Challenging Perceptions of World War II as "The Good War"

“The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us an answer to this question?” 
-John Hersey, Hiroshima

Aside from the recent 2003 'War on Terror', America has had a history of debating whether or not to go to war. Is the war being waged a 'just war'? How must it be fought and what goals and plans do we as a nation have in entering and eventually ending a war?

Debating publicly over whether or not to go to war is a fragile part of our American legacy as a democracy. It is the necessity for the public to engage in healthy discussion over whether or not to send their sons, daughters, uncles, mothers, and fathers off to war. Once debate is silenced and dissenting voices are muffled, either one of two things is happening--we as Americans are apathetic to political discussion and find ourselves occupied with our own individual conditions to be discussing war matters OR we are already engaged in war, feeling little power to influence government decisions.

The post-Vietnam era linked World War II as 'The Good War' in American history. Typically when I ask my students 'Can you think of a good war that we Americans fought?' they automatically channel their thoughts to World War II. There is little to no reason to debate the justification of this war, since it was fought for justified reasons--to end fascism and Nazism and to preserve democracy abroad. But did it really do this? If we look at Europe almost immediately after this war, we see the emergence of Communist satellite states thanks to our Soviet ally Stalin. We see some of the most brutal dictatorships taking over countries like Romania, Albania, Poland, Hungary, the list goes on. We see China emerging as a Communist super-power in East Asia thanks to good ol' Mao. Furthermore, we see nuclear proliferation peering its head in every corner of the known globe with the United States leading in what former President Eisenhower dubbed the military-industrial complex.

While we look at World War II as an honorable war (and it is near impossible in hindsight to argue this) we must also understand its implications on the historic scene. How has this war been written about and how are students of history to understand the roots of American democracy if we don't enable them to understand that war is not a quick decision made overnight? The majority of Americans did not want to go to war and FDR's promise to keep us out of the war is what led him to his third term in office. In fact it took the bombing of Pearl Harbor to get Americans to admit the necessity of going to war (see Adam J. Berensky's America at War: Public Opinion During Wartime, From World War II to Iraq, p. 15-17).

So what was the political climate in America prior to World War II and why should this even matter? Perhaps by studying the various organizations and divergent voices in the country we can better understand the impact of public opinion and see how history is not so far removed from our present condition when it comes to matters of whether or not to go to war. Lynne Olson, in her book "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939-1941" captures the spirited debate over World War II and the what was termed 'isolationist' camp that dominated the political scene prior to the war. Olson's research into the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh's advocacy in keeping out of war is often overlooked when analyzing World War II. Lindbergh's justification for keeping America out of war was due to his belief that we could not win a war against an authoritative technological autocracy like Germany, whose Lutwaffe was unparalleled for the time. He believed America should defend its borders and build up a natural military defense in the case that Hitler reached our shores--which he believed to be near impossible. He wrote in the New York Times dated April 24, 1941--just seven months before Pearl Harbor, "The United States is better situated from a military standpoint than any other nation in the world. Even in our present condition of unpreparedness no foreign power is in a position to invade us today. If we concentrate on our own defenses and build the strength that this nation should maintain, no foreign army will ever attempt to land on American shores". Was Lindbergh right? Well, the fact that Japan reached our borders is proof of his faulty logic--however, it was not Germany that attacked us. This is something to remember. Believe it or not, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Americans were polled who the real enemy was, the majority answered Germany, not Japan! (see Berensky's research p.19)

Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota is another example of a political voice advocating neutrality rather than war. His commission which he set up to investigate the munitions industry that thrived during World War I, convinced him that economic gain led to the war. "The Senate probe also found that the executive branch of the government (especially the War, Navy, and State departments) shared with the munitions makers in promoting armaments races and war. The Nye committee sympathized with President Wilson, but contended that the president needed help to resist war pressures" (Cole, Wayne S.). Although Nye's popularity died by the time Pearl Harbor took place, his neutrality acts are what kept America from entering war up through 1939, when FDR passed the cash and carry act--enabling the British to gain momentum on the Atlantic. It was official by that time, that Nye separated himself from the executive branch since he was a firm advocate for staunch neutrality.

Although polls can be misleading, it was evident that World War II was fought not only to help Britain and France but also to enable America in becoming the leading superpower of the world--a status we boast even to this day. But as necessary as this war was, we must not overlook the great price we Americans pay for war. The price of the mental health of our sons and daughters, the price of losing a loved one, the price of enemies growing more infuriated by our military enforcement that American-brand democracy is the only way for all civilizations to abide. Furthermore, as mentioned by John Bodnar, historian and author of "The Good War in American Memory", we fail as a country to look at this war with more scrutiny--the impact it had on the veterans coming home who were expected to marry, get a job, and just keep moving like nothing had happened.

War is no easy matter, and it must never be. By treating our veterans with the respect they deserve, learning their stories, and allowing them to be honest about their thoughts of war and sharing these thoughts with others, we enable a true representation of what it means to fight for America. The new generations of Americans must be more versed in what constitutes a necessity for war and why going into a war without healthy public scrutiny and without a clear path for ending it, could be nothing short of catastrophe for our good nation.

What are your thoughts on World War II? 

Berensky, Adam J. "America At War: Public Opinion During Wartime, From World War II to Iraq". Preliminary Draft. University of Chicago Press, 2007. Retrieved online at https://www.princeton.edu/csdp/events/Berinsky101107/BerinskyManuscript101107.pdf

Cole, Wayne S. "Nye, Gerald Apprentice". HNet Online. Retrieved on at http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-shgape&month=0305&msg=IwpOIdhhcycHUDT5PclsMw

Kennedy, David M. and Thomas A. Bailey, eds. Charles Lindbergh Argues for Isolation (1941) from The New York Times. The American Spirit Since 1865, Vol. 2, 11th edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2006. p. 345-346.

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