March 17, 2008
I, too, am “glad” that we defeated the Third Reich, and there’s much to admire about John’s defense of American “interventionism” in WWII. (Although it should be remembered that even if FDR did a lot of scheming and lend-leasing before Dec. 11, 1941, Germany did declare war on us, and thus it seems the whole question of “interventionism” is moot).
It is important to point out, however, that even if John’s arguments are appealing, he is, in many ways, indulging in ex post facto justifications of the war that are much like those of the historians and politicos who attempt to transform WWII into the most useful and versatile argument for interventions everywhere from the Balkans to Babylon. Such “hindsight” discussions are valuable”as are “what if?” counterfactuals””however, an author’s saying that he is “glad” is not really an historical conclusion, and if it is, it’s of the most Whiggish kind.
A much more difficult task is to examine historical actors” decisions and intentions within the context of their time. With this in mind, let me look at a few of John’s points more closely.
Re: 1) I agree that Wilson’s WWI crusade was reckless”I”m willing to go as far as arguing that a German victory might have been a preferable outcome in the Great War”however, I”m with Daniel in viewing the “argument for U.S. responsibility to “clean up” the mess in the 1940s [as] very much like the argument that “we” still owe Iraq something, when it’s not clear … that there is a debt or that it could be paid properly even if it did exist.”
Moreover, FDR never would have thought that the Versailles treaty was unjust nor that America was responsible for the interwar collapse. Criticizing the Versailles treaty was the work of dissident intellectuals, not policy-makers in the Roosevelt administration. It’s also important to remember that Wilson’s postwar project was much grander than the Versailles treaty, which was but a small part of the Paris Peace Conference in which Wilson & friends attempted to administer the world”including inventing nation-states, setting guidelines for the ethnic contents of others (what’s now known as “ethnic cleansing”), and establishing unstable conglomerates like the “Kingdom” that would become the Yugoslavia powder keg. Even if FDR played into “isolationist” sentiments during the election of 1944″”Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars””he would have hardly disapproved of Wilson’s project and certainly had many similar schemes of his own for the post-WWII era. Roosevelt’s “responsibility” to clean up the interwar mess is something that makes sense in 2008, but would have been lost on most historical actors in 1941.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine that the ultimate outcome of WWII”a continent divided on the battle lines of the Cold War”was either one of Washington’s war aims or was a marked improvement, ethically and geo-strategically, on the interwar status quo.
Re: 4) I greatly object to John’s mention that “the organized murder of ethnic minorities by Germany was ongoing, whereas Stalin’s crimes lay mostly in the past” as a justification for aligning ourselves with the USSR. I”m not sure John is going to convince many that it was a-okay to get in bed with Stalin because his massacres were “winding down.” Remember, on the eve of Barbarossa, Uncle Joe was just finishing up a massive purge of the Red Army as well as the earlier purges of the party and bureaucratic apparatuses in which it was common for orders to be sent out from Moscow for “10,000 more.” This is not even mentioning the ongoing public show-trials that gave ample evidence to the world of the real nature of the regime or the fact that Stalin’s centrally planned famines in Ukraine occurred within a decade of our aligning with the USSR.
Just as the New York Times‘s Walter Duranty turned a blind eye to the “broken eggs” in the socialist paradise, FDR was wholly naÃ¯ve about Socialism”most likely willfully so”and at Yalta, he had not real problem in making deals that ensured that Stalinism would reign in Eastern Europe. Perhaps this was a good strategic decision, or the only one FDR could make”the U.S. could never have defeated German on its own, and the USSR was willing to suffer far, far more causalities and fight the really big battles that mattered (Normandy was a mild skirmish in comparison with Stalingrad and the relatively unrecognized battle of Kursk.)
In conclusion, I”m definitely not arguing that “Stalin was worse than Hitler, and therefore we should have let the FÃ¼hrer finish off the Soviet Union.” However, I would insist that we come to the tragic awareness that the Allies weren”t exactly the Angels depicted in high school textbooks, PBS specials, and on the History Channel.
Like John, I”d describe myself as an “unprincipled non-interventionist”: I don”t oppose all interventions on pacifist or libertarian grounds; I merely think that most all of our interventions since the Cold War (and many during it) were foolish and based on the foolish ideologies of democraticization, humanitarian intervention, and Bush-style millinealism.
In thinking about WWII, the real task is to work past the assumptions we”ve accumulated watching “Saving Private Ryan” and attempt to understand what exactly the major actors’ intentions were at the time”not how they can be justified in 2008. There’s also a necessary coming to terms with the fact that we”re probably not going to be “glad” about everything that happened in that terrible war.
As for the ideology of “American expectionalism” that emerged after 1945 (and its accompany interventionsist-democratist spirit in foreign policy), this is something that we can critique on the basis of its glaring philosophic and practical limitations. And this task can have little to nothing to do with the historical study of World War II.