The World Turned Upside Down

Of World War II and the Cold War, I once wrote:

The Third Reich and Empire of the Rising Sun failed to dominate the world only because of (a) Hitler’s fatal invasion of Russia, (b) Japan’s wrong-headed attack on Pearl Harbor, and (c) the fact that the United States of 1941 had time and space on its side…

[The subsequent Cold War was a] necessary, long, and costly “war” of deterrence through preparedness [that] enabled the U.S. to protect Americans’ legitimate economic interests around the world by limiting the expansion of the Soviet empire.

I now suspect that the Cold War was unnecessary, and therefore a vast waste of lives resources, because World War II took a wrong turn.

Bear in mind that the USSR, our Cold War enemy, survived World War II, went on to seize Eastern Europe, and became a power to be reckoned with largely because of

  • vast deliveries of American aid to the USSR during the war
  • the adoption of the policy of unconditional surrender, which probably prolonged the war in Europe, enabling the USSR to move its forces farther to the west
  • the Anglo-American invasion of Europe through northern France on D-Day, rather than through southern Europe earlier in the war, which also enabled Soviet forces to move farther to the west
  • FDR’s concessions to Stalin, late in the war at the Yalta Conference, which set the stage for the USSR’s seizure of Eastern Europe (the scope of which was ratified at the Potsdam Conference)
  • Soviet influence and espionage, exerted through and conducted by U.S. government officials, which abetted the foregoing and hastened the USSR’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

But there is more: several foregone opportunities to end the war early and turn the tide against the USSR.

The first such opportunity is related in a recent news story:

[Rudolf] Hess’s journey to Britain by fighter aircraft to Scotland has traditionally been dismissed as the deranged solo mission of a madman.

But Peter Padfield, an historian, has uncovered evidence he says shows that, Hess, the deputy Fuhrer, brought with him from Hitler, a detailed peace treaty, under which the Nazis would withdraw from western Europe, in exchange for British neutrality over the imminent attack on Russia.

The existence of such a document was revealed to him by an informant who claims that he and other German speakers were called in by MI6 to translate the treaty for Churchill….

The informant said the first two pages of the treaty detailed Hitler’s precise aims in Russia, followed by sections detailing how Britain could keep its independence, Empire and armed services, and how the Nazis would withdraw from western Europe. The treaty proposed a state of “wohlwollende Neutralitat” – rendered as “well wishing neutrality”, between Britain and Germany, for the latter’s offensive against the USSR. The informant even said the date of the Hitler’s coming attack on the east was disclosed….

Mr Padfield, who has previously written a biography of Hess as well as ones of Karl Dönitz and Heinrich Himmler, believes the treaty was suppressed at the time, because it would have scuppered Churchill’s efforts to get the USA into the war, destroyed his coalition of exiled European governments, and weakened his position domestically, as it would have been seized on by what the author believes was a sizeable “negotiated peace” faction in Britain at that time. At the same time, since the mission had failed, it also suited Hitler to dismiss Hess as a rogue agent….

Mr Padfield added….

“This was a turning point of the war. Churchill could have accepted the offer, but he made a very moral choice. He was determined that Hitler, who could not be trusted, would not get away with it. He wanted the US in the war, and to defeat Hitler.”

Mr Padfield has also assembled other evidence to support the existence of the treaty and its contents – as well as the subsequent cover-up….

For the rest of the story, see Jasper Copping’s article, “Nazis ‘Offered to Leave Western Europe in Exchange for Free Hand to Attack USSR’,” (The Telegraph, September 26, 2013).

Hess’s aborted mission took place in 1941, and — purportedly — with Hitler’s blessing. After the failure of Hess’s mission, however, a lot happened without Hitler’s blessing. What follows are excerpts of Diana West’s American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character (St. Martin’s Press, 2013):

… When Louis Lochner, for many years the AP bureau chief in Berlin, attempted to file a story on the activities of anti-Nazi Germans operating out of France in October 1944, U.S. military censors blocked the story. Why? “The government official in charge of censorship was forthcoming enough to confide to Lochner that there was a personal directive from the president of the United States ‘in his capacity of commander in chief forbidding all mention of the German resistance,’” writes Klaus P. Fischer in his 2011 book, Hitler and America. Drawing from Lochner’s 1956 memoir Always the Unexpected, Fischer quotes Lochner’s explanation for this seemingly inexplicable and outrageous censorship: “Stories of the existence of a resistance movement did not fit into the concept of Unconditional Surrender!” …

Turns out, Lochner knew Roosevelt personally, and both men had a mutual friend in Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. Lochner had been in contact with the anti-Hitler opposition in Germany since 1939. In November 1941, German anti-Nazis asked Lochner, heading home on leave, to contact the president on their behalf, to ask Roosevelt to speak out about what form of government he would like to see take shape in post-Hitler Germany, and to provide the president with secret radio codes so that Americans and German anti-Nazis could communicate directly with each other. So writes Peter Hoffman in The History of the German Resistance, 1933– 1945, which first appeared in Germany in 1969, drawing from the 1955 German edition of Lochner’s memoir, certain details of which Hoffman says are not in the English version.

Lochner was interned by the Nazi regime at the outbreak of the war in December 1941 and didn’t reach Washington until the summer of 1942. This would have been shortly after “unconditional surrender” was affirmed and reaffirmed by the president’s postwar advisory council subcommittee, and shortly after Roosevelt had promised a “second front” to Soviet minister Molotov. Lochner immediately informed the White House that he had personal and confidential messages for the president from the prince “and secret information on resistance groups in Germany that he might not confide to anyone else.”

No answer. No interest.

Lochner’s attempts at gaining an audience in June 1942 failed. Lochner followed up with a letter and received no reply. Finally, he was informed by the White House through the AP bureau in Washington, Hoffman writes, that “there was no desire to receive his information and he was requested to refrain from further efforts to transmit it.” …

… Hoffman reveals an important piece of the puzzle in a footnote. Lochner’s final attempt to reach Roosevelt on June 19, 1942, was in a letter addressed to a trusted presidential aide. That aide was [Soviet agent] Lauchlin Currie….

***

In his 1958 memoir, Wedemeyer Reports!, General [Albert C.] Wedemeyer picks up on George H. Earle’s series of secret negotiations with the German underground, which began with [Hitler’s chief spy Adm. Wilhelm] Canaris….

According to Earle’s account, he sent Canaris’s initial query regarding a negotiated peace to the White House via diplomatic pouch in early 1943….

… Just before Earle departed the United States to become FDR’s special emissary in Istanbul (officially, naval attaché), he wrote the following letter on December 19, 1942, from New York City on Ritz-Carlton stationery.

Dear Harry: If you don’t mind I’m going to report to you direct my activities. I like the way your mind works and I know you will sort out what you think of importance enough for the President.

[Canaris’s query went nowhere, of course, given Hopkins’s position as a pro-Soviet agent of influence — de facto if not de jure.]

***

The next approach to Earle, also in that spring of 1943, came from Baron Kurt von Lersner, a German aristocrat of Jewish extraction who lived in virtual exile in Turkey. He, too, had a proposal for the Allies. Earle wrote, “According to Lersner— and I could not doubt him; he had placed his life in my hands— some of the highest officials in Germany, [ambassador to Turkey Franz von] Papen included, loved their country but hated Hitler. They wanted to end the war before he bled Germany of all her youth, all her strength and resources. At the same time, they were deeply concerned about Russia’s growing might and power.” …

Earle sent off another dispatch to FDR at the White House marked “Urgent.” Again, Earle received no reply. “I pressed the matter with every ounce of my persuasion and judgment,” Earle wrote, “but I sensed the old trouble. Lersner’s call for an overt stand against Communist expansion distressed Roosevelt.” …

Earle wrote that his German contacts came back to him with another more specific plan, laying out the involvement of Field Marshal Ludwig Beck; Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, chief of police of Berlin; Prince Gottfried Bismarck, a Potsdam official and grandson of the “Iron Chancellor”; and a well-known cavalry officer, Freiherr von Boeselager. Again, the plan was to stage a coup, turn over Hitler and his top henchmen to the Allies, and bring about Germany’s “unconditional surrender, with one condition”: The Russians were not to be allowed into Central Europe, including Germany or territory at that time controlled by Germany.

Earle sent this dispatch off with high hopes, he wrote….

Earle doesn’t specify how much time went by, but finally an answer from the president came through. It was stiff and impersonal. “All such applications for a negotiated peace should be referred to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower,” Roosevelt wrote…. Earle explains, “In diplomatic language, this was the final runaround. Even if we did get to Eisenhower, the matter would be referred back to Roosevelt for a decision. The President’s answer was therefore a clear indication of his complete disinterest in this plan to end the war….

As for “unconditional surrender”:

Quite notably, … the very first use of the phrase “unconditional surrender” at Casablanca was by Harry Hopkins himself. In a January 23, 1943, meeting, one day ahead of the president’s sensational announcement, Hopkins told the grand vizier of Morocco, “The war will be pursued until Germany, Italy, and Japan agree to unconditional surrender.” …

… [U]nconditional surrender may well be the policy that ensured Soviet dominion over half of Europe. It was also, as Ian Colvin noted in the preface to a 1957 edition of his Canaris biography, a “pivotal point” in the tragedy of the German underground. “Unconditional surrender” would set the strategy of “total war” (Allied) as the only appropriate response to “total guilt” (German). Such a strategy presumed, indeed, drew inspiration from, a belief in the unwavering, monolithic German support for Nazism and Hitler, which the very existence of a significant anti-Nazi German resistance movement belied. For the sake of the policy then, the significant anti-Nazi German resistance movement had to be denied, shut out. Otherwise, “total war,” and the total destruction it required, wasn’t justified. Otherwise, I say, Stalin wouldn’t win.

General Wedemeyer devotes an entire chapter of his memoir to making the devastating strategic case against unconditional surrender. The general did not mince words: “We annulled the prospect of winning a real victory by the Casablanca call for unconditional surrender,” he wrote. 39 Why? “Our demand for unconditional surrender naturally increased the enemy’s will to resist and forced even Hitler’s worst enemies to continue fighting to save their country.” …

Wedemeyer elaborated, “We failed to realize that unconditional surrender and the annihilation of German power would result in a tremendous vacuum in Central Europe into which the Communist power and ideas would flow.”

About that vacuum in Central Europe: Is it the case that “we” simply “failed” to realize that a vacuum would emerge? Or had enough of us instead bought the Moscow line that Stalin wanted “nothing more than security for his country,” as Roosevelt, invoking Harry Hopkins, told William Bullitt at this same fateful moment? What about those among us in positions of power who had already decided that Stalin in Europe would be a good thing?

Remember Hanson Baldwin’s Numero Uno “great mistake of the war”: the belief “that the Politburo had abandoned  … its policy of world Communist revolution and was honestly interested in the maintenance of friendly relations with capitalist governments.”

Where did that belief— propaganda— come from?

Wedemeyer explains, “We poisoned ourselves with our own propaganda and let the Communist serpent we took to our bosom envenom our minds and distort our ideals.” Baldwin is more matter-of-fact. “We became victims of our own propaganda,” he wrote. “Russian aims were good and noble. Communism had changed its spots.”

We were victims, all right, but not of “our own” propaganda; it was their propaganda. It was propaganda conceived in Moscow and disseminated by bona fide Kremlin agents, mouthpieces and organizers of Communist parties, fellow travelers, and many, many dupes (“ liberals,” “all the best people,” opinion makers, etc.). …

This puts a cap on it:

Now, the question: What if Lochner’s query had been received with natural interest and acted on in mid-1942? What if the U.S. government had initiated contact with the anti-Hitler opposition at that point and supported a successful coup against Hitler in Germany? Or, what if six months later, Canaris, Hitler’s secret opponent, had been encouraged to produce the defection of the German army and negotiate its surrender to the Allies? What if one of the subsequent, serious attempts that other opponents of Hitler made through various Anglo-American emissaries in 1942, 1943, and 1944 had been able to overthrow the Führer, close down the concentration camps, abort the Final Solution, thwart Soviet conquests in Europe and Asia, call off every battle from Monte Cassino to D-day to the Warsaw Uprising to the Battle of the Bulge, avoid the destruction of city centers from Hamburg to Dresden, and save the lives of millions and millions and millions of people in between? …

… [B]ut there it is: World War II could have ended years earlier had Communists working for Moscow not dominated Washington, quashing every anti-Nazi, anti-Communist attempt, beginning in late 1942, throughout 1943 and 1944, to make common cause with Anglo-American representatives….

It’s not as if the true nature and intentions of the Soviet regime were unknown. As West points out, the peace feelers from Canaris et al.

began … at about the same time former U.S. ambassador to the USSR William C. Bullitt presented FDR with his prophetic blueprint of what the postwar world would look like if Anglo-American appeasement of Stalin didn’t stop….

Specifically:

Bullitt’s first memo to FDR was written on January 29, 1943. It was, Bullitt told the president, “as serious a document as any I have ever sent you.” He began by acknowledging that many observers in the United States believed that Stalin shared the president’s post-war vision expressed in the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms. Bullitt countered that no “factual evidence” existed to support the view that Stalin was a changed man. “We find no evidence,” he wrote, “but we find in all democratic countries an intense wish to believe that Stalin has changed….” This view of a changed Stalin, therefore, was “a product of the fatal vice in foreign affairs—the vice of wishful thinking.” U.S. and British admiration for the valor demonstrated by the Russian people in the defense of their homeland was causing policymakers to overlook “both basic Russian Nationalist policy and Soviet Communist policy.”

“The reality,” Bullitt explained,

is that the Soviet Union, up to the present time, has been a totalitarian dictatorship in which there has been no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, and a travesty of freedom of religion; in which there has been universal fear of the O.G.P.U. [secret police] and Freedom from Want has been subordinated always to the policy of guns instead of butter.

Stalin controls “in each country of the world,” Bullit further explained, “a 5th column” composed of “public or underground Communist Parties.” Stalin uses this Fifth Column for “espionage, propaganda, character assassination of opponents, and political influence….”

“[T]here is no evidence,” Bullitt emphasized, “that [Stalin] has abandoned either the policy of extending communism or the policy of controlling all foreign communist parties.” The Soviet Union “moves where opposition is weak, [but] stops where opposition is strong.” The United States must, advised Bullitt,

demonstrate to Stalin—and mean it—that while we genuinely want to cooperate with the Soviet Union, we will not permit our war to prevent Nazi domination of Europe to be turned into a war to establish Soviet domination of Europe. We have to back democracy in Europe to the limit, and prove to Stalin that, while we have intense admiration for the Russian people and will collaborate fully with a pacific Soviet State, we will resist a predatory Soviet State just as fiercely as we are now resisting a predatory Nazi State.

Bullitt provided FDR with a brief history lesson to show that Russia had always been an expansionist power…. Therefore, Bullitt opined, “[e]ven if Stalin had become a mere Russian nationalist—which he has not—that would be no guarantee of pacific behavior; indeed, it would be a guarantee of aggressive imperialism.”

Bullitt then listed Stalin’s “avowed” aims, which included the annexation of Bukovina, eastern Poland, Besserabia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and parts of Finland, and his secret goals, which included establishing communist governments in Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland and northern Iran, and expanding the influence communist parties in France and Germany. Bullit feared that a Soviet Union victorious in Europe would try to take geopolitical advantage of the fact that the United States and Great Britain still had to contend with Japan in the Far East. In such circumstances, Bullit wrote, “[t]here will be no single power or coalition in Europe to counterbalance the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will be in a position to devote all its strength to overrunning Europe….” He sketched the following scenario:

While the United States and Great Britain are engaged in defeating Japan, the Red Army … will sweep through Europe from east to west, being welcomed by the Soviet 5th columns already organized in every European country. Then will follow the familiar comedy. There will be no talk of “annexation by the Soviet Union.” There will be a “freely chosen form of government” (Soviet); “free expression of the people’s will” (under occupation by the Red Army); and out will be trotted again all the obscene lies that accompanied the “freely expressed desire of the Baltic Republics, to be received into the Soviet Union.”

To prevent Soviet domination of Europe after the war, Bullitt counseled, the United States must establish in “occupied or liberated countries in Europe democratic administrations which, working together, will be strong enough to provide the requisite defense against invasion by the Soviet Union.” … ” The United States, he advised Roosevelt, must “lay the ground work for a combination of democratic governments in Europe strong enough to preserve democracy in Europe and keep the Bolsheviks from replacing the Nazis as masters of Europe.”

The United States, argued Bullitt, should not rely on agreements with the Soviet Union to preserve peace and the balance of power in Europe and the world. “The onward flow of the Soviet Union,” he explained, “has never been impeded by any written agreement…. Soviet invasion finds barriers in armed strength, not in Soviet promises.” That armed strength, according to Bullitt, should consist of an integrated, democratic and armed Europe backed by Great Britain and the United States….

Four months later, on May 12, 1943, Bullitt wrote a short follow-up memo to the president. He urged FDR to get commitments from the Soviet Union and Britain to help us in our war against Japan, and repeated his call for a military invasion of the Balkans to liberate Eastern and Central Europe before Soviet forces occupied the region. U.S. power was at its zenith, according to Bullitt, so it was essential that we translate that power to achieve our political goals.

On August 10, 1943, Bullitt wrote a final letter to the president on this subject. Echoing the great theorist of war, Karl von Clausewitz, Bullitt emphasized to Roosevelt that “[w]ar is an attempt to achieve political objectives by fighting; and political objectives must be kept in mind in planning operations.” The political objectives of the United States, he explained, “require the establishment of British and American forces in the Balkans and eastern and central Europe. Their first objective should be the defeat of Germany, their second, the barring to the Red Army of the way into Europe….”

A Soviet dominated Europe would be as great a threat to the United States and Britain as a German dominated Europe, wrote Bullitt. The dilemma of U.S. policy was to find a way to “prevent the domination of Europe by the Moscow dictatorship without losing the participation of the Red Army in the war against the Nazi dictatorship.” The most important elements of such a policy were, he wrote, the “creation of a British-American line in Eastern Europe,” and the establishment of “democratic governments behind” that line. (From the entry for William Bullitt at the University of North Carolina’s site, American Diplomacy: Foreign Service Dispatches and Periodic Reports on U.S. Foreign Policy)

Roosevelt ignored Bullitt, and the rest is history. The war in Europe was prolonged, unnecessarily and at great cost in lives and treasure. (Bear in mind that if the war in Europe had ended sooner, the Allies could then have focused their efforts on the war in the Pacific — with the resultant saving of many more lives and much more treasure.)

Perhaps the failure to seize an early victory can be chalked up to stubbornness and near-sightedness. I would believe that if there had been only one failure, or even two of them. But several failures look like a pattern to me: a pattern of preference for the survival of the Communist regime in Russia, and a willingness to abide Communist expansion in Europe. The best that can be said is that FDR’s outlook was blinkered by his commitment to Germany’s unconditional surrender, and that his views about the long run were (a) unduly optimistic, (b) insouciant, or (c) actively pro-Soviet. Given the degree of influence wielded by Harry Hopkins with respect to unconditional surrender and Soviet success, I opt for (c). Dupe or not, FDR sat in the Oval Office and made the decisions that turned the world upside down.

The prolongation of World War II is perhaps the biggest government failure in the history of the United States. There is one other that might rival it, though its proximate cause was inadvertent.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, Revisited

Stephen Hayward, writing at Powerline in “Reckoning with JFK,” says:

JFK’s supposed “cool handling” of the missile crisis is probably the greatest enduring myth of JFK’s presidency.  Yes, it was good that we avoided World War III, but aside from that just about every common judgment about the missile crisis is wrong.  It was both a political and military defeatfor the United States, but the great Kennedy spin machine managed from the first moments to convey the exact opposite impression.  And the whole matter arose precisely because the Soviet Union perceived JFK’s weakness.

This fact was not generally recognized because key concessions from Kennedy were kept secret from the American people and even from most of Kennedy’s top advisers at the time.  Kennedy secretly agreed to withdraw American missiles from Greece and Turkey, something he had publicly stated he would not do when the Soviets demanded it.  (When this concession leaked out years later, it was said the missiles were “obsolete” and unimportant, though the Soviets did not share this view.)  The biggest public concession was Kennedy’s pledge that the U.S. would cease attempting to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba.

Hayward’s assessment squares with my own, which I have given in various posts:

The botched [Bay of Pigs] invasion pushed Castro closer to the USSR, which led to the Cuban missile crisis.

JFK’s inner circle was unwilling to believe that Soviet missile facilities were enroute to Cuba, and therefore unable to act before the facilities were installed. JFK’s subsequent unwillingness to attack the missile facilities made it plain to Kruschev that the the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961) would not fall and that the U.S. would not risk armed confrontation with the USSR (conventional or nuclear) for the sake of the peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Thus the costly and tension-ridden Cold War persisted for almost another three decades. (“Whose Incompetence Do You Trust?“)

*   *   *

I should add that Kennedy’s willingness to withdraw missiles from Turkey — a key element of the settlement with the USSR — played into Nikita Krushchev‘s hands, further emboldening the Soviet regime. (“Presidential Legacies“)

*   *   *

JFK succeeded Eisenhower before the [Bay of Pigs] invasion took place, in April 1961. JFK approved changes in the invasion plan that resulted in the failure of the invasion. The most important change was to discontinue air support for the invading forces. The exiles were defeated, and Castro has remained firmly in control of Cuba.

The failed invasion caused Castro to turn to the USSR for military and economic assistance. In exchange for that assistance, Castro agreed to allow the USSR to install medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. That led to the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Many historians give Kennedy credit for resolving the crisis and avoiding a nuclear war with the USSR. The Russians withdrew their missiles from Cuba, but JFK had to agree to withdraw American missiles from bases in Turkey. (“The Modern Presidency: A Tour of American History since 1900“)

*   *   *

The Cold War had some “hot” moments and points of high drama. Perhaps the most notable of them was the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which was not the great victory proclaimed by the Kennedy administration and its political and academic sycophants… That the U.S. won the Cold War because the USSR’s essential bankruptcy was exposed by Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup is a fact that only left-wingers and dupes will deny. They continue to betray their doomed love of communism by praising the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev for doing the only thing he could do in the face of U.S. superiority: surrender and sunder the Soviet empire. America’s Cold War victory owes nothing to LBJ (who wasted blood and treasure in Vietnam), Richard Nixon (who would have sold his mother for 30 pieces of silver), or Jimmy Carter (whose love for anti-American regimes and rebels knows no bounds). (“Rating America’s Wars“)

I could not resist including the part after the ellipses in the quotation from “Rating America’s Wars.” Since the end of Eisenhower’s presidency on January 20, 1961, the United States has had only two presidents worthy of the title “commander-in-chief”: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Related posts: Go to “Favorite Posts” and click on “XIV. War and Peace.”

Rating America’s Wars

In “Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight” I say that

American armed forces should be used only to preserve, protect, and defend the interests of Americans.

I ended that post with an assessment of the engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. But what about earlier American wars? Here are my thumbnail assessments of them (the dates indicate years in which U.S. forces were involved in combat):

Indian Wars (1637-1918). This long, episodic battle with Native Americans was justified when the purpose was to defend Americans and justly condemned when the purposes were genocide and theft  of Indian lands by force or fraud. There is probably much more to be ashamed of than to be proud of in the history of the Indian Wars.

Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The struggle for self-government deserves praise whether the motivation was liberty in general or the economic interests of colonial planters, merchants, and manufacturers. The latter is a subset of the former, and the outcome of the war served both ends. In that regard, many of the leaders of the armed struggle also became prominent figures in the establishment of the Articles of Confederation and Constitution. Both documents were aimed at preserving and extending the liberty for which the revolution was waged.

War of 1812 (1812-1815). A leading cause of this war was the imposition by Britain of restrictions intended to impede American commerce with France. That, alone, would have justified the war if Britain could not be dissuaded by peaceful means, which it could not be. The U.S. had other legitimate grievances: impressment of American sailors into the British navy and British support of Indian raids in the Northwest Territory. The War of 1812 was, in effect, a belated and creditable resumption of the Revolutionary War.

Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The proximate cause of the war was the attempt by Mexico to retake Texas, which had won independence from Mexico in 1836 and annexed itself to the United States in 1845. The resulting war enabled the U.S. to acquire from Mexico — for $18,250,000 — land that is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The U.S. was right to prosecute the war and entirely reasonable about the terms and conditions for resolving it.

Civil War (1861-1865). The war that is still being fought (with words) by many Americans pitted the morally reprehensible Southern defenders of slavery against Northerners, led by Abraham Lincoln, who hewed to the dubious proposition that secession is impermissible under the Constitution. The Civil War can be justified only in that it ended slavery in the United States, which was not Mr. Lincoln’s original aim in prosecuting it.

Spanish-American War (1898). This unnecessary war was fought on the excuse of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and the still-mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. It was in fact an exercise in imperialism through which the U.S. acquired the dubious honor of controlling Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines — altogether more trouble than they were worth. It is especially galling that Theodore Roosevelt rode the Spanish-American War to fame, and eventually to the imperial presidency.

World War I (1917-1918). The immediate cause of the entry of the United States into this war was German acts of belligerence — sabotage and the sinking of U.S. merchant ships. Those acts were aimed at preventing the U.S. from selling war supplies to Britain. Germany, in other words, was sorely provoked, and the U.S. government could not realistically claim to be a neutral party in what was really a European war, with Asian and African sideshows involving opportunistic attacks on German interests in those regions. Had the U.S. stayed neutral and avoided war, Germany might have won, though a stalemate was more likely. In either event, an exhausted Germany would hardly have been a threat to the U.S., and might even have welcomed trade with the U.S. as it rebuilt in the post-war years. All of this was last in the anti-German hysteria of the time, which played well to the super-majority of Americans whose roots were in the British Isles. It is pure hindsight to say that a victorious or stalemated Germany probably would not have produced the Third Reich, but true nevertheless. America’s entry into World War I was a mistake, in any event, but it turned out to be a horrendously costly one.

World War II (1941-1945). While Anglo-American and French politicians pursued the illusion that peace could be maintained through diplomacy and treaties, Adolf Hitler and Japan’s military caste pursued dominion through conquest. The Third Reich and Empire of the Rising Sun failed to dominate the world only because of (a) Hitler’s fatal invasion of Russia, (b) Japan’s wrong-headed attack on Pearl Harbor, and (c) the fact that the United States of 1941 had time and space on its side. Had the latter not been true, Americans could well have found themselves cut off from the world — and much the poorer for it — if not enslaved. World War II clearly ranks just behind the War of 1812 as the most necessary war in America’s post-Revolutionary history.

Cold War (1947-1991). This necessary, long, and costly “war” of deterrence through preparedness enabled the U.S. to protect Americans’ legitimate economic interests around the world by limiting the expansion of the Soviet empire. The Cold War had some “hot” moments and points of high drama. Perhaps the most notable of them was the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which was not the great victory proclaimed by the Kennedy administration and its political and academic sycophants. (For more on this point, go here and scroll down to the section on Kennedy.) That the U.S. won the Cold War because the USSR’s essential bankruptcy was exposed by Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup is a fact that only left-wingers and dupes will deny. They continue to betray their doomed love of communism by praising the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev for doing the only thing he could do in the face of U.S. superiority: surrender and sunder the Soviet empire. America’s Cold War victory owes nothing to LBJ (who wasted blood and treasure in Vietnam), Richard Nixon (who would have sold his mother for 30 pieces of silver), or Jimmy Carter (whose love for anti-American regimes and rebels knows no bounds).

Korean War (1950-1953). The Korean War was unnecessary, in that it was invited by the Truman administration’s policies: exclusion of Korea from the Asian defense perimeter and massive cuts in the U.S. defense budget. But it was essential to defend South Korea so that the powers behind North Korea (Communist China and, by extension, the USSR) would grasp the willingness of the U.S. to maintain a forward defensive posture against aggression. That signal was blunted by Truman’s decision to sack MacArthur when the general persisted in his advocacy of attacking Chinese bases following the entry of the Chinese into the war. The end result was a stalemate, where a decisive victory might have broken the back of communistic adventurism around the globe. The Korean War, as it was fought by the U.S., became “a war to foment war.”

Vietnam War (1965-1973). Whereas the Korean War was a necessary war against communist expansionism, the Vietnam War was an unnecessary entanglement in a civil war in which one side happened to be communist. Nevertheless, the U.S., having made a costly commitment to the prosecution of the war, should have fought it to victory. Instead, unlike the case of Korea, U.S. forces were withdrawn and it took little time for North Vietnam to swallow South Vietnam. American resolve suffered a body blow, from which it rebounded only partially by winning the Cold War, thanks to Reagan’s defense buildup in the 1980s. When it came to actual warfare, however, Vietnam repeated and reinforced the pattern of compromise and retreat that had begun with the Korean War, and which eventuated in the 9/11 attacks.

Gulf War (1990-1991). This war began with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. U.S. action to repel the invasion was fully justified by the potential economic effects of Saddam’s capture of Kuwait’s petroleum reserves and oil production. The proper response to Saddam’s aggression would have been not only to defeat the Iraqi army but also to depose Saddam. The failure to do so further reinforced the pattern of compromise and retreat that had begun in Korea, and necessitated the long, contentious Iraq War of the 2000s.

The quick victory in Iraq, coupled with the coincidental end of the Cold War, helped to foster a belief that the peace had been won. (That belief was given an academic imprimatur in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.) The stage was set for Clinton’s much-ballyhooed fiscal restraint, which was achieved by cutting the defense budget. Clinton’s lack of resolve in the face of terrorism underscored the evident unwillingness of American “leaders” to defend Americans’ interests, thus inviting 9/11.  (For more about Clinton’s foreign and defense policy, go here and scroll down to the section on Clinton.)

Which leads us back to the wars and skirmishes of the 21st century.

The National Psyche and Foreign Wars

I belong to a Google Group whose active members are retired scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists — some in their upper 80s — who worked on defense issues from the 1940s to the 2000s. The issues ranged in scope from devising improved tactics for naval, air, and ground operations to assessing the costs and effectiveness of proposed new weapon systems.

Most members of the group were government employees and/or employees of government contractors. Their attraction to government service — and its steady and rather handsome paychecks — derives, in good part, from their belief in the power of government to “solve problems,” and in the need for government to do just that. It is only natural, then, that many members of the group hold an unrealistically exalted view of the power of quantitative methods to “solve problems,” while holding naive views about the machinations of government, human nature, and history. (The pioneers of military operations research in the United States, by contrast, were realistic about the relative impotence of quantitative analysis of complex, dynamic processes.)

Here, for example, is a slightly edited exchange I had with an older member of the group:

Older member (OM):

Does anyone know whether the people of the U.S. were as little involved in the Indian Wars and the opening of the west (some would say stealing) as we seem to be involved with the wars in the Middle East and South Asia.

The greatest asset of our military is its “can do” attitude. The greatest weakness of our military is its “can do” attitude.

Me (Thomas):

I’m not sure what it means for a people to be “involved” in a war. If by “involved” you mean the popularity or unpopularity of the various wars, I have no relevant facts to offer.

But the transient popularity or unpopularity of a war (or any governmental action) shouldn’t matter. If public policy responded to the whims of the “man in the street,” we would be in deep trouble. That’s why there are prescribed processes for making governmental policy. Following the processes doesn’t ensure wise policies, but it beats the alternative of capricious governance.

Our present wars were duly authorized by Congress, and are funded by appropriations made by Congress. Given that the members of Congress are elected representatives of the people, then the people are as involved as they can be under any sensible system of government.

As for the military’s “can do” attitude, decisions about going to war — and staying at war — are the province of civilian authority. When given a war to fight, the only sensible way for the military to approach it is with a “can do” attitude. Does the military’s “can do” attitude color the advice it gives when civilian authority is considering whether to go to war, how to prosecute a war, and whether to persevere in a war? Or are military leaders duly cautious in the advice they give civilian authority, knowing the consequences for their troops and the nation if a war goes badly? I haven’t been close enough to the “inside” — nor have I read deeply enough into military history — to essay answers to those questions.

OM:

I wanted to go a little beyond what might be called the legalities and into the national psyche. The decision to go to war is an awesome political and moral  decision. It has often been said that “old men send young men to war”. In our modern adventures only a fraction of the Country has other than a remote financial involvement in our wars. A small fraction of our Legislative Branch have direct Military Service experience (the smallest in history). An even smaller number has sons or daughters in the Armed Services. We are much moe detached than when the Signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their honor, their fortune, and their good right hand. (Quote not quite accurate).

During the Vietnam War the Country lowered its support as the costs and casualties rose. Now we do not have the draft though even so military leaders warn the political entities that we must not lose the confidence of the people even as we seem to drift away from the “Powell” Doctrine. We certainly see the heavy imprint of the Military-Industrial Complex against which President Eisenhower warned. (That speech is still on Wikipedia).

During Vietnam we had the bugbear of the “Domino Theory”. There are some who argue along those lines now regarding threats to Israel and other major American Interests. Can a small special interests group lead American policy?

I was wondering what other precedents in American History might apply. Most of the 19th Century was dominated by America’s Manifest Destiny (and losses were modes). Then came the War to end all wars. Then the Era of Good Feeling punctuated by the Washington Naval Conference, the Great Depression, and then the rise of Nazi Germany and its Axis with Italy and Japan. Have we found a bizarre combination of of Depression and Manifest Destiny with a liberal dose of hubris as we dismantle our Navy having already essentially worn out much of our Armour and still at the mercy of land mines and IED (a form of landmine).

One parallel that seems to track from the 19th Century is the corruption of the Suttlers [sic] that has transformed nicely into the Military Industrial Complex.

Thomas:

I have great difficulty with the concept of “national psyche,” and thus with generalizations about what “we” (as a nation) have done and should do. I cannot describe my own psyche, let alone the psyches of millions of other Americans, dead and alive, who differ from me (often greatly) in nature and nurture.

In any event, you come close to answering your own questions in your third paragraph, where you ask “Can a small special interests group lead American policy?” My answer is a resounding “yes.” Two, relatively small, interlocking groups of strong-willed individuals were responsible for the Revolution and the Constitution, and those groups were bound by two special interests (at least): independence from Britain (not a universally popular idea at the time) and freedom from Britain’s interference in the colonies’ commerce. (The second interest is a “bad thing” only if one view commercial interests as a “bad thing.” Unlike the historians of the Beard school, I do not.)

Various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups have determined the foreign and domestic policies of the United States government from its beginning, and always will do so. There is no escape from such an arrangement, given our system of government — the “legalities” to which you refer. Those “legalities” — and the absence of a national psyche which somehow translates the consolidated wisdom of “the nation” into governmental policy — make it inevitable that governmental policy will be the product of various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups. You (I mean the generic “you” and not you, [OM]) may like the resulting policies in some cases (e.g., if you are a fan of British-style health care you will consider Obamacare a great leap forward) and dislike them in other cases (e.g., if you are an opponent of foreign wars except those that in retrospect seem worthwhile, you will generally oppose foreign wars).

The “dismantling” of the Navy to which you refer is the specific policy of a specific administration (or administrations). It was not the policy of the Reagan administration, nor was it a policy of the Kennedy administration. And, I hope, it will not be the policy of the next administration. In any case, governmental policy toward the Navy is part of a larger set of policies, the combination of which is dictated by the complex interplay of various special interests and the particular psyches of elected and appointed officials. In the present case, the “dismantling” of the Navy arises from a particular view of how to defend Americans and their property and, not coincidentally, also makes certain kinds of domestic government programs more affordable. It should go without saying that the particular view of how to defend Americans (diplomacy, good will, lower defense budgets) finds opposition in millions of Americans’ psyches, as does the present administration’s commitment to various domestic programs. Liberal hawks — to the extent that they still exist — must be having a hard time digesting the present administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies, just as conservative hawks — whose are legion — had a hard time digesting the previous administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies.

As for the military-industrial complex, there is a coalition of interests that can be described broadly by that term, though it is a coalition fraught with internal conflicts and rivalries. If that coalition deserves blame for any excesses in defense spending and misadventures in foreign fields, it also deserves a large share of the credit for the outcomes of World War II and the Cold War.

Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local. I say that all political developments reflect the clash, compromise, and collaboration of special interests — and thus cannot be ascribed to a national psyche.