How Good Was the Good War?

The American Conservative, July 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

How Good Was the Good War?


FOR MANY AMERICANS, World War II remains the Great Crusade. For George W. Bush, John McCain, and legions of Churchill-worshipping neoconservatives, it is that and more: they take from the war--especially the war against Hitler--"lessons" that must inform current American statecraft. Patrick Buchanan disagrees. In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, a book critically reviewed for TAC by historian John Lukacs, he depicts the war as an avoidable disaster and object lesson in what not to do.

Revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Facts may not change, but with the passage of time perspective can. Perhaps the moment is ripe for Americans to take a fresh look at World War II, one that might revolve around the following questions:

Do the war's canonical lessons, such as Munich, retain their instructive power, or does the war offer other lessons of greater relevance? Does Churchill provide a model of statesmanship useful for American presidents? What about the largely forgotten Pacific War? Are there other wars, for example, the Great War of 1914-18 in which Churchill also figured prominently, that might offer more when it comes to illuminating the present?

While it would be impossible to respond to all of these questions in a brief essay, we invited several TAC contributors to use them as guideposts in offering their own interpretations of the lessons of World War II.

Scott McConnell

How could Americans not think of World War II as "the good war"? We were victors. Our cities weren't burned, our towns not occupied, our civilians not starved or slaughtered. Our battlefield casualties, nearly a million killed and wounded, were the heaviest in American history but lighter than other major combatants'. In terms of military and economic power--not the sole measure but important in assessing world politics--the war's outcome was overwhelmingly favorable to the United States.

But most victories carry the seeds of their own undoing: 1945 left America more prone to seek military solutions than the chastened and war-exhausted Europeans. And, of course, the victory was partial. No one could claim that Hungary, Poland, or Czechoslovakia was liberated by the conflict, though as "captive nations" they were able to breathe and eventually played noble roles in the decomposition of communism. Today they have become part of a Western world in which human rights are enshrined and no one fears the knock on the door in the middle of the night.

This accomplishment should never be taken for granted. One needs to remember how the world appeared in the prewar '30s, and indeed in the early postwar years, when the most plausible political trendline in the West pointed to a forced march toward some variant of Orwell's dystopia.

Indeed, these deeper social and political trends, barely discussed in Pat Buchanan's book, formed the psychological backdrop for the flawed diplomacy that preceded the war. By the late 1930s, the Western democracies were gripped by lassitude. While Britain and France had stumbled though the Depression, few believed their democracies were the wave of the future. The energy belonged to the totalitarian alternatives. Probably most intellectuals were Marxists, the lion's share of them committed Stalinists--acolytes and propagandists for a murderous dictatorship that had starved millions of its own citizens though forced collectivization. This regime of the "necessary murder" was what many of the West's bien pensants aspired to. For the rest, the virile alternative was fascism: order, modernism, trains on time, a vigorous and--to its admirers--poetic mass politics for anti-Marxists. By contrast, the bourgeois and social-democratic parties seemed exhausted. It is no surprise that occupied France saw the cream of its young writers dive into open collaboration.

Yet the politicians of the old, still ruling parties could not shirk their duty to make choices. …

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