Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public


Bruce M. Russett


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


“Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology.”  -- Bruce M. Russett

I post this solely in support of Professor Russett’s political heresy, not because I share any of the statist presuppositions underpinning his expression of it. I do understand, however, that few will even attempt to swallow such a pill unless many conventional reassurances coat it; many coat his.  This essay is a fine example of moderate rather than radical revisionism, a halfway house on the road to the stable-cleaning the American mind must undergo if it is to embrace wholeheartedly the goal of a free society. 

For a 2006 interview with Professor Russett, go here.

Anthony Flood

Posted March 21, 2008 

No Clear and Present Danger

A Skeptical View of the U.S. Entry into World War II

Harper & Row, 1972 

Bruce M. Russett


Preface (on this page)

Chapter 1: Isolationism Old and New

Chapter 2: The Impending Stalemate in Europe

Chapter 3: A Hobson’s Choice for Japan

Chapter 4: From the North Atlantic to the Tonkin Gulf

Chapter 5: Force and Choice in the Environment of International Politics

There is no guarantee whatsoever that there would be any better history written should we participate again to bring complete victory to one side . . . Great as is the power of America, we cannot police Europe, much less Asia, and in addition protect the whole Western Hemisphere . . . Nor can we expect that a nation having as many unsolved problems as we have, and as little understanding of some of the problems that lie beyond our borders, would be given, under the all-embracing hysteria of war, wisdom for the perfect solution of all the world’s ills. 

Norman Thomas, 1940

The one great danger we face is that we may overcommit ourselves in this battle against Russia . . . An unwise and overambitious foreign policy, and particularly the effort to do more than we are able to do, is the one thing which might in the end destroy our armies and prove a real threat to the liberty of the people of the United States. 

Robert A. Taft, 1951


It has been a long trip, and is not yet complete.  Nevertheless I have come far enough to want to give a report on the vivid scenery to be viewed from this prospect.  I began, as a child in World War II, with a firm hatred of the Axis powers and conviction that American was fighting for its very existence.  After the war, Stalinist Russia merely replaced Hitlerite Germany as the insatiable aggressor.  With most Americans I accepted without much question the need for active resistance to Communism, and the necessity that such resistance would often have to be military in character.  Though as a young scholar I did become very concerned about arms control and the risks of nuclear war, my faith in the requirement for military assistance to threatened members of the Free World remained essentially unshaken.  I was fairly hawkish on Vietnam, and saw only in early 1967 that the war had been a mistake.  In retrospect, I am not proud of having taken so long.  Even then, I considered that the sole mistake was having chosen a conflict where the essential conditions of victory were absent.

In the past few years, however, I have slowly begun to question my earlier easy assumptions.  Once some began to fall, others became far less tenable.  Here really was a row of intellectual dominoes.  If Vietnam was unnecessary or wrong, then where else?  How distorted were our images of the origins of the cold war?  What has been the role of economic interests in promoting foreign involvements by the United States government?

This is an exciting time in which to be a scholar.  Some of these questions were forced on me directly by observing events; others were in substantial part impelled by the questioning of students who had been less thoroughly indoctrinated in the cold war myths than I, and thus rejected them more easily.  In this reexamination I am, of course not alone.  Many Americans of all generations have come to question their former assumptions.  Still, the results differ among us.  I find the New Left’s emphasis on foreign investment and trade interests to be stimulating and overdue; in the anti-Communist hysteria of the first cold war decades such matters were all too thoroughly ignored.  Nevertheless I am still unconvinced that such influences should be elevated to the role of a primary explanation, and while in this book I sometimes suggest their relevance to pre-World War II policy preferences I do not emphasize them.  But I am interested in the work of others on these questions, and consider them with a mind more open than before.

And although there are finally some rumblings on the New Left, and occasionally elsewhere, about the propriety of American participation in World War II, they have yet to surface much in public.  The situation is curious.  A few writers, I among them,1 challenged the prevailing interpretation about war with Japan some time ago, but with little impact beyond a small circle of professional scholars. Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology. Yet it seems to me that many of the arguments against other wars can also be applied, with somewhat less force, to this one too.  Hence I came to rethink, and to write while still in the process of rethinking.

For the opportunity to reconsider my old myths I am grateful to a year in Brussels, made possible by a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a Fulbright-Hays award. I neither expected nor intended to spend much time on these matters when the awards were made, but such things will happen when a scholar is given time for reflection. A decision-maker and a scholar helped unintentionally. The process surfaced on the night President Nixon announced the American foray into Cambodia, which I absorbed under the influence of just having read the late Richard Hofstadter’s essay on Charles A. Beard’s attitudes toward the war that was approaching over a generation ago.

Many colleagues, friends, and students made more deliberate contributions by giving their reactions to my early thoughts.  Notably helpful were John Morton Blum, Robert H. Ferrell, Glenn May, Paul Hammond, Douglas Rae, James Patrick Sewell, Fred Sondermann, Gaddis Smith, John Sullivan, and H. Bradford Westerfield.  My wife, Cynthia Eagle Russett, as so often, played a crucial role in the initial stages by providing both insights and stimulating criticism.  Wendell Bell urged me to rescue the first version of this essay from the obscurity of a scholarly journal.  Even more carefully than is customary, however, I want to absolve anyone from responsibility for the opinions I express here.


Hamden, Connecticut May 1971



1 See my article, “Pearl Harbor: Deterrence Theory and Decision Theory,” Journal of Peace Research I (1967): 89-105, parts of which are reproduced here. Parts of Chapter 5 are taken from my “A Macroscopic View of International Politics,” in Vincent Davis, Maurice East and James Rosenau, eds., The Analysis of International Politics (New York: Free Press, 1971). All materials are reprinted with permission.  

Forward to Chapter 1: Isolationism Old and New