The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, Revised Edition, by Jacques R. Pauwels. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 2015, 326 pp.
Reviewed by David Smith
November 2, 2015
World War II has long been seen as “the good war,” even among progressive and democratic-minded people. The almost unimaginable carnage and savagery unleashed by the Nazi Reich, the Italian fascists, and the Japanese militarists are well known, and the Allies’ war against them has routinely been depicted as a struggle between good and evil, civilization and barbarism, or democracy and dictatorship.
The revised edition of Jacques Pauwels’s The Myth of the Good War incorporates important new research and significantly contributes to a more historically accurate and more critical account of the United States role in the Second World War. The book demonstrates that many U.S. capitalists and government officials were friendly toward the fascist regimes before the war and even after the war began, that Washington remained neutral in the war as long as neutrality served U.S. capitalist interests, and that these interests—not the much vaunted cause of freedom and democracy— determined how the U.S. entered, fought, and ended the war.
Pauwels rejects conventional works on U.S. participation in World War II as “feel-good history.” Instead, borrowing a phrase from Michael Parenti, Pauwels explores the “dirty truths” about U.S. actions before, during, and after the war. By focusing on political economy and the interests of the U.S. capitalist class and the power elite, and by critically reconstructing the historical background of the war, the author is able to explain Washington’s involvement in the most catastrophic conflict in history as the product of imperialism.
As Pauwels points out, many members of the “social, economic, and political elite” in the United States, as well as the Catholic Church leadership and many people of Italian and German descent, admired Mussolini and Hitler. A substantial section of the capitalist class in the United States particularly approved the Nazi state’s elimination of the communist and socialist parties and dissolution of the labor unions. As Pauwels observes, the U.S. power elite was staunchly anti-communist but not anti-fascist.
Pauwels notes that General Motors, Ford, Standard Oil, Texaco, IBM, General Electric, DuPont, ITT, and other U.S. corporations which had invested in Germany saw the value of their investments increase after the Nazis came to power. German subsidiaries of U.S. companies played a major role in Hitler’s rearmament program and produced the airplanes, tanks, trucks, and other equipment required for Nazi aggression. U.S. companies shipped vast amounts of oil to Germany and provided state-of-the-art communications and information technology to the Reich.
Although the Roosevelt administration hoped that war in Europe could be avoided, it sought to accommodate and then appease Nazi and fascist demands for foreign territory. While some government officials criticized what they saw as excesses in Berlin and Rome, U.S. policy toward Hitler and Mussolini continued to be friendly for years. Policymakers in Washington understood that the rabidly anti-communist Hitler had long been committed to destroying the Soviet Union. For his part, the Nazi fuhrer initially wanted to avoid confrontation with Britain and the United States, but his invasion of Poland in September 1939 evoked declarations of war from London and Paris.
In contrast, tensions between the United States and Japan grew throughout the 1930s. U.S. imperialism had already acquired Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and other Pacific islands, and planned to expand its exploitation of China. Like Germany and Italy, Japan was a latecomer to modern imperialist expansion. It had previously annexed Korea, then seized Manchuria in 1931, began to conquer most of northern and central China in 1937, and started to eye European colonies in Asia by the end of the decade. As Pauwels explains, “The U.S. faced the competition of an aggressive rival power that sought to realize its own imperialist ambitions in that part of the world.”
As the competition for markets and resources heated up, relations between the two empires worsened. But ever motivated by the drive for profits, U.S. companies continued to sell Tokyo large amounts of oil, scrap iron, and machine tools on which the Japanese war machine depended even after its ongoing war against China had cost millions of lives. Pauwels shows that the Roosevelt administration wanted a war with Japan in order to end its challenge to U.S. imperialism in Asia. However, widespread opposition to war at home meant that Roosevelt felt the domestic political need to ensure that Japan struck the first blow.
U.S. policymakers viewed the Japanese occupation of rubber-rich French Indochina and oil-rich Dutch Indonesia in 1940-1941 with alarm. Pauwels notes that the U.S. launched an oil embargo and other trade sanctions against Japan in the summer of 1941 and then froze Japanese assets in the United States. In the fall of 1941, the Roosevelt administration demanded that Japan recognize “Open Door” commercial privileges for the U.S. in China but rejected Tokyo’s insistence on reciprocal commercial privileges in Latin America.
In November 1941, Roosevelt demanded that the Japanese immediately withdraw from China. Pauwels views these U.S. provocations as “intended to cause Tokyo to go to war.” He also notes that U.S. government and military leaders, having broken Japanese codes, knew that the Japanese naval armada planned to attack Pearl Harbor but did not notify the U.S. military commanders there. The “surprise attack” resulted in many U.S. deaths but did not destroy aircraft carriers or modern warships, which had been ordered to leave the base before the attack. Pauwels thus highlights the fact that “the United States did not declare war on Japan because of Tokyo’s unprovoked aggression and war crimes in China but because of an attack on an American imperial possession.”
From the author’s viewpoint, Germany’s subsequent declaration of war on the United States drew the Roosevelt administration into a war in Europe which it did not want. Pauwels points out that some U.S. capitalist support for the Nazis continued even after they invaded Poland in September 1939 and conquered the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France in May-June 1940. However, he explains that sympathy for the Nazis in the U.S. power elite was declining by then. The growing prospects of a German-dominated Europe closed to new U.S. investments turned many capitalists here against the Reich.
In addition, the massive Lend-Lease aid program for Britain significantly enriched many U.S. corporations, contributed to finally ending the Great Depression, and increased popular sympathy for the British people. Moreover, the aggressive German trade policy in Latin America alienated many U.S. exporters. Nonetheless, Pauwels argues, even the “undeclared naval war” between German submarines and U.S. destroyers in the fall of 1941 did not compel Washington to contemplate war against the Nazis. In the author’s view, only Hitler’s declaration of war in December 1941 “pulled” the United States into war in Europe. Even then, existing U.S. “corporate collaboration” continued to support the German war machine.
As Pauwels emphasizes, the U.S. government vigorously prosecuted the war against Japan but refused to do the same against Germany. It is well known that the Soviet Union did most of the fighting and most of the dying in the war against the Nazis. Pauwels explains that many U.S. policymakers hoped for maximum casualties on both sides on the Eastern front. Despite repeated promises to Joseph Stalin, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill refused to launch a second front against the Germans in Europe for two and one-half years.
Pauwels persuasively argues that the small and disastrous Western landing at Dieppe, France in August 1942 was intended to fail and to silence Allied voices demanding a second front. He points out that the U.S.-British landing in North Africa in November 1942 strengthened British colonial interests and recovered French colonial possessions but could not serve as a launching pad for a second front in Europe. Similarly, the U.S.-British-Canadian invasion of Sicily and southern Italy in the summer of 1943 helped bring down Mussolini’s government but offered no hope of an advance from there to Germany.
Pauwels points out that the real turning point of the war was the Soviet victory in the Battle of Moscow in December 1941 and that the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in January 1943 marked the beginning of the end for the Reich. As the Red Army proceeded to liberate Soviet lands conquered by the Nazis and then marched toward Germany, U.S. and British leaders eventually agreed to open a second front.
As Pauwels emphasizes, Roosevelt and Churchill’s decision to invade Normandy was not made to assist the Soviets but to prevent the Soviets from winning the war against the Nazis on their own. The Western leaders were afraid the Red Army might defeat the Wehrmacht before their own troops engaged them. This fear, rooted in their shared commitment to the preservation of capitalism in as much of Europe and the world as possible, found other expressions as well. The U.S. and Britain recognized the fascist Marshal Badoglio as the new ruler of Italy, backed the empowerment of fascist collaborators in Greece after the German occupiers retreated, and supported reactionary alternatives to the popular communist-led partisans in liberated France and Belgium.
By late January 1945, the Soviets had reached the Oder River and were “within striking distance of Berlin.” The author makes a compelling argument that the United States and Britain’s so-called strategic bombing of Dresden the following month was primarily intended to remind Stalin that they had formidable airpower at their disposal in case problems arose later between the wartime allies. As Pauwels makes clear, the Soviets wanted to continue their cooperation with the Western powers after the war, but this was not to be.
Harry Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in April 1945, was much more anti-Soviet than his predecessor. Even as the German armies surrendered to Soviet and other allied commanders in late April and early May, some Western officials and military leaders hoped a new German government would immediately join them in a new war against the Soviet Union. However, this was both militarily and politically impossible. In any event, as Pauwels remarks, U.S. government leaders and capitalists were already planning to ensure the supremacy of U.S. imperial power in the postwar world. And there was growing recognition of the imperative for “a permanent war economy” at home.
By mid-summer 1945, Japanese leaders knew they were defeated and were trying to find a way to surrender. Although the Soviets were preparing to attack Japanese forces in China, Truman did not want their help. As the war was ending, Truman was determined to reassert and expand prewar U.S. power in Asia without any concessions to the Soviet Union. Drawing on the research of other historians, Pauwels shows that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not militarily necessary but was instead intended to secure Stalin’s acquiescence in the postwar global order dictated by the United States. As the author emphasizes, this “nuclear blackmail” failed and led to fifty years of the Cold War, with grave consequences for the entire planet.
Pauwels insightfully writes that while the Soviet Union had been useful to the United States as an ally during the war, it became useful to the U.S. power elite as an enemy afterward. By invoking the specter of the so-called “evil empire,” U.S. government officials and capitalists could defend massive military expenditures for the warfare state, rationalize the nuclear arms race, and justify military interventions throughout the world.
Pauwels’s scrupulously researched and well-written book persuasively demonstrates that the U.S. government’s role in the Second World War was largely determined by the interests of the capitalist class in this country, not the lofty professed ideals of freedom and democracy. This vitally important, if still controversial, historical understanding has been broached by some other authors, but Pauwels’s book is arguably the most comprehensive, penetrating account in English of the U.S. government’s motives and actions before, during, and after the war.
Much can also be learned from the author’s important conclusion that the bloodiest, most destructive conflagration in history turned out to be remarkably “good” for the United States, which emerged from the war as the most powerful imperialist power on the planet. This volume thus makes a substantial contribution to understanding the origins of the United States as the pre-eminent imperium in the postwar world. In addition to his main line of argument, the author illuminates other significant dimensions of U.S. society at the time. His consideration of domestic anti-communism and racism is helpful, and his account of the massive strikes and class struggle at home during the war is illuminating. A helpful bibliography includes numerous related books and articles for researchers, students, and everyone who is committed to preventing fascism from ever threatening the world again.
Inevitably, a few parts of Pauwels’s book are open to constructive criticism. Although one of the book’s strengths is its focus on capitalist economic interests and imperialism, the author’s use of the “power elite,” a concept originally promulgated by C. Wright Mills, occasionally obscures the primacy of class. Another issue concerns Pauwels’s depiction of Roosevelt as wanting a war against Japan but only reluctantly “pulled” into a war against the Nazis.
There is considerable historical evidence that Roosevelt increasingly turned against the Nazis after 1938, viewed the growing German conquest of Europe as incompatible with U.S. imperial interests, and hoped that Nazi aggression against the United States would lead to public support for a war in Europe. Finally, while Pauwels rightly credits the Soviet Union for its predominant role in defeating the Nazis, more could have been said about the revolutionary changes in the socialist homeland which contributed to the fighting spirit and eventual triumph of the Red Army and the Soviet people.
Notwithstanding these critical observations, The Myth of the Good War is an important and enlightening book which deserves the widest possible attention.