September 1, 1939—exactly seventy years ago today [time of original publication]—is customarily considered the day when World War II began, owing to the German invasion of Poland. Of course, some belligerents, most notably the Japanese and the Chinese, had already been at war for years, and others did not join the fray until later. The United States actually began to participate in the war almost immediately, but its participation remained for the most part covert until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
I was born in the midst of this terrible event, and all my life, whenever anyone referred to “the war,” I have assumed, as most Americans have, that the reference was to World War II. It was the largest and the most horrible of all wars, although, sad to say, it no more proved to be “the war to end war” than its predecessor (1914-18) had been. In many ways the two world wars are best understood as two phases of a single conflict, although the matter is much more complicated than that formulation might suggest.
No one knows with much confidence how many people died as a result of the war. Estimates range widely, from a low of about 50 million to a high of nearly 80 million. Perhaps two-thirds of the dead were civilians. Countless others were wounded or harmed in various ways, as by malnutrition. Millions were spiritually scarred for life. The war was very productive of nightmares that, for some individuals, recurred for decades. After all that had taken place between 1939 and 1945, it was difficult to believe that the human beings of the mid-twentieth century, many of whom had regarded themselves as civilized, were any better than their savage ancestors of ten thousand years ago.
Yet, oddly enough, World War II has developed a reputation in this country as “the Good War”—an unfortunate turn of phrase, if ever there was one. The war is taken to have been good primarily because (1) the Allied side is believed to have represented the morally virtuous side, in opposition to the manifestly evil Axis side; (2) it got the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression; and (3) it left the world a better place, mainly because of Nazi Germany’s defeat.
For me, these ideas fall under the rubric of myth. I am not saying that no good came of the war, because obviously some did. As much as anyone, I believe that the destruction of the Nazi regime in Germany was a splendid thing for the human race. But every good end must be weighed against the means by which it was achieved, and in this perspective the war’s positive achievements take on a sickly pallor.
In this war, the belligerents plumbed new depths of depravity: operation of mass-destruction death camps, torture of every conceivable kind, terror bombing and other attacks systematically aimed at civilian populations, crowned by the gratuitous atomic bombing of two large, defenseless cities. I am aware that some people still defend some of these heinous actions, but in my mind nothing the war achieved can justify them. Indeed, I seriously doubt that anything can justify them. Yet such wanton, barbaric cruelties were deeply woven into the fabric of the war’s conduct from its earliest days. One is scarcely engaging in moral equivalence if one concludes that neither side represented “the good guys.” There was plenty of evil to go around.
I have been combatting for decades the widely believed notion that the war got the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression. For readers who still labor under this misconception, I recommend the first five chapters of a book called Depression, War, and Cold War.
Finally, the idea that the war left the world a better place seems to me unacceptable as a flat, unqualified statement. Yes, the defeat of Hitler’s regime was an excellent outcome—may such utter beastliness never dare to show its face again. But over large parts of the territory where Hitler’s troops had reigned supreme in the early 1940s, Stalin’s troops reigned supreme from 1945 to 1989. It is difficult to count Stalin as anything less than first-rate in the category of monstrous tyrants. Yet, if the war had a clear political winner, it was he. Moreover, he and the evil Soviet regime that carried on after his death wreaked massive human and material destruction over a wide swath. Similarly in the East, the defeat of Imperial Japan counts as a positive accomplishment. But that defeat removed a bulwark against Communism’s expansion and ultimate victory in China, and like the eastern Europeans held under Stalin’s sway, the Chinese were to pay a terrible price—the major political consequence of Japan’s defeat on the mainland of Asia.
World War II is an immense subject. Thousands of books have been written about it from almost every conceivable angle, and thousands more books will probably be written in years to come. The complexities being so great, nearly everything one might say about it cries out for qualification and clarification. Nevertheless, I am willing to assert that in important regards the prevailing American view of the war rests on a foundation of myths. The entire enterprise of understanding the war needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.