Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Moral Bankruptcy of WWII

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath
Edited By Harry Elmer Barnes

Chapter 8—The Bankruptcy of a Policy
By William Henry Chamberlin

This document, available from the Mises Institute, is a compilation of several papers covering U.S. foreign policy before, during, and after the Second World War.  As I have written in detail in the past regarding this time period, I do not intend on covering the same ground.  However, there are a couple of interesting concepts introduced (at least to me) here that I believe are worth exploring.

In this chapter, Chamberlin outlines the bankruptcy of Roosevelt’s policy – bankruptcy not just in financial terms, but on many levels.  In this, I will not cover the financial costs or the lives lost.  These have been covered very well in many sources.  One “bankruptcy” Chamberlin discusses is the moral bankruptcy brought on due to the hypocrisy of the leaders.  The hypocrisy was obvious to many after the war – not just in the United States, but throughout the world:

Perhaps the greatest moral loss caused by the war is the immense amount of conscious and unconscious hypocrisy which it has generated….

A good example of hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious, is the very general refusal to face up to the implications of the complete failure to apply the principles of the Atlantic Charter in the peace settlement.  It is seriously suggested that it was a major achievement for Roosevelt to enunciate such noble principles as one finds in the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms.  That he made no visible effort to translate these principles into practice is passed over as a matter of little or no consequence.

The Atlantic Charter was first issued in August, 1941 and signed by Britain and the United States – and later by the allies:

The Charter stated the ideal goals of the war: no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes made against the wishes of the people; restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; free access to raw materials; reduction of trade restrictions; global cooperation to secure better economic and social conditions for all; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; and abandonment of the use of force, as well as disarmament of aggressor nations. In the "Declaration by United Nations" of 1 January 1942, the Allies of World War II pledged adherence to the charter's principles.

These “ideal goals” ended up not being applied wherever they stood in the way of Russian designs after the war, to the detriment of the subject populations.  Conversely, these ideals were not applied toward the protection of the Germans and many other people in Central and Eastern Europe.  The Charter did not restrain the Russians, and it did not benefit the Germans (among many others).

In the 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt outlined the Four Freedoms:

[Roosevelt] proposed four fundamental freedoms that people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy:

 1. Freedom of speech and expression
 2. Freedom of worship
 3. Freedom from want
 4. Freedom from fear

Setting aside the silliness of anyone other than God suggesting item 3 and 4 will be solved on earth, the application of these was also selective.

It could be said that it was not possible for the allies to successfully uphold these – yet they were victorious and in control; they could have done so had they chose to do so.  It could be said that the United States and Britain could not counter Russian designs in Central Europe after the war- unless they were ready to continue the war against Stalin.  This is very likely true – however it certainly was obvious to many at the time that the West was aligning with a tyrant who had designs on this same territory.  Many knew the character of Stalin before the war; it is impossible that Roosevelt did not.

Chamberlin next points to the hypocrisy of the war crimes trials.  If it was not enough that these trials were applied only to the Germans and Japanese, the bias in the methods and procedures certainly ensured that they would be viewed by neutral observers as an injustice – a hypocrisy.

International hypocrisy probably reached its highest point in the trials of thousands of Germans and Japanese for alleged war crimes.  That some German and Japanese actions, and some actions of the victorious powers as well, went far beyond the somewhat elastic conception of the rules of civilized warfare cannot be denied.  There would be a case for the impartial trial of all persons charged with such actions before a neutral tribunal. 

But the International Tribunal, composed of American, British, French, and Soviet judges, which sat in judgment at Nuremberg and Tokyo, and the subsequent tribunals set up by the occupying powers in their respective zones, lacked the most elementary sanctions of a court of law.  The prosecutors were also both judge and jury.  There was no semblance of impartiality in these trials of the vanquished by the victors. Nor was there any pretense of punishment being meted out evenhandedly for all infractions of law and humanity. Only Germans and Japanese were brought to trial.

The charges brought against the vanquished could just as easily been brought against the victorious – and not just the Russians:

Most of the major offenses against the Nazis—plotting and waging aggressive war, forcible seizure of alien territory, impressment for slave labor, looting and undernourishment of the population in occupied countries, and mass murder of both soldiers and civilians—could be charged just as convincingly against one or all of the victorious powers.

Did not Roosevelt plot toward war?  Did not the allies under nourish “the population in occupied territories”?  Via the bombing of civilian populations, not only the atomic bombs but the horrendous fire bombings of cities in both Germany and Japan, did not the allies “mass murder…both soldiers and civilians”?

Certainly there is nothing surprising about the fact that the victor makes the rules.  This reality does not change the hypocrisy.

Torture was apparently used to gain “confessions” from the accused:

American judges and publicists who participated in the postwar trials reluctantly revealed the fact that American officials and agents, in trying to force Germans to confess or produce damaging evidence, were guilty of all manner of ruthless brutalities which matched the worst of which the Nazis were accused.

In a complete parallel example of “plotting toward war” consider the case of the German Admiral Erich Raeder

…who was given a life sentence for plotting aggressive war, namely, helping to plan the Nazi invasion of Norway.  Lord Hankey revealed some years back that the British were making identical plans at the same time. Winston Churchill admitted this to be a fact in his book, The Gathering Storm.

Chamberlin moves next to the hypocrisy that more directly affected the American people, where he describes the “shocking” hypocrisy of Roosevelt’s actions leading up to the war, where:

…his statements on public policy from 1937 to Pearl Harbor, during which he "lied us into war."  The hypocrisy connected with the promises made to us during the war regarding the aims of the second crusade have already been pointed out.  Wendell Willkie also enthroned public hypocrisy by his confession during the Lend-Lease hearings that his earnest statements against our involvement in war during the preceding presidential campaign were only "campaign oratory."

Chamberlin points out that the pace of moral decay accelerated from this time of Roosevelt’s lying the country into war.  He highlights a passage from Fulton Oursler in an article on "The Twilight of Honor" in the Reader's Digest, July, 1950:

“Today's curse upon political life is not so much what is unlawful as what is unscrupulous. At the root of our decay is a sickness of conscience. Moral obtuseness is a plague over free government. This decline in national character is a serious danger because, if we lose our standards, all our liberties may also be lost through abuses, corruption and chaos. A people can be only as strong as their resistance to breaches of public and private morality.

“The American people are finding it increasingly difficult to be shocked, no matter what happens.

“One has only to watch the headlines to realize the Democrats and Republicans alike have led us into a twilight of honor. We shall be lucky if it is not also the doom-time of democracy.

“Some months ago the President of the United States delivered in person his annual advice to Congress. Once during his message he mentioned the need for saving money. From all over the Capitol chamber came the sound of laughter.  Startled at the guffaws, the President looked around him with a smile. In this mockery of economy, this assumption that the President himself had tongue in cheek when he spoke of saving, there was nothing illicit. But the incident was brutally cynical; it was symptomatic and frightening.”

They know they are lying when they are lying.  This cannot help but be seen by the public at large, and it cannot help but lead toward the moral decay and cynicism of the society at large.  I do not know if this turning point was as significant as Chamberlin states – I have not looked into this question at all.  However, there is little doubt that the hypocrisy of Roosevelt and then Truman was complete and thorough when cost is measured in all aspects.  I believe it is safe to say never before was the country lied into such a horrendous calamity.

It is said that change will only come when the people demand it.  For change to come, a sufficient minority must be energized to bring it about.  For the change to be positive, the moral and ethical bankruptcy must be overcome by this minority.  Until this is overcome, it is impossible for change to come through national politics.

This is one of the greatest costs of the war and of Roosevelt’s (and Truman’s) actions.  It is a cost that continues to plague America and the world today. 


  1. """"…who was given a life sentence for plotting aggressive war, namely, helping to plan the Nazi invasion of Norway. Lord Hankey revealed some years back that the British were making identical plans at the same time. Winston Churchill admitted this to be a fact in his book, The Gathering Storm.""'

    Not only did the British and French have plans to invade Norway they were in the process of carrying out one plan when the Germans invaded. The British were going to mine southern coastal water of Norway in violation of Norway's neutrality. The British/French thought that Germany would invade southern Norway to remove the mines and this would be the excuse for a British/French force already standing by on ships to invade the rest of Norway and northern Sweden to cut off German supplies of iron ore.

    1. DJF, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments; you often expand my understanding.