Commentary

How Good Was the Good War?

The World War II experience is so pervasive in American culture that it’s nearly imprinted on the national DNA. People who know nothing about other periods of U.S. and world history know—or think they know—the lessons of World War II. The pop-culture version is roughly as follows: Weak and naïve Western leaders, especially British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, foolishly attempted to appease Adolf Hitler at Munich, but their supine behavior merely emboldened him, and Nazi aggression soon engulfed Europe. The heroic Franklin Roosevelt tried to rouse the American people to join the fight before it was too late, but he had to overcome the resistance of shortsighted isolationists. Ultimately, Japan—Germany’s ally—forced the issue of American involvement by launching an unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. then assumed its essential role as world leader, which apparently it must continue to play forever.

Three generations of American policymakers and pundits have regarded the war’s lessons as indisputable. First, aggression must always be halted at the outset, wherever it surfaces. Appeasement merely whets the appetites of aggressors and leads to larger, more destructive conflicts under less favorable circumstances for peace-loving nations. Second, no adverse development anywhere in the world is entirely irrelevant to the security and well-being of the United States. Arguments to the contrary reflect flawed isolationist thinking and risk repeating the strategy that nearly produced a totalitarian-dominated planet.

A few brave souls occasionally question this orthodoxy. They invariably receive torrents of abuse. Pat Buchanan has experienced that response twice: in 1999, with the publication of a chapter on World War II in A Republic, Not an Empire, and now with the appearance of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.

The argument that the United States could and should have remained on the sidelines in World War II is not entirely convincing—at least with respect to the European theater. It assumes that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have exhausted themselves in a stalemated struggle, and the United States and other Western powers would then have been well positioned to pick up the pieces after the collapse of the two totalitarian giants. The situation might have worked out that way, but such a strategy would have been high-risk. It is equally possible that either Germany or the USSR would have scored a decisive victory and then dominated all of Europe. A Soviet-controlled continent would have been catastrophic; a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany and its volatile, extremely aggressive dictator would have been even worse. Roosevelt deserves criticism for the deceitful way in which he maneuvered America toward war, but his alarm at the danger a totalitarian Europe could pose to America was not misplaced.

The Pacific theater was different. Japan’s expansionism, while brutal, was not dramatically worse than some European empire-building in the 19th century. With better diplomacy, America probably could have reached a modus vivendi with Japan and avoided war. Instead of seeking pragmatic solutions, however, the Roosevelt administration presented Tokyo with a laundry list of unrealistic and humiliating demands—couched in moralistic, sermonizing terms worthy of the Democratic Party’s sainted hero Woodrow Wilson. When the Japanese government did not capitulate, Washington ratcheted up the pressure through economic sanctions, including an oil embargo that threatened to strangle Japan’s economy and military. The predictable result was war.

Whether or not America’s entry into World War II was wise, the supposed lessons of the conflict have distorted U.S. foreign policy and suffocated prudent strategies for more than six decades. American officials and pundits have portrayed an array of tin-pot dictators as the reincarnation of Hitler: Kim Il-Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even tried to equate the clownish Hugo Chavez with Hitler. The notion that decrepit, third-rate powers such as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Venezuela could ever compare to Nazi Germany—which had the world’s second-largest economy and a modern, extremely capable military—would be humorous if U.S. leaders did not base policy on that fallacy.

Overuse of the Munich analogy impelled U.S. policymakers to intervene in Vietnam. The argument was that failure to block Hanoi’s bid to reunify the country under a communist regime would lead to a cascade of “wars of national liberation” and produce a third world war. The Clinton administration similarly invoked the specter of Europe degenerating into chaos to justify meddling in the Bosnian civil war. And the image of Saddam Hussein as rapacious aggressor became the rationale for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

World War II was an exceptional situation, not the norm in international affairs.”

This habit of applying the World War II template to U.S. policy in vastly different circumstances has led to threat inflation and strategic overextension. In just the past two decades, the United States has used significant military force on ten occasions, in places as diverse as Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf. That record belies President Bush’s soothing assurances that the United States regards the use of force as a last resort. Equally worrisome, Washington extends security commitments to more and more small, militarily useless client states that have parochial quarrels with large neighbors. America is now on the hook to defend Taiwan from China and the tiny Baltic republics from Russia. We are on the brink of interfering in the spat between Russia and Georgia over the political status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Basic prudence should scream a warning against incurring such risks.

But the fear that even the most mundane and obscure conflicts could trigger another global conflagration has rendered American policymakers incapable of distinguishing serious threats from lesser problems—or even trivial developments. To hawks, it is always 1938, and every adversary is the next Hitler.

Americans must get beyond such thinking, or our country risks an endless series of Vietnam and Iraq-style debacles—if not something even worse. World War II was an exceptional situation, not the norm in international affairs. We should give the Munich analogy a long overdue burial.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (2008).