosevelt supported and supplied Stalin almost without limit. Not only did the president morally validate Stalin’s claims to foreign lands, he materially aided the Soviet dictator’s subjugation of the people who lived in those lands.

The spread of communism through Eastern Europe and China, wrote Wedemeyer,

would not have happened if we had not given Soviet Russia billions of dollars of military and economic aid without firm and concrete agreement concerning war aims and postwar objectives. It would not have happened if we had not refrained in the closing stages of the war from utilizing our paramount military power to fulfill Western promises to the liberated peoples. Instead, even after Stalin started breaking the agreements he had been making, we held our armies back from Berlin, Prague, and Vienna in order to let the Red Army take over with its political commissars and establish a reign of terror.

At best, American involvement can be said to have been powerless to stop the communist onslaught against the peoples of Eastern Europe and Asia. The war that was allegedly fought for human freedom resulted in nothing of the kind. Hoover observed that “In 1939 before the war, there was one Communist country. By 1946, there were 23 nations or parts of nations dominated by Communism.” The former president, who had warned of allying with Soviet Russia before the United States joined the war, believed that “Far from freedom having expanded from this war it has shrunk to far fewer nations than a quarter of a century ago.”

Clearly the postwar world did not, according to Roosevelt’s standard, justify the sacrifice of World War II. There was no peace, there was no goodwill toward men. Poland and China, the defense of which had provided the ostensible justification of the war, had been freed from Germany and Japan only to be surrendered to new communist overlords. Hitler was defeated, but Stalin was empowered. Fascism was decimated, but communism more than filled the void. The war that was supposed to totally destroy evil simply shifted its locus of power.

World War II as Vindication for the Non-Interventionists

While the war had failed to achieve the idealistic goals of the interventionists, it had proven true many of the warnings that non-interventionists had raised. Non-interventionists had said that war would not – and indeed could not – bring peace and freedom, that these worthy goals could only be attained by changing hearts and minds. They had warned that an alliance with Stalin would nullify the alleged righteousness of America’s cause and would likely create a new enemy that might be even be more dangerous to American security.

After the war even Churchill admitted that the non-interventionists had been right on these points, writing, “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.”

Wedemeyer agreed, writing “The Allies won the war; but since the Anglo-American leaders did not know and did not even try to determine what they were fighting for, the crushing military defeat of Germany and Japan raised up new and more dangerous enemies.” Diplomatic historian George Kennan believed that American intervention in two world wars against Germany had accomplished next to nothing, writing, “When you tally up the total score of the two wars…you find that if there has been any gain at all, it is pretty hard to discern.”

Just as World War I led directly to World War II, World War II led directly to the Cold War. And the Cold War itself led not only to the Korean and Vietnam wars, but to interventions around the world over the next four decades. Included in these were interventions in the Middle East, where the United States supported rebels in hopes of undermining the Soviet Union’s attempts to dominate the region. Thus, even today – from Korea to Afghanistan – Americans are still dealing with the fallout from World War II.

The non-interventionists had also predicted that warfare abroad would bring authoritarianism at home, that to fight totalitarianism the United States would have to become totalitarian. The violations of economic and, especially, civil liberties during the war proved this true. The war dramatically increased spending, raised taxes and brought prices and consumption under government control as progressives used the war to dramatically expand the scope of Roosevelt’s peacetime New Deal. The government intimidated and prosecuted dissenters and, worst of all, locked up over 100,000 of its own civilians simply for being of Japanese ancestry. The war forever altered the relationship between citizens and the government and, wrote historian Richard Pollenberg, “posed questions about the relationship between civilians and the military, between liberty and security . . . which continue to perplex Americans.”

The war further nurtured a national ruthlessness towards foreign civilians. American propaganda dehumanized the enemy in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the Nazi propaganda against Europe’s Jews. This hatred manifested in an increasing willingness to bomb civilians as the war went on. Whereas Americans had early in the war objected to British firebombings of German cities, which Fleming wrote “created temperatures high enough to melt metal and bricks” and incinerated children, the bodies of which “looked like fried eels on the livid pavement,” they were by the end of it using these exact tactics.

The worst and most devastating American attacks on civilians were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet those were far from isolated incidents. American planes firebombed Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese, and participated in the mass bombings of German cities like Dresden and Hamburg, in which tens of thousands of civilians perished. For many military officers, these new tactics were inconsistent with the traditions of civilized war. Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff, said “I was not taught to make war in that fashion…” Lieutenant General Ira Eaker said that that American bombings of enemy civilians proved that “we are the barbarians they say we are.” As many as 400,000 foreign civilians died as a result of American bombings during World War II, their deaths written off as the cost of defeating evil. Thus, in defeating evil, Americans had themselves resorted to evil. Journalist John T. Flynn despaired that “Man’s capacity for cruelty – even the good man’s capacity for cruelty – in the prosecution of a spiritual crusade is a phenomenon to affright the soul.”

The war had further social consequences. American society, wrote Hoover in 1947, had been “dreadfully brutalized by the war.” He asked,

Who would have believed America, without public protest, would drop an atomic bomb [on civilians]…? But of more immediate evidence [of social decay] – crime has increased by 25%, divorces have risen by 20%, one marriage in three ends in divorce, illegitimacy has increased by 15%. Our streets teem with the delinquency of teen-age girls. The number of our boys in jail is appalling.

The lasting effect of this social decay is evidenced by how quaint the figures that gave rise to Hoover’s concern seem today. But Hoover was clearly on to something when he rooted these social phenomena in the war. The increase in juvenile delinquency, for instance, had begun during the war, when one social worker observed that, “This war is directly responsible for the boom in badness because children’s fathers go off to war and their mothers go to work, and thus the interest of parents is diverted from the home and the children.” Teen crime became such a problem immediately after the war that radio programs dedicated air time to informing listeners of the wave of youth-perpetrated theft, vandalism and murder that was sweeping the country. Comedy programs built entire plots around car theft, ending with a plea for concerned citizens to lock their cars, saying that doing so could help troubled teens avoid a life of crime.

Clearly, the actual effects of World War II were considerably more widespread and less beneficent than is commonly acknowledged. Indeed, the war fulfilled the non-interventionists’ most dire predictions. It disrupted society, grew government and created new enemies. In 1957, Hoover wrote that the war

made nearly half the world Communist, armed and bent on the destruction of all free men; made another one-third of the world Socialist, both seeking to infect American life. The cost to the American people has been 400,000 dead sons and nearly 800,000 more wounded; imposed on us the need to support 2,000,000 widows, orphans and disabled veterans; saddled us with more than $300 billion in Federal obligations; brought such taxation through the front door, as to every cottage, and such inflation through the back door, as to make post-war income of $5,000 a year no greater in purchasing value than a prewar income of $2,000; undermined our savings for insurance and old age; and, in the end, brought us ten years of cold war with no peace…

War was no panacea for the world’s evils. Intervention, as the non-interventionists had predicted, had not perfected humanity. The idea that World War II was the Good War, one that achieved transcendent goals, was false. Wedemeyer concluded,

Illusory visions of a perfect world to be won by a crusade have served only to prevent America from utilizing her vast material resources, and the energy and dedication of her people to liberty, for the attainment of a realizable objective consonant with our national interest and the ideals we cherish. By pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of an entire world free from the curse of Adam, we forego our opportunity of making parts of it a little more like the Garden of Eden.

The Lesson of World War II

One wonders what Roosevelt, who died just a month before the war in Europe ended, would have said had he lived long enough to see his predictions about the postwar world come crashing down, one-by-one. Chances are, he would have justified the sacrifices of World War II by saying that they were all worth it to defeat Hitler. Indeed, this is the ultimate rationale for the war today – that Hitler and the Nazis were so evil that they had to be stopped, consequences be damned.

And perhaps that is so. Perhaps Hitler was so uniquely evil, the Holocaust so grotesquely inhuman that the negative consequences of war had to be ignored. While acknowledging the validity of this argument, it must also be acknowledged that defeating Hitler and ending the Holocaust were not the driving factors for American participation in the war. It was not just Hitler or the Nazis that Roosevelt wanted to crush, but the German people (and to a lesser extent, the Japanese) themselves. Roosevelt’s narrow-minded belief in incorrigible German, rather than Nazi, barbarism led him not only to excuse Stalin’s barbarities, but also to reject negotiations with any Germans, including those who sought to overthrow Hitler, those within Germany who could have ended the Holocaust. Roosevelt certainly never conducted the war with a sense of urgency to end the Nazis’ worst atrocities. Thus, even the best justification of the war – the destruction of the Nazis and their death camps – was but an ancillary accomplishment to Roosevelt’s grander schemes.

But saying that Americans needed to ignore the consequences of war in order to stop Hitler is not the same as saying that those consequences did not exist. Nor does it logically follow that the United States should continue ignoring the damage that war inflicts on itself simply because it did so in World War II. If anything, World War II teaches that even the most altruistic foreign interventions wreak havoc on the political and social structure at home while failing to solve solve underlying problems abroad. Saying that the deleterious effects of war had to be accepted in order to defeat a singularly vile form of evil may be a valid point. But it certainly doesn’t justify holding up World War II as the eternal justification for every subsequent intervention.

In fact, constantly appealing to World War II as the rationale for new wars cheapens the sacrifices the country made to defeat Hitler. If the justification for enduring all of the negative and unintended consequences of World War II was that Hitler was uniquely evil and needed to be stopped, using that same argument for subsequent wars lessens the uniqueness of Hitler. American politicians are today fond of comparing every foreign leader they don’t like – from Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong Un – to Hitler. But if these analogies are correct, the very existence of these despots disproves the claim that the sacrifices made during World War II were worth it. If the United States endured the foreign and domestic problems that resulted from World War II (that were often of its own creation) just to defeat Hitler, only to have his likeness duplicated dozens of times all over the globe, then Hitler is no longer unique and World War II loses its only claim to success.

Either Hitler was unique, and the consequences of war had to be ignored this once, or he was not unique and ignoring the consequences of war was foolish and short-sighted. Either way, the actual experience of World War II, in all its un-romanticized horror, definitively shows that the good that war can accomplish is severely limited and the damage it does is nearly incalculable.

This lesson has been reinforced time and again since the end of World War II. Intervention after intervention, from Vietnam to Iraq, has failed to secure the promises of the interventionists. Dictators have been toppled only to be invariably replaced by something far worse. Promises of peace and freedom have never been kept. The interventionist foreign policy has, since World War II, been a dismal, public failure, and yet every new intervention is justified by appealing to the false memory of World War II as the war without consequences. That World War II had the exact same negative features as all the interventions that followed has been ignored, to the country’s detriment.

Of modern interventions, Historian and West Point graduate Andrew Bacevich wrote, “However necessary, military power is neither good nor inherently desirable.” He believed that “Any nation defining itself in terms of military might is well down the road to perdition, as earlier generations of Americans instinctively understood.” The non-interventionist appraisal of World War II is that, no matter what one believes about the necessity of the war, American involvement was definitely a step down that road.

War, said economist Ludwig von Mises, “is harmful, not only to the conquered but to the conqueror.” World War II, far from being an exception to this rule, proves it true. The war’s legacy today should serve as a validation of the most essential elements of the non-interventionist position: that non-defensive wars lead inexorably to more war, that they destroy freedom and create a host of unintended consequences, at home and abroad, that are impossible to foretell or control.

Note: This article is part of a series on World War II. Click here for the complete series and here for a selected bibliography

(Cover photo courtesy of Breitbart)