Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public


Bruce M. Russett


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No Clear and Present Danger

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

Harper & Row, 1972 


Bruce M. Russett


Chapter 1

Isolationism Old and New


The “lessons” of history

Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American foreign policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune.  According to our national mythology, that was a “good war,” one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs.  Except for a few books published shortly after the war and quickly forgotten, this orthodoxy has been essentially unchallenged.1  The isolationists stand discredited, and “isolationist” remains a useful pejorative with which to tar the opponents of American intervention in foreign lands.

Such virtual unanimity on major policy matters is rare.   World War I long ago came under the revisionists’ scrutiny.  The origins of the cold war have been challenged more recently, with many people asking whether the Soviet-American conflict was primarily the result of Russian aggressiveness or even whether it was the inevitable consequence of throwing together “two scorpions in a bottle.”  But all orthodoxy ought to be confronted occasionally, whether the result be to destroy, revise, or reincarnate old beliefs.  Furthermore, this does seem an auspicious time to reexamine the standard credo about participation in World War II.  Interventionism is again being questioned and Americans are groping toward a new set of principles to guide their foreign policy.  Where should we intervene and where withdraw; where actively to support a “balance of power” and where husband our resources?  A reexamination of the World War II experience is deliberately a look at a limiting case—an effort to decide whether, in the instance where the value of intervention is most widely accepted, the interventionist argument really is so persuasive.   We should consider the World War II experience not because intervention was obvious folly, but indeed because the case for American action there is strong.

I do not, of course, argue that one can readily generalize from the choices of 1941 to those of 1950 or 1970.  The world has changed, and many of the favorable conditions that once made isolationism or “continentalism” a plausible policy to some have vanished, perhaps forever.  I feel ambivalent about the contemporary meaning of the theme developed here, in view of the manifest changes of the past 30 years and the more or less “internationalist” policy preferences that I have shared with most Americans for many years.  But almost all of us do on occasion invoke the “lessons” of Manchuria, Munich, the Spanish Civil War, or Pearl Harbor; or for that matter Rome and Carthage or the Peloponnesian Wars.  We therefore owe it to ourselves to look critically at this historical experience, too.  I think the theme of this essay needs stating even at the risk that some people may apply it inappropriately.

Furthermore, a new look at World War II is in some real sense merely an extension of arguments that have been raised against contemporary American intervention in Southeast Asia.  The intervention has been justified both on moral grounds—the need to save a small country from communist dictatorship, and on strategic grounds of American self-interest—the need to prop up dominoes and prevent the extension of a hostile power’s sphere of influence.

And the opponents of that intervention have included among their arguments some that recall the debates of 1941: America cannot be the world’s policeman stepping in to halt everything we might consider to be aggression or to resist governments whose philosophies or policies we consider repugnant.  Nor from a pure self-interest viewpoint would such critics accept our action in South Vietnam.  It is a small country, far away.  Its entire national income is equivalent only to the normal growth of the United States national income in a single month.  Communist rule in that state, or even in its immediate neighbors as well, would make but an insignificant difference to the global balance of power.  In any case, the forces of nationalism render very dubious an assumption that a Communist government would represent a dependable long-term gain for China or Russia.

Thus, in an important way the record of discussion in 1940 and 1941 is being replayed now.  Opponents of contemporary intervention may well find ammunition by pointing out the inflated nature of the interventionists’ rhetoric preceding World War II.  If in the cold light of the seventies the original arguments seem excessive, then how much more misleading must be the recent versions?  Or on the contrary, if a man is sure that the Southeast Asian operation was a mistake, can he still justify the World War II experience?  Perhaps his continued acceptance of the latter should cause him to rethink his extreme opposition to the American interventions of the last decade.


An unnecessary war

The theme of this brief book should already be apparent, but I will state it explicitly here before going further: American participation in World War II had very little effect on the essential structure of international politics thereafter, and probably did little either to advance the material welfare of most Americans or to make the nation secure from foreign military threats (the presumed goals of advocates of a “realist” foreign policy).  (By structure I mean the basic balance of forces in the world, regardless of which particular nations are powerful vis-à-vis the United States.)  In fact, most Americans probably would have been no worse off, and possibly a little better, if the United States had never become a belligerent.  Russia replaced Germany as the great threat to European security, and Japan, despite its territorial losses, is once more a major power.  The war was not clearly a mistake as most of us now consider the Vietnam War to have been.  Yet it may well have been an unnecessary war that did little for us and that we need not have fought.  Moreover, it set some precedents for our thinking that led too easily to later interventions—interventions that might have been challenged more quickly and more effectively in the absence of such vivid memories of World War II.

We shall first review the events in Europe and the North Atlantic which led to widespread sentiment that Hitler had to be opposed by whatever means were necessary.  We must both confront the strategic arguments and consider on what grounds strategy could be subordinated to moral conviction that Nazism had to be deposed.  Next we must look at what transpired in the Pacific, since many Americans still believe that while war with Nazi Germany was in large part by American initiative, we had no choice with Japan.  After all, the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor.  Why then agonize over the question whether war with the Japanese was desirable?  We shall then examine more closely some of the parallels, in the process of decision-making and in the arguments employed, between intervention in World War II and recent American interventions justified by cold war analyses, and close by asking what other perspectives might have avoided error both then and more recently.

Many readers surely will be uncomfortable with the book’s theme, and even offended by it.  For example, it can hardly be easy for a man who spent two or three of his prime years fighting World War II to think that his sacrifice had little point.  Moreover, the moral outrage against Nazism that we all share makes it difficult to separate ethics from an objective assessment of the threat Germany and Japan actually posed to American national security.  To suggest that the two must be kept analytically distinct—even if in the end one sees the former as justifying intervention after all—is to risk being considered at least a first cousin of the Beast of Belsen.

Yet it is precisely moral considerations that demand a re-examination of our World War II myths.  Social scientists have accepted too many assumptions uncritically.  Too few Americans, especially government officials, really looked very hard at their beliefs about the origins of the cold war before about five years ago, or seriously considered “economic” interpretations of foreign policy.  Recently, however, we have been illuminated as well as blinded by an occasion we could not ignore.  On watching the fireball at Alamogordo in 1945 Robert Oppenheimer mused, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”  Vietnam has been to social scientists what Alamogordo was to the physicists.  Few of those who have observed it can easily return to their comfortable presumptions about America’s duty, or right, to fight in distant lands.

One serious problem in reevaluating American foreign policy before World War II stems from its distance in time.  How do we treat the knowledge we gain from actually observing the intervening thirty years?  Is it fair to judge the friends and opponents of Franklin Roosevelt with the advantages of 20-20 hindsight?  Certainly we must keep separate what they knew or could have known, and what was unavoidably hidden from them.  From captured documents we now see more clearly the motivations of some Axis leaders than contemporaries could have; we know with just what strength the Soviet Union emerged in Central Europe after the elimination of German power.  If they exaggerated the then-present danger how can we be too condemning?

Nevertheless, the purpose in reconsidering World War II is not to judge, but to learn.  In retaining our own humility it is fair to insist on a degree of humility in our leaders of all eras.  Many of those who advocated war against Germany and Japan were very sure of themselves and their visions; the same could be said of many “cold warriors.”  They supported acts which left millions dead and changed all our lives.  Some considered Hitler not only a devil, but to have near God-like powers enabling him to walk across the water to North America.  The “yellow horde” was ready to invade from the other side; I remember being told how the Japanese coveted California.  Both recall more recent images of the Russians as ten feet tall.  In fact, our alleged vulnerability to the Axis threat was often used to justify continued involvement and active opposition to apparent Soviet expansionism in the postwar world.  Without seeking judgment or scapegoats, perhaps we still can learn by identifying even the most excusable errors of others.

My intention here is to be provocative and not to set forth revealed truth.  The argument is not one subject to the principles of measurement and the strict canons of hypothesis-testing—the mode of inquiry with which I feel most comfortable. Nevertheless the subject is too important to leave untouched simply because the whole battery of modern social science cannot be brought to bear on it.  Similarly, there is an intellectual dialectic, driven by the need of most thinkers to relate their ideas to established thought patterns, that requires a new view to be stated forcefully and one-sidedly.  Hamlets do not make revolutions.  Hence we shall proceed to the argument, though the reader—and sometimes the writer too—will doubtless have reservations.

Although I have tried to give some evidence to support the more controversial statements of fact, full documentation would be out of place in such an essay.  The need is not to uncover new facts from the archives, but to look again at the old facts from a different perspective.  Some of my interpretations will be challengeable, and many readers may decide that despite my arguments the war still was worthwhile.  Any retrospective analysis of “might-have-beens” is subject to all the perils of conjecture. We more or less know what did happen as a result of American participation in the war, and can only speculate on what would otherwise have happened. But that reservation cuts two ways, since those who will disagree with this book’s interpretations are also forced into speculation.

In any case, I think defenders of American intervention will find that their case ultimately rests on other, and less confident, grounds than most have previously accepted.  I suspect that no reader will ever again view World War II in quite the same way as before.  A new look should at least clear aside many previous exaggerations of the kind of threat foreign powers could then and now present to the United States.



1 For a few years the now-prevailing orthodoxy had not yet crystallized, and a substantial minority of the American population remained skeptical.  For example, a Gallup poll in October 1947 asked, “Do you think it was a mistake for the United States to enter World War II?” The response was No 66%, Yes 24%, No Answer 10%. Reported in Hazel Erskine, “The Polls: Is War a Mistake?” Public Opinion Quarterly 34, no. I (Spring 1970): 137.


Forward to Chapter 2: The Impending Stalemate in Europe

Back to Preface