Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public


Bruce M. Russett


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


No Clear and Present Danger

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

Harper & Row, 1972 


Bruce M. Russett


Chapter 4

From the North Atlantic to the Tonkin Gulf

Nonbelligerent assistance

In retrospect, the fear that America would be left alone in the world against two great victorious empires in Europe and Asia seems terribly exaggerated.  Clear-cut victory was not in prospect for either, nor does the assumption that they could long have maintained a close alliance seem especially plausible.  The critical American mistake may well have been in backing the Japanese into a corner, for without war in the Pacific the American conflict with Germany very possibly could have been held to limited naval engagements, but no clash of ground troops.  In short, we might at most have fought a limited war.

These conclusions are highly speculative; the situation of the time cannot be reproduced for another run, searching for an alternate future. Perhaps I underestimate the risks that an American determination to avoid war would have entailed.  On the other hand, the proposition that the war was unnecessary—in a real sense premature, fought before the need was sufficiently clearly established, though the need might well have become apparent later—is worth considering.  Just possibly the isolationists were right in their essential perspective.

This last may be unpalatable, especially because the intellectual company of some of the most famous isolationists—William Borah, Hiram Johnson, and Burton Wheeler—is not very distinguished.  Others like Father Coughlin were homegrown fascists, or, like Charles Lindbergh, are remembered as naive admirers of Germany.  But once more, I do not imagine that the United States should have carried on blithely in 1941 as though nothing were happening elsewhere in the world.  Complete isolation would have been much worse than intervention.  All Americans would agree that American strategic interests required substantial assistance to the belligerents against Germany.  Both Britain and Russia had to be preserved as independent and powerful states.  With a little less certainty I would also grant the need to keep a significant portion of China viable.

It seems, however, that those goals could have been achieved by the belligerents themselves, with great American economic and noncombatant military aid.  As insurance, American rearmament had to go on.  A sustained defense effort not less than what was later accepted during the cold war would have been required.  That would imply 10 percent of the American GNP devoted to military purposes, as compared with about that amount actually expended in 1941 and a mere one and one-half percent in 1939. That much, incidentally, would with Lend-Lease have been quite enough to revive the economy from the depression and assuredly does not imply idle resources.

With this prescription I find myself at odds with the extreme critics of Roosevelt’s policy, men who spoke at that time and again, briefly, after the war. Most of the President’s military and economic acts seem appropriate and, indeed, necessary.  I have no quarrel with the decisions for rearmament or to institute Selective Service, with revision of the Neutrality Act to permit “cash-and-carry” by belligerents (effectively by the Allies only), with the destroyers-for-bases exchange, with Lend-Lease, or with the decision to convoy American vessels as far as Iceland.  Even the famous “shoot-on-sight” order, even as interpreted to allow American destroyers to seek out the sight of U-boats, seems necessary if the convoys were to be protected on the first stage of the critical lifeline to Britain.  I do have some serious reservations about the way in which those decisions were publicly justified, a matter for discussion below. But the content of those decisions seems fully defensible.  And irritating as they surely were, Hitler would probably have continued to tolerate them in preference to more active American involvement.

Only two major exceptions to the content of American policy in 1941 appear worth registering. One is the vote by Congress in mid-November 1941, at the President’s behest, removing nearly all the remaining restrictions of the Neutrality Act.  It permitted American ships to carry supplies all the way across the Atlantic, instead of merely as far as Iceland.  This almost certainly would have been too much for Hitler to bear.  Had he allowed American ships to claim the benefits of neutrality and arrive unmolested in Britain, his entire effort to force British capitulation by naval warfare would have collapsed. The more American, rather than British, vessels carried cargoes the more ineffective the submarine campaign would have become.  The situation would have required great self-restraint—a trait for which Hitler was not noted—and a willingness on all sides to envision a compromise peace as the outcome. Probably that willingness could not have emerged so quickly.  More likely Hitler would have felt obliged to order his submarine commanders to attack all American shipping, instead of merely replying if attacked by American escort ships.  The change would have precipitated heavy American merchant losses rather than just the occasional incident, usually involving warships, implied by the previous policy.  That in turn might well have demanded more self-restraint by Roosevelt than was possible in the American political system, even if he had wanted very badly to avoid war.  In short, the new American policy probably would have led in a few months to open, declared conflict.  But as to whether that final step was necessary, as part of a plan to preserve an independent Britain for an ultimate negotiated settlement, I remain unconvinced.

The other and still more serious exception I take is with President Roosevelt’s policy toward Japan as described in the previous chapter.  It was neither necessary nor desirable for him to have insisted on a Japanese withdrawal from China.  An agreement for a standstill would have been enough, and he did not make an honest diplomatic attempt to achieve it.  He refused to meet Prince Konoye in the Pacific to work out a compromise, and after Konoye’s fall he rejected, on Hull’s advice, a draft proposal that could have served as a basis for compromise with the Japanese.  We have no guarantee that agreement could have been reached, but there was at least some chance and the effort was not made.


Worst case analysis

Several very serious objections to my view of a viable American policy can still be offered.  The first is that I have minimized the dangers that would have been implied by a successful American effort to stay out of the war.  My reply is essentially that the fundamental power balance in the world was more stable than many thought it to be.  More generally, the argument could be extended to the cold war period, when I think we often took on the Chicken Little syndrome, exaggerating the threat to that stability in the face of every immediate crisis, coup, or distant war.  (“The sky is falling! Run and tell the President!”)  Roosevelt’s own words, though exaggerated, may have even more value than he thought: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Cold war, and especially overt international violence, provides a condition of heightened fears, a fog of war in which everyone is especially likely to overrate the threat an enemy constitutes.  At the beginning of World War II, for instance, British and American intelligence estimates of German war production were exaggerated by 50 to 100 percent.1

In 1941 perhaps any possibility, however slim, of a true German victory was so undesirable as to justify intervention.  Neither that nightmare, nor the retrospective chance of a Nazi government equipped with nuclear weapons, is one with which Americans could rest complacently.  But we must always weigh possible outcomes by what we think is the probability that they will occur.  Otherwise we fall victim to “worst case analysis,” always trying desperately to avoid the worst regardless of how unlikely it is to happen even without our efforts.  Death or mangling in a traffic accident is a possibility every time we step into an automobile.  Most of us are nevertheless usually willing to take that risk rather than accept the far more likely losses to be incurred by giving up normal mobility for business and pleasure.  Yet in analyzing international politics we sometimes forget this lesson.

During the past decade, members of the Administration in Washington decided that if a Viet Cong government ever took power in Saigon it might well set in motion a row of falling dominoes throughout Southeast Asia, as one non-Communist government after another tumbled.  Before long the result might have been a set of Chinese or Russian-dominated governments, hostile to American interests, in the entire area.  To avoid such an undesirable outcome they introduced a massive American military force.  What was perhaps not asked, however, was whether another outcome which even they would consider nearly as undesirable—the quagmire—was even more likely to happen in the event of intervention than was the fall of dominoes in the absence of American military action.  Thus by seeking to foreclose one very bad but improbable outcome in Asia the United States government made another one much more likely. Such action was probably encouraged by a simple-minded, and erroneous, use of the game theory principle of “minimax.”  That principle advises one to choose a strategy so as to minimize the chance of getting the outcome you regard as worst—but properly understood it does not mean bending all efforts to avoid very bad but very improbable events.

What is more, no comprehensive analysis of the broader costs and gains of fighting in Vietnam seems to have been made anywhere in the government. Narrow quantitative studies of body counts and controlled hamlets, made by systems analysts in the Pentagon, have been much blamed for the Vietnam fiasco.  True, they often were naive or based on fabricated “information.”  Yet in a myopic perspective of systems analysis the Vietnam war can be considered something of a success.  The minimal goal, to maintain an anti-Communist government in Saigon, has been met for a decade despite the incompetence and unpopularity of that government. A narrow analysis of military and political conditions necessary to achieve such an outcome would not deal with the broader political, economic, and moral costs of the war, to Vietnam and to the United States. It is the job of analysts elsewhere in the decision-making system—in the White House, the State Department—even Congress and the academic community—to measure those broader costs and to weigh their acceptability.  But of course that broader evaluation was never properly undertaken either by policy-makers or by social scientists.  Nor indeed was anything like such an analysis undertaken at the time of American entry into World War II.  Strategic and political assumptions about the postwar world were left for improvisation or retrospective rancor.

Naval action in the North Atlantic, with American destroyers dropping depth-charges on German submarines and receiving torpedoes in turn, constituted America’s first limited war.  Another objection is that such a war could not, politically, have long continued.  No doctrine for fighting limited war existed.  Americans thought peace and war to be antithetical.  Woodrow Wilson had felt impelled, despite his preferences, to declare war on Germany in 1917 over the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare.  Very possibly it would have proved politically impossible to sustain long a policy of limited war in 1941 and 1942.  The experience of the 1950s in which Americans did fight such a war against hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops, was still in the future—though it was to demonstrate how a conflict could be controlled if the will was there.  The scenario I have put forth for the 1940s, one of rearmament, assistance, but careful avoidance of belligerency barring a true collapse of one of the major allies, would have required enormous political skill and possibly a quality of political support that did not exist in the country. Perhaps any idea of “fighting to the last ally” would have been too “cynical” to survive public debate.  A few isolationists opposed both rearmament and aid to the allies, both of which were essential pillars in the policy I suggest.  This last difficulty particularly demanded a candid discussion of foreign policy options, a discussion that Roosevelt never really led.


A broad coalition

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to lump all “isolationists” together as uniform advocates of a single policy.  The opponents of American participation in the war included such a diverse lot as Oswald Garrison Villard, Socialist leader Norman Thomas, economist Stuart Chase, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, progressive Senators Borah, Johnson, LaFollette, and Wheeler, United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis, former President Hoover, and conservative Senators like Robert A. Taft and Arthur Vandenberg.  (The breadth of the anti-interventionist coalition in 1940 suggests the possibility of a similar broad-based coalition, including many from the right, emerging against intervention in the 1970s.)  Certainly they all shared the view that Germany and Japan did not constitute a clear and present military danger to the United States.  But many “isolationists” supported most or all of the proposed military buildup; the others offered no substantial opposition.  Lindbergh wanted to “arm to the teeth.”  As one historian has told us:

Isolationists displayed no unanimity in their stand on specific defense measures.  They made no concerted effort to block expansion of America’s armed forces, however.  Many isolationists, in fact, became ardent champions of the strongest possible defense and, occasionally, outdid the Administration in their efforts to improve America’s military capabilities.2

With a single exception to be explained shortly, during the years 1939-1941 army and navy appropriations passed virtually unanimously, despite the numerical strength of those in Congress who opposed entry into the war.  Most isolationists even were willing to give some aid to Britain.  They opposed Lend-Lease, but proposed instead a two-billion dollar loan to help the British war effort, as a less sweeping commitment.  A financial loan would not give the president power, as Lend-Lease did, to integrate the American economy with the British war effort, nor would it tempt him to act with American naval forces so as to insure the safe arrival of actual goods to be lent or leased.3  Whether the substitute represented a deep-seated willingness to maintain Britain, or merely a political response from a desire to appear positive, is unimportant.  The necessary political base for some substantial assistance to the British and later the Russians was there.  And from many quarters Roosevelt heard the advice that while doing so, and fortifying the Western Hemisphere, he should allow Germany and Russia to exhaust each other. 

Only two kinds of preparedness measures proposed by the Administration were fought by many isolationists; some naval construction, and Selective Service.  The opposition to certain naval expenditures came early, in 1938, and faded thereafter.   It stemmed from fears that a big navy would only be used to involve the United States in a distant war.  This in turn was rooted in a long-term suspicion by many liberal isolationists of foreign trade and investments as a source of danger.  Charles Beard saw the United States as potentially able to achieve economic near-sufficiency; he feared a big navy would be demanded to defend trade and therefore wanted trade reduced to a minimum.4 Similarly, the Naval Construction Bill of 1939 initially included appropriations for developing the base on Guam.  The isolationists feared such an act would antagonize the Japanese—but they did not oppose similar funds for projects on Wake and Midway Islands, closer to the United States.  They wanted a navy capable of protecting the Western Hemisphere, but not able to embark on further adventures.5 Opposition to renewal of Selective Service in 1941 centered less on the draft than on the possibility that conscripts might be sent overseas.

Thus the political climate was not nearly so hostile to rearmament and aid short of war as we may imagine.  The same can be said of the public at large. As early as January 1939, a Gallup poll found 65 percent of the population anxious to spend more for defense.  Throughout 1941 approximately the same proportion consistently, in repeated polls, were solidly in favor of aid to Britain.  In fact, they declared it was “more important to help England than to keep out of war.”  Almost every survey found more than half the population approving Roosevelt’s actions in helping Britain; another 20 percent felt he had not gone far enough.6  Franklin Roosevelt therefore was pursuing a policy that was both politically viable and sufficient to keep the Allies in the war.  Only toward the end of 1941, in dealing with both Germany and Japan, did his decisions lead inevitably to war.


The cost of intervention

If American intervention in World War II was otherwise avoidable and unnecessary, then what were its costs?  I do not think participation was a grave error in the sense that most Americans are very much worse off, in directly traceable consequence, than they otherwise would be. But the costs were serious and must be set against the presumed gains.

American battle casualties were relatively light—fewer than 300,000 men killed, a figure less than 10 percent of German losses, or less than 5 percent of Russian military casualties alone.  Yet that many deaths can hardly be forgotten.  Furthermore, in World War II the United States used up important natural resources, especially oil and metals, that can never be replaced.  For example, America is now dependent on imports of iron ore following exhaustion of the great Mesabi iron range in Minnesota.  The dream of continental self-sufficiency was much less far-fetched to the isolationists of 1940 than it can ever be again, in part because of the exertions World War II imposed.  A greater loss is probably the damage to the world’s physical environment which the conduct of World War II accelerated and which we have continued with the preparations for further wars.

Moreover, World War II left some undesirable legacies in American thought patterns.  One may be the illusion that Asians can always be beaten in war, even when the main American effort is concentrated on the European theatre.  Another may be a habit of intervention, of putting American military effort prematurely into the scales to prevent the buildup of hostile power even in the remote future.  Nothing fails like success.  And the strategy of gradual escalation of pressures against a weaker opponent, applied so disastrously to Japan, returned in Vietnam.

Yet another is the corrupting effect actual conduct of the conflict had on our view of what constituted morally permissible acts in warfare.  For the first year of the war urban areas of the major combatants were largely spared.  (There were some exceptions for the smaller states, notably the case of Rotterdam in May 1940.)  President Roosevelt characterized the earliest, and mildest, German air attacks as “inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.”7  But as the war dragged on German planes bombed British cities in the Blitz and the British habitually attacked German urban centers at night when precision bombing was impossible, deliberately directing many of their strikes against residential areas for their effect on popular morale.  Another myth that needs revision is that the Germans initiated such attacks; on the contrary, Churchill can also be give some credit for the breakdown of previous restraints on bombing civilians.8  American bombing raids on Germany as a rule—though there were notable exceptions—attempted to concentrate on industrial targets and were largely conducted during daylight hours.

But if Americans can claim a few credits for restraint in the air war over Europe, the firebomb raids on Japanese cities (in which a ring of fire was carefully built to trap people inside) remove much virtue from that account.  The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a direct outgrowth of the firebombing precedent.  After the war all restraints were forgotten.  On the basis of their own actions against Japan, American military planners simply assumed that in future wars nuclear weapons would be used against cities to destroy the enemy’s economy, society, and popular morale.  This strategy was basically unquestioned until the late 1950s, in other countries as well as in the United States.  It remains essentially in force, and thus the current ever-present nuclear threat to American cities is an inheritance from our, and other nations’, acts in World War II.

Another direct legacy has been the American conduct of war from the air in South Vietnam, napalming villages and suburban areas and the leveling of large tracts of the city of Hue.  Nor were the corruptions of war limited to the behavior of airmen.  Atrocities committed by Americans against Japanese, as well as vice-versa, gave frightening premonitions of My Lai.9  American soldiers commonly refused to take prisoners in the Pacific.

Material costs too must be considered.  Even at the end of the New Deal some contemporary observers thought that military preparations endangered continued attention to American domestic needs.  The “continentalists,” in the words of two of them, objected to:

lecturing other nations, constantly stirring up in effect, warlike emotions, and using the power of the United States to force any scheme of politics or economy on other peoples.  They especially opposed, as distracting and dangerous to domestic life, the propagation of the idea that any mere foreign policy could in any material respect reduce the amount of degrading poverty in the United States, set the American economy in full motion, or substantially add to the well-being of the American people.  Foreign policy, they held, could easily be made the instrument to stifle domestic wrongs under a blanket of militarist chauvinism, perhaps disguised by the high-sounding title of world peace.10

There is an unfortunate coincidence between participation in war and the death of attempts at domestic reform in the twentieth century.  World War I marked the end of Wilson’s New Freedom.  Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was one of the first casualties of his war on the Viet Congo.  And World War II, on top of the 1938 election, ended the New Deal.

True enough, the United States has undertaken heavy and long-term military efforts without the emergence of a Garrison State.  Yet the American economy, and the political system, have paid a real price for heavy military expenditure in an atmosphere of grave external threat.  On the material side, these costs include a relative neglect of physical and social investment.  Military expenditure has to come at the expense of some other kind of spending, public or private.  Over the past 30 years, some of the price has indeed been paid by immediate personal consumption.  But proportionately the impact on investment—capital formation—has been very much greater.  Public spending for education and health have suffered heavily too, and these statements apply to the exertions of World War II as well as to the cold war years.  Americans are somewhat poorer, more ignorant, and less healthy than they would be if the military spending had not been necessary, or deemed necessary.

The feeling of need for constant vigilance against threats, domestic as well as foreign, represents a political cost.  At least some kinds of military spending are closely associated with “conservative,” hawkish, strongly anticommunist attitudes among our political leaders.  Legislators whose states benefit from disproportionate shares of spending for military installations are quite likely to be foreign policy hard-liners.  The effect of heavy military spending is to shift the nation’s political center of gravity to the right.

Similarly, the devastation of previous strong restraints on military spending can be traced to the World War II period.   Before 1939 the armed forces included only about a quarter of a million men.  The country had a tradition of close scrutiny of military budgets and suspicion of peacetime army that was very different from the latitude given the armed forces during the cold war.  But at no point since the end of the war have fewer than 1,400,000 Americans been under arms. Of course, the cold war and Soviet-American arms race were substantially responsible for this development, but a standard American pattern of wartime military expansion and only partial postwar contraction was also at work.  The Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Korean War each produced a virtual and permanent doubling of the armed forces over the size characteristic of the preceding years.  And it is not enough simply to invoke the image of objective global responsibilities after each war.  While that explanation surely has some truth, Parkinson’s Law also comes to mind.  So too does an image of a political system where each war weakened the restraints on the activities of military men and their civilian allies.  World War II, which lasted 44 months for the United States and at its peak absorbed more than 40 percent of the national product, unavoidably built a “military-industrial complex” that could not easily be dismantled at war’s end.11  Similarly, the prosecution of the war required a system of higher taxes and governmental control of the economy and society that has never been entirely dismantled.

In fairness, however, my alternative scenario for 1941 would have required heavy defense spending and some of these same costs as were incurred by fighting World War II.  Whether the system has been more “healthy” with a great war and then cold war from 1946 onward is subject only to speculation.   I am nevertheless inclined to believe that some of the excesses of the cold war period have their roots in the World War II experience.  One of the greatest anxieties of liberal isolationists about intervention was that it would permanently restrict political freedoms at home, that American democracy could not survive sustained militarization.  On April 13, 1940, the New York Times quoted Beard as accusing J. Edgar Hoover of setting up a “political bureau” in the Department of Justice, for the purpose of indexing and spying upon persons charged with holding objectionable but not illegal views in matters of politics and economics, or engaging in activities of which he does not approve.12


Power and candor

The years 1940 and 1941 marked the first great exercise of a president’s powers as Commander-in-Chief during peacetime.  They represent a period when secret military planning with the British became extremely close, and when American naval forces were committed to actions that were sure to involve them in hostilities.  Restraints on the president’s execution of foreign policy loosened and have never been restored.  A good deal of controversy over Roosevelt’s intentions raged during the 1940s, and still has not entirely abated.  Some extreme revisionists who published immediately after the war accused him of seeking war with Germany and Japan, and of deliberately inviting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Most historians reject these extreme interpre-tations.  Such charges about intentions probably can never be substantiated or conclusively disproved, and they have distracted us from more important questions like the one posed in this essay—regardless of intentions, was the conflict in fact necessary?   One standard interpretation seems to be that Roosevelt decided at some point, perhaps several years before Pearl Harbor, that the United States would have to go to war.  But isolationist sentiment was so powerful that he felt unable to present the issue squarely to the people, and so proceeded cautiously, step-by-step, to help the Allies as much as Congress and the electorate would permit.  According to this interpretation he is to be faulted for never having frankly discussed his private conviction that the United States should go to war to prevent Axis domination, and the implications of his policy.

Some aspects of his leadership seem chillingly familiar to those of us who have since listened to Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk discuss their intentions in Vietnam.  The most famous incident occurred in FDR’s October 30 campaign address to an Irish-American audience in Boston, when he declared, “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.”  At the time he did worry a bit whether he could keep this promise, but decided that the phrase “foreign wars” was too ambiguous to bind him.  To his speech-writer he remarked, “If we’re attacked it’s no longer a foreign war.”13  Even so, we cannot judge Roosevelt guilty of duplicity on this evidence.  Most observers feel that he still did not believe his assistance to Britain would lead to all-out war, but rather continued to hope that British resistance, sustained by America, would be enough to hold Hitler back.  One historian who has carefully considered the question remarks about Lend-Lease, despite its almost unprecedentedly nonneutral nature: “. . . the president felt with great sincerity that this policy would not lead to American involvement but to a British victory that alone would keep the nation out of war.”  And later, “His own personal hatred of war was deep and genuine, and it was this conviction that set him apart from men like Stimson and Morgenthau, who decided that American participation was necessary in the spring of 1941 . . . It is quite possible that Roosevelt never fully committed himself to American involvement prior to Pearl Harbor.”14

But if Roosevelt is acquitted of these charges, it is not possible to let him off so easily for his acts on two other occasions.  He certainly was not above manipulating the facts about naval incidents in the North Atlantic, in a way that provided a perfect precedent for his successor a generation later.  In September 1941 a German submarine fired two torpedoes, both missing, at the American destroyer Greer.  President Roosevelt responded, in a radio broadcast, with the following description to the event as an act of “piracy”:  The Greer

was carrying American mail to Iceland. . . . 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 . . .

We have sought no shooting war with Hitler.  We do not seek it now.  But neither do we want peace so much that we are willing to pay for it by permitting him to attack our naval and merchant ships while they are on legitimate business.15

It later emerged that the “legitimate business” was that the Greer “had been following the V-Boat for more than three hours and had been broadcasting its position to nearby British naval units.”16

The second incident occurred the following month when the destroyer Kearny was torpedoed.  Although the ship was not sunk, eleven American sailors were killed. In his subsequent radio address Roosevelt declared:

We have wished to avoid shooting.  But the shooting has started.  And history has recorded who fired the first shot. . .

America has been attacked.  The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship.  She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation. . . . Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American, whether he lives on our seacoast or in the innermost part of the Nation far from the sea and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be-conquerors of the world.

The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas-to force us to make a trembling retreat,17

What really happened in this incident, where “history has recorded the first shot,” was described two days later in a formal report by Secretary of the Navy Knox:

On the night of October 16-17 the U.S.S. Kearny while escorting a convoy of merchant ships received distress signals from another convoy which was under attack from several submarines.  The U.S.S. Kearny proceeded to the aid of the attacked convoy.  On arriving at the scene of the attack the U.S.S. Kearny dropped depth bombs when she sighted a merchant ship under attack by a submarine.18

Compare these statements of Roosevelt with those of President Johnson in August 1964, after two naval incidents in the Tonkin Gulf:

This new act of aggression aimed directly at our forces again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in Southeast Asia.

Aggression by terror against peaceful villages of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America . . . We Americans know-although others appear to forget—the risk of spreading conflict.  We still seek no wider war.19

Lyndon Johnson was an avowed admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, and a young New Dealer before the war. Did he, or his speechwriter, consciously draw on the earlier experience?

Certainly he failed to mention the clandestine American-sponsored air-attacks and South Vietnamese naval actions against the North Vietnam coast that had been conducted prior to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.  If Hanoi interpreted the American destroyers’ presence in the Gulf as part of those actions, then its response was something less than “open aggression.”  Yet Johnson’s reply was a severe air strike, then the predrafted Tonkin Gulf Resolution and ultimately full-scale American intervention.  In the subsequent election campaign he lashed his opponent’s advocacy of a bombing campaign even though his Administration had reached a consensus that heavy air attacks on the North would in fact be necessary.20

In this context it is worth quoting once again from Charles Beard who, though extreme and sometimes blind in his hatred of Roosevelt, uttered some ringing prophecies.  If Roosevelt’s acts stand as precedent, he warned,

The President of the United States in a campaign for reelection may publicly promise the people to keep the country out of war and, after victory at the polls, may set out secretly on a course designed or practically certain to bring war upon the country.

He may, to secure legislation in furtherance of his secret designs, misrepresent to Congress and the people both its purport and the policy he intends to pursue under its terms if and when such legislation is enacted . . .

He may publicly represent to Congress and the people that acts of war have been committed against the United States, when in reality the said acts were secretly invited and even initiated by the armed forces of the United States under his secret direction.21

Without accepting the most insidious charges of those who attacked Franklin Roosevelt, it is nevertheless clear that his actions as Commander-in-Chief, for a cause that was generally popular, made similar acts by his successors much easier. Recall again some of his initiatives, not submitted to Congress: the destroyers-for-bases exchange by an executive agreement more important than almost all of the nearly one thousand treaties that have been submitted to the Senate; the order to American forces to occupy Iceland; the order that American warships should convoy British as well as American vessels in the North Atlantic, and later to “shoot on sight”—and to seek out—German submarines.  In these interpretations of his power Roosevelt was hardly timid.  Even one, like this author, who considers these steps, at least, to have been in the immediate American interest, has some qualms.  We can allow one of Roosevelt’s firm sympathizers to sum up the argument, though we may reach a different verdict:

Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor . . . He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good. . . . A president who cannot entrust the people with the truth betrays a certain lack of faith in the basic tenets of democracy.  But because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests.  This is clearly what Roosevelt had to do, and who shall say that posterity will not thank him for it?22

Roosevelt, like Johnson after him, not only was uncandid, but made his decisions within a small circle of intimate advisers.


No more Munichs

The theme of the above quotation, “the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats,” is typical of thousands of writers and political figures.  Preventive medicine was the prescription; dangers must be faced at their inception, while the threat is still small enough to be controlled.  The lesson of Munich had to be learned.  The Allies had waited until very nearly too late to stand up to Hitler; that mistake must not be repeated.  Stalin had the same kind of insatiable ambitions as Hitler, thus he must be stopped at the beginning.  It is astonishing how often, immediately after the war or even while it still continued, Americans applied, or misapplied, the “lessons” of dealing with Hitler.

Some samples of the equation of Stalin with Hitler include James Forrestal, reporting Averell Harriman’s comments that

the outward thrust of communism was not dead and that we might well have to face an ideological warfare just as vigorous and dangerous as fascism or Nazism.23

Forrestal himself, sending Henry Luce a study by Edward Willett of the “real moral and philosophical foundations of the Russian State”:

I realize it is easy to ridicule the need for such a study as I have asked Willett to make, but in the middle of that laughter we always should remember that we also laughed at Hitler.24

Harry Truman remarked that

the new menace facing us seemed every bit as grave as Nazi Germany and her allies had been.25

and James Byrnes, Truman’s secretary of state:

they (Soviet leaders) must learn what Hitler learned—that the world is not going to permit one nation to veto peace on earth.26

Both Truman and Johnson, in their later military moves into Korea and Vietnam, explicitly invoked pre-World War II analogies.  Truman’s thoughts, on hearing about the North Korean attack, bear repeating:

In my generation this was not the first occasion when the strong had attacked the weak.  I recalled some earlier instances: Manchuria, Ethiopia, Austria.  I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead. Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen, twenty years earlier . . . If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on the second world war.27

Woodrow Wilson had reluctantly brought the United States into war in 1917, but because of pervasive isolationist sentiment the peace was lost. Americans refused to participate in a world collective security system, and allowed Germany to break the peace once more.  Truman also recalled,

I could never quite forget the strong hold which isolationism had gained over our country after World War I.

. . . I had a very good picture of what a revival of American isolationism would mean for the world. . . . Inaction, withdrawal, “Fortress America” notions could only result in handing to the Russians vast areas of the globe now denied them.28

But after the second war the forces within America who opposed an interventionist policy were gravely depleted. Interventionists, having carried their policy to its seemingly glorious conclusion, could hardly question its applicability in a new situation.  The arch-conservative isolationists of 1940 could now change sides.  Whereas they had been unable to find much enthusiasm for war with Hitler, Communist Russia was quite another matter. And the liberal isolationists were disarmed.  In the early years of the cold war all American liberals were required to demonstrate their loyalty and freedom from any taint of pro-Communism.  Many of the most ardent reformers of the 1930s became the ardent cold warriors of the 1940s, what one wag called, in lower case letters, “national socialists.”  After embracing a hard-line cold war policy they had little incentive to question the wisdom of earlier global activism.  In any case they strongly identified with Franklin Roosevelt, and so hastened to defend him from the exaggerated charges of his critics.  Only a few eccentrics remained to challenge an activist “containment” foreign policy in either its past or its then–current form.

Revisionist historians of the First World War played no small part in the general revulsion from Europe’s quarrels that swept the United States during the twenties.   It was necessary to insure that a new isolationism was not fed as the old one had been.  The possibility was slight anyway, but just to be certain a number of scholars, whose views on the war were not known to be seriously at odds with the Administration’s, were provided with special access to individuals and to files.  Most of these scholars had worked for the government during the war and could draw on their experiences and contacts.  Others—and even some of these same scholars, years later after their access had expired—encountered the usual difficulties in trying to see classified documents.29  Hence for a full generation a single approving view has held sway among most academics as well as in the public at large.

It would of course be unfair and inaccurate to trace all the developments cited in this chapter, and especially the adoption of interventionist policies, only back to 1940, just as it is wrong to think they emerged full-blown at the beginning of the cold war.  One can find roots in our earlier Caribbean policy, in Woodrow Wilson’s acts, in the war of 1898, and even earlier.   But World War II, rather like monosodium glutamate, made pungent a host of unsavory flavors that had until then been relatively subdued.  We cannot really extirpate contemporary “global policeman” conceptions from American thinking unless we understand how, in World War II, they developed and became deeply ingrained.



1 Klein, Germany’s Economic Preparations, pp. 101-02.

2 Jonas, Isolationism, pp. 129-30.

3 Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 241-43.

4 Jonas, Isolationism, p. 133. Also see Cohen, American Revisionists, pp. 129-34.

5 See The Open Door at Home (New York: Macmillan, 1935), esp. pp. 213-14. Several years ago in “The Calculus of Deterrence,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 7, no. 2 (June 1963): 97-109, I pointed out evidence that if a small power was attacked, a big power defender was much more likely to honor its previous commitment to come to its rescue if there were close economic ties between the two. At that time I was concerned about strengthening Atlantic deterrence against Soviet attack, and thought promoting trade thus to have desirable political results.

6 Hadley Cantril, The Human Dimension: Experiences in Policy Research (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1967), pp. 47, 50.

7 Quoted in Robert E. Osgood and Robert W. Tucker, Force, Order, and Justice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), p. 217.

8 George Quester, Deterrence Before Hiroshima (New York: Wiley, 1966), pp. 105-22.

9 For example, see Charles Lindbergh’s observations on duty in the South Pacific, in The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970).

10 Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, America in Mid-passage (New York: Macmillan, 1939), p. 455.

11 Evidence on the preceding paragraphs is presented in Bruce Russett, What Price Vigilance? The Burdens of National Defense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

12 Cited in Cohen, American Revisionists, p. 226.

13 Samuel I. Rosenman, Working with Roosevelt (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), p. 242. Many writers have pointed to his famous speech in 1937 calling for a “quarantine” of the aggressors as evidence of an early and strong determination to resist even at great cost. Recent evidence makes it appear unlikely that any such determination was present. See Dorothy Borg, “Notes on Roosevelt’s ‘Quarantine’ Speech,” in Robert A. Divine, ed., Causes and Consequences of World War II (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969), p. 47-70.

14 Robert A. Divine, Roosevelt and World War II (Baltimore; Penguin, 1970), pp. 40, 47-48.

15 New York Times, September 12, 1941, pp. 1,4.

16 Divine, Roosevelt, p. 44.

17 New York Times, October 28, 1941, p. 4.

18 Ibid., October 30, p. 1.

19 New York Times, August 5, 1964, p. 1.

20 See The Pentagon Papers as edited by the New York Times (New York: Bantam, 1971), Chapters 5 and 6.

21 Charles A. Beard, President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), pp. 582-84.

22 Thomas A. Bailey, The Man in the Street (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 13. Among many others who share essentially this conclusion, a little less approvingly, are Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard and Parrington (New York: Knopf, 1968), pp. 336-37, and Robert E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 412.

23 Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries (New York: Viking, 1951), p. 47. Diary entry of April 20, 1945.

24 Ibid., p. 128.

25 Harry S. Truman, Years of Trial and Hope (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 101.

26 James Byrnes, Speaking Frankly (New York: Harper and Row, 1947), p. 203·

27 Truman, Trial and Hope, pp. 332-33.

28 Ibid., pp. 101-02.

29 See Herbert Feis, “The Shackled Historian,” Foreign Affairs 45, no. 2 (January 1967): 332-43.


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

Back to Chapter 3: A Hobson’s Choice for Japan

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