A Fairy Tale Version of World War II is Being Used to Sell the Next World War
World War II remains the ultimate cudgel with which to beat people over the head if they dare to depart from prevailing foreign policy consensus. Anyone who’s ever dipped their toes into public discussion around the war in Ukraine will be familiar with the reflexive invocation of World War II as an exquisitely clear-cut, morally unambiguous analogy that compels interventionist US policy. The idea, of course, is that the moral dimensions of the war in Ukraine today are as absolute and unassailable as the moral dimensions of World War II — which is understood to have been a metaphysically binary war between good and evil, in which the US intervened to ensure the triumph of good over evil.
There’s nothing new about this argumentative tactic. On July 28, 1965, Lyndon Johnson justified his escalation of large-scale military intervention by proclaiming: “Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.” On May 31, 2003, George W. Bush offered a thunderous justification for the Iraq War by proclaiming his determination to avert “the treachery of another September in 1939.” Countless people who appear to have a Facebook-meme-level understanding of “Neville Chamberlain” nonetheless invoke that name at every possible opportunity to bludgeon skeptics of whatever US military intervention happens to be on the menu.
A recent person to do so was Congressman Darrell Issa of California, who on February 12 of this year denounced Joe Biden for “appeasing a tyrant” — that is, Vladimir Putin. This made Biden the latest incarnation of Chamberlain, according to Issa, even though Biden would go on to launch a massive armament provision and “intelligence-sharing” intervention in Ukraine. At present, Biden’s intervention includes operational engagement by the US in the offensive warfare of the Ukraine military.
On September 21, Putin announced what is unquestionably a major escalation in its own right, ordering a “partial mobilization” of Russian forces and a plan to formally annex several Ukraine provinces. He also threatened nuclear reprisal. Over the past seven months, even to wonder if US policy may be contributing to this escalatory spiral in Ukraine would invariably invite avalanches of furious condemnation. Simply noticing observable reality as to the effects of US policy, it had been decreed, was moral turpitude of the highest order — an affront equivalent to opposing US intervention against Nazi Germany in World War II.
Biden just repeated on September 18 that notwithstanding any escalatory risks, the US will maintain an “ironclad commitment” to doing “whatever it takes” to inflict total defeat on Russia. In light of this, it’s worth re-examining some of the assumptions that underlie the constant invocation of World War II to justify present-day interventionist US policy. And to assess whether these analogies really do carry the absolutist moral weight that so many people seem to automatically presume they do.
Even if you think you’re familiar with the history of World War II, it’s nonetheless useful to undertake this re-examination with “fresh eyes” — especially when US entry to World War II keeps getting invoked as the paradigmatic example of enlightened foreign policy decision-making, and one we should all have no hesitation to retroactively endorse. That it was so obviously “good” for the US to enter World War II, many have argued, should inform our views about what ought to be done today vis-a-vis Ukraine — and perhaps even Taiwan, on whose behalf Biden also just reaffirmed his commitment to launching a war against China.
Note: I’m specifically restricting this discussion to the issue of US entry to World War II, since that is the thing being cited as an ultimate, unalloyed “good” in the aforementioned analogies — trumpeted for its alleged moral simplicity, and likened to the Ukraine war as an argument in favor of interventionist US policy. The information to follow is by no means anywhere near comprehensive, and I don’t purport to be breaking any new historical ground. But the account here should at least be sufficient to disabuse the simple-minded, folk-wisdom interpretation of US entry to World War II — an event still brandished 80 years later to reinforce conventional foreign policy thinking. So a re-examination is particularly necessary right now, given the extremely high stakes of the current issues at hand.
“Lend-Lease” and the systematic deception that brought the US into war
The first thing to consider is the manner in which the US entered World War II. And by “entered the war,” I’m referring to various phases of entry. Formal entry of course occurred on December 8, 1941, when the US declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But there is simply no historical doubt that the US had commenced active engagement in warfare well before December 1941, at the direction of Franklin Roosevelt. “It was Roosevelt’s policy to wage war without declaring it,” concluded biographer and historian Joseph P. Lash.
Public opinion polling then was in its infancy, but a poll taken by Gallup in May 1940 asked respondents: “Do you think the United States should declare war on Germany and send our army and navy abroad to fight?” 93% said “no.” Gallup apparently did not conduct any further polls specifically asking the direct “should we or should we not go to war” question until after Pearl Harbor. But campaigning for re-election on October 30, 1940, Roosevelt gave an indication about the state of public opinion when he pledged to an audience in Boston: “While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” And on November 2, in Buffalo, Roosevelt declared: “Your president says this country is not going to war.”
In light of these strident assurances, Roosevelt’s policy of “waging war without declaring it” required an extensive campaign of public deception — designed to falsely portray that the US was not waging war, when it in fact was waging war. Shortly after the election was safely over and he’d won for a third time, Roosevelt delivered his well-known “Arsenal of Democracy” speech on December 29, 1940, and implored Congress to enact a “Lend-Lease” bill to accelerate the supply of armaments to Great Britain. Despite his call for this massively intensified provision of war supplies, Roosevelt pledged, “Our national policy is not directed toward war. Its sole purpose is to keep war away from our country and away from our people.” He added, “There is no demand for sending an American Expeditionary Force outside our own borders. There is no intention by any member of your Government to send such a force.”
Nancy Pelosi invoked exactly this speech in April 2022 when Congress revived “Lend-Lease” for the first time in 80 years to accelerate the supply of armaments to Ukraine. She proclaimed:
Upon the enactment of the historic Lend-Lease law in March of 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called upon the conscience of our country when he declared: ‘The light of democracy must be kept burning. It is not enough for us merely to trim the whip or polish the glass. The time has come where we must provide the fuel in ever-increasing amounts to keep the flame alive.’ Madam Speaker, our task today remains the same.
In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Roosevelt explained that democracy itself, democracy itself was under direct — was under dire threat, not only in Europe, but around the world. And he called on Congress to lend a hand to our allies overseas: bolstering their defenses so they can defeat the evils of fascism. It was this initiative that would be enacted just two months later — then undeniably turned the tide of the Second World War. And the Lend-Lease program would help propel the Allies to a victory that preserved the promise of democracy for generations to come.
Today, we see an echo of that chapter in history, as a murderous tyrant seeks to conquer its neighbor and dismantle its democracy. At this moment — and this moment demands we summon a commitment response — a commitment to respond.
In May she added:
As in the past with Lend-Lease, the United States is once again the arsenal of democracy. I’m very proud that we’re playing that role. And I hope that when this conflict is over, we can play another historic role with a Marshall Plan to help Ukraine rebuild. This is a struggle between freedom and oppression. The Ukrainian people are on the frontlines of that struggle. If the Russians aren’t stopped in Ukraine, there’s no reason to believe they will leave it at that without invading their neighbors. Putin, I think, much as we saw in the 1930s, views his neighbors as less than themselves, some people to be subjugated and conquered.
Sorry for the florid, drawn-out Nancy Pelosi quotes, but I wanted to establish that if anyone objects to drawing a parallel between the consequences of “Lend-Lease” circa 1941 and the consequences of “Lend-Lease” circa 2022, it was the actual drafters of the legislation reviving “Lend-Lease” in 2022 who first drew this parallel.
The original version of “Lend-Lease” was approved on March 11, 1941 by a vote of 317 to 71 in the House of Representatives, and on March 8, 1941 by a vote of 60 to 31 in the Senate. The current version of “Lend-Lease” was approved on April 28, 2022 by a vote of 417 to 10 in the House of Representatives, and on April 6, 2022 in the Senate by a unanimous voice vote.
The debate over the “Lend-Lease” bill in 1941 was extremely rancorous and divisive — drastically more so than you might assume, given the mythologized picture that’s been painted eight decades later. Testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on January 22, 1941, Socialist Party leader and six-time presidential candidate Norman Thomas warned that despite the assurances of Roosevelt, “Lend-Lease” would “almost inevitably involve the United States in direct participation in the European war,” as the New York Times summarized. Echoing the subsequent conclusion of Roosevelt’s biographer, Thomas said: “It is a bill to authorize undeclared war in the name of peace.” The president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, delivered a radio address on January 23, warning that the enactment of “Lend-Lease” would mean “the conclusion is inescapable” that the US was already “reconciled to active military intervention.” Also on January 23, Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York delivered a speech on the floor of the House warning that “these armaments would be used as a vehicle which of its own momentum would catapult us into this war.”
To allay concerns that “Lend-Lease” would be used to facilitate the entry of the US into the war, on January 17, 1941, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Congresswoman Frances Bolton of Ohio asked Knox if the pending legislation could authorize the US Navy to convoy ships transporting materials to active belligerents, such as Great Britain. “No, no. In my judgment that would be an act of war,” Knox said. “Nobody can declare war but the Congress.”
“Your judgment is that the power is not granted under this bill — the power to convoy is not then granted?” asked Bolton.
“That is my understanding,” Knox said.
Army and Navy leaders had already started drafting “escort-of-convoy” plans as early as December 16, 1940. “President Roosevelt sanctioned this planning in his oral directive to Admiral Stark of January 16, 1941,” according to an official history of the period produced by the US Army. Archival records show that on January 16, Roosevelt ordered “that the Navy should be prepared to convoy shipping in the Atlantic to England.” On January 22, the New York Times published a front-page article with a headline that read: “NO PLAN TO CONVOY, PRESIDENT STATES”
On March 17, Secretary of War Henry Stimson said “Lend-Lease” would merely enable a “limited alliance with a warring democracy,” Great Britain. But any “limitations” to the scope of the initiative would not soon be evident. By April 2, Roosevelt had “orally approved” a plan “to begin escort duties across the Atlantic to Great Britain” — the very thing his Secretary of the Navy testified to Congress in January would constitute an “act of war,” and therefore not be done.
Roosevelt delayed full implementation of the convoy plans till August, but in the meantime, he declared an “unlimited national emergency” on May 27, and on June 5 secretly ordered the US occupation of Iceland. US forces were to replace British occupation forces that had already been present on the island, under protest from the Icelandic government. According to a study conducted decades later by the Naval War College Review, the decision to occupy Iceland was particularly momentous because it meant Roosevelt had “decisively effected the reversal of a cardinal principle of American foreign policy proclaimed by George Washington in his Farewell Address: avoid entanglement in European affairs.” Roosevelt eventually tried to get around this quandary by announcing he had extended the Western Hemisphere eastward, and that Iceland was now covered by the Monroe Doctrine. To exhibit this new hemispheric adjustment, Roosevelt drew on a map in crayon:
Cartography aside, Roosevelt’s action deployed an expeditionary convoy from an ostensibly neutral country, the US, into an active war zone. Extensive deception techniques were therefore required to prevent the general public from understanding the significance of the action. The Naval War College study relays that on July 7, after the US occupation force was already en route across the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, White House press secretary Stephen Early called reporters to issue “explicit instructions on how they were to cover the landing that was now only a few hours away.” Early warned the reporters that “they were to minimize the seriousness of the action and provide no details.” The reporters complied.
In contravention of what the Navy Secretary, Knox, had assured the House committee in January, no approval from Congress was sought for the Iceland operation. Rather, the operation was concealed from Congress. On July 3, Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana publicly revealed the existence of the secret operation for the first time, telling reporters he’d been “reliably informed” that “American troops will embark for Iceland to take over that island.” Wheeler was furiously denounced for the disclosure. On July 8, Early, the White House press secretary, charged that Wheeler had “endangered the lives of American bluejackets and marines by telling the world of the impending occupation of Iceland,” according to the New York Times. Wheeler replied with the statement: “I believe the American people have the right to know every step that is being taken by the Administration which tends to involve us in war.”
Over a year earlier, in May 1940, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had launched “an extensive intelligence operation, including wiretaps, aimed at keeping an eye on the president’s critics, including Wheeler,” according to an article published in 2012 by the Montana Historical Society. Hoover’s operation was carried out “with full White House support.” He sent “personal and confidential” memos to Roosevelt’s staff detailing surveillance not just of Wheeler himself, but his wife and son. The Secretary of War, Stimson, accused Wheeler of engaging in “subversive activities against the United States, if not treason.” On January 15, 1941, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Stimson was asked by Congresswoman Edith Rogers of Massachusetts if he thought the enactment of “Lend-Lease” would “eventually lead our country into this war.” Stimson replied, “I do not.”
Unbeknownst to Congress or the public, in December 1940, Roosevelt had already commenced secret talks with the Icelandic consul general in Washington, DC about forthcoming US war plans. “Even the president’s own files show no references” to these talks, according to the author of the Naval War College study, underscoring the operation’s vigorously guarded secrecy.
It increasingly appeared as though “Lend-Lease” was indeed being used as a “vehicle” to facilitate US entry to the war, just as many critics had contemporaneously warned. One of those critics, inconveniently, was Hitler. On March 24, 1941, reacting to the official enactment of the “Lend-Lease” bill, he said: “The Americans have finally let the cat out of the bag; if one felt so inclined, it would be legitimate to interpret this as an act of war… the war with the US was sure to come sooner or later.” Despite the many faults of Hitler, this assessment was not exactly incorrect, seeing as it perfectly accords with what Roosevelt’s own Navy Secretary, Knox, had said publicly in January.
Just days after one of the convoys that Knox said would not be deployed was in fact deployed, another thing happened which pretty much everyone had agreed was inevitably going to happen: direct naval warfare broke out between the US and Germany. On September 4, a German submarine fired at the USS Greer off the coast of Iceland. The torpedo missed. On September 11, Roosevelt said: “I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with deliberate design to sink her.” According to German archival records, Hitler had steadfastly refused requests from his Grand Admiral all throughout 1941 to authorize attacks on American warships. The Admiral repeated his request on September 17, but “Hitler once again refused, still ordering the avoidance of all incidents with the United States.” Nonetheless, Roosevelt used the USS Greer incident to publicly pronounce a “shoot on sight” order for US forces encountering German seacraft. “The time for active defense is now,” he said.
Another incident occurred on October 17. The USS Kearny, which was on active convoy duty — the very thing the Secretary of the Navy said would not happen, because it would be an “act of war” — received incoming torpedo fire from a German submarine. Eleven US sailors were killed. Roosevelt addressed the incident on October 27, declaring, “America has been attacked… Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American.” Roosevelt then announced, “I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s Government, by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it… This map, my friends, makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States as well.” Only in 1985 was it conclusively shown that the map was a forgery.
On October 31, another US warship on another convoy that was never supposed to happen — the Reuben James — was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk, killing 100 US sailors. All three of these incidents were portrayed to the US public as acts of wanton, one-sided aggression by Germany. On November 8, Hitler gave a speech in Munich “drawing attention to the moderation with which he was acting, stating that, contrary to the Americans, German naval units had orders not to fire on the American Navy unless they were attacked first.”
Three days earlier, on November 5, the Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times, Arthur Krock, delivered a speech in New York City that was later inserted into the Congressional record. Krock said:
Lately the President and Hitler have had another argument.
Some weeks ago the USS Destroyer Greer was the target of a German submarine torpedo that missed. Then the USS Destroyer Kearny was the target of a German torpedo that struck, but only wounded. More recently the USS Reuben James was the target of a German torpedo that killed. The argument is over who “attacked” whom.
An “attack” means an onset, an aggressive initiation of combat, a move which is the antithesis of “defense.” Let’s face it, Mr. President. Americans are grown up now. In that definition, all three of our destroyers attacked the German submarines.
According to Krock, Roosevelt had falsely blamed Germany for initiating three naval attacks that had killed 111 US sailors. In fact it was the US which had initiated all three of these attacks, Krock said. He added:
The Navy some time ago was ordered by the President to “shoot on sight.” The Navy neither misunderstands the orders of its Commander in Chief nor is loutish in executing them.
So, in my opinion, Hitler can throw at us both the dictionary and the facts when he says we “attacked” him. Why should the American Government ever have attempted to obscure it? If the Navy had not done what it did the United States would have been guilty of the most heartbreaking bluff ever made by a great nation.
Yet our government did attempt to obscure it, as the record shows.
When Hitler officially declared war on the US, on December 11, he cited these very three incidents — for which Krock said Hitler had “the facts” on his side. From the text of Hitler’s declaration:
On September 11, 1941, the President of the United States publicly declared that he had ordered the American Navy and Air Force to shoot on sight at any German war vessel. In his speech of October 27, 1941, he once more expressly affirmed that this order was in force. Acting under this order, vessels of the American Navy, since early September 1941, have systematically attacked German naval forces. Thus, American destroyers, as for instance the Greer, the Kearny and the Reuben James, have opened fire on German submarines according to plan. The Secretary of the American Navy, Mr. Knox, himself confirmed that American destroyers attacked German submarines.
In the November 5 speech, Krock also said:
We were officially told that the “Lend-Lease” bill was a move away from physical involvement in the shooting and that no naval escorts of convoys could conceivably come from its passage. That was credible only to those who believed Hitler would do nothing to prevent us from arming his foes against him, while claiming a status of neutrality; or credible to those who believed the United States could or would make armament at its own expense to be sunk in the sea.
Now American men are giving their lives that this armament may reach its destination. To their memories, and to their brothers in arms who may die tomorrow, to the grown-up American nation they are defending, the Administration and Congress owe a solemn obligation: the truth. In wartime, for excellent reasons, it cannot always be the whole truth. But always it should be nothing but the truth.
So not only was “Lend-Lease” enacted on the false pretense that it would somehow keep the US out of war — it was the vehicle by which the US had initiated direct warfare against Germany. Seven months after the bill’s enactment, 111 US sailors were killed directly pursuant to their implementation of “Lend-Lease.” Roosevelt then presented a false depiction of the three incidents and used them as justification to escalate US involvement in the war even further, up to repealing provisions of the Neutrality Act in October and November 1941. In his formal declaration of war on the US, Hitler said: “On 6th and 7th July, Iceland, which is within the German fighting zone, was occupied by American Forces on the orders of Roosevelt. He intended, first of all, to force Germany to make war.” Again, for all of Hitler’s many faults, this is not a wholly unfounded surmise given the facts at hand: US warships, on orders from Roosevelt, had proactively pursued and fired on German submarines.
Winston Churchill secretly reported to his Cabinet colleagues that during the Atlantic Conference, which was held off the coast of Newfoundland from August 9, 1941 through August 12, Roosevelt told Churchill that “he would wage war, but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces!” Roosevelt’s statement, as recorded by Churchill, only became public on January 1, 1972. Churchill said Roosevelt “obviously was determined that they should come in,” meaning that the US should enter the war. But if Roosevelt put the matter to Congress, “they would debate it for months.” So in the meantime, Churchill said, Roosevelt had concluded that “everything was to be done to force an incident” which could “justify him opening hostilities.”
On January 22, in his testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Norman Thomas had said that the purpose of “Lend-Lease” was for Roosevelt to “put us in war gradually, knowing that we would refuse to go into it all at once.” Thomas continued: “Moreover, it seems to be forgotten that our acts of war against Hitler may well be interpreted by Japan, under her treaty with the Axis, as justifying her entry into the war. We shall have total war on two oceans and five continents.”
As it turned out, logistical plans for the forthcoming global war (called “Rainbow 5”) were already well in development as early as 1939. According to a 1990 assessment published by the Naval Postgraduate School:
Rainbow 5 was selected as reflecting the most likely future situation. It envisioned a coalition (to include the US) conducting a strategic offensive in Europe against Germany, and a strategic defensive in the Pacific Theater in order to assist France and Great Britain, by fighting in Europe, Africa, or both. This was the origin of the grand strategy of defeating first Germany, and then Japan, the primary enemy in the Pacific.
Of course, when most people think of “US entry to World War II,” they think of the official declaration of war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. This is wildly misleading, but does tend to be the standard mythologized version of events.
After the re-election of Roosevelt in November 1940, the New York Times quoted an editorial in the Japan Times which lamented that Roosevelt’s victory could heighten the prospect of war. “At this grave time the President will hesitate long before he adds to the provocation in the Pacific. Extremists have suggested an embargo on all shipments and the suspension of trade,” the editorial read. “We cannot believe that the President, entrusted with the task of keeping his country out of war, will do so.”
In a June 23, 1941 letter to Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior and a long-time close personal advisor, wrote: “To embargo oil to Japan would be as popular a move in all parts of the country as you can make... There might develop from the embargoing of oil to Japan such a situation as would make it, not only possible but easy, to get into this war in an effective way.” Roosevelt replied with a cordial request for elaboration. On July 25, he froze Japanese assets in the US, “thus virtually severing trade ties with the empire and dealing it the most drastic blow short of actual war,” as the New York Times reported the following day.
On August 1, 1941, the thing that the Japan Times lamented the previous November would be a war-making “provocation” was carried out, and Roosevelt imposed an oil embargo on Japan. According to John Utley, author of the 1985 study Going to War with Japan 1937-1941, until July 1941, Secretary of State Cordell Hull — backed by Roosevelt — “did not favor confrontation over China and he did not favor confrontation over Southeast Asia.” However, there had been factions within the Administration that were “eager to impose the type of economic sanctions against Japan that would lead to war.” Within the highest ranks of the US government, including senior officials in the Navy Department, it was understood that economic sanctions “would cause an immediate, severe psychological reaction among Japanese leaders and intensify the nation’s determination to expand, an expansion that would probably involve the United States in war.” This helps explain why until July 1941, “there was nothing approaching a structured program of economic warfare against Japan.” Then, the policy changed.
On August 9, the German ambassador to Japan sent a telegram to Berlin reporting that despite the enormous economic strain Roosevelt’s actions had placed on Japan, the Japanese government “would do everything to avoid a clash with the United States.” On August 17, Japan’s ambassador to the US submitted a request to Roosevelt for a meeting with Fumimaro Konoe, the Prime Minister. On September 3, the request was denied. On October 17, Konoe — whose policy had been to seek a rapprochement with the US — was forced to resign on account of the failure of the negotiations; the US had refused to budge on the economic sanctions. Konoe was replaced by General Tojo. An imperial conference held November 1-5 concluded with the determination that if no diplomatic progress with the US could be made by November 25, Japan would consider itself at war. Japan submitted a settlement proposal to the US, which was rejected on November 10. A second proposal was submitted, then rejected on November 26. Even though this was one day after the deadline set by the imperial conference, it was only upon receipt of the refusal that the Japanese military mobilized the forces it would use for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On November 28, the two Japanese ambassadors in the US received a cable from Tokyo commending them for their “superhuman efforts,” but that the US response to Japan’s latest proposal had been “humiliating,” and the Tokyo government could “by no means use it as a basis for negotiations.” On November 29, Hull said, “the diplomatic part of our relations with Japan was virtually over [and] the matter will now go to the officials of the Army and the Navy.” Despite the imperial conference’s deadline having passed, on November 30 the Japanese ambassadors received another order from Tokyo to “make one more attempt verbally” to resume negotiations with the US. The ambassadors were told that the government in Tokyo was “at a loss to understand why [the US] has now taken the attitude that the new proposals we have made cannot be made the basis of discussion.” Hull met with the ambassadors on December 1 and informed them that the reply the US had issued on November 26 — the one that was regarded by the government in Tokyo to have been “humiliating” — constituted an “ultimatum” on the part of the US. The Japanese ambassador Kurusu told Hull, “wars never settle anything and that war in the Pacific would be a tragedy.”
According to voluminous records derived from the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1945-1946, it certainly appears that Hull is the one who cut off negotiations with the Japanese ambassadors, not the other way around. Additional records were only published in 2010. The day after the US cut off negotiations, December 2, the commander of the Japanese navy issued a dispatch on the authority of the Imperial Order announcing that Japan “has reached a decision to declare war on the United States of America.” That day, Roosevelt told Don Nelson, the head of a newly-created war supplies board: “Don, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we were at war with Japan by Thursday.”
I’m not purporting to be some master historiographer. This is a condensed and necessarily limited summary of the broad outlines of how the US came to “enter” World War II. As we can see, it is marked by a campaign of massive deception, particularly regarding the European theater, whereby the public was systematically purveyed falsehoods to justify escalating US involvement. It is also marked by a series of deliberately punitive policy actions which were known would hasten the onset of war, in tandem with a rejection of negotiations. Given this sequence of events, would I issue a ringing, absolutist, black-and-white moral affirmation that it was unreservedly “good” for the US to have entered World War II? Would that also require me to affirm it was unreservedly “good” for a war to have been launched on the basis of systematic state deception and abrogation of diplomacy? Because those aren’t things I typically go out of my way to endorse.
Deliberate targeting of civilians was a fundamental feature of the US war effort, not an exception
There’s a conceit that the manner in which a war is conducted can somehow be separated, in terms of moral judgment, from whether launching the war was justified. In other words, the rationale for launching a war can be justified — and therefore worthy of endorsement — even if the manner in which the war was subsequently waged had immoral features. Put another way: a war you believe was launched on fundamentally just grounds doesn’t become unjust simply because the war-making effort employed methods or tactics which you find to be objectionable.
I’m going to propose a few problems with this line of thinking.
For one thing, I don’t see how this conceptual distinction holds in the case of the retrospective moral judgments we’re all supposed to make with regard to World War II. Because we know the manner in which that war was waged; we don’t have to speculate. If a war was launched today on grounds that were seen to be justifiable, and the manner in which the war was to be waged in the future was not yet known, then maybe you could make such a conceptual distinction: after all, no methods or tactics have yet been employed. That’s arguably a valid application of the claimed distinction.
But the application of this supposed conceptual distinction retroactively doesn’t hold up. Particularly if we’re talking about the fundamental features of a war, i.e., the core manner in which the war was waged, as opposed to isolated anomalies or aberrations. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to say: “In retrospect I believe the Vietnam War was justified, but I reject the systematic destruction of villages.” This makes no sense, because the systematic destruction of villages was a fundamental component of how the war itself was actually waged. That was the war. Trying to separate “systematic destruction of villages” from “the Vietnam War” would be like trying to separate a house from the house-frame which structurally forms the house. You endorse the house, but don’t endorse the house-frame? That’s incoherent. Likewise, it would be incoherent to say: “In retrospect I believe the Iraq War was justified, but I reject the ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign in Baghdad.” That makes no sense either, because “the Iraq War” and “shock and awe” are fundamentally inseparable from one another. If you’re rejecting the “shock and awe” bombing campaign, what you’re rejecting is the Iraq War itself.
Unfortunately for those who want to live in an extremely simple and comforting moral universe, that same logic holds for US entry to World War II. I’m going to limit discussion here to the US aerial bombing campaigns — not because the ground or naval campaigns are unworthy of examination, but because the aerial bombing campaigns suffice for the purposes of this discussion. Recall: my purpose is not to conduct a comprehensive review of US operations in World War II, but to address the question: Can US entry to World War II be unambiguously, unflinchingly declared to have been a moral good, and therefore worthy of black-and-white retroactive endorsement? Particularly in the context of present-day debates over foreign policy issues, in which US entry to World War II is routinely cast as the simplest moral question that has ever faced humanity?
On February 18, 1945, an Associated Press correspondent published an article reporting that Allied air commanders had adopted a policy of “deliberate terror bombing of German population centers.” This caused a stir in the US. If the report was true, the Washington Star newspaper editorialized, “We cannot complain if history indicts us as co-defendants with the Luftwaffe.” (With the Luftwaffe being Nazi Germany’s air force, in case you were unaware.) As the historian Max Hastings wrote in his 1979 book Bomber Command, the Associated Press report “of course was perfectly accurate, although its news was three years old.”
Those keen to maintain an ability to say that US entry into World War II was justified, even if certain methods or tactics were not justified, often point to a few high-profile examples of bombing raids which they think may have crossed a line. These commonly include the firebombing of Dresden, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — all of which deliberately targeted civilians for mass destruction. But less commonly understood is that these attacks were not aberrational. Deliberate targeting of civilians was always a foundational tenet of the Allied (and US) aerial warfare strategy.
According to a review published in 2006 by Air University Press, and conveniently available on the Defense Department’s website, US perpetration of so-called “area raids” in the European theater was officially authorized and systematic.
The first “city bombing attack” conducted by British forces was in Mannheim, Germany on December 16, 1940 — crews were ordered to “drop incendiaries on the center of town,” reports the Air Force review. “The attack had the clear intention of burning out the city center.” By September 27, 1943, the US officially institutionalized this tactic. In a raid on the German city of Emden, the command headquarters of the Eighth Air Force “ordered the attacking aircraft to aim for the center of the city, not specific industrial or transportation targets.” As the 2006 Air Force review specifies, “by definition an area raid on a city requires a large percentage of incendiaries.” From that point onward, the Eighth Air Force conducted at least one “area raid” per week until the end of the war. Previously raids which deliberately targeted civilian populations had occurred on a more ad hoc basis, such as on August 12, 1943, when 106 US bombers “visually attacked the city of Bonn as a target of opportunity with 243 tons of bombs.”
In January 1945, General George McDonald pointed out that in its large-scale adoption of this tactic, the US Air Force was “unequivocally into the business of area bombardment of congested civil populations,” causing “indiscriminate homicide and destruction.” In certain Air Force records, deliberate bombings of cities were concealed and falsely classified as attacks on “military targets.” But this was not some rogue activity; in a joint directive issued on January 24, 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill ordered their respective air forces to “undermine the morale of the German people.” The prevailing theory was that this could be accomplished by deliberately firebombing civilian population centers to instill “generalized fear,” as Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, explained. In early 1942, the British forces had adopted “an almost exclusive focus on city centers.” As early as July 9, 1941, months before formal US entry to the war, Roosevelt had directed his military chiefs to develop operational principles for the forthcoming aerial bombardment campaign. The chiefs concluded that a central aim should be the “undermining of German morale by air attack of civil concentrations… heavy and sustained bombing of cities may crash that morale entirely.”
Even US aerial attacks in which civilians may not have been deliberately targeted are difficult to distinguish from US aerial attacks in which civilians were deliberately targeted. As Tami Davis Biddle, professor at the United States Army War College, wrote in 2005:
In order to maintain a reasonable operating tempo, the Americans had taken to mounting frequent attacks on railway marshaling yards — large, visible targets either within or on the outskirts of major cities. Though such raids were designated and recorded as attacks on “communications” or “transportation” targets, they were often — in their effects — hard to distinguish from less discriminate “area” raids. The Americans typically included incendiary bombs, which were not particularly efficient against marshaling yards but could cause widespread collateral damage.
Years after the civilian-targeting policy had been systematically implemented, in February 1945, Secretary of War Stimson declared: “We will continue to bomb military targets and… there has been no change in the policy against conducting ‘terror bombings’ against civilian populations.” There had only been “no change” insofar as deliberate targeting of civilians had long been the policy. This official deception continued for some time, such as on July 23, 1945, when — repeating as fact the claims made by US Air Force General James Bevans — the New York Times reported: “During the entire European war, the American air forces concentrated on precision bombing.”
“The leaders of the USAAF knew exactly what they were doing, and civilian casualties were one of the explicit objectives of area incendiary bombing approved by both the USAAF and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” concluded Thomas Searle in the Journal of Military History (2002).
According to records referenced by Alex J. Bellamy (University of Queensland) in Massacres and Morality: Mass Atrocities in an Age of Civilian Immunity (2012), the US aerial bombardment campaign in Japan was designed by Air Force planners who “used three criteria to select targets. In order of importance, they were: (1) ‘congestion/inflammability’ of the city; (2) incidence of war industry; (3) incidence of transportation facilities.”
Bellamy writes, “Despite public claims to the contrary, therefore, the planners clearly chose cities themselves as targets and primarily on the basis of the likely destruction that could be wrought, with the presence of war industries a secondary consideration to the potential for destroying cities congested with civilians. The presence of military facilities was apparently not a major factor in target selection.”
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only unique for the type of weapons that were used — not because civilians were the intended targets. (In publicly announcing the first nuclear bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, Harry Truman falsely stated that the city was “a military base.”) Estimates vary, but it can be reasonably approximated that 1.5 million civilians were deliberately targeted and killed by US bombing campaigns in Japan and Germany.
There is no coherent way to separate the justifiability of these deliberate, civilian-targeting aerial bombardment campaigns from the justifiability of entering the war. Because a foundational feature of the war was these deliberate civilian-targeting aerial bombardment campaigns. “Deliberate, civilian-targeting aerial bombardment campaigns” are no more separable from World War II than “systematic destruction of peasant villages” is separable from the Vietnam War, or “shock and awe” is separable from the Iraq War — or “house frame” is separable from “house.”
If you think the above information is conducive to a morally absolute endorsement that it was unreservedly “good” for the US to have entered World War II, then our moral calculuses may be different.
Note, I am not arguing it was “bad” for the US to enter the war, either. I’m not making any counter-factual arguments about what would have happened if the US had not entered the war. What I’m arguing is simply that the unrelenting moral absolutism attached to this issue is wholly unwarranted, and as such, invocations of US entry to World War II as an unchallengeable moral good are not sustainable. Which also undermines the validity of the flippant analogies so frequently invoked with respect to present-day issues, such as interventionist US policy in Ukraine.
US entry into World War II did not prevent the Holocaust, and there is substantial reason to believe it was a factor in accelerating the most lethal phase of the Holocaust
The reflexive supposition that US entry into World War II was an unambiguous moral good, and therefore worthy of unambiguous retroactive “support,” often rests on a folkloric belief about the effects of US entry on the Holocaust. For example, here is what someone said to me several days ago:
If by expressing reluctance to declare unmitigated, absolute support for US entry into World War II, I was therefore adopting the “stance that we should have permitted the Holocaust,” it would have to follow that US entry into World War II had some sort of salutary effect on preventing, curtailing, or mitigating the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, the basis for this folkloric belief is nowhere near as straightforward as many people seem to unthinkingly assume. If anything, there is substantial reason to believe that escalating US involvement in the war, culminating in official US entry, was a factor in the acceleration of the most lethal phase of the Holocaust.
Note: I have never claimed, nor am I claiming here, that the US “caused” the Holocaust, or that Nazi Germany bears any less responsibility for the Holocaust, or that mass killings of Jews would not have happened in the absence of US entry to World War II. I am also not denying that mass killings of Jews predated US entry to World War II. What I’m saying is this: there is ample reason to believe, based on a copious array of peer-reviewed, mainstream sources, that US entry to World War II coincided with — and may well have been a motivating factor in — the acceleration of the most lethal phase of the Holocaust. The year during which the most deaths associated with the Holocaust are universally understood to have taken place, 1942, came after US entry to the war.
I’m not purporting to assert with absolute metaphysical certitude that this rendering of the chronology is correct. What I am purporting to assert with absolute metaphysical certitude is that this rendering of the chronology is supported by a robust breadth of 100% mainstream, peer-reviewed sources. I intentionally have not consulted any sources that could be remotely classified as “fringe” or “denialist,” or whatever other label people would use to dismiss certain material a priori. The original 1998 paper by Christian Gerlach I’m about to reference first appeared in the Journal of Modern History, a publication of the University of Chicago. Gerlach’s subsequent book (2016) — which reinforced the chronology proposed here — was published by Cambridge University Press. If you want to consider those outfits “fringe” or “denialist” go ahead, I suppose, but that would seem to render every mainstream source imaginable a haven for fringe denialists.
In the 1998 paper, Gerlach, a professor of history at the University of Bern, writes that December 12, 1941 was the date on which Hitler “proclaimed his decision to exterminate all Jews in Europe.” This decision, says Gerlach, owed to Hitler’s belief that formal US entry to the war had officially turned the conflict into “a world war,” and thus fulfilled Hitler’s prophecy that the next world war would result “in the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe”:
Gerlach writes that although Hitler had discussed this “prophecy” before — that in the next world war, European Jews would be exterminated — he had never done so as clearly or unambiguously as on this date. “What Hitler said was not intended metaphorically or as propaganda,” Gerlach writes:
Gerlach says one consideration for Hitler’s timing in announcing this decision could have been that “the European Jews had lost, for the Nazi leadership, their role as hostages who might deter the US from an open entry into the war.” And that “in light of the expected US attack,” Hitler viewed Jews as a greater threat than before:
Gerlach writes that before Hitler’s decision in December, “deportation of Jews from the German Reich” was already underway, but “a decision to exterminate them had not yet been made.” Behavior of Hitler’s direct subordinates indicates the decision to “exterminate the Jews in Europe” must have been made after December 7, Gerlach writes. (“When news broke of the attack on Pearl Harbor” — on December 7 — Hitler “was convinced that he was effectively already at war with America.”) Gassings at the first death camp, Chelmno, began on December 8, according to Gerlach.
After Hitler’s decision, “systematic planning for the destruction of the Jews throughout Europe” began, Gerlach writes. He adds that at the time of Hitler’s decision, top Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich “had no ready-made plan for extermination that he could simply pull off the shelf,” which to Gerlach indicates “such a plan could not have existed before the beginning of 1942.”
The Nazi officials called to attend Hitler’s announcement on December 12, Gerlach says, “were the decisive political figures involved in the destruction of the Jews in Europe.” Gerlach shows substantial evidence that Nazi officials interpreted the announcement as a new “directive”:
Gerlach says the announcement of this “fundamental decision” by Hitler regarding the extermination of European Jews was “crucial,” in that preexisting Nazi policies “received new impetus and became systematized” to carry out Hitler’s directive:
In his 2016 book The Extermination of the European Jews, Gerlach says that since the publication of the 1998 paper, his interpretation had come to be further supported by “newly discovered documents, especially a report from mid-1944 written by an unidentified German former SD officer, a man with comprehensive knowledge of the policies of mass murder.” In the SD officer’s account, which Gerlach deems to have “credibility,” the SD officer is recorded to have said: “After America entered the war, the annihilation (Ausrottung) of all European Jews was initiated on the Führer’s order.”
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Hitler explained his interpretation of this event as the formalization of already-existing war between Germany and the US: “If we don’t stand on the side of Japan, the [Tripartite] pact is politically dead,” he said. “But that is not the main reason. The chief reason is that the United States already is shooting at our ships. They have been a forceful factor in this war and through their actions have already created a situation of war.”
According to Gerlach, the “murder of Jews by gas” at “the five major German extermination camps” began on these dates:
Chelmno: December 8, 1941
Auschwitz-Birkenau: February 1942 (exact date not specified)
Belzec: March 17, 1942
Sobibor: May 1942 (exact date not specified)
Treblinka: July 22, 1942
Though I have been widely denounced for assigning undue “causality” to US entry, or somehow arguing that “US entry to the war caused the Holocaust,” I’ve never argued this. However, there are mainstream historians who do assign causality in much starker terms than I ever have. See, for example, this excerpt from from Hitler's American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War (2021) by Brendan Simms (Cambridge University) and Charlie Laderman (King’s College London):
See this excerpt from Hitler’s Fatal Miscalculation: Why Germany Declared War on the United States (2021) by Klaus H. Schmider (Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst), published by Cambridge University Press:
See this excerpt from Germany and the Second World War: Volume IX/I (2008) — by Tobias Jersak (University of Stuttgart):
Prominent, mainstream historians have also assigned varying degrees of correlation and causation to US involvement in the war pre Pearl Harbor, that is, before formal US entry — during the period when the US was “waging war without declaring it,” at the direction of Roosevelt, and after Hitler had said on March 24, 1941, in reaction to the enactment of the “Lend-Lease” bill: “The Americans have finally let the cat out of the bag… the war with the US was sure to come sooner or later.”
In The Third Reich at War (2008), Richard Evans of Cambridge University writes that Hitler’s reaction to “the vast military build-up in the USA” was among the events that “deepened Hitler’s conviction that the USA was effectively participating in the war” and “had a direct bearing on Nazi policy towards the Jews”:
Evans cites a diatribe unleashed by Hitler on August 19, 1941, in which Hitler expresses his prophecy of an imminent “world war” involving North America; this diatribe, per Evans, “coincided, not by chance, with a marked escalation in the killings carried out by the Task Forces in occupied Eastern Europe.” On August 14, Roosevelt and Churchill had jointly promulgated the Atlantic Charter, whereupon it was decided “that in the event of the United States entering the war, priority would be given to the struggle against Germany.” It was also at this meeting that Churchill said Roosevelt had told him he “would wage war, but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative.” On the day Roosevelt and Churchill began the meeting, August 9, Hitler said: “The chief blame for the war falls upon America, upon Roosevelt surrounded by his Freemasons, his Jews, and the whole of Jewish Bolshevism… the Americans were the lowest kind of rabble.”
The source for the above quote is one I’ve used throughout this article: Prelude to Downfall: Hitler and the United States, 1937-1941 (1967) by Saul Friedlander, professor emeritus at UCLA and winner of the MacArthur “Genius” grant award. Friedlander, who lived in Occupied France as a child and is still alive today at 89 years old, is widely considered to be among the most eminent historians in the field of Holocaust studies. He has won the Israel Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and as recently as 2021 was awarded the Balzan Prize for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. I don’t mention these accolades as some sort of appeal to authority — as in, I’m not presuming Friedlander to be correct about anything because he’s won awards, or because he’s considered eminent. I mention these things purely to establish that the school of thought promulgated by Friedlander and myriad others is by no means “fringe” or “denialist,” but squarely in the mainstream.
Here is what Friedlander wrote in his 2007 book, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945:
Please note that in suggesting “a final decision” had been made on “the extermination of the Jews... as a result of American entry into the war,” Friedlander goes further than I ever have in ascribing some degree of causality to US entry.
In the prologue to the 2021 book A History of the Final Solution by Daniel Rafecas, a visiting lecturer at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel and member of the academic council of the Holocaust Museum in Buenos Aires, Rafecas’ position is summarized as follows:
From the main portion of Rafecas’ book:
Also cited here is Laurence Rees, winner of the BAFTA award, and author of the 2005 book Auschwitz: A New History. Rees writes:
Here is an excerpt from Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography (1976) by John Toland, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize:
Here is another ascription of causality from Adam Tooze, the Columbia University historian and winner of many awards. Tooze says the US enactment of “Lend-Lease" had such a crucial influence on Nazi Germany that it “impelled the radicalization of the regime’s racial policy.” Tooze writes that while Nazi military planners had been anxious observers of US armament buildup for years, the enactment of “Lend-Lease” in 1941 was “a dramatic escalation that confirmed the Nazi’s worldview.” Hitler saw the official US entry to the war as a “moment of culmination,” writes Tooze, and it was “no coincidence” that a few weeks later top Nazi officials met to scheme out the implementation of the Final Solution. Tooze situates “Lend-Lease” as among the causal links that eventuated in the “haphazard and contingent unleashing of an apocalyptic world war” — and laments that today this history is shrouded by “myth.” Tooze also specifically draws an analogy to the potential perils of the present-day “Lend-Lease” policy in Ukraine.
As you might imagine, I could go on forever with these citations. I’m not suggesting that the individuals cited above are absolutely, unquestioningly, metaphysically correct in every detail. Or that there could not be any reasonable objections raised to their arguments. What I am saying is that there demonstrably exists a robust body of literature, in thoroughly mainstream, peer-reviewed, credible sources, which provides more than sufficient validity to the following statement: US entry to World War II coincided with, and may well have been a factor in, the acceleration of the most lethal phase of the Holocaust. In which case, the folkloric assumption that US entry to World War II was an unmitigated moral “good” — because of the “good” effect it allegedly had on mitigating the Holocaust — cannot be so easily sustained.
To sum up:
US involvement in World War II was incrementally escalated through an extensive campaign of official state deception, much of it documented and pointed out contemporaneously
Official entry to the war, in December 1941, was the culmination of a series of events including: initiation by the US of offensive warfare, imposition of knowingly escalatory policy measures, and abrogation of diplomacy
Through its aerial bombardment campaigns alone, the US war effort killed as many as 1.5 million German and Japanese civilians
These civilians were killed deliberately, not incidentally or accidentally, as a matter of systematic, institutionally authorized policy
There is a robust body of evidence that suggests escalation of US involvement in the war, followed by official US entry, may well have been factors in the acceleration of the most lethal phase of the Holocaust
Approximately every two seconds someone analogizes the current war in Ukraine to World War II, as a justification for interventionist US policy — such as Biden’s newly-revived version of “Lend-Lease,” provision of higher and higher-grade armaments to Ukraine, engagement by the US in the Ukraine military’s offensive combat operations, and similar. Presupposed in these analogies is that interventionist US policy in World War II was an unambiguous moral good — a matter of utmost moral simplicity — and interventionist US policy in Ukraine today has the same unambiguous moral content. For some reason, the information found in this lengthy article never seems to factor in such analogies. Yet we’re all still expected to give a rousing, full-throated retroactive endorsement, and declare unreservedly that yes — of course we “support” the US having entered World War II. Well, I decline to give that endorsement.
Excellent piece. Well researched and written. We are risking a great deal(nuclear war) for a VERY little(Eastern Ukraine/Putin getting replaced?). This could still go very badly.
Frightening parallels to the current situation