March 17, 2008
John has challenged us to think about the interventionist case for WWII and gives what is probably the best possible angle on the interventionist view that anyone is likely to find. There is, refreshingly, no talk of appeasement, nor any glorification of the “Western democracies” and none of the other usual German-bashing trappings of WWII apologia. John forces the Christian traditionalist who respects and admires the legacy of Europe to take seriously the consequences of what it would have meant to remain neutral in the second major conflagration of the twentieth century. That said, I think he doesn’t make the case, because he only tangentially engages one of the main Old Right argumens against intervention and neglects others and advances defenses of intervention that must and ought not persuade anyone who believes that American foreign policy must be conducted in the American interest. It should be granted at the start that this foreign policy cannot categorically rule out intervening in a foreign conflict in all cases, because there theoretically could be a case when the American interest was actually served by such intervention, but if, as I am going to argue, WWII does not qualify it is very difficult to imagine a conflict that would.
The idea that Americans in the 1930s and 1940s were responsible for the consequences of a treaty their government did not ratify and which came about as a result of an intervention that an overwhelming majority of them opposed in 1917 seems strained. When did they contract this responsibility, and when did they agree to fulfill it? Woodrow Wilson and his allies in Congress owed some moral debt to Europe, perhaps, but I have difficulty seeing how it was incumbent on the American people to pay more in blood and treasure in another war into which they were manipulated on account of the previous war into which they were dragged quite against their will. The people are made responsible for the failures of their government, despite the fact that the vast majority of them rejected the mistake at the time it was being made. This argument for U.S. responsibility to “clean up” the mess in the 1940s sounds very much like the argument that “we” still owe Iraq something, when it’s not clear to me that there is a debt or that it could be paid properly even if it did exist. There is also no end to this logic of moral debt created by previous involvement: at the end of WWII, we ceded central and eastern Europe to the Soviets, which by the same logic made us responsible not only for preventing westward Soviet expansion but also for “cleaning up” the mess in eastern Europe; once the Cold War ended, our “responsibility” might then be extended to all ex-Soviet states or perhaps to the entire world as the lone remaining superpower. Indeed, this is the logic that hegemonists have applied in the post-Cold War period. This is a logic that I know John rejects in its contemporary application. At some point, refusing the interventionist impulse becomes necessary to prevent an endless chain of future obligations from being established, and there was never a better time to halt this impulse than at the time when the United States still adhered to neutrality.
We can agree that all genocides and mass killings of civilians in wartime are morally repugnant. Is it is the task of the United States government to take belligerent action against every government that engages in these acts? If so, we will have a great many more interventions on our hands in the future. John says that the United States was “entirely justified” in establishing the oil embargo on Japan. The point about the “rabid militarists” seems to be gratuitous—would we have not been entirely justified had Japanese imperialism in China been the product of a purely parliamentary democratic decision? I suppose the argument could be made that using an economic weapon to effect some change in another government’s policies, or at least to punish them for morally reprehensible acts, can be justified, but it isn’t clear to me how it can be justified as a matter of national interest. Interrupting normal trade relations was an act of war under international law at the time and was in any case bound to be interpreted as a hostile act that was likely to provoke a serious response, as indeed it did. If it is the job of the United States government to provoke major powers on behalf of citizens of another country, the government was entirely justified in the embargo. Yet there are many assumptions that go into this that would compel similar provocative acts and interventions in conflicts all around the world then and afterwards. The main interests, such as they were, that America had in East Asia that were under threat were the interests of the people involved in the China trade, but there was fundamentally no strategic or economic danger to the United States that Japanese control of mainland China would have presented. In general, I think it is generally the Old Right view and the view that most all of us here would share that the government should not direct its foreign policy to suit the interests of a relative few, but it should be shaped with the interest of the entire nation in mind. That interest seems to me to dictate continued neutrality in the Pacific.
In Part II, I will address the rest of John’s points and make some concluding remarks.