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Why World War II

I'm not sure that invoking the Jews as a rebuttal to Pat Buchanan's claim that World War II wasn't worth it is the soundest strategy. Yes, defeating Nazism had the fringe benefit of saving many of Europe's Jews, but this very clearly wasn't the reason the Allies launched the war or one of their important war aims. Instead, as Buchanan argues, it was fought because Hitler attacked Poland. And as Buchanan points out, the upshot of the war wasn't Polish independence, but Polish subjugation to the Soviet Union. But even looked at narrowly here, and without to any degree minimizing the evils of Communism, I think there can be no question that the people of Poland were better off being conquered by Stalin than they would have been if left to Hitler's tender mercies.

Brian Caplan is not what you'd call an apologist for Communism. As he puts it on his Communism Was Very Bad website, "The tyranny and atrocities of Nazi Germany have been justly condemned by world opinion for over 50 years. But it is only recently that Communist despotism has begun to receive remotely similar attention." Nevertheless, Poland got off pretty easy under Communist despotism. You didn't get the massive body counts seen in Mao's China, Stalin's Russia and Ukraine, or Pol Pot's Poland. Instead, this is what Caplan has to say about Communism in Poland:

Even before World War II, Czechoslovakia had a German minority of about 25% of its population. Poland's pre-war ethnic German population was less substantial, but by joint Allied decision Poland's western border was pushed westwards to "compensate" for Soviet annexations on Poland's eastern border. The Communist-dominated governments of Czechoslovakia and Poland decided to expel these ethnic Germans en masse, after expropriating them of almost all their property, with full knowledge that in the harsh post-war conditions large numbers of the refugees would not survive. Out of about 12 million ethnic Germans living within the new borders of Poland and Czechoslovakia, about 11 million were expelled. Of these, about 1.5 million perished of hunger, exposure, and other deadly post-war conditions. . . .

Communist Poland and Czechoslovakia also killed along standard Communist lines. Execution of anti-Communists and dissidents, as well as internal Party purges were significant, particularly during the remaining years of Stalin's rule. The deaths of the expelled German minority, however, made up the greater portion of the blood on the hands of Communist Poland and Communist Czechoslovakia.

That's very bad. But, again, it's hardly the worst Communism has done anywhere. By contrast, Nazi plans for Poland called for either the extermination or literal enslavement of the entire Slavic population, once they were done with the Jews. So Communist takeover was clearly bad for Poland's ethnic Germans, but good (compared to Nazi rule -- admittedly, a low standard) for Poland's ethnic Poles and ethnic Jews. So on the narrow point, I think Buchanan is wrong. Irresective of how you think Communism and Nazism stack up in a global sense on the moral plane, Communism wasn't as bad for Poland as Nazism would have been.

But though the Allies did launch the war over the issue of Polish independence, they clearly didn't do it for the sake of the Poles (because they were just nice people, say). Rather, France went to war out of the entirely accurate belief that if Hitler went around conquering Eastern European countries for a little while he was sooner or later going to attack France. As Hitler put it in Mein Kampf in order to achieve security, Germany required "a final active reckoning with France." In other words, invasion and war. France, naturally enough, thought that it would be smarter to fight Hitler sooner, when she had more allies and Germany had less territory, rather than later, when France would have fewer allies and Germany more resources at its disposal. The British calculation was a bit different. Hitler always maintained that he had no particular quarrel with the United Kingdom or the British Empire and that he would be happy to let Germany dominate the Continent (including huge swathes of Russian, Ukrainian, etc. territory) and let Britain keep her Empire.

Hitler's promises on this score notwithstanding, it had been British policy for a very long time -- well over 100 years by the 1930s -- to assume that domination of the Continent by any single power was a threat to British interests. The rise of a sharp ideological division between Britain (by the period in question a democracy) and the would-be hegemon (Nazi Germany) only heightened the longstanding British sense that it would be hard to live-and-let-live adjacent to a unified Continent (and do note that the UK was, in fact, sucked in to the EU's orbit). In addition, Hitler's promises were not especially credible. "The lessons of Munich" are wildly overinvoked. But there were lessons. A deal was struck, one of whose provisions was that Germany would stop seeking territorial aggrandizement. Hitler broke the deal very quickly. Generalizing that lesson to all deals struck with anyone anywhere is an unsound move. Generalizing that lesson to all efforts to strike a deal with the exact same person about a year after he broke the last deal seems very sound.

So that's France and Britain. The United States, of course, went to war with Germany after Germany had declared war on us and we had been attacked by Germany's ally, Japan. There weren't a ton of choices on the table.

And there you have it: World War II -- not a Good Thing, but a Very Bad Thing That Had To Be Done Given The Circumstances.

Now it seems to me that if you're looking to criticize Allied policy in the 1930s, the thing you want to point to is the sanctions that we imposed on Japan before Pearl Harbor. Depending on how you look at it, this was either a successful effort to provoke Japan into attacking us (in which case it was a questionable policy aim), or else it's got to count as a pretty serious diplomatic failure. Sanctions policies often don't work out (see, e.g., Cuba) but Pearl Harbor's got to count as the mother of all unintended consequences. Nevertheless, my ignorance regarding the Pacific Theater is prodigious, so there's no doubt more wrinkles to this than I'm appreciating.

May 12, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Okay, I'm not positive what Pat Buchanan's position on the war is BUT:

if it doesn't make sense to invoke the Jews as the positive result of WW2 because helping them was not the "reason" for going to war, shouldn't "freedom on the march" be excluded from discussions of the sucess of the Iraq War because it was clearly not the reason for going?

Posted by: b. schac | May 12, 2005 1:45:55 PM

Democratization of Iraq played much the same role as slavery in the Civil War - it wasn't the immediate casus belli, but the nature of Iraq's regime, including but not limited to the oppression of its people, was very much at the root of why the war happened.

I think the sanctions on Iraq can fairly be put in the same category as the sanctions on Japan as far as maximizing the unintended bad consequences while accomplishing very little. Economic sanctions are best limited to states we are already willing to provoke war with.

Posted by: Crank | May 12, 2005 1:49:46 PM

An Ignored Irony of Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. During the Munich Crisis in 1938, Poland supported the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia b/c Poland hpoed to grab Czech territory.

Posted by: Bill | May 12, 2005 1:51:54 PM

The sanctions were FDR's best choice, as opposed to (1) war or (2) acquiescing in Japanese aggression. I have always been annoyed by the "FDR gave the Japanese no choice but war with the U.S." meme. Their other choice was to quit invading other countries, withdraw from China, and try playing nicely with others. The fact that this wasn't an option for Japan is Japan's fault, not FDR's, not the U.S.'s.

FDR had a glaring example of appeasement in very recent history, and he chose not to repeat that error. Doubtless a little racism helped.

That said, FDR came very close to a major foreign policy disaster by not realizing how likely it was that Japan would directly attack the U.S. (The racism thing again, perhaps.) If Hitler hadn't been a nutjob, FDR would've been stuck with a war against Japan that would've made continued support for the Allies against Germany even more difficult.

The two great pieces of luck in FDR's presidency (besides not being assassinated in Miami?) were WW2 and Hitler's declaration of war on the U.S.

Posted by: Anderson | May 12, 2005 1:54:00 PM

What's uncanny is how precisely Buchanan echoes the 30's right-wingers. Learn nothing, forget nothing.

Posted by: Matt | May 12, 2005 1:56:14 PM

I don't agree with Buchanan, but are you seriously suggesting that the few million people killed under Communism wasn't so bad?

Isn't it possible to despise both what the Nazi's did (and planned to do) and what the Communists did? They are after all birds of a feather and differ only in degrees.

Posted by: Brian H | May 12, 2005 2:04:45 PM

> acquiescing in Japanese aggression.

It was OK for Holland, England, and the United States to have Pacific empires, but wrong for Japan to want one?

W. President.

Posted by: George W. Bush | May 12, 2005 2:07:14 PM

No doubt about it. It's the beginning of the campaign to get Ronnie on the dime. And even paleocons like Buchanan have been invited to do their part.

Posted by: PaulC | May 12, 2005 2:12:03 PM

Brian H-

In the best of all possible worlds, no one would have dominated Poland. But that wasn't an option ca. 1939. It was to be Nazis or Commies, and Buchanan has thrown down with the Nazis. MY is pointing out that, for an actual, non-collaborating Pole, this would be a bad deal. Indeed, in Poland itself, the difference was quite a few degrees. Obviously, East Germans would have a different calculus....

Posted by: JRoth | May 12, 2005 2:12:10 PM

if it doesn't make sense to invoke the Jews as the positive result of WW2 because helping them was not the "reason" for going to war, shouldn't "freedom on the march" be excluded from discussions of the sucess of the Iraq War because it was clearly not the reason for going?

Buchanan did not support the invasion of Iraq. He is part of the unreformed "isolationist right" that wants to put a wall between the US and mexico, get out of the business of free trade, and stop messing with other people's business.

Posted by: Electoral Math | May 12, 2005 2:12:14 PM

It was OK for Holland, England, and the United States to have Pacific empires, but wrong for Japan to want one?

W. President.

FDR opposed colonialism, & the Philippines were on track to be independent, in 1946 was it?

But as we've noted in another context of this Yalta issue, deterring future conquests and evicting successful conquerors are two different things. Plus, for the 3d time now, racism doubtless figured in. Plus the China lobby.

But we appreciate your input, Mr. President. Go back to watching Fox now.

Posted by: Anderson | May 12, 2005 2:15:32 PM

Of course, the fact that Germany declared war on us does not answer why FDR chose to apply 90% of the US's war-fighting resources on Germany, rather than Japan. It's like FDR almost completely ignored the fact that it was Japan that had actually attacked us; Germany did nothing but make a declaration.

Posted by: Al | May 12, 2005 2:16:22 PM

By the way, if you think Pol Pot's Poland was bad, you should read about his Cambodia....

Posted by: JRoth | May 12, 2005 2:16:26 PM

With the Nazis Poland was under military occupation, but with the Russians it wasn't; the dreaded Communists were all Polaks; Poland was a relatively independent client state, like, say, Egypt to the US. The comparison is simply absurd.

Posted by: abb1 | May 12, 2005 2:19:08 PM

Of course, the fact that Germany declared war on us does not answer why FDR chose to apply 90% of the US's war-fighting resources on Germany, rather than Japan. It's like FDR almost completely ignored the fact that it was Japan that had actually attacked us; Germany did nothing but make a declaration.

Because FDR, Marshall, & other worthies judged that Germany was the greater threat. Can't say they were wrong. Japan didn't have the industrial capacity for war with the U.S., as Yamamoto is said to have pointed out. They blew their military capital early & hung on till 1945 only because our main efforts were in Europe.

Of course, the plan (Rainbow 5, right?) may've worked only because of our marginal win at Coral Sea & decisive win at Midway. Had the West Coast been exposed, war with Germany might've taken a back seat in 1942, with who knows what results.

(I wonder how much Hitler's DOW convinced the uncommitted public that the "dictators" really were all of a piece, and that they all required stamping out.)

Posted by: Anderson | May 12, 2005 2:22:27 PM

Yes, defeating Nazism had the fringe benefit of saving many of Europe's Jews, but this very clearly wasn't the reason the Allies launched the war or one of their important war aims. Instead, as Buchanan argues, it was fought because Hitler attacked Poland.

BTW - if you really think WWII was fought because of Poland, you probably think that WWI was fought because some Duke got murdered. But that conversation would be a bit too much for this thread.

Posted by: Al | May 12, 2005 2:24:58 PM

When it's Buchanan making the argument, it's inevitable and understandable to assume that the Jews are his real topic.

Posted by: Steve | May 12, 2005 2:25:50 PM

Because FDR, Marshall, & other worthies judged that Germany was the greater threat. Can't say they were wrong.

Why not? Bush, Cheney, & other worthies judged that Iraq was the greater threat, even though OBL was the one who attacked us, no? How is one to judge the magnitude of threat of a country that hasn't attacked us?

Posted by: Al | May 12, 2005 2:28:41 PM

Al is quite right: the WWII was fought because the West was trying to build up Germany in a hope that it'll attack the USSR and they'll destroy each other (and of course no one cared for a second about Jews or Gypsies or homosexuals), but Stalin outfoxed them. I haven't read Buchanan's book, but I suspect his whole argument is that the West should've tried harder.

Posted by: abb1 | May 12, 2005 2:37:12 PM

Al, that 90% number is nonsense, pure and simple. Look at naval tonnage, for instance, and there's no comparison (much more effort put into PTO). If greater total effort was put in the ETO, it was for a couple of clear, non-racist, strategic reasons:

* Hitler had a 2 year head start on the Japanese. Other than China, the Japanese had done very little expanding prior to Dec '41 (remember, Pearl Harbor was 1 of a half dozen coordinated attacks on islands all over the Pacific; much of the Empire was won overnight), whereas the Germans were entrenched across Europe.

* Japanese offensive operations were halted almost immediately - 6 mos. after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese fleet was broken, and no longer posed an existential threat. It was 2 years before the Allies were strong enough to invade France.

* Europe presented the need for massive aerial and ground warfare in a way that the Pacific did not - heavy bombing, for instance, only made sense in the Home Islands, as opposed to in much of Central Europe. Similarly, armor was much more critical in Europe.

* Germany + Italy was, simply, more formidable than Japan, in terms of industrial production, standing military, etc.

Finally, there was the indirect consideration that is underlying the entire discussion - would we let Stalin win the European war, or would we have equal footing in Europe? No such danger presented in the Pacific (we actually tried to get the Soviets involved, which they avoided for whatever reasons...).

Posted by: JRoth | May 12, 2005 2:38:54 PM

How is one to judge the magnitude of threat of a country that hasn't attacked us?

Umm...by whom else they've attacked lately?

Posted by: Tom Strong | May 12, 2005 2:39:48 PM

Buchanan's main point seems to be that Chamberlain had it right in the first place. He just didn't go far enough. I'm not convinced that Communism should be placed in the same category of evil as Nazism. It seems that the stated policy of the Nazis is the eradication of entire peoples. Communism professed the opposite. Of course, the Bolshevics were butchers, Stalin the worst of them and much murder was done in their consolidation of power and much starvation resulted from their piss poor economic theories. The ideology, twisted as it was and is, was at least a couple of levels higher than the Nazi's. Yogi Berra summed it up best: In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

Posted by: LowLife | May 12, 2005 2:41:36 PM

Al, Al, Al ... you stop being funny when it starts being me having to deal with you.

(1) Matt was very clear that WW2 wasn't "fought over Poland." Read below his fold.

(2) Bush, Cheney, & other worthies judged that Iraq was the greater threat, even though OBL was the one who attacked us, no? How is one to judge the magnitude of threat of a country that hasn't attacked us?

Let's compare. Iraq was in two wars under Saddam, the 8-year attrition struggle with Iran which left Iraq status quo ante bellum at *best*, and the invasion of Kuwait, which didn't go real well for him.

In December 1941, Hitler had routed Poland, walked over France, taken the Balkans, sent the Brits reeling in N. Africa, and was knocking on Moscow's door.

So, the answer to your question "how is one to judge?" might be: Read the papers. It worked for Will Rogers; it worked for FDR; maybe it will work for you too, Al. Good luck.

Posted by: Anderson | May 12, 2005 2:41:42 PM

Can we go back to something more empirically grounded, such as the vampire discussion? Nobody did answer my attack zombie question, though the Stalin vs. Hitler comic was quite interesting.

Posted by: PaulC | May 12, 2005 2:45:17 PM

Matt, the other thing you have to keep in mind is that not everything that happened in Czechoslovakia and Poland was part of some grand Nazi master plan. Sure, you can find some crazy stuff in Mein Kampf, but what really happened was that Nazi Germany progressively radicalized and the Anchluss, the Sudetenland, and the invasion of Poland accelerated that process dramatically. You had folks essentially "working towards the Fuhrer" in line with his general ideological inclinations and views, and he certainly loved that stuff and encouraged it, but a lot of the horrific stuff that happened was the product of this process of radicalization rather than some grand plan. The SS and the Einsatzgruppen, moreover, were busy trying to enhance their own power at the expense of the army and the ethnic cleansing that took place in the early days of the occupation was motivated by that as well.

Posted by: praktike | May 12, 2005 2:46:48 PM

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