Blogs > Liberty and Power > How Not to Make the Revisionist Case on the Second World War

Mar 10, 2008 5:29 am

How Not to Make the Revisionist Case on the Second World War

Mark Kurlansky, author of Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea (Modern Library, 2006), reviewsNicholson Baker's new book Human Smoke:The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2008). You can read a recent profile of Baker here. (Hat tip to Anthony Gregory here.)

The book is published this Tuesday in the U.S. and on May 6 in the UK. I await further reviews with some interest and I'm sure there'll be many. That said, having read Kurlansky’s review and David Pryce-Jones' review entitled"Immoral Equivalence" in the March issue of Commentary, I’m satisfied that Human Smoke is NOT the book that needs to be written and, indeed, will likely discredit revisionism. Reading between the lines of the two reviews, it strikes me that the quotations Nicholson Baker has dug up are neither as unknown as he believes nor are his interpretations as obvious as he implies. For example, historians of the period are well aware of what Churchill said about the Jews, Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s. Consequently, Baker doesn't make a convincing case, even from a pacifist perspective, let alone from any other viewpoint. Pryce-Jones, of course, roots for Churchill and FDR and he faces a pretty easy job of debunking the book.

As most of those who know me are aware, I'm a thorough-going revisionist on war in general, and on the Second World War in particular, but I regret to say that Human Smoke doesn’t cut it. This book may cause some more discerning readers to question some of their perceptions about particular persons and events in twentieth century history and, more importantly, to read more about the interwar period, but it is not the book that needs to be written. Until that book is published, inquiring minds should read Francis Neilson's The Churchill Legend (C. C. Nelson Pub. Co., 1954), Bruce M. Russett's No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry into World War II (Harper & Row, 1972), and Simon Newman's March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland: A Study in the Continuity of British Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 1976), to mention but three among a great many revisionist books on the Second World War. And here's a thoughtful essay from James Heartfield questioning received opinion about that war.

Several years ago I skimmed Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing (New Press, 2001). My guess is that Lindqvist does at least as good a job as Baker does on the history of aerial bombing.

It seems to me that Nicholson Baker should probably go back to writing novels and his heroic campaign against libraries destroying original books and newspapers. In this regard, I encourage you to search out his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001) and his justly celebrated article entitled"Deadline: The Author's Desperate Bid to Save America's Past" published in The New Yorker (July 24, 2000).

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Anthony Gregory - 3/17/2008

Thanks, Bob!

Robert Higgs - 3/14/2008

Splendid post, Anthony. I've rarely seen anything that cut to the crux of the matter so well.

Anthony Gregory - 3/14/2008

I don't think the concept of "disproportionality" enters into it. If you punch me in the shoulder, it would be (very) disproportionate for me to shoot you in the head. It would not be disproportionate, exactly, for me to respond by shooting an innocent bystander -- that's not "disproportionate"; it's simply aggression. If I steal resources from a third party to help in my response to your aggression, that also is not "disproportionate," but rather aggression too.

If two governments are at war with each other, they are both capable of committing aggression against individual property rights. In fact, it's hard to think of many wars where this isn't the case. Even in a "defensive" war, a government typically taxes and even enslaves "its" own people, and thus even when one government is much less guilty than another, its war power is not a libertarian program -- at least no more so than, say, welfare, which is no more reliant on the aggression of taxation than government war.

But in discussing a modern war like World War II, the aggression on all sides is even worse. The crimes of a regime cannot possibly justify dropping bombs on innocent children, for example, since those children have an inalienable right to life that is not conditional upon the crimes committed by the state they happen to have the misfortune to live under. It is this principle that allows us to conclude, unqualifiedly, that terrorism is always evil and wrong. Just because the US government has engaged in aggression in the Middle East over the years (and I think this cannot be seriously denied) does not in any respect exculpate the terrorists who target innocent American civilians. Similarly, just because people live under an aggressive foreign government, doesn't give any one on earth a right to kill them.

Our rights not to be bombed -- not to be bombed by anybody -- are not sacrificed by the mere fact that we live under governments that commit aggression.

War is not a conflict of rights between nations. Nations don't have rights. Individuals do. War is a class conflict of states against individuals. During war, all civilians killed and taxed and enslaved are victims, and, typically, the states involved are all, to varying degrees, aggressors, not just against foreign subjects but also against "their" own subjects as well.

Craig J Bolton - 3/12/2008

I guess I don't get your point. Nation X attacks Nation Y. One or the other is right. Either Nation Y is a victim or the attack was a "justified pre-emptive attack". Yes, the response may be disproportionate, etc. but those really aren't reasons to declare Nation Y "wrong". Or the two "equally wrong."

Anthony Gregory - 3/11/2008

I don't think you have to exculpate Hitler or Imperial Japan one bit in order to conclude that the Allied war was unjust, or not nearly as just as it is made out to be. Both "sides" in a war can be wrong. I doubt this pacifist book would try to characterize Hitler as a "discriminated against Lamb."

Craig J Bolton - 3/11/2008

The review by Kurlansky is interesting enough that I will certainly order a copy of the Baker volume, but I remain skeptical about the underlying revisionist thesis re WWII. The U.S. and Britian caused WWII by "provoking" the Japanese and Hitler? Say what?

Just how does that work? Hawaii is as far from Japan as it is from the West Coast of the U.S., perhaps a bit further. How does that make it part of Imperial Japan's "legitimate sphere of interest"? If it was ridiculous at the start of the war for FDR to believe that the Japanese would invade the mainland U.S. [which it was], why was it sensible for the Japanese to believe that the U.S. would invade the home islands? Etc.

The case for Hitler being a poor discriminated against lamb is even weaker. Much more coherent, but equally false, is the Nazis' own national liberation argument based on the mangled mess that the "settlement" of WWII made of European nations.

So, yes, obviously some revisionism regarding the "great allied leaders" of WWII is called for. But an attempt to be revisionist about the justness of a war where U.S. territory is attacked by one opponent and war is declared on the U.S. by the other opponent is sort of like justifying the War On Iraq on the basis of mythical WMD.

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