Blogs > Liberty and Power > Rethinking the Second World War

Apr 25, 2008 3:34 pm


Rethinking the Second World War



Peter Wilby has an interesting article in today's Guardian."Seeing the second world war as a pure struggle to defeat an evil dictator has led us into foreign policy traps ever since."

Wilby believes the war should have been fought but departs from the conventional wisdom when he acknowledges that"the war was not fought for humanitarian or democratic ends. Britain fought Germany for the same reason it had always fought wars in Europe: to maintain the balance of power and prevent a single state dominating the continent. America fought Japan to stop the growth of a powerful rival in the Pacific."

That, of course, was understood in 1939/1941. But it has been largely forgotten in recent years. Recognizing that fact again may help us question the wisdom of those fateful decisions that culminated in the declaration of war in 1939/41.
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Bogdan Enache - 4/26/2008

All rhetoric aside, Churchill did enter WW II only to stop the rising of a hegemonic power in continental (Western) Europe, which from that position could have threaten the "splendid isolation" of Britain, just as the British government did in WW I against the Second Reich, or in the middle of the 19th century against the Russian Empire in the East or more than half a century earlier against Napoleon in the West or earlier yet in the 17th century against Louis XIV.

France, for example, was eager on several occasions to intervene militarily in Germany, before and after Hitler's rise to power (it was in it's state interest), but the British refused to help because 1) they could not justify a war in Europe in the name of some humanistic ideals and League of Nation abstractions and 2) they've even began to feel that France's power was becoming to great and feared at times a French dominated Europe like in Napoleon's times...

The entire collective security scheme produced by the liberal ideology and embodied by the League of Nations in the inter-bellum period failed. WW II was not fought as the tragic outcome of a commitment to collective security and liberal internationalist ideals against an outlaw aggressive nation - Nazi Germany; on the contrary it was the result of failures of this agenda and perspective.

Does anyone really think that Churchill had any world humanistic ideals in mind when he divided the "spheres of influences" in continental Europe with Stalin ?



William J. Stepp - 4/26/2008

All of which I would agree with, and all of which is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Imperial Japan was not attacking the U.S. base and fleet to vindicate the trampled upon rights of native Hawaiians. And the argument that it "could" be construed that way approaches silliness.

The fact is that Japan did have legitimate grievances against the U.S.
Since when do libertarians come to the defense of U.S. military bases around the world, such as the one at Pearl?
Japan's attack saved libertarians from having to do the job. It was the right thing to do.

Hitler's declaration of war against the U.S. was irrelevant bloviating considering that Germany had no means to attack the U.S.

Right. You know, this is the reason that many people have such a low opinion of "academics." "I blew up your house, but you don't have to respond. Just take it as a given and let's go from there." Yept, you don't, but you are probably then insane.

Or are you a consistent pacifist? [A position, IMHO, that is defensible as opposed to the one you appear to be taking.]


Huh? First, who's an academic? Not me. I'll let Szasz respond to the insanity crack, but your point about self-defense and pacifism doesn't follow at all.
If someone blows up my house I have a right to respond, but I don't have a right to force you to help me with my response, nor do I have a right to break into your house and steal a weapon to use for my defense. That's the kind of stuff governments do, in addition to the stuff they do to cause wars.
I am not a pacifist, but the right to self-defense doesn't give someone the right to attack others and force them to get involved in one's defense.


Craig J Bolton - 4/26/2008

The U.S. had no business having a base in Pearl Harbor, which was not part of the United States, even if it was criminally annexed by the McKinley regime-junta. I like to think of the attack on Pearl Harbor as a rough kind of payback for over 40 years of Yankee imperialism. Criminals killing criminals. If the U.S. fleet had followed a tolerably libertarian policy, and had stayed within three miles of the U.S. coast, it wouldn't have been attacked.
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All of which I would agree with, and all of which is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Imperial Japan was not attacking the U.S. base and fleet to vindicate the trampled upon rights of native Hawaiians. And the argument that it "could" be construed that way approaches silliness.
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As for "today Germany, tomorrow the world," a funny thing happened on the way to Hitler's domination of the world. First, Germany lost the Battle of Britain; second, Hitler cooked his own goose by repeating Napoleon's freshman mistake of invading Russia. He had been warned of the potential consequences by one of his strategists.
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Hitler declared war on the U.S. Whether or not he was ever able to invade the U.S. became more or less a tactical concern at that point. The response of total war in Europe to defend America was probably a mistake. The fact that the U.S. was at war with Germany and wasn't the aggressor is not, however, debateable.

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Even if "we" are attacked, that doesn't mean "we" have to fight.
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Right. You know, this is the reason that many people have such a low opinion of "academics." "I blew up your house, but you don't have to respond. Just take it as a given and let's go from there." Yept, you don't, but you are probably then insane.

Or are you a consistent pacifist? [A position, IMHO, that is defensible as opposed to the one you appear to be taking.]


Craig J Bolton - 4/26/2008

Do you mean WWII [rather than WWI].
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Yes, sorry, slip of the keyboard.


Sudha Shenoy - 4/26/2008

In WWII, 2 war machines on one side fought 3 war machines on the other side. _All_ their subject populations suffered. Thus the Japanese people suffered from their govt, as did the Germans under theirs. The peoples of central & eastern europe were invaded first by the Nazi war machine, then fell under Soviet domination. European Jews suffered most grievously, under both regimes.

It is worth reading about political & military developments in Japan from the late 19th century onwards, as also the impact of defeat in WWI, on the same developments in Germany. The history of WWII is not just the propaganda put out by the US govt, or the speculations of a British journalist trying very hard to gain some perspective,almost 69 years after it began.


William J. Stepp - 4/26/2008

I didn't say the attacks on 9/11 were against the military only, but that they included the Pentagon.
The scope of the attacks obviously interfered with trade around the world, but that doesn't mean it was an attack on everyone else. I mean, did your personal income suffer as a result of the attacks on the WTC? Even if it did, was it an attack on you?
Considering the entire world, it was hardly a blip on the world GDP radar.
It didn't cause a recession, unless you happened to own a small business in the vicinity of ground zero (or in Chinatown), in which case you experienced your own "recession" and might have had to move your business.
But let's get real: the U.S. government (and state and local governments) do a lot more damage to world trade in a week than the terrorists of 9/11 ever dreamed of doing.
The U.S. Congress did far more damage to world trade than Osama bin Laden ever could have done, but then he's only one guy vs. 535, or however many professional grafters there are in Washington.
Who's the bigger threat to world trade now--Osama bin Ladin or Helicopter Ben?
Who has more claim to raising the price of your food? The price of oil and other commodities?


Robert Higgs - 4/26/2008

Let us not lose sight of the fact that long before the Pearl Harbor attack or the German declaration of war on the United States, the U.S. government was actively waging war against both Japan and Germany.

I have written recently, if briefly, about this critical fact. My little essay, at http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=2149, contains some links and references for anyone interested in pursuing the matter, but these facts are not esoteric, and I would expect them to be more or less familiar to members of a history-oriented group blog.


Aeon J. Skoble - 4/26/2008

BTW, I did read the article. It's filled with gems like "it is likely that, if Britain had made peace in 1940 after the fall of France, the Jews would have been sent to Madagascar." 1, the very expression "after the fall of France" demonstrates the point I made upthread, that the Nazis were _aggressively seeking to conquer Europe_. 2, the part after the comma is batshit-crazy.


Aeon J. Skoble - 4/26/2008

"The attacks on 9/11/01 were directed not against "us" but against specific people at specific locations, including the Pentagon, a certified class one criminal organization."

The obvious weakness in this analysis is that the other target on that day was one that had nothing to do with the military, or even the government, but something having to do with "world trade." So, yeah, it was "us." Look, here's an analogy - those kids who shot up Columbine HS were ostensibly aggrieved about bullying etc. But they had a collectivist conception of the student body which allowed them to transfer their anger at specific villains to "all of you," which then allowed them to go on a rampage. They didn't see the student body as a collection of individuals, even though that's what they were. Similarly, theocratic fundamentalists see "us" as a unit, and attacked us on that principle, even though we'd prefer to think of ourselves as individuals. The collectivist premise is theirs, not mine, and I think it's false, but the fact remains that they believe it. It makes zero sense to argue that 9/11 was just an atttack on the military.


John Kunze - 4/26/2008

Yes Hitler was his own worst enemy, making many military blunders during the war. You can add to your list Hitler's hesitation at Dunkirk, as well as the assault on Stalingrad.

But can how could one have had confidence that the 3rd Reich would burn itself out? It took enormous Allied resources to defeat Germany and Japan as it is.



William J. Stepp - 4/25/2008

The U.S. had no business having a base in Pearl Harbor, which was not part of the United States, even if it was criminally annexed by the McKinley regime-junta. I like to think of the attack on Pearl Harbor as a rough kind of payback for over 40 years of Yankee imperialism. Criminals killing criminals. If the U.S. fleet had followed a tolerably libertarian policy, and had stayed within three miles of the U.S. coast, it wouldn't have been attacked.

As for "today Germany, tomorrow the world," a funny thing happened on the way to Hitler's domination of the world. First, Germany lost the Battle of Britain; second, Hitler cooked his own goose by repeating Napoleon's freshman mistake of invading Russia. He had been warned of the potential consequences by one of his strategists.

Even if "we" are attacked, that doesn't mean "we" have to fight.
The attacks on 9/11/01 were directed not against "us" but against specific people at specific locations, including the Pentagon, a certified class one criminal organization. Whatever response would have been justified wouldn't have included stealing resources from taxpayers and U.S. dollar holders. And it certainly wouldn't have included invading Iraq.

Craig J. Bolton's magic wand would put the problem to rest by abolishing nation states. Then the fighting would be between much smaller gangs without access to the resources that enable and encourage war and mass murder on a global scale.

But regardless, no state has a right to conscript people and material into a war, foreign or otherwise.




Mark Brady - 4/25/2008

Do you mean WWII?


John Kunze - 4/25/2008

Britain fought Germany for the same reason it had always fought wars in Europe: to maintain the balance of power and prevent a single state dominating the continent.

No, I think Churchill fought to prevent Britain from being taken over by a dictator bent on worldwide domination. Wilby strains too much to show a continuity with earlier reasons for war. The Allies didn't seek balance of power with Germany and Japan -- they sought unconditional surrender.

Nevertheless this is a great article. His speculations about the fate of the Jews if war had been averted are interesting and plausible, but by 1939 war was inevitable.


Craig J Bolton - 4/25/2008

Just to clarify my position, not that it matters a whole lot. I am adamently opposed to war under any but the most dire circumstances, and, if I had a magic wand there would be no nation states.

That's different than the bare practical considerations in this case, however. Let me use an analogy. Suppose you are a college student and a concealed carry holder in a state where that means you can carry on a college campus. Suppose this group of red neck yahoos has been tauting and picking on a Black Muslim student for weeks on end. One day you go up to them and start to advise them, that you have all of their names and that if they don't stop you are going to file a formal complaint against them with the University administration. As you're saying this, the Black Muslim student walks up and starts shooting them.An expected response is not that you say to yourself "well, they had it coming" and try to back away. An expected response is that you draw your gun and shoot the Black Muslim student, as much as you may think that he had a grievance that wasn't being addressed.

That sort of situation explains the U.S.'s entry into WWI. One party attacked and destroyed valuable U.S. property. The other party declared war. End of that question.


Aeon J. Skoble - 4/25/2008

With, not woth. (D'OH!!)


Aeon J. Skoble - 4/25/2008

I'm woth Craig. That kind of revisionist analysis overlooks key facts, such as Germany's invasion of 6 other countries and Japan's aggression against its neighbors on its side of the Pacific. Did Hitler _not_ say "today Germany, tomorrow the world"? And regardless of whether he _said_ that, is it not the case that his actions exemplified it? Would an Austrian, a Pole, a Czech, a Frenchman, a Chinese, or a Korean find any of this even remotely plausible?
I've made this point before, and I'm sure I'll have to make it again: even if we think of ourselves as individualists, and value peace and freedom, it doesn't follow that we won't be attacked by those who subscribe to collectivist/nationalist/statist ideologies. In other words, trotting out the Bourne quote won't stop the Anschsluss. Sometimes you have to fight.


Craig J Bolton - 4/25/2008

I haven't read the articles yet [will do so by the end of the day], but the U.S.'s involvement in WWII was not a crusade against evil or guided by Bismarchian considerations. Imperial Japan attacked a U.S. base and did its best to sink the U.S. Pacific fleet. Germany declared war on the U.S., not the other way around.

Yes, I am familar with all the rationales for why the former happened. No, that does not in some way allow one to overlook that it did happen and that a declaration of war would inevitably result from such an act.

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