Whereas historians obsessively trace every event’s causal lineage further and further into the past, nonhistorians tend toward the opposite extreme: they assume in effect that the world began immediately before the event they have in mind. I call this unfortunate tendency “truncating the antecedents.” Among the general public, it has given rise to mistaken interpretations of historical causation in cases too numerous to mention, and mistakes of this sort continue to occur frequently, in part because politicians and other conniving parties have an interest in propagating them.
I was recently struck by this tendency while reading comments at a group blog associated with the History News Network. A commentator there had mentioned that the blame for World War II is not as cut and dried as Americans typically assume it to be, and hence some revisionism is long overdue. In response, another discussant, whose previous contributions to the blog show that he is an intelligent man, expressed bafflement: “Yes, obviously some revisionism regarding the ‘great allied leaders’ of WWII is called for. But an attempt to be revisionist about the justness of a war where U.S. territory is attacked by one opponent and war is declared on the U.S. by the other opponent is sort of like justifying the War on Iraq on the basis of mythical WMD.”
Like Americans in general, this man takes the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the German declaration of war on December 11, 1941, as dispositive evidence that Japan and Germany started the war that ensued between these nations and the United States, and therefore he concludes that they should be held responsible for it. In a later post, he persists in this interpretation by saying: “Nation X attacks Nation Y. One or the other is right. Either Nation Y is a victim or the attack was a ‘justified pre-emptive attack.’ Yes, the response may be disproportionate, etc., but those really aren’t reasons to declare Nation Y ‘wrong.’ Or the two ‘equally wrong.’” This view represents a classic case of truncating the antecedents.
Many people are misled by formalities. They assume, for example, that the United States went to war against Germany and Japan only after its declarations of war against these nations in December 1941. In truth, the United States had been at war for a long time before making these declarations. Its warmaking took a variety of forms. For example, the U.S. navy conducted “shoot [Germans] on sight” convoys, which might include British ships, in the North Atlantic along the greater part the shipping route from the United States to Great Britain, even though German U-boats had orders to refrain (and did refrain) from initiating attacks on American shipping. The United States and Great Britain entered into arrangements to pool intelligence, combine weapons development, test military equipment jointly, and undertake other forms of war-related cooperation. The U.S. military actively cooperated with the British military in combat operations against the Germans, for example, by alerting the British navy of aerial or marine sightings of German submarines, which the British then attacked. The U.S. government undertook in countless ways to provide military and other supplies and assistance to the British, the French, and the Soviets, who were fighting the Germans. The U.S. government provided military and other supplies and assistance, including warplanes and pilots, to the Chinese, who were at war with Japan. The U.S. military actively engaged in planning with the British, the British Commonwealth countries, and the Dutch East Indies for future combined combat operations against Japan. Most important, the U.S. government engaged in a series of increasingly stringent economic warfare measures that pushed the Japanese into a predicament that U.S. authorities well understood would probably provoke them to attack U.S. territories and forces in the Pacific region in a quest to secure essential raw materials that the Americans, British, and Dutch (government in exile) had embargoed.
Consider these summary statements by George Victor, by no means a Roosevelt basher, in his recently published, well-documented book The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable (Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2007).
Roosevelt had already led the United States into war with Germany in the spring of 1941—into a shooting war on a small scale. From then on, he gradually increased U.S. military participation. Japan’s attack on December 7 enabled him to increase it further and to obtain a war declaration. Pearl Harbor is more fully accounted for as the end of a long chain of events, with the U.S. contribution reflecting a strategy formulated after France fell. . . . In the eyes of Roosevelt and his advisers, the measures taken early in 1941 justified a German declaration of war on the United State—a declaration that did not come, to their disappointment. . . . Roosevelt told his ambassador to France, William Bullitt, that U.S. entry into war against Germany was certain but must wait for an “incident,” which he was “confident that the Germans would give us.” . . . Establishing a record in which the enemy fired the first shot was a theme that ran through Roosevelt’s tactics. . . . He seems [eventually] to have concluded—correctly as it turned out—that Japan would be easier to provoke into a major attack on the Unites States than Germany would be. (pp. 179–80, 184, 185, emphasis added)
The claim that Japan attacked the United States without provocation was . . . typical rhetoric. It worked because the public did not know that the administration had expected Japan to respond with war to anti-Japanese measures it had taken in July 1941. . . . Expecting to lose a war with the United States—and lose it disastrously—Japan’s leaders had tried with growing desperation to negotiate. On this point, most historians have long agreed. Meanwhile, evidence has come out that Roosevelt and Hull persistently refused to negotiate. . . . Japan . . . offered compromises and concessions, which the United States countered with increasing demands. . . . It was after learning of Japan’s decision to go to war with the United States if the talks “break down” that Roosevelt decided to break them off. . . . According to Attorney General Francis Biddle, Roosevelt said he hoped for an “incident” in the Pacific to bring the United States into the European war. (pp. 15, 202, 240)
These facts and numerous others that point in the same direction are for the most part anything but new; many of them have been available to the public since the 1940s. As early as 1953, anyone might have read a collection of heavily documented essays on various aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the late 1930s and early 1940s that showed the various ways in which the U.S. government bore responsibility for the country’s eventual engagement in World War II—showed, in short, that the Roosevelt administration wanted to get the country into the war and worked craftily along various avenues to ensure that, sooner or later, it would get in, preferably in a way that would unite public opinion behind the war by making the United States appear to have been the victim of an aggressor’s unprovoked attack. (See Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, edited by Harry Elmer Barnes [Caldwell, Id.: Caxton Printers, 1953].) As Secretary of War Henry Stimson testified after the war, “we needed the Japanese to commit the first overt act” (qtd. in Victor, Pearl Harbor Myth, p. 105).
At present, however, sixty-seven or more years after these events, probably not one American in 1,000—nay, not one in 10,000—has an inkling of any of this history. So effective has been the pro-Roosevelt, pro-American, pro-World War II faction that in this country it has utterly dominated teaching and popular writing about U.S. engagement in the “Good War.” Only a few years ago, when an essay of mine was included in a collection being considered for publication by the University of Chicago Press, the press’s expert outside reader expressed shock that I had mentioned in passing Roosevelt’s pre-Pearl Harbor maneuvers to bring the country into the war, and he declared that crackpot statements of this sort would discredit the entire volume. (In deference to the editor and to discourage the volume’s rejection by the press, I removed the single obnoxious sentence, which was not central to my purposes in the essay in any event, and eventually the book was published, notwithstanding this “expert’s” negative appraisal of my own contributions to it.)
Observations such the foregoing ones tend to elicit angry accusations of “Holocaust denial” and “moral equivalence,” among many others. For the record, then, let me avow that I do not deny the Holocaust, nor do I regard the Roosevelt administration as morally equivalent to Hitler’s regime. While I am making my innocence plain, let me also avow that I do not regard the Roosevelt administration as morally equivalent to Stalin’s regime. This latter comparison comes up surprisingly seldom, however, given that the two regimes were close allies in the war, and, most important, that the major outcome of the war was to leave Stalin and his puppet regimes astride the greater part of the European continent in an area that stretches from the Urals to Bohemia and from Estonia to Azerbaijan. In short, if anyone deserves to be recognized as the war’s “winner,” that person is Stalin. Somehow this fact has never seemed to me to fit comfortably into a characterization of this horrible conflict as the “Good War.” Perhaps I’m just unduly squeamish.
The fate of the European Jews also requires mention, inasmuch as after the war many people professed to believe that saving the Jews was the war’s prime justification. Aside from the fact that none of the Allied leaders held that view—Roosevelt himself was a genteel anti-Semite of the sort typical in his time, place, and class—the undeniable truth is that the Jews were not saved: approximately 80 percent of them had perished by the end of the war. Little wonder, too, because U.S. and British war plans did not give high priority to saving them; as a rule, those plans completely disregarded the urgent need to rescue the surviving Jews.
Few Americans have ever entertained the idea that their country ought not to have entered World War II. They persist in believing that they—the ordinary people of the country, as distinct from its political leaders and their foreign legionnaires—were genuinely threatened by the Japanese and the Germans and therefore that the war “had to be fought.” Even George Victor, from whose honest and useful book The Pearl Harbor Myth I quoted earlier, has brought himself to believe that Roosevelt had excellent motives for his persistent provocation of Germany and Japan. Thus, he writes: “As Germany began to prepare for conquest, genocide, and destruction of civilization, the leader of only one major nation saw what was coming and made plans to stop it. As a result of Roosevelt’s leadership, a planned sequence of events carried out in the Atlantic and more decisively in the Pacific brought the United States into one of the world’s greatest cataclysms. The American contribution helped turn the war’s tide and saved the world from a destructive tyranny unparalleled in modern history” (p. 16).
Unparalleled? What about Stalin’s tyranny or Mao’s? Regardless of one’s answer to this question, however, another question remains—whether Nazi Germany, as evil as it certainly was, had the ability to defeat the United States, much less to “destroy civilization.” Americans love to speculate about German acquisition of atomic weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and other military capabilities the Nazis, in fact, never came close to acquiring. As things actually stood, Germany lacked the capability to invade and conquer even Great Britain. Conquering the United States, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, was realistically inconceivable. Whatever else one may take U.S. leaders’ motives for war to have been in the early 1940’s, national self-preservation could not have been among them, unless they were shockingly ill-advised as to the economic, logistical, and technological constraints on the German war machine. In reality, that machine had its hands more than full in dealing with the Soviets on the eastern front, not to mention the British and others who were pestering it on other fronts.
Thirty-six years ago, Bruce M. Russett’s little book No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the U.S. Entry into World War II (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) was published. Russett noted at the outset that “[p]articipation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology” (p. 12). In this regard, nothing has changed since 1972. Yet Russett argued forcefully, with logic and evidence, that this orthodoxy rests on shaky grounds. He concluded that World War II “may well have been an unnecessary war that did little for us and that we need not have fought” (p. 20). Nor did he concede that although the war may have been imprudent on instrumental grounds, it was well justified on moral grounds: “it is precisely moral considerations that demand a reexamination of our World War II myths,” he insisted (p. 21). Although much has been added to the corpus of World War II scholarship since the publication of Russett’s book, this little volume remains unjustly neglected, and its argument deserves serious consideration even now.
Of course, many other great events in American history might be examined as I have suggested U.S. participation in World War II ought to be examined—by taking the relevant antecedents fully into account. For historians, this advice should be unnecessary; if they know anything, they know that history did not begin yesterday. The American people at large, however, remain extremely vulnerable to misleading descriptions of the government’s actions, especially its plunges into foreign wars—accounts of which generally disregard many relevant antecedents, particularly those that cast blame on the United States for stirring up enmities abroad. Yet, any honest account of U.S. foreign policy reveals that this country’s government has engaged again and again in foreign interventions whose official justifications cannot withstand critical scrutiny. Many of these interventions amounted to little more than armed errand-running for privileged American business interests seeking to beat foreigners into line and, not coincidentally, to line their own pockets. This aspect of U.S. foreign policy famously led General Smedley Butler to declare that war is a racket.
Time, some wit has said, is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. Taking this idea to heart, we may remind ourselves and others that whenever the U.S. government launches a new war abroad, we would be well advised to look into what happened in that part of the world previously, perhaps over the course of several decades. We may well discover that the locals have legitimate grievances against our government or some of its corporate cronies. Or we may simply discover that the situation is more complicated than it has been made out to be. We know one thing for certain at the outset, however: we cannot rely on the government to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Unvarnished truth is to our rulers as holy water is to vampires.
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.
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