World War II and Modern Politics

March 17, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Recent comments in response to posts on Dangerous Intersection have led me to write this screed.  Screed is to be the operative word for this, for it has been born out impatience and anger.  The biggest danger we face in the long run is the basic ignorance people bring to the political discourse.  If we lose our freedoms, it will not be to some tyrannical coup pulled off by a malicious politician, but because we ourselves collectively will no longer know what the hell we’re about.

Remembering my own school days, I cannot say that the situation presently is worse–we all have a tendency to misremember our youth, claim it to be better or worse, but the only thing we can say about it is that it was differently oriented–because most of my peers did not care a bit for history then.  They plodded through their classes, primary interest focused on their own immediate desires and needs, and who cared what happened before they were born?  What has changed is that as the world shrinks and becomes daily more pressing, the buffers that protected us in our ignorance no longer operate as efficiently or even in the same way.  One of the things that makes modern foreign entanglements more significant for the individual is that the cause and effect loop is faster, more immediate, and more threatening.  Therefore, when something begs for understanding and we look to the past for examples and counterexamples, it will not do to simply trust our leaders.  Nor will it do to have merely a Hollywood understanding of the past. 

I expect this will change nothing.  But I am annoyed.

World War II is used often as a touchstone for military adventurism and the necessity of strong foreing policy.  It is also used to excuse present-day actions, to make comparisons of situations then and now, and to validate decisions taken which seem  to bear some resemblence to the past.

But the people who do this the most seem rarely to know what they’re talking about.

The world was in fact very different and America substantially so.  Let me go down a list of why comparisons–specifically between the present Middle East conflict and WWII–are simply not supportable.

One:  the entire globe was struggling to emerge from economic depression.  We personalize the Great Depression here.  An American calamity.  It was bad here, very bad, but our hagiography about our nation’s past tends to blind us to the fact that entire planet was screwed up then.  The world was in depression in the aftermath of the first world war.  The emergence of the facsist states was directly related to this central fact.  They were in many ways economic movements. They didn’t work, they depended on pillage, hence the expansionist aspect to all the fascist regimes with the exception of Spain, which was only partly facsist in the economic sense.

One thing this meant for America at the time is that we enjoyed no clear superiority economically to any other nation.  We did, in fact, have more potential, and the fundamental vitality of our economic prior to 1929 softened–yes, softened–the onset of depression somewhat, but it hamstrung us in ways that make comparisons to the present-day situation absurd.  Furthermore, no one was sure then that capitalism would survive.  We really forget this one.  The global depression put that in doubt in ways we can’t imagine now.

Two:  Along with all the other problems, we had no significant military.  Not even here.  We forget today that one of the central tenets of America since the revolution was a profound distrust of standing armies of any kind.  After WWI, we stood down.  The fleet was aging, infantry were poorly trained an equipped, and numbers were low.  WWI resulted in no occupation by us of anything significant.

Three:  There was no CIA.  Or anything even close to it.  We had embassies and some embassies employed spies, usually locals, and there were a few spies employed by the government, but this was also antithetical to our vision of ourselves.  Spying grew during WWI, but Calvin Coolidge shut it down.  His secretary of state–I forget his name–closed down Room 14 with the famous saying “Gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail.”  The branches of the military had small intelligence units, but there was NOTHING like today’s CIA, NIA, or other intelligence organizaitons.  We did not have the information-gathering capacity in any way shape or form, and even if we did, there was little we could have done with any of it.  The so-called “super powers” of the day were Britain, France, Russia to some extent (although they were rabidly isolationist modern myths to the contrary–the Soviet threat we came to know and love developed after WWII), and the U.S., but Britain pretty much dominated the international scene.

Four: The technology of the day was, with certain exceptions, 19th Century.  Gasoline and diesel power had replaced coal in many ways (for shipping, that is) but by and large, WWII started out as a 19th Century war.  It also started out as a war among relative equals.

I could go on, but just those fundamental differences should show that comparisons cannot be made but in the most careful ways, and generally not at all. WWII was a kind of war which we may never see again.  Saddam Hussein was not Hitler.  The closest thing we have to that kind of dictator today is in North Korea, and he is incapable of doing much more than rattle his chains, his much discussed nuclear program notwithstanding.  The social and political and economic circumstances that to the emergence of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan no longer pertain.  It’s both simpler and more complex than that, but in any event it is different.  An Osama Bin Laden could not have done then what he has done today, just as an emergent Hitler could not do today what he did then.

This is important, because we have a habit in this country of eulogizing and sacrilizing the past in such a way as to argue current policy points with the underlying assumption that what we did then cna apply now.  Sometimes it can, but for the most part things have changed too much for valid comparisons.  It leads us to presume before understanding, and that has led us into a horrid mess which bears virtually no comparison to anything we did in the past or had to face.

We need to get over that habit if we’re going to find viable solutions to future problems, and that means we better stop treating history–collectively–like a font of sacred text or that boring stuff about dead people.

End of screed.


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Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Economy, Education, Good and Evil, History, Military, Politics, The Middle East, War

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (5)

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  1. peter says:

    stimpson is the name you are looking for

  2. Vicki says:

    WWII – I didn't read the book, but I saw the movie. It's certainly great to be living in the US of A, where we would never surrender our civil liberties just because the Government says its necessary to protect us.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jason's excellent history lesson highlights the nonsense of likening Saddam to Hitler. Yes, both sent their armies into a neighboring country, but their motives for doing so and their leadership skills in the process, were both at opposite ends of the spectrum. Hitler loved the German people and believed, delusionally, that it was their destiny to rule the world (or at least western Europe). His charismatic speeches drew millions of loyal followers, who were eager to follow his leadership and to die for his vision of their country. He also had a huge stock of war equipment — ships, aircraft, tanks, artillery…even submarines…that he had built up in the two decades following WWI. He had the will, and nearly had the resources, to conquer a continent.

    Contrast this with Saddam. He was a street thug who hated most of the people in his country (i.e., Shiites and Kurds). He stole most of Iraq's wealth to enrich himself and his friends, and to build palaces for himself. Much of his war equipment had been obliterated in the first Gulf War and little had been rebuilt. He had virtually no air force and no navy. He had a big army, but most Iraqi troops were conscripts: forced to hold a rifle but who would surrender at the first opportunity. He had no loyal followers among Kurds and Shiites (more than half the people in his country), and even his support among Sunnis was relatively limited and mostly the result of bribery and filial loyalty, not nationalism. He had the will to conquer his tiny neighbor, Kuwait, but lacked the resources to hold even that small country.

    In sum: Hitler was a nationalistic leader with delusions of godhood who very nearly achieved his vision of continental domination; Saddam was a small-time gangster who had the good luck (at least in the short term) of being born above a large pool of oil that he mostly pilfered for his own enrichment.

    In what way were these two dictators alike? Well, they were both dictators.

  4. Jason Rayl says:


    Yes, thank you.


    ain't it the truth (wry smirk).

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    When I read these words by Zbigniew Brzezinski, I immediately thought of Jason's post:

    A plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet benchmarks, followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure, then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the United States blamed on Iran, culminating in a "defensive" U.S. military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire, eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Indeed, a mythical historical narrative to justify the case for such a protracted and expanding war is already being articulated. Initially justified by false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the war is now being redefined as the decisive ideological struggle of our time, reminiscent of the earlier collisions with Nazism and Stalinism. In that context, Islamist extremism and A1 Qaeda are presented as the equivalents of the threats posed by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia, and 9/11 as the equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attack that precipitated America's involvement in World War II.

    This simplistic and demagogic narrative overlooks the fact that Nazism was based on the military power of the industrially most advanced European state, and that Stalinism was able to mobilize not only the resources of the victorious and militarily powerful Soviet Union but also had worldwide appeal through its Marxist doctrine.

    In contrast, most Muslims are not embracing Islamic fundamentalism. Al Qaeda is an isolated Islamist aberration, and most Iraqis are engaged in strife because of the American occupation, which destroyed the Iraqi state, while Iran, though gaining in regional influence, is itself politically divided, economically and militarily weak. To argue that America is already at war in a region with a wider Islamic threat of which Iran is the epicenter is to promote a self-fulfilling prophecy. Practically no country in the world-no country in the world-shares the Manichaean delusions that the administration so passionately articulates. And the result, sad to say, is growing political isolation of and pervasive popular antagonism toward the U.S. global posture.

    The full article is in the April 2007 Harpers Magazine, p. 19 (not available online).

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