They call it the “Good War,” I suppose, in order to differentiate it from all the really bad wars we’ve been fighting—and losing—lately: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the future conflicts our political class has up its collective sleeve. I call it the Worst War, because it fathered all the ones to come. It was the war that set us, finally, on the road to empire—and, as Garet Garrett put it years ago, that road was marked with a sign that reads “No U-Turns.”
That war that killed millions, and finally killed our old republic, haunts us still. It lingers in the headlines, or at least in the op-eds, whenever a new “threat” rears its head: The dictator-of-the-moment, targeted for early retirement by the warlords of Washington, is invariably likened to Hitler—and that is the signal for the Tomahawk missiles to fly.
Hitler is reincarnated daily in the War Party’s polemics, where it is always 1939 and the merest impulse to refrain from mass murder is “another Munich.” I was reminded of this in reading a recent New York Times piece by Bill Keller, who was bemoaning the lack of enthusiasm for delivering Syria into the hands of the “moderate” faction of Al Qaeda. Keller spends an entire opening paragraph describing a country just emerged from a recent war and a major recession, where “idealism is in short supply” and those selfish Americans are “loath to take sides” in a distant civil war “against a merciless dictator,” with antiwar voices ranging “from the pacifist left to the populist right.” And the President, fearing the political consequences of getting involved, “vacillates.”
The punch line: “This is the United States in 1940. Sound a little familiar?”
Keller, it seems, had been reading two recently published volumes on that era: Those Angry Days, by Lynne Olson, and 1940, by Susan Dunn. These are two court historians whose complementary accounts of the Great Debate over U.S. involvement in World War II give us the Official Version: an all-too-familiar narrative pitting evil pro-Hitler “isolationists” against the heroic far-seeing pro-British WASPs and a bevy of British spooks demanding immediate intervention.
While assuring us that “2013 is not 1940,” “the Middle East is not Europe,” and “President Obama is not FDR” (albeit neglecting to inform us that Bashar al-Assad is not Hitler), Keller worries that
America is again in a deep isolationist mood. As a wary Congress returns from its summer recess to debate Syria, as President Obama prepares to address the nation, it is instructive to throw the two periods up on the screen and examine them for lessons. How does a president sell foreign engagement to a public that wants none of it?
Yes, Americans are war-weary, but there is more to this “isolationist” resurgence: Economic malaise, the “blind missionary arrogance” of George W. Bush, sure—but there’s also a “loss of confidence,” and, thrown in for good measure, “a surge of xenophobia,” Nazi-like to be sure. Those Tea Party yahoos are the new “isolationists,” in Keller’s view, with their primitive “mistrust of executive power,” and yet even “sophisticated readers of The New York Times are not immune, or so it seems from the comments that arrive when I write in defense of a more assertive foreign policy.” Keller is miffed that even the worldly wise sophisticates of Brooklyn are responding to his calls for intervention in the Middle East with “Not our problem,” and he lets them have it with both barrels:
Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home).
Like all warmongers, Keller proclaims his aversion to war, and then proceeds to justify war in any and all instances. Unable to conceive of a sense of “responsibility” that doesn’t involve meddling in other peoples’ affairs, he uses vague words like “engage” and “commit” to turn his Vaseline-covered lens on the ugliness of mass murder by the state. It is even “amoral” to refrain from this killing spree, because, you know—responsibility (to whom and for what?), engagement (with what and for what?), and commitment (to what and at what price?) are so much more important than human life.
Working himself up into a rage of righteous indignation, Keller disdains the arguments of those, like Rep. Alan Grayson, who insist that “We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury.” An “excuse,” mutters Keller, “for doing nothing.” In Keller’s world, an excuse is needed for inaction, because, you see, continuous intervention, uninterrupted by reflection or necessity, is the mark of national virtue. Not very convincing arguments, to be sure, outside the circles Keller travels in, and he seems to be aware of this as he hauls out the big guns: The “isolationists,” he howls, are conspiracy theorists—and, of course, antisemites:
At the margins, at least, isolationists suspect that our foreign policy is being manipulated by outside forces. In 1940, as Olson’s book documents, anti-interventionists deplored the cunning British “plutocrats” and “imperialists,” who had lured us into the blood bath of World War I and now wanted to goad us into another one. In 2013, it is supposedly the Israelis duping us into fighting their battles.
Many pro-Israel and Jewish groups last week endorsed an attack on Syria, but only after agonizing about a likely backlash. And, sure enough, the first comment posted on The Washington Post version of this story was, “So how many Americans will die for Israel this time around?”
The drama of 1940 is being replayed in our own time, but perhaps with a different ending—much to Keller’s horror. He drags in Lindbergh, of course, as does Olson, who utilizes the eccentric aviator to frame her argument—assertion, really, since she makes no real case—that the isolationists were the Bad Guys, and the ultrahawks, like the Century Group and Fight for Freedom, were history’s Heroes.
Keller’s attempt to drag the two historians into the Syria debate is only partially successful, with both Olson and Dunn lacking his certitude that Assad is the Hitler of the Middle East, and yet Keller plunges on, citing the Dunn volume to ascribe to Obama the alleged wariness of FDR as the old cripple lied and lured us into war. The Dunn book is obnoxiously partisan, as it valorizes the Brahmins of the Fight For Freedom group (and their backers in British intelligence) and engages in the familiar smears hurled at the hated “isolationists.” Missing from the Dunn volume is any mention of the influence of the Communist Party USA and its large periphery of fellow travelers in pushing us into war to save the Soviet “fatherland.” Indeed, Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia goes unmentioned.
“In 1940 everything was black and white—there was no gray,” Dunn told Keller—and therein lies the problem faced by anti-interventionists in our own time. There was plenty of gray back then, and as revisionist historians took up the task of uncovering the truth about that war, things got grayer still. Harry Elmer Barnes did yeoman’s work in this regard, as did, more recently, A.J.P. Taylor, Robert Stinnett, and Thomas E. Mahl—whose book Desperate Deception uncovers the key role played by British intelligence in roping us into the European war. Dunn, by the way, acknowledges the covert British operation while downplaying its significance.
World War II was the interventionists’ trap, one we have never managed to get out of in all the years since Pearl Harbor. It fostered the transference of London’s role as the center of the global Anglosphere to the New Rome rising on the banks of the Potomac. In entering the war, we saved the Soviet Union from destruction: Our aid to Stalin’s legions empowered the masters of the Kremlin to survive long after their appointed doomsday—long enough to threaten the West and engage us in a Cold War that nearly ended with a worldwide nuclear holocaust.
It was the biggest mistake in our history as a nation, and yet it is glorified as our greatest moment, the singular achievement of the Greatest Generation—and warmongers inevitably refer to it in order to marginalize anti-interventionists, no matter what the context, conjuring up all the old smears of long-dead character assassins. Unless and until we debunk this tired old narrative, we shall never rid ourselves of the albatross of empire.