The United State in WW II

Woodrow Wilson promised the American people that  WW I would "make the world safe for democracy."  It didn't.  Instead, World War I led directly to the creation of some of the most tyrannical regimes the world have ever seen.  One of the disturbing things about the 20th century is that it was not a century that saw the universal spread of freedom and democracy.  Instead, over and over again, democratic governments and proto-democratic governments gave way to what we call totalitarianism.

Now there are lots of "flavors" of totalitarianism: Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism among others.  There are differences among these different types of totalitarianism, but they all have in common certain things.  Most important, a totalitarian system allows no check on the authority of government.

There had, of course, been autocratic governments in earlier history, e.g., absolute monarchy in France under Louis XIV and Prussia under Frederick William.  But in a totalitarian system, the government goes much farther than a ruler like Louis XIV would ever have imagined. Partly, the totalitarian governments go farther because they can: only in the 20th century did technological advances make possible the degree of control of all aspects of life that totalitarian governments implemented. Also, it's not until the 20th century that governments start putting into practice the *total* transformation of society dreamed of by men like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx in the 19th century.

So what leads to totalitarianism?  Over and over and over again in the 20th century, people had the idea that all of our problems could be solved by the government. Got economic problems?  Let the government fix them.  Got social problems?  Let the government fix them. Not happy?  Let the government make you happy.

Now if you want the government to solve all your problems, how strong should government be?  The stronger the better, right?  Well, that's what totalitarianism is about: strengthen the power of government, and let the government create a heaven on earth.

But there is a problem here.  Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And he was right: the more powerful government gets, the more corrupt it becomes, and when there is no check at all on government authority, government invariably does horrible things.

Henry David Thorough cites an unnamed source as saying, "That government is best which governs least."  Some, probably wrongly, attribute the line to Thomas Jefferson, and it is certainly Jeffersonian in spirit.   Our own country was founded on the principle of *limited* government.  One of the problems with progressivism is it's tendency to undermine the idea that the growth of government power is a bad thing.  During the years between the World Wars, however, American resisted moving in the direction much of the rest of the world was taking--totalitarianism was not (yet) an option here.  But while we were ready for totalitarianism here, we were considerably less ready to try to stop the growth of totalitarianism abroad.

During the period after World War I, Americans tended to regard that war as a great mistake, and they were determined not to make such a mistake again.  America’s refusal to get involved in foreign conflicts made it seem like the country would forever be a pacifist, isolationist, and even cowardly nation.  World War II showed that this was not quite the case.

In the days after World War I, totalitarianism was spreading everywhere.  In 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in the Soviet union.  In 1922, Mussolini and the Fascists took over in Italy.  Also in the 1920's, a military dictatorship took over in Japan.  In 1932, Hitler and his Nazis took over in Germany. Now what was particularly alarming about all this is that these totalitarian powers were not content to simply dominate their own people.  Each was committed to a philosophy of expansion. The Communists wanted world wide proletarian dictatorship (starting Comintern to that end).  The Fascist idea was that nations either advance or die. Mussolini attacked Ethiopia and wanted more.  Hitler and the Japanese too were committed to a philosophy that said that nations either expand or die, and they were determined to expand.

The democracies were very slow to react.  When Mussolini attacked Ethiopia, the Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie warned that, if the democracies failed to help Ethiopia, eventually they would face similar assaults themselves.   The democracies including the United States did nothing.

In the 1930's, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and from that base attacked every major city of China inflicting horrible atrocities on the Chinese people.  The democracies including the United States did nothing.

Also in the 1930's, Hitler began violating the Versailles treaty.  He fortified the Rhineland, built up the German military will beyond it's 100,000 man Versailles treaty limit.  In 1938, his thugs destabilized Austria and brought about the anschluss, the unification of Germany and Austria.  The democracies did nothing...and Hitler wanted more.

Hitler mobilized his troops along the Czech border, planning to seize the Sudetenland.  The British warned him not to proceed, but, after negotiations at Munich, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, agreed to allow Hitler to move into the Sudetenland in return for Hitler's promise he would make no more territorial demands.  Chamberlain called this "peace in our time," and "peace with honor."  Well, if Britain wasn't going to get involved, why would we?  Hitler took the Sudetenland...and then the rest of Czechoslavalkia--and the democracies did nothing.

Hitler wanted still more.  He wanted Poland.  However, he was afraid that Joseph Stalin might send Russian troops to stop him.  So he negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, essentially an agreement between Hitler and Stalin to carve up eastern Europe among themselves.  And then Hitler moved into Poland--August, 1939.

This time, France, Britain and other democracies (though not yet the United States) came to the aid of Poland.  But it was too late.  With his blitzkrieg strategy, Hitler's troops swallowed all of Poland in three weeks.  And he wasn't finished!  Hitler expanded his empire east and west, promising his people he would create an empire that would last for 1,000 years--the Third Reich, the third great German empire.  By 1940, Hitler had defeated the French, forcing French to form a government (the Vichy government) that would cooperate with him.  Not all the French forces capitulated: Charles DeGaulle led free French forces that would continue the fight elsewhere.  But Hitler dominated continental Europe.

He worried, however, that the British might turn the tables on him, and he was determined to knock them out of the war as well.  He launched what's called the Battle of Britain, an air assault on British targets...including civilian targets.  The British lost 40,000 civilians to bombing attacks.  But, led by their new prime minister, Winston Churchill, the British held on. The pilots of the RAF took to the skies with their Spitfires and held off the Luftwaffe.  Winston Churchill paid these men a tremendous and famous tribute: never before in history have so many owed so much to so few.

Absolutely true. Britain and the RAF, standing alone, was all that stood between Hitler and decades on Nazi domination of Europe.

But why was Britain alone?  Where was the United States?

America was very slow to react, in large part because Americans had come to regard WWI as a great mistake and were convinced that getting involved in another European war would be an even greater mistake.

Contributing to this attitude was a senate investigation led by senator Albert Nye of North Dakota.  Senator Nye's committee concluded, plausibly, that direct American involvement in WWI had come about because American arms manufacturers and other big businesses had made tons of money selling weapons and other supplies to WWI belligerents like Britain and France.  When these nations hadn't the cash to pay, the US government had stepped in with massive loans to these countries [Bryan, by the way, had opposed these loans as the equivalent of war.]. But this meant that America stood to lose millions and millions of dollars if Britain and France lost and couldn't pay off their debts. So, the argument ran, we ended up throwing good US lives after bad US bucks. 

In any case, we were not going to make that mistake again.  In 1935, 1936, and 1937, Congress passed Neutrality Acts trying to prevent a repeat of pre-WWI mistakes.  No American was allowed to sail on a belligerent ship, the ship of a country at war.  No American could sell or transport munitions to a belligerent country.  No American could make loans to a belligerent country.

The right actions: the wrong war. This time, the events in Europe would eventually hit the United States no matter what we did.  US inaction only meant further totalitarian aggression and a worse situation when we eventually did decide to fight.  But it was going to take quite a while before we figured this out.

In 1939, when Hitler attacked Poland, the United States acted quickly...too affirm its neutrality!  One more Neutrality Act.  Now we did agree later that year to sell arms to Britain--but only on a cash and carry basis.  No risky loans  No risky transport of weapons.

1940 was a presidential election year.  The Japanese were creating an island empire in the Pacific.  With Hitler's help, Mussolini was trying to create an Italian empire in North Africa.  And Hitler was gobbling up everything in sight, eventually beginning that Battle of Britain I mentioned.  You would think that at least one of the major party candidates would suggest direct American involvement in the war.  But both Roosevelt (running for an unprecedented third term) and Wilkie (the Republican candidate) promised peace.  "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," said Roosevelt.

But as Roosevelt began his third term in 1941, he decided *someone* was going to have to stop Hitler.  And so he pushed through Congress a very strange piece of legislation, the Lend-Lease Act.  Lend-Lease promised unlimited assistance to any nation fighting against Hitler in return for the promise that any leftover materials would be returned to us at the war's end.  Lend-Lease slogans: "Billions, not bodies."  "Send guns, not sons."  Eventually, we spent $50 billion on Lend-Lease assistance.

Now, obviously, once we were spending this kind of money, we had entered the war against Hitler whether we said we had or not.  But also peculiar is what happened to much of that Lend-Lease money.  In June 1941, Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin, and sent troops into the Soviet Union.  This meant that Stalin was now fighting against Hitler--and therefor was eligible for Lend-Lease money.  And we gave it to him--to the tune of $11 billion!!! 

The Communists had said the capitalists were the time of people who would sell you a rope you planned to hang them with.  Here, we were lending them the rope on the promise they'd return it to us when they were done. We seemed like we were on the road to disaster: a nation that won't fight for its freedom won't be free very long.

But, as it turned out, the United States wasn't quite the cripple Mussolini, Hitler, the Japanese (and Stalin) thought it was. 

December 7, 1941.  The Japanese launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  In military terms, not a bad move: America didn't have much of a fleet to begin with, and this took out a substantial portion of what we did have.

But the attack on Pearl Harbor proved to be a great psychological mistake.  Overnight, the American mood changed, and the pacifist, isolationist, cowardly United States turned itself into the mightiest military machine in history.  American factories converted to the production of war materials, turning out 40 billion bullets, 300,000 aircraft, 76,000 ships, 86,000 tanks, 2.6 million machine guns.  Henry Kaiser's factories could put together a battleship in 14 days. 

American women went to work in the factories so we could create all this. American farmers turned out record harvests. We eventually had 15,000,000 men serving in the armed forces--enough to do the job.

It is pointless for me to try to condense the long and fascination story of US military exploits in WW II.  I will only summarize by saying that, after the victory at Midway, American forces got the upper hand in the Pacific, little by little pushing the Japanese back.  We pushed into Italy as well, and, on June 6, 1945, we led the most massive military assault in all of history, the Normandy Invasion.  Once American, British, and Free French forces secured this position, Hitler faced the German nightmare: the two-front war, and, although there was plenty of fighting left, the German war effort didn't have much chance.  By April of 1945, Hitler lay dead in a Berlin bunker.

The war against Japan looked as if it might go on much longer.  Japanese pilots (the Kamikaze pilots) flew suicide machines, deliberately crashing their planes into American ships to try to take out as many American boys as they could. 

What ended the carnage was the development of the mightiest weapon the world had ever seen.  In August of 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and then a 2nd bomb on the city of Nagasaki. With that, the Japanese surrendered.

It had been a horrible war with at least 40,000,000 casualties--many millions of them civilian casualties.  But the good guys had won...sort of.