Should the United States Have Fought in World War II? No

Should the United States have fought in World War II? Given the remembrances across Europe and here this past weekend evincing the usual trope about the war being a patriotic, heroic, and unavoidable good-versus-evil clash for the United States, it’s a propitious moment to ask this unusual – and in polite society, impertinent – question. But an honest assessment of usually ignored facts yields an unusual answer, in the negative, and the retrospective exercise offers lessons for the current moment.

Seventy five years ago last week, "Victory in Europe" was declared in London by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech broadcast to the nation at 3PM on May 8, 1945, followed by similar remarks before Parliament.  Known ever after as "V-E Day," at 9PM that same night King George VI addressed the British people by radio. And shortly thereafter in Berlin, the third and final capitulation of all German land, sea, and air forces took place, with the surrender signed on behalf of the German High Command by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Wehrmacht), Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff (Luftwaffe), and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg (Kriegsmarine). Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov signed the document on behalf of the Supreme High Command of the Red Army, and signing on behalf of General Eisenhower was British Air Marshal Arthur W. Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force. 

The bloodiest war in the long and consequential history of Europe was over, followed four months later by the surrender of Japan. Estimates of total war dead, military and civilian, vary widely, between 60 and 85 million: of these, 30-37 million were in Europe. The death count was only one part of this horror story, though: between 1939 and 1945, at least 60 million European civilians had been uprooted from their homes. 27 million had left their own countries or been driven out by force. Four and a half million had been deported by the Nazis for forced labor; it is thought that hundreds of thousands more had been sent to Siberia by the Russians. When the war ended, 2.5 million Poles and Czechs were transferred to the U.S.S.R., and more than 12 million Germans fled or were expelled from eastern Europe. Obviously the economy, commercial society, and indeed all major institutions of civilization itself had been destroyed across Europe: the financial and real wealth destruction was incalculable and decades-long in reverberation, with, as one emblematic example, the British finally extinguishing World War II debts to the United States in 2006. 

Due to the Coronavirus, long-planned observances this past weekend were canceled across Europe, though remembered in subdued fashion in the media and in all combatant capitals and battlefields. In London, Mr. Churchill’s speech to the British people was replayed at the same hour at 3PM, while Queen Elizabeth II offered televised remarks on BBC One at the precise hour her father spoke 75 years ago. But even without all the patriotic pomp that had been planned there and here, it’s a good exercise now for American taxpayers, who have been asked to fund several trillions of dollars’ worth of questionable warfare on the other side of the world since World War II ended, to commemorate this historical mile-marker via a sober assessment: was the war worth fighting, for the Americans?

Conventional Analysis of American Participation in World War II 

The traditional stylized textbook story of American involvement in World War II is straightforward: the world was besieged by the tyrannical Axis powers with Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo forming an evil triumvirate in Germany, Italy, and Japan, respectively.  All were bent on conquest and the destruction of free societies in their wake, and rolled across a series of easy victories in Europe and East Asia, respectively. Only the might and moral superiority of the United States, which President Roosevelt dubbed the "arsenal of democracy" in 1940, could "save the world" from destruction at the hands of the Axis tyrants.

The American people were, as late as the spring of 1941, more than 80% opposed to entry into any European [or Asian] war, and indeed the incumbent president based his campaign in 1940 in part on a virtual reprise of Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 theme of "He kept us out of war." But at the same time, Mr. Roosevelt’s "brilliant leadership" prepared the nation for eventual entry into a war that "could not be avoided" in spite of serious attempts at a peaceful resolution to multilateral disputes with Japan, and continual dialogue with the German government to restrict the war in Europe and end hostilities there in favor of Britain.

The unavoidable war came in both theaters in December of 1941, and Mr. Roosevelt did indeed then, via his "stellar generalship," proceed to save humanity from a cruel fate, "defeating tyranny" and averting the destruction of civilization, along with Prime Minister Churchill (Stalin, tellingly, is never mentioned in this context as world-saver, perhaps because the standard meme about World War II being one of "good versus evil," and fought "to preserve freedom and democracy," doesn’t fit the Soviet Union).

Thus, in the end the war was regrettable and costly, but necessary on both fronts, as the Tripartite Pact tyrants were all defeated, and their regimes collapsed. Even analysts who worry that Korea and Vietnam weren’t core to our strategic interests, and who today question the American involvement in Muslim wars on the other side of the world, almost universally acknowledge the necessity of World War II, which is often dubbed "the good war."   

The Correct Analysis and Lessons for Today

There is much wrong with the foregoing stylized summary: beyond blatant falsehoods such as the thesis that Mr. Roosevelt earnestly tried to achieve peace with Japan, even many of its plausible-sounding assertions are made with no reference to facts.  Further, there is a glaring elephant in the room here: the Soviet Union was, likely, the most tyrannical regime on earth in 1941.  For the Americans to enter into a world war on the side of this corrupt, cruel, murderous Marxist dictatorship, even against another alleged tyrant, made no strategic or moral sense at the time, and does not 75 years later, either [and, again, it is why the standard story about American entry into the war only mentions Churchill and Roosevelt when the casus belli of "preserving the free world" is explained, and Stalin’s name is never uttered].

Indeed, the United States lost more than 400,000 lives in World War II, and ran up gross federal debt equal to 118% of GDP by 1945, a record only now soon to be broken. Was it worth it, and was it necessary?

The only honest answer, after full examination of the facts, is no:

  • Neither Hitler nor Mussolini had any kinetic designs on the United States. In fact, Hitler went out of his way to avoid war with the Americans until he felt duty-bound to support Japan. Further, Hitler had said as far back as 1925 that he regarded Britain and its sea power as a natural ally for a resurgent Germany that could keep the peace as the predominant land power in Europe (Britain was also, for Hitler, racially harmonious with Germany). For Hitler, any German war would be fought in the East, as Asian Bolshevism was considered the primordial threat to European harmony and commercial life and, indeed, Christian civilization itself (and bluntly, it was conquest of the "backward Slavs" that had always animated Hitler, in dreams of a German Empire).
  • Long-ignored, too, is the inconvenient fact that it was France and Great Britain which declared war on Germany in 1939, not the other way around, and done so only because of the former’s guarantee to Poland, a promise completely untenable and foolhardy. Strategically, any German suzerainty of Poland was of no consequence to the United States and represented no threat to American vital interests; morally, was the American taxpayer duty-bound to clean up and retrieve foolhardy promises made by corrupt European empires?
  • Meanwhile the Japanese Empire manifestly did not want war with the Americans. Instead it was the Roosevelt Administration which persistently ratcheted up pressure on Japan in years of negotiations through the fall of 1941: the United States unilaterally abrogated the 1911 Commercial Treaty with Japan in 1939, implemented various economic sanctions across 1940, and in the summer of 1941 installed a full embargo that included the freezing of Japanese assets in the United States. The inconvenient truth here is that the United States had, in a diplomatic sense, committed acts of war against Japan well before Pearl Harbor, and in effect provoked the Japanese. Indeed even late into the fall of 1941, Emperor Hirohito was instructing Prince Fumimaro Konoe, the prime minister, to seek a rapprochement with the Americans and avoid war. Admiral Yamamoto, senior naval officials, and most of the Japanese ruling class feared the industrial might of the United States and doubted any prospect of victory; only Hideki Tojo and certain radicals in the army thought the Americans were too weak to fight a war of any duration in the Pacific.
  • In sum, then, the United States interjected itself into what were primarily German-Russian and Sino-Japanese conflicts (8 of 11 German war-dead and some 7 in 10 Japanese were in these theaters). Had the United States consistently followed the long ago advice of George Washington in his famous Farewell Address to avoid all foreign entanglements, the British would have surely quit the European war before 1941, leaving Germany and Russia to fight a death-struggle. The mutual slaughter would have weakened both, to the strategic benefit of the West. One can posit the Germans eventually prevailing since the Russians would not have received the massive Anglo-American aid that kept them alive in the war, and at the same time, the persistent attempts by liberal-minded Germans to assassinate Hitler would have, at some point, borne fruit. Therefore it is more than possible that Germany may well have expanded in the East, eliminating the Soviet menace, while at the same time eventually liberalizing. The 200 million souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain in the Warsaw Pact may well have been spared bitter suffering for decades after the war, and likely achieved a proto-capitalistic standard of living far earlier than they did.
  • Meanwhile, a Japanese-Chinese struggle across Asia would have ended indeterminately, but there again, the rise of Maoism would have been prevented, and Western-leaning elements in the Japanese ruling class could have been leveraged over time. Given the horrors of Chinese history after 1949, it is not hard to posit a better, richer life for China’s billions of people across the 20th century.
  • The Cold War and its tensions – and massive costs – would have been entirely avoided. How much wealthier, and fiscally healthier, would the United States be today, had all that been avoided? And given the precedent of avoiding entirely senseless wars that have no relationship to the national security of the United States, it is likely that the "welfare-warfare state" model would never have germinated. That is, the United States would have essentially retained, or, after the folly of an also-avoidable World War I, have returned to the status of a free and great commercial republic, and avoided entirely its de facto transformation into a corrupt, globally expansive empire. Again, how many tens of trillions of dollars would have been saved and invested in the growth of a peaceful and prosperous America, instead of being squandered on a series of endless wars and foreign adventurism, all on the other side of the world, that have in the event rendered us less safe, less free, and poorer now? 

Let us therefore have the courage to face the truth: World War II, like most all wars the United States has fought before it or since, was a needless war, fought on behalf of corrupt special interests. It made us poorer and less free, and sadly steered American foreign policy into new and harmful directions: over time the United States was transformed into an arrogant "hyper-power", and assumed the role of "Global Policeman," a role which other empires had pursued in prior history always and uniformly to bad ends. The world would be a better, richer place today, had the Americans remained the envy and aspiration of peoples everywhere: a free and great republic, dedicated to peace, commerce and friendship with all.

In the end, American entry into World War II made half of Europe "safe for Bolshevism" and poverty, while it ensured the Maoist hell that China became over time.  Marxism-Leninism was given oxygen to spread elsewhere around the globe and ensure further enslavement of peoples in places such as Angola, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, or North Vietnam.  

Let us digest these real lessons from what ended 75 years ago last week, and in Japan this coming September 2nd. Going forward, it is never too late to do the right thing: may a renewed reflection of fundamental American values lead us to a return to the historic foreign policy enunciated by George Washington and John Quincy Adams, among others: Friend of Liberty everywhere, Guarantor only of our Own. Once this truly "small-r" republican foreign policy is taken up again, there will be no more world wars, no more Koreas, no more Vietnams, no more Iraqs, no more Afghanistans, no more Syrias, no more Libyas – and no World War III.

Mr. Chapman is an economist and investor in Washington.