Three historical topics make most modern conservatives terribly uncomfortable: the Civil War, the civil rights movement and WWII. They are uncomfortable because all their principles and their instincts tell them that the outcome of these events in American history were, in one way or another, ruinous for the Republic and the country that they love, but they are also keenly aware that the received history of these events instructs them to believe the opposite. In the official version, not only were these events not disastrous, they were the defining moments of what America is, those moments when some among us rose to embrace the full calling of the high ideals of the Founders while the intransigent reactionaries of one sort or another blocked the way. Such valorisation is rubbish historical investigation, but it also does as much violence to the evidence as can be done. Lately, following the 60th anniversary of V-E Day commemorated by Presidents Bush and Putin, traditional conservatives have been reflecting on American participation in WWII, the outcome of that war and, in short, whether the war was worthwhile or not.
Prof. Andrew Bacevich, an international relations scholar, regular contributor to The American Conservative and foremost critic of American empire and the phenomenon he has labeled with the title of his new book, The New American Militarism, has also joined in the debate in the June 20 issue of TAC. His argument was essentially threefold: traditional conservatives are uniquely situated to reinterpret and define the history of American international relations against the inadequate narrative of the internationalists (thus creating a “usable past”), it would be folly to exhaust our energies in fruitlessly rehashing the problems of American involvement in WWII, and the Old Right arguments against Roosevelt’s chicanery getting us into the war, American involvement in the war generally and Roosevelt’s sell-out of eastern Europe are utterly wrong. Obviously, it is the third point that is surprising and disheartening.
Suffice it to say that reading such a vigorous defense of the thorough rightness of WWII and the relative blamelessness of Franklin Roosevelt in a journal that self-consciously prides itself on its America First heritage and convictions comes as a bit of a shock. Coming from a major contemporary critic of liberal internationalism and American hegemony, it is rather astonishing. Faithful readers of TAC are well aware of the splendid variety of ideas that the editors and contributors bring to the magazine for our general edification, and arguments favourable to American involvement in WWII should be entertained and engaged on their merits. It is precisely here that Prof. Bacevich has so disappointed.
He has reproduced nothing other than the utterly conventional rhetoric that we have all heard in our American history courses, read in our textbooks and received from our sloganeering politicians: Germany posed “a compelling and immediate threat to America’s future well-being,” and allowing Nazi Germany to establish itself in Europe was to “court suicide.” Most surprisingly, Bacevich claimed that “Roosevelt yielded to Stalin only what the Soviet dictator already owned.” The last point is quite misleading, especially as far as eastern Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were concernedâ€“Patton’s forces could have reached most of the territory of those countries before the Red Army and was deliberately held back by the administration. But that is to quibble about what should have been done at the end of a war in which we should never have been involved. That sort of quibbling is not my concern here. It is the inaccurate and tendentious claims of a Nazi threat to American security and welfare that puzzle and disturb me, and I will now turn to answering them.
Pejoratively labeling the concern for truth about the war “neuralgia,” Prof. Bacevich dismisses the America First critique of the war with his two extraordinary claims about the Nazi threat and national suicide. Besides the logical problem that there cannot be an “immediate” threat to “future well-being,” as he awkwardly put it, this is the sort of claim that needs a great deal of evidence, but this evidence is always lacking. How did Germany pose a “compelling and immediate threat” to the United States? Notice how the debate always centers on the European theater, the part of the war for which we had less compelling justification and far less visceral motivation. This is because, I think, we all know that no one could credibly argue that Japan posed a “compelling and immediate threat” to the United States, except insofar as it was provoked into war with us, and even after that the Japanese never posed a serious threat to America itself.
The question is: why do we believe this about Germany, which was never able to strike at American possessions even once, when we do not believe it about the Japanese who almost entirely destroyed our Pacific fleet? German power on land was formidable, and German submarines were always been powerful weapons in naval warfare, but in what fantasy world must one live in to imagine Germans posing a trans-Atlantic threat to the security or welfare of the United States? Had the Germans constructed a massive surface fleet in the wake of some imaginary victory over Britain (since the Germans could not accomplish this even in 1941 with fighting on no other fronts before we were involved, it defies understanding how they were supposed to have done it later on), America would have had years to prepare coastal defenses and a considerable fleet of our own.
In what way did they, or could they, threaten American well-being? Economically? This is at least possible, but in an age when our currency was backed by specie and we were not awash in imports it is difficult to see how the American economy would have suffered unduly from any single power controlling all of Europe. None of this is to say that such domination would have been beneficial for any of the peoples of Europe, or that it would have been anything other than the coercive domination that it was. But what must be answered is this: what business of ours was it? Prof. Bacevich does not answer that, but in this he is hardly the first and will not be the last to dodge the question by invoking frightening Nazism, as if it really were as invincible as the Nazis themselves believed it to be. What we do not like to admit is that the creaking nightmare of the Soviet Union did almost all of the heavy lifting in WWII and would have defeated Germany eventually through sheer attrition and single-mindedness or would have so worn down the German war machine and pushed back German armies that the spectre of a unified Nazi Europe is probably just that.
No one doubts that western Europe was better off in the post-war period for the defeat of Nazi Germany, and no one really doubts that eastern Europe was generally better off for the defeat of the USSR, but what is not apparent in either of these cases is that it was America’s responsibility to defeat them or contribute to their defeat. It seems to me inescapable and undeniable that America would today be more free, more prosperous and more faithful to her own cultural and constitutional traditions had Roosevelt never involved our country in WWII. She may have become “dictatress of the world,” but she is no longer “mistress of her own spirit,” and Roosevelt bears a large share of the blame in stealing her, our, spirit.
Surely, the United States themselves and American commerce were under much greater threat during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, yet our statesmen saw that studied neutrality was the safest and wisest course overall. It did not matter, from the American perspective, whether Napoleon and Tsar Aleksandr ruled all of Europe together, or if one of them ruled it alone, or if Napoleon was gone and the “balance of power” was restored. I submit that the same was true in the 20th century in WWI and WWII, and that our involvement solved Europe’s perennial problem of internal conflict at the cost of taking on the conflicts in various parts of the world unrelated to any continental American interests. To fear that Nazi Germany would or could have seriously threatened the United States is to overestimate grossly the potential of that state to project power, the limits of which had already been reached in 1942 even before the first Americans had encountered the Wehrmacht. It is to credit the regime with far more ambition and staying power than it did, in fact, possess.
Let us suppose that, instead of FDR’s liberal internationalist regime, some conservative Garner-like Democrat or Coolidge-like Republican administration had been in power in the 1930s. Would America have been ruined or conquered without Rooseveltian skulduggery leading us into the maelstrom of war? How, and at what point, would German domination of Europe have been detrimental to American interests to such an extent that a far-seeing statesman of the 1930s would have seen a vital American interest in going to war to prevent this from happening? If the threat was so “compelling and immediate,” I don’t suppose it should have to have waited for anything so technical as the German declaration of warâ€“the idea of an “immediate” threat to “future well-being” begins to sound an awful lot like the justification for preventive war bandied about by neocons in 2002. But there was no compelling threat to America from Germany in 1938, 1939, 1940 or 1941. The Germans were rather preoccupied with other matters. When would it have arisen? After Germany supposedly defeated all of the powers arrayed against it?
At what point do we pretend that American security would have been in peril from a German-dominated Europe? More to the point, even if the threat did come into existence, how would a counterfactual German-dominated Europe have differed substantially from the actual Soviet-dominated one, except that it would have been more internally free, more prosperous and less inclined to encourage subversion of governments abroad? Instead of the historical commitment to nuclear war to defend western Europe, in the counterfactual world America would have only been responsible for defending herself. Prof. Bacevich needs to explain how this scenario is either seriously flawed or how this would have constituted national “suicide.” Would it not have been rather less suicidal as a nation to preserve the lives of the 500,000 men we lost, as well as avoiding the hundreds of thousands more wounded, than in frittering them away for no appreciable gain? From the American perspective, staying out sounds eminently sensible and responsible.
Prof. Bacevich concludes with a curious statement: “After all, the history that cries out for reassessment is not the history of 1939-1945 but the history of 1914-1938 and especially of 1946-2001, during which the habits, routines, and doctrines of liberal internationalists gave rise to the policies that have landed us in our current predicament.” The WWI and inter-war period has undergone excruciating and extensive revision by conservative interpreters and non-political professional historians. Tom Fleming’s book on Wilson and WWI is just one example of the revision that has long been in the works. Conservatives no longer feel obliged to apologise for the Senate defeating the Versailles Treaty ratification, nor do they maintain the illusion that the League of Nations would have worked with American involvement. They recognise that the follies of Wilson and the vindictiveness of the Allies produced much of what went wrong in the inter-war period. Traditional conservatives have also been rediscovering the wisdom of Robert Taft in his opposition to many of the basic structures of the Cold War, and lately they have rediscovered George Kennan’s wisdom in opposing the militarisation of containment as well as his criticism of limitless intervention. We know where American foreign policy went awry in 1914-38 and 1946-2001, and some of us know where it went wrong in 1939-45, but somehow to examine that period seriously from a non-interventionist, indeed America First perspective, is to discredit ourselves before we begin. That cannot be right. We cannot pretend that the internationalism and ‘idealism’ that misguided Wilson and Truman (and now Bush) were somehow different from the internationalism and ‘idealism’ that misguided Roosevelt, who belonged to the same foreign policy tradition, political party and general worldview as the internationalists on either side of him in time.
1914-38 and 1946-2001 are the periods least in need of reassessmentâ€“we have already been doing that, and we are well on our way to developing our alternative histories of those periods. Besides, one cannot as a good historian pluck out one event or period from an entire century, when the misinterpretation of the century inevitably affects how we understand one period and the misinterpretation of that one, central period shapes how we think about the rest of the century. As far as I know, there has been scarcely any revision of the conventional history of WWII since its modern, politically correct version emerged in the 1970s. No one has wanted to challenge the basic ‘goodness’ of the ‘Good War’, either because it is professional suicide among modern historians or simply because people have been drowned in so much bad history about the origins of the war that they could not formulate an intelligent argument advancing a different view.
WWII is the sacred cow of American historiography, in many ways more untouchable than the myths of the Civil War’s inherent rightness and necessity, because in the case of the latter there is an entire section of the country and an entire historiographical tradition that repudiated that myth from the beginning (it is also much harder to avoid the conservative critique that it irreparably destroyed the Constitution). The reason why it is too painful for some to critique WWII is that we are still too near to it in time, and many of our parents or grandparents who fought in it are still alive. It was, only very technically, a war of defense and so retains a certain mystique because of that, and in conservative circles wars are usually mistaken for moments of great patriotism (the soldiers are being patriotic, of course, but no real patriot statesman has ever sought out a war). Some might feel as if a new generation was being ungrateful for what the soldiers suffered on behalf of our country, but that is certainly not the case. Every non-interventionist, young or old, is grateful to WWII soldiers, but this does not change our responsibility to inquire and understand all of our past with the same critical thinking that we should apply to everything else.
Prof. Bacevich has roped off WWII from revision, as if to say, “This history is off limits to serious criticism, at least from the right.” If this were simply a matter of political tactics (i.e., it is not helpful to contemporary foreign policy arguments to revisit arguments about WWII), he might have a very good point, but that is not what he said. Prof. Bacevich has told us that to challenge the idea that WWII was necessary and right for American national interest is “dead wrong,” just as the America Firsters themselves were “dead wrong.” So much for a variety of ideas on the Right! It is difficult to understand why he holds this view and still finds fault with the disastrous internationalism of the rest of the century, except that we all know that this is the view of WWII all good Americans are supposed to hold. He certainly chose the right audience to address, if his goal was to insult a fundamental historical assumption and the intelligence of most traditional conservatives who read the magazine.
The central logical problem with the entire argument is that the post-war internationalism from which we suffer today was a product of American involvement in WWII, and there was very little chance, as Sen. Taft and George Kennan discovered in subsequent years, of reeling back the impulse to interventionism once the old restraints of American neutrality had been destroyed by Roosevelt’s mischief. Retrospectively, if we regret the ongoing ruin caused by interventionism, as Prof. Bacevich also does, we cannot applaud or defend the involvement in the war that made that interventionism possible and also made it seem necessary. In fact, I would be rather more sympathetic in understanding the choices of the men, who were confronted with the harsh realities of the post-war world and the perceived lethality of the communist threat and who erred in their interventionist schemes, than I would be towards Roosevelt, who was under no obligation, moral or legal, to involve us in any conflicts overseas and still did so. Many of the architects of the Cold War were stuck cleaning up Roosevelt’s mess, while others were simply continuing in his footsteps in making more entanglements for our country. We cannot revise our understanding of the last sixty years of American history if we are not allowed to question the value of entering WWII, because the two are too closely intertwined and how we think about the war shapes how we think about the post-war world.
What Prof. Bacevich does not seriously address in his article is the illegal and underhanded way in which President Roosevelt helped to provoke the German declaration of war through a year of open American naval warfare in the North Atlantic, or the internationally illegal interruption of normal trade in peacetime with Japan that ultimately provoked the Japanese attack in 1941. He dismisses this briefly with reference to “Roosevelt’s deviousness in the months leading up to war,” which Bacevich claims not to endorse, but assures us later that the war was “just and necessary,” even though without that “deviousness” there would have been no American war with the Axis powers. Perhaps Prof. Bacevich sides with those liberal historians who acknowledge that Roosevelt’s “deviousness” was necessary to get into the war, and that this is perfectly excusable in view of the necessity of fighting Hitlerâ€“if so, his ideas obviously have nothing to do with constitutional republicanism or non-interventionist foreign policy. Once the war began at Roosevelt’s provocation, there might have been a certain justice to it (that is the genius of getting the other fellow to fire first), but how was it necessary?
Roosevelt should have been impeached and removed from office for what he was doing in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and he knew he would have been if many of his activities had been known at the time. If these are “hoary” or baseless attacks, then I insist Prof. Bacevich demonstrate that they are rather than peddling interpretations more suitable for the bankrupt ruler cult of a tyrant. For real conservatives, this is not a minor issueâ€“FDR is either one of the two worst, most anti-constitutional presidential tyrants in our history and the war he provoked is one of the greatest disasters of our history, or the traditional conservative and constitutionalist vision of government and foreign policy have no meaning. We cannot hold to the latter if we do not insist upon the former. For us, Prof. Bacevich’s “usable past” is of no use.
These charges against Roosevelt are not in any way comparable to leftist apologies for Alger Hiss or the Communist Partyâ€“that Prof. Bacevich believed these to be appropriate for comparison is simply baffling. It is certainly ironic that he should choose to invoke leftist denial of Hiss’ communist espionage when it was under the wretched Roosevelt that Soviet spies infiltrated American government at very high levels (the only thing debatable about this is whether Roosevelt knew about them at the time)â€“but that is another aspect of Roosevelt’s dreadful presidency that awaits comment some other day. Roosevelt ought to suffer damnatio memoriae for what he did to this country with his foreign policy alone, except that abolishing his name from memory would allow us to forget the crimes he perpetrated against our people. He certainly does not need any more defenders, least of all in the pages of a conservative magazine and from a contributor who should know better.