Finding Common Ground on and Learning from World War II
by John Whitehead
Writing on this blog, Consistent Life Vice President Rachel MacNair recently examined several moral issues related to the Second World War and how we interpret and remember that war today (see The Darkest Hour—“Glorifying” War?). An observation in that piece that struck me was that when a nonviolence advocate discusses war with someone who supports it, a war supporter who “understands things as complicated might be easier to talk into alternative methods of solving problems.” I agree that appreciation of an issue’s complexity can make someone more open to alternate views, even if complete agreement isn’t possible. I offer my own thoughts on how World War II’s moral complexity offers the possibility of finding some common ground between opponents and supporters of the war.
Those who say the Allied war effort in World War II was justified and those who say it was not, even if they can’t agree on this question, can agree on other moral aspects of the war. This area of agreement isn’t merely of historical interest, but is important to remember as both groups consider how to respond to contemporary conflicts.
The crucial point both sides can agree on is this: while stopping the Axis was a just cause (and setting aside whether an alternative to war was possible), the Allied war effort killed huge numbers of civilians. Moreover, to some degree, the Allied war effort didn’t even fulfill its intended goal of saving lives from the Axis. If I were to draw a general principle from this point, it would be
War, even waged in the most just of causes, typically involves killing those whom even the war-makers should recognize as innocents.
The three main Allied nations—Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States—all killed many civilians in their war effort against the Axis. Richard B. Frank, in his work Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire estimates that the United States’ bombing of Japan, including the infamous nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed over 400,000 Japanese civilians. Also, Britain, and to a lesser extent the United States, bombed German cities such as Hamburg and Dresden—Frank estimates between 300,000 and 593,000 German civilians died in the Allied bombing.
The Soviet army, while advancing through Eastern Europe into Germany, killed ethnic German civilians through both bombing and more face-to-face methods such as shooting them. Sexual assault of civilian women was also widespread, as was expelling Germans from their homes.
These Soviet actions were the first stage in a prolonged post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. Over 400,000 ethnic Germans may have died as a result of Allied mistreatment. During the war, Stalin also took the opportunity to settle scores with various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union he suspected of disloyalty, having them killed or deported.
To be sure, the number of civilians killed by Allied policy was smaller than the millions of civilians who died because of Axis policies—and the millions more who may have died had the Axis won—but this is no justification for ignoring or justifying Allied atrocities.
Moreover, even setting aside the means by which the Allies achieved victory, the victory’s ultimate consequences are ambiguous. While post-war Europe, for all its problems, was a more just, less violent place than Nazi-dominated Europe would have been, post-war Asia was a different story. Imperial Japan’s rule in Asia was comparable to Nazi rule in its cruelty and violence, but did Allied victory replace Japanese rule with something better?
Many Asian nations liberated from Japan met one or more of the following fates in the following decades: 1) European colonial rule that provoked wars for independence (as in French Indochina); 2) rule by home-grown dictators and strongmen sometimes as brutal as the Japanese (Mao Zedong in China being the most prominent example); or 3) becoming ground zero for the proxy wars the now-divided Allied powers fought among themselves (as with wars in Korea and Vietnam).
Even the most noticeable “success story” of post-war Asia, the democratic and prosperous Japan rebuilt by the United States, has a much darker side that should concern pro-lifers: to cope with the needs of a large population amid a war-devastated economy, Japan took steps to control its population by legalizing abortion, through the euphemistically named “Eugenic Protection Law” of 1948 (which occupying American authorities didn’t block). Within seven years, abortions peaked in Japan at 1.1 million.
If I consider how many people, especially civilians, died to achieve Allied victory and how unjust the post-war order in Asia was, I am not left with a strong impression of war’s ability to defeat injustice. I am left with a sense of war’s terrible costs and moral compromises and how even victory leads to confused, uncertain outcomes.
If a war with as just as cause as the Second World War can be so problematic, how much more so are the wars, past and present, fought for ambiguous causes? The overall impression is one of war’s inadequacy as a tool of achieving justice. This is a lesson that everyone, both those who oppose the Allied war effort and those who believe the war effort was ultimately necessary, would do well to learn.
For more of our commentaries on the world wars, see: