Whose War?

An argument has been raging in the comments to my post from last night about British and American roles in World War II.

David S. took the lead, with Cato seconding him. According to David S.,

…the fact is, in the strictest sense, it wasn’t our war. We could have, in reality, just let Europe and the UK fall to the dogs. We almost did, in fact, until Pearl Harbor. And if we had handled Pearl Harbor like we’ve handled 9/11 (that is, poorly), engagement would not have been inevitable.

Of course Britain took a hit from the war. It took a huge hit, a massive hit, far greater than the US — who actually benefited in the end in every possible sense. But that only makes sense, since they were the country being attacked, not us. Terrible comparison ahead: It would be like saying that Kuwait did more for the Gulf War than the US, because they took a greater hit economically and militarily. Of course they did; they were our ally, and we helped them out. What do you expect?

Now, I’m a well-known Anglophile, so anything I say is suspect. But I am an American, and I agree with David S. It wasn’t our war, at least not until December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States.

The evacuation from DunkirkBut this argument avoids the main point of my post: in an important sense, it wasn’t really Britain’s war, either. Especially after Dunkirk, when Britain lay exposed and vulnerable, it was not in the British national interest to continue the conflict. Only the Royal Air Force and the English Channel stood between Britain and the full might of the Wehrmacht.

All the back-and-forth about whether the Dominion troops or the British troops won the major battles — or whether the bleedin’ Poms were a treacherous bunch of no-goods — avoids the question of why the British, the Dominions, and all their colonial subjects were in the war in the first place.
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The British national interest did not require it. Treaty obligations with Poland didn’t have to be honored in 1939 any more than the pact with the Czechs had been observed in 1938. Some rationale could have been cooked up by the cynical wallahs in Whitehall that would have justified selling out the Poles, the French, and anyone else. The Frogs got themselves into this mess; let them get themselves out.

It was well known that Hitler respected the British, and had no desire to go to war with them. Despite the fact that the Anglo-Saxons had allowed the race to become tainted with the base blood of the Celts, Hitler still considered the British to be honorary Germans, worthy of taking their place alongside the Herrenvolk.

After Dunkirk, and after the Battle of Britain, the Germans still hoped for a negotiated deal with the British, one that would leave the Empire and the Royal Navy intact, as long as the Nazis were allowed a free hand on the Continent and in the East.

So why didn’t the British take the deal? It was a pretty good one, and the cynical calculations of statecraft should have compelled them to grab it.

But they didn’t. Opinion among the British wasn’t unanimous, and there were strong factions that pushed for reaching an accommodation with the Germans. Yet Churchill decided to continue the war, even without the help of the United States.

Long after the war, when the archives were opened and all the Cabinet minutes were revealed, it became clear that Churchill knew what the future of Britain was likely to be: bankruptcy, loss of the Empire, and reduced circumstances for the foreseeable future. He turned out to be right on all counts.

So why did they do it?

When you read about the private conversations that took place at the time — not the public pronouncements, and not the justifications cooked up after the fact — it’s clear that the senior statesman and decision-makers of Britain decided to continue the fight because it was the right thing to do. Not that it was in the interests of Britain, not because it would serve them well electorally or that they or their friends would make a profit out of it, but simply because it was the right thing to do. Any other course was unthinkable.

And that’s why the British deserve to be cut some slack, no matter how many times the treacherous bastards sold someone down the river or failed to keep a promise. They could have ducked the war with the Nazis, but they didn’t.

Nations don’t have permanent friends; they only have permanent interests. But that’s not an absolute rule, and the leaders of nations don’t always follow it.

The United States behaved the same way before we entered the war. Roosevelt helped the British out behind the scenes, bucking a strong segment of public opinion (not to mention the Congress), not because it was in America’s interest, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. The commercial advantages of the deal with Britain don’t explain everything that Roosevelt did.

When a nation enters a war for reasons other than its national interest, the results can be catastrophic. It’s still arguable that the United States should have avoided fighting in either of the World Wars. And it’s also arguable that Britain would have been well-advised to cut a deal with Hitler.

Was it really a good idea for the leaders of Britain to do as they did? In another two or three centuries, historians may be able to give a cold-eyed answer to the question.

But it will probably be written in Arabic or Chinese.

24 thoughts on “Whose War?

  1. “…It’s still arguable that the United States should have avoided fighting in either of the World Wars. And it’s also arguable that Britain would have been well-advised to cut a deal with Hitler.”

    These arguments are not persuasive. The national interests of both Britain and the US more or less coincided in that any power threatening hegemony on the continent of Europe clearly threatened the vital interests of both English speaking nations. FDR, for all his failings was aware of this as was Churchill. Nations that fail to defend their vital national interests do not survive. The “right thing to do” will invariably be overly costly in terms of blood and treasure e.g. “building democracy” in Iraq after the real objective of removing the threat of Saddam was accomplished.

  2. leonidas —

    You could be right about the interests of the U.S. But the British were allowing their national wealth and their empire to be destroyed, and they knew it. The course they took did not preserve their hegemony; it ended it.

    Or, more accurately, they passed it on to the United States. They knew what they were doing; perhaps, seeing that the Empire could not be saved, they calculated the interests of the English-speaking people, rather than those of Britain alone.

    It’s not quite altruism, but it’s more than self-interest.

  3. As an Australian I would say to, why were we there?

    Simply because our interests were with the Commonwealth maintaining its power (and now more so with America). It was a two way street with Britain expected to protect us if we were attacked (we did not know for how badly the Commonwealth would be sold out by Britain after the war).

    Britain did not want to lose the balance of power in Europe (which they had almost lost in WW1 at such a frightful price) and had to keep the Nazi’s in check. So alliances such as, do not invade Poland or else. Did Britain really care about Poland?

    It does not matter how it starts, once the fists start flying, it becomes a matter of which side are you on. Where does your national interest lay? (Not to mention other factors such as loyalty to friends).

    Why should Australia be in the War on Terror with the United States? Did September 11, really have anything to do with us? Do we have massive interests in Israel’s survival or what happens in the Middle East. We are hated for been westerners, but not much more. We are now fully in the fray. Why? Because a successful America is in our interests.

    The same can be said for Britain in the Second World War, what was the alternative? Allow the Nazi’s to increase in power throughout Europe and just hope they don’t come for us (remember we are talking about Adolf Hitler & a German nation bent on revenge after WW1). Not bloody likely.

    Once Nazi Germany’s intentions were truly apparent, after the Invasion of Poland (eg. the Military Domination of other European countries), it was start fighting now or be left behind. The British & French certainly had no idea they would suffer the trashing in 1940. It was because they could fight now, they did.

    Left me put it to you another way. The luckiest little bastard of the Second World War was Sweden. They applied the logic…..’oooohhh well this really is not any of our business, let’s stay out’. Although, it was only through the sheer chance of history, they survived both Nazi and Communist subordination.

    If the Commonwealth (much better than saying the British or heaven forbid English) and America lost the war in Western Europe, Sweden would have been swallowed up in a second, once Communist Russia and Nazi Germany had finished with each other.

    Should Sweden have fought? Either way they were a lame duck.

    The point was I think, don’t end up like a larger version of Sweden. A lame duck!

    Better to fight now, rather than later.

  4. My apologies for being behind the curve on your argument…and I’ll get back to this when I can. But my short take on this is that WW II was our war…had to be our war, and that odds were good it would be our war from the moment France went under.

    Had Hitler had the good sense to not invade Russia…or at least delay that for awhile, his war with Britain might well have petered-out. He could then have taken a couple of provinces off France and had at Russia later. Thank God he was clueless.

    Now WW I…was not our war, and I’d argue we were foolish to have gotten into that one.

  5. My two cents (quite possibly only worth half that)…

    I find it interesting how many of the commentors analyize WWII from a multi-cultural world view rather than from the predominate judeo-christian world view that existed at that time (1930’s-40’s)in western civilization.

    The question as to whether or not the British would fight Hitler is a non starter. It would have been impossible for them to have not fought Hitler and still remain British. In the same sense it was inevitable that the United States would eventually be led into the fight as well.

    Historically (with regards to the Judeo-Christian worldview) proximity of danger is directly proportional to remedial action towards it. At the time that Europe was being threatened by Nazism and the Far East by Shintoism the US was just starting to come out of our own “dark ages” (depression). It was all the average American Male could do to put food on his table much less protect a continent that might as well have been as far away as another planet. Granted, we were attacked and Hitler declared war upon America, but just because Hitler said so… wasnt the cause for Americans to completely subjegate the priority of a SouthEastern Pacific theater of war and throw our lives and treasures into Europe.

    Via hindsight we understand how the US ultimately benefited from a Geopolitically reduced Great Britian. At the time it was a throw of the dice. We did it for one reason. We understood evil. Britian understood evil.

    I marvel at how anyone can literally have their lives handed back to them at the expense of someone elses’ lives and treasure and then find fault in their rescuer for not coming soon enough rather than not at all. How can you bitch about what your own life cost you versus what your life cost your friends??? … Amazing…

    btw… My family paid the dearest price for European freedom… a Young Man from Missouri gave his life on a beach in a country he could barely spell… Telling his young wife in a last letter home… “Honey I know its hard on you, but I love you, and I also know this is the right thing to do..”

  6. At the very real risk of dumbing down this learned discussion the question “…why the British, the Dominions, and all their colonial subjects were in the war in the first place.” strikes me as absurd.

    As bad as the English are the Germans are worse x2, and Nazi Germany x5 Soviets x10. I think that would pretty much sum up my thinking on the subject.

  7. color me simplistic, but this is the only part that rings true to me, in any war:

    ” … it’s clear that the senior statesman and decision-makers of [XYZ country] decided to continue the fight because it was the right thing to do. Not that it was in the interests of XYZ, not because it would serve them well electorally or that they or their friends would make a profit out of it, but simply because it was the right thing to do. Any other course was unthinkable.”

    This is not hyperbole, Americana, Anglophileness or anything else less than, but, simply, there are (obvious to me, and thank god, to Statesmen,) when, The Right Thing To Do, is unavoidable imperative.

    Tin Foil Hat Guy — great to read your post, and as well, “I marvel at how anyone can literally have their lives handed back to them at the expense of someone elses’ lives and treasure and then find fault in their rescuer for not coming soon enough rather than not at all. How can you bitch about what your own life cost you versus what your life cost your friends??? … Amazing…”

    And, I do not decry my own ability to ‘not even care’ if gratitude is not forthcoming. One does ‘what is right’ because, simply, it is so. That can never be based upon something that isn’t at the core of what is true, what is real, what is eternal, in mankind — beyond any national borders or ideologies. Sometimes you just know, and DO IT, because ‘saving’ and ‘helping’ is obviously right and necessary.

    If the fireman steps on someone scrambling to get out of the burning building in the smokey dark, and breaks their hand, in efforts to save the screaming baby — do we sue him because he didn’t come sooner, or didn’t step more carefully?

    Yes, amazing in ingratitude demonstrated,
    and amazing in the continuing ability for men to do what is right,
    regardless of outcome,
    the intention is true.
    in any war, declared or not, or any peacetime situation, action is called for.

  8. I think that the real question here (being a student of philosophy) is about the nature of a state: Can a State have a moral imperative, or does it exist solely for its own citizenry? Is there a binding morality on a State as a whole, or are States absolutely sovereign entities that should function like a corporation?
    I think this is the most basic division in the Right overall. Traditional conservatives are about the moral nature of a State, and its founding principles, whereas libertarians focus mainly on issues of sovereignty.
    I agree with many of the above posts in saying that a country can have a moral imperative beyond the good of the State…but this only goes so far as it does not conflict with the purpose of the state. If an imperative, however noble, will lead to the inevitable destruction of that State and the mass-slaughter (or such) of its people, clearly it is the wrong thing for a State to do.
    In this sense, I do believe we did the right thing in joining the war. But that was precisely my point on my first post on this: we went above and beyond, and did so not as a necessary course of action but rather out of moral impulse. This is a good reason, certainly, but that does not make it our war. It may make it the more moral thing to do, but it was not our duty.
    This is clearly not the case with Britain, however. Any possible peace they could have established would have been temporary and fragile at best, and would have given Hitler the time he needed to fortify his empire and make the due preparations for war. In other words, it was simply suicidal. Hitler may have respected the British as a germanic peoples, but if they “turned on their heritage” and refused to be annexed into the Aryan Empire, the war would have simply restarted as soon as Hitler felt confident in his success (that is, spent the peace time building himself an undefeatable navy).
    I simply cannot believe that anyone but the moonbats would think that it was possible that Britain and the Nazis could have had a lasting peace.

    These facts clearly make it Britain’s war, both as a matter of sovereignty and moral imperative, whereas it was only our war on account of moral imperative – that is, not our duty as a State, but our duty as virtuous men.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with the moral argument.

    But there might be another aspect to the discussion. I have reflected a bit on the “lets drink beer and eat meat” discussion. My personal feeling was a kind of kindship – I could really see myself sitting in that bar, or joining that barbecue.

    This kind of amazed me, because honestly, I know very little about Texas or England. And then all of a sudden, the things people do in places so far away seem quite natural.

    There is a spirit that is somehow common – and it beats me why it is like that.

    The way I feel when someone threatens someone i know – I rush out to help, and fight their fights. Otherwise you would be bad friend.

    So perhaps this is also a part of the reason why we are not backing down in the fight in Afganistan and Irak.

    Someone threatened a friend of ours, and we try to help out.

    And basically because, otherwise there would no possibility to have those beers at that barbecue, with our friends.

  10. I’ve read some interesting opinions and some real rubbish in the comments above. But to chime in a little with David S., I think it was both Britain and America’s war for the simple reason that if they’d stood back and allowed fascism to take over Europe, they would not have been Britain and the US any more.

    Oh, the shells would have been there, rather like those substantial things you find on the seashore. But, just like them, the stench of decay would soon have become overpowering. In the long run, the smell of dead fish goes. The smell of decaying fundamental principles is eliminated only by the demise of the civilization in question.

  11. I’d say that it is in the long term interest of any free nation to oppose a powerful, imperialistic nation like Nazi Germany. No deal with the Nazis would have lasted, sooner or later they would have attacked UK and USA – with an even bigger army, and nuclear weapen.

  12. “…The course they took did not preserve their hegemony; it ended it.”

    The British have never enjoyed a hegemonic position on the European Continent. Their historic role has been as a balancer by opposing any power threatening European hegemony. For that reason they have alternated their support between Germany and France. Their empire was becoming an economic liability by the beginning of the 20th century and the dominions were reduced to the chief role of supplying cannon fodder. The technological revolution of 20th century warfare reduced the efficacy of massive military formations and so the dominions could be granted “commonwealth” status. In the words of Professor Hans Morgenthau: “Nation states do not have friends. They only share identities of interest. Any foreign policy based on morality to the ignorance of national interest is doomed to failure.” The glaring example of such a suicidal policy during the 20th century is that of Woodrow Wilson whose insistence at Varsailles on the “14 points” assured that WW I was only the first act of the the tragic carnage of WW II.

  13. “And that’s why the British deserve to be cut some slack, no matter how many times the treacherous bastards sold someone down the river or failed to keep a promise.”

    I have much the same feeling about Americans.

  14. David S. —

    I simply cannot believe that anyone but the moonbats would think that it was possible that Britain and the Nazis could have had a lasting peace.

    Then you haven’t read in depth the internal disputes within Britain’s leadership, or the discussions within Hitler’s inner circle. Hitler had allways thought that the Germans and the British (as a mostly Germanic race) should rule the world side-by-side, with the Germans taking care of the French, the Jews, the Slavs, etc., while Britain tackled all the fuzzy-wuzzies in hot foreign climes. Hitler could never understand why the Brits didn’t see his point.

    Within the British leadership there were people who thought that Britain had no business worrying about the Jews or allying with Communists, and that Hitler had a point, even if he was an intemperate chap in some of his methods.

    If this faction had gained the upper hand, it would have found an eager ear in Hitler. Any nasty confrontation between Britain and Germany could have been postponed for a decade or more while the Germans destroyed the Soviets and occupied their Lebensraum in the East.

    No, it could have happened that way, if the British had been as cynical and ruthless as the Germans. The denouement could have been postponed, and the final outcome — who knows? It would have depended on the U.S. and Japan and lots of other factors that are hard to follow down the parallel timelines into an alternate universe.

  15. A limey weighs in … the Russkies said they did it all, the Brits say if they hadn’t held the fort, the Yanks would have nothing to come over and win any more. The Yanks say they were the key to victory. If you modify the Russkies a little and replace ‘it all’ with ‘most of it’, you’d have it about right. This is why we were called ALLIES. Friends – even if you did take our women.

  16. While agreeing with you Baron that morally America did not have to enter the war, from a pure strategical point of view it made dam good sense for America to help Britain. If we had lost in 1940 and we had been occupied the consequences for America would have been catastrophic. The productive power of the British Economy would have been placed in the hands of Hitler plus all of the middle east with its oil wells and most of our colonies in Africa with there supply of raw materials. America at that time was well blessed it was basically self sufficient only about 2% of its Gross National product came from external trade. One wonders if America would have tolerated the Germans marching into the Belgium Congo taking over its Copper Cobalt and Uranium mines, or marching into South Africa to take over its Gold mines. These actions would have certainly been construed as hostile to Americas safety. America might have entered the war earlier than they did to forestall a Nazi Germany making use of all these newly acquired assets. Britain was America’s first line of defence in exactly the way Israel is Europe’s first line of defence now. It seems that most of our politician here in Europe still don’t realise it yet. Luckily both of our countries had leaders who realised this. Churchill on entering the cabinet as first Lord of the Admiralty kept up a very lively correspondence with Roosevelt keeping him very well informed about what was going on, and Roosevelt knew what to expect if Hitler won, as he had a phycological profile of of Hitler commissioned right at the beginning of the war. Yes there were offers of peace were made during the fall of Dunkirk made through Mussolini Churchill rejected them at a full cabinet meeting the cabinet cheered him. He wrote later “There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation I should have been hurled out of Office.” I think here we have a man who was following not leading his country. His character his common decency, and moral fearlessness, made him reject the offer but it is obvious from what he said that he would have been hurled from office if he had done otherwise. He epitomised the way the country felt. I believe when it comes down to the nitty gritty these moral values define what we are fighting for, and without these we are lost. We will have to rediscover these values and be just as ruthless and purposeful in carrying out our aims as we were in the second world war, if we are to win the war against islam.

  17. It seems to me that in searching for some moral principle that formed the rock of British or American involvement in the war you are forgetting that Britain at least was already in a position of opposition to German expansion since WWI.

    What you are suggesting Baron would be a complete 180 in regards British policy from the prior 40 years.

    WWI was fought to oppose German expansion. As Yorkshireminer points out above the British economy was based on trade throughout her empire. You seem to be suggesting that Britain could have let her empire and economy be dismantled at any German whim all for the sake of hiding meekly across the English Channel. I suppose she could have but that would also spell the dissapearance of Britain and England from world history.

    And as Japan swallowed up Britains empire in the South, Italy and Germany divided her African colonies, Britain would not have been able to respond without fear of causing the Axis powers to invoke their treaties of mutual defence.

    Britain had two options, fight to save the Empire even if it meant a reduced Britain economically and militarily or not fight and become a subdued people to the Nazis. There was no moral primciple – it was a matter of pride and survival as a nation and empire.

    The Yanks played off Britains position, pretending it could remain in isolation (or ignorant that it really couldn’t in the greater scheme of things) and as a result has come to the position of dominance it has today whether by deliberate policy or good luck I don’t know.

    In any case, morality played a very small role in any of the decisions if at all. Our common interests and identification with each other as natural allies far outweighed any differences we may have had or still have.

  18. As a former USMC infantryman (cold war, peace time) fully steeped in the tradtions and lore of my branch of service, I am of the opinion that the real fight in WW2 was in the pacific. All that knuckle-dusting in North Africa and Europe was just to make sure there were nice places to visit as tourists after the real fight was over.

    On a serious note (or at least an attempt to seem smart and serious) I tend to view everything from the beginning of the 20th century to be the same long fight.
    There’s been breaks and pauses and the personalities involved as well as some of the rhetoric behind the various flareups have changed along the duration but it is largely over the same issue.

    European empire was in the process of dieing and something alien and evil was exploiting the process and has been throwing itself against the “anglosphere” ever since.

    From WW1 to the flare ups and outbreaks prior to WW2 and from WW2 through the cold war and onto this latest problem it has largely been Britain and her children against something very atavistic and backward reaching.

    I know that’s a gross oversimplification of sorts but in each case, the next flare up had roots in the previous.

  19. A British blog the other day referred to the idea that controlling the ‘center of gravity’ of Europe between Russia and Germany meant control of Europe still today, historically a concern presaging a potential loss of the British Empire. The British ‘rich man didn’t want to go through the eye of this needle’ and built alliances to create a ‘balance of power’ to keep a rational Germany from going there. When the Kaiser decided the ‘right thing to do’ was to put down Serbian anarchism, this started the clock on WWI. Calculations related to excessive fondness for the Empire and superiority over the Germans set in train the diminishment of European civilization.

  20. Pat,

    My contention is that Germany, at least for a time, would have been willing to allow Britain to maintain her empire (provided she could keep the Japanese from wresting it completely from her). This was not a geopolitical calculation on Hitler’s part, it was a romantic and racial issue; the Anglo-Saxons were worthy partners, almost as good as the Volk. Hitler really did believe that before the War.

    In the long run, who knows what would have happened? But, given the reality of what they were facing at the end of 1940, a cold and cynical calculation by the British should have at least made them consider the possibility.

    As several commenters have mentioned, they didn’t do it because it would have been morally wrong, and that the leaders would have been rejected by the electorate (assuming that Britain lasted long enough to have more elections) if they did.

    That was the point I was trying to make, or at least trying to gesture towards. There is such as thing as a national character, and it does not always lead to the calculation of national interest. Sometimes a country just collectively decides to do what it considers right, and take the consequences.

    If we Americans ever face as dire a peril as the British did in June of 1940, we’ll find out if we have any moral fiber of our own.

  21. To second what the Baron says: the point I was trying to make earlier is that you go against the national character at your peril. Too big a compromise with that character is so against the national interest that it outwighs almost any material consideration.

  22. Baron,

    I’m not sure why you think it wasn’t Britain’s conflict, either. Hitler attacked in July of 1940, just a month after Dunkirk. Churchill saw that he faced two options: fight, or cut a deal. The latter would have led to Britain’s certain subjugation either through a quick Operation Sea Lion or through a graudual diminishing.

    Proximity to Nazi Europe made it Britain’s conflict.

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