Questioning the Liberal Lessons of World War II

The Second World War ended with our country fundamentally transformed. After the First World War, the United States had sought what Warren Harding called “a return to normalcy.” After 1945, there could be no such return: the new normal would now mean the United States as a fully committed global power, responsible not only for the security of its erstwhile enemies (West) Germany and Japan but also for the defense of almost all of the world’s democracies. The United States had never been an isolationist nation, and in a fit of madness in the late 19th century Uncle Sam had acquired an empire spanning from the Caribbean to the Philippines. Europe, however, was the “Old World,” and America had been defined in part by its separation from the intractable conflicts of that continent. Now the U.S. would subsume those conflicts, if not resolve them, under the demands of the Cold War, skillfully employing the instruments of diplomacy, trade, economic aid, military alliances, and, when necessary, covert action.

Western Europe would become politically, economically, and culturally Americanized, while America itself would become a new state, with new roles at home and abroad for the federal government and new relationships among the nation’s business, educational, and political elites. The progressive movement, the First World War, and the New Deal had already partially reconstituted the republic earlier in the 20th century, but each of those developments had faced powerful opposition that succeeded to some degree in arresting the transformation. The post-1945 change in America’s place in the world, and the domestic changes implied by this, could not be arrested or seriously resisted. “National security” was now of paramount concern to both major political parties, while economic policy increasingly meant policy for the free-world order as a whole and not merely for the U.S. as a particular nation-state. The U.S. had declined to take part in the League of Nations after World War I; now the U.S. became the architect of a panoply of international institutions.

The War’s “Liberal” Lessons

In 2020 there is a great deal of nostalgia for this postwar “liberal international order.” But it’s worth remembering that the United States and its allies were far less liberal then than they are today. Until the end of the Cold War, the West retained a strong sense of its Christianity, whether as a living faith or as a national patrimony. Patriotism was stronger than liberal idealism in the hearts of ordinary Americans and even among much of the political class. What was good about America and its allies after World War II was more than just liberal, but faith and nation made common cause with liberalism in the struggle against godless global Communism. If patriots and believers had been told in 1945 that liberals would later seek to make Christianity as opprobrious as homosexuality was then, or would one day equate the defense of citizenship and national borders with fascism, they would have concluded that some power more radical than the Soviet Union had conquered America. The Cold War coalition at home and the international order it birthed would never have been possible. To the extent that the newfangled liberal international order of the 21st century is anti-nationalist and against Christianity, it has repudiated its own parentage and legitimacy.

Faith and nationalism won the Cold War—Catholic Poles rejected the Marxist cult, and Poles, Germans, Hungarians, and other captive nationalities did not wish to be ruled by Russians. The Russians of the Red Army themselves refused to fire on their countrymen when ordered to do so by the hardline Communists who launched a coup against Gorbachev in 1991. But in the West, a different kind of coup took place, as the elite classes cut their ties to their national traditions and came more and more to conceive of themselves as citizens of the world. Liberals credited victory in the Cold War to their own ideology, which now represented the end of history, the final stage of human development everywhere. This hubris led to tragedy and farce. It led to overconfidence that China would liberalize as it grew rich from integration into the world economy. It led to an inability to understand Poland or Hungary or Russia on their own terms rather than those of the West’s own post-national, post-Christian liberalism. And, of course, it led to Western elites themselves receiving a rude awakening in the UK and United States in the 2016 Brexit referendum and U.S. presidential election.

One byproduct of this intellectual revolution among powerful and educated Westerners was a misunderstanding of World War II. The war became a fable whose moral was the indispensability of liberal global leadership, the benevolence and far-sightedness of which can alone avert the recrudescence of fascism—which threatens to return whenever unacceptably right-wing parties get a share of power anywhere. Anti-fascism justifies every kind of liberal interventionism, including its neoconservative varieties, from regime-change wars to international policing operations to the use of soft power to promote internal revolutions in non-liberal states. That these interventions are themselves often illiberal in character—violent, secretive, and manipulative—is no cause for concern because illiberal means are sanctified by liberal ends, even as “liberal” means (a democratic election of, say, Viktor Orban—or perhaps Donald Trump) cannot legitimize an illiberal outcome.

The real slayers of Nazism were as different as anyone could be from the professed “antifa” brawlers of our time.

When the George W. Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq, its friendly publicists styled Saddam Hussein’s regime as “Islamo-Fascist.” The specter of the Holocaust haunted every ethnic conflict in which liberals wished to intervene in the 1990s. And most pervasive of all has been the “Munich metaphor”—any time the U.S. hesitates to pursue the confrontational course prescribed by liberal interventionists against one dictator or another, the cry goes up that this is “appeasement,” and henceforth Putin or Xi or Saddam or Assad or the mullahs or Kim or Maduro or whoever will be “emboldened” to become the next Hitler. This is a cartoonish and ultimately self-deceiving way to view foreign-policy conflicts, yet it has become reflexive on the liberal left and neoconservative right. (One wonders why a few thousand years of war and statecraft have failed to yield any other historical examples that might fit a given case better than the overfamiliar archetypes of World War II. But no: every year is 1938.)

The real history of World War II does not lend itself to the lessons liberals and neoconservatives try to draw. Take appeasement, for example—if appeasement is always wrong and deadly dangerous, then the war should not have ended as it did in 1945, with the much same kind of appeasement that preceded it: the appeasement of a totalitarian dictator whose armies occupied Czechoslovakia, and who indeed invaded Poland in 1939. By the end of the war, one such dictator, Adolf Hitler, was dead; another, Josef Stalin, was awarded half of Europe at Yalta. Nazism was extinguished, but Communism could hardly have been better served by the war’s outcome and would soon enslave the most populous nation on earth, China, after its liberation from the tyranny of Imperial Japan.

The United States and its democratic allies were in a poor position to prevent all of this at the time, though scholars continue to debate whether the United States had to be quite as accommodating as the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were. Appeasement of Stalin was horrific, and it did embolden Soviet subversion, but it did not lead to another hot world war or a Soviet military invasion of France. Even Stalin, the closest thing to Hitler after Hitler himself, was not Hitler. The cavalcade of dictators since 1945 has not produced another Hitler either. The case for containing or confronting them, and the appropriate means for doing so, does not depend on any moralistic fable about World War II.

The Illiberal Allies

The Second World War was never a simple story of liberal democracy against fascism, certainly not as “liberal democracy” is understood today. The United States and the British Empire had racial laws long before Nazi Germany did, and the Nazis learned a great deal from the Anglo-American example. This does not place Hitler’s regime on a moral level with the U.S. or Britain, of course. But it demands that we guard against remembering World War II as something like “Star Wars,” a children’s melodrama of light versus darkness. It was a war in which Western regimes that were themselves a checkerboard of good and evil—and which made common cause with the deeply evil Communist regime of the Soviet Union—confronted the extraordinary evils of Nazism and Japanese militarism. The side of right was clear from the first, and it was ours. But the moral lessons of the war require painstaking discernment just as the strategic lessons do.

The United States and the British Empire of the time were illiberal to a much greater degree than, say, Viktor Orban’s Hungary is today. They were illiberal in ways that were right as well as in ways that were wrong. Americans were patriotic, even nationalistic, and they widely understood themselves as men and women of faith, fighting not a secular war for liberalism but a war to save Judaeo-Christian civilization, broadly or narrowly defined. One of the first lessons of World War II is thus a lesson in perspective: the heroes of the war were in their moral outlook unlike the enlightened leadership class of the Western world today, and the real slayers of Nazism were as different as anyone could be from the professed “antifa” brawlers of our time, whose violent street theater and primordial concerns with race bear a stronger resemblance to the tactics and neuroses of the fascists themselves.

This is not merely a polemical point: hard-left activists who challenged the very foundations of what they considered to be an iniquitous ancien regime set the stage for the rise of Nazism in the first place. World War II was the long-term consequence of the German revolution that began at the end of the First World War. That revolution involved the destruction of the German imperial constitution and, with the fall of the Kaiser’s state, a fateful privatization of violence. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, left-wing movements sought to seize power in Germany as well and succeeded in creating a short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. A state is nothing if it does not possess an ultimate monopoly on violence, but the German state after World War I was incapable of suppressing the radical left, which led to right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps, using their own private arms to do so.

The new, Weimar-based federal republic that eventually restored a semblance of order was a fragile thing from the start, living in the shadow of ancestrally Bolshevik and counter-Bolshevik ideological violence, which persisted in various forms. Fear of becoming the next Soviet Union drove many Germans into Adolf Hitler’s hands, and the revolutionary National Socialist state he created was in key respects a mirror’s flipped image of the Soviet Union: crucially, both subordinated the traditional idea of the state to a party, one of which claimed to rule on behalf of a race, the other on behalf of the proletariat and its Marxist-Leninst prophets.

The British Empire in the years before World War I is a cautionary lesson of what happens when a liberal power attempts to be everywhere at once, overseeing an empire on which the sun never sets.

The peace imposed by the victorious Allies in World War I did not create this catastrophic situation in Germany—this fallow field for radicalism and totalitarianism—but the provisions of the Versailles Treaty contributed to the incapacity of the postwar German state, as well as to its illegitimacy in the eyes of Germans from many ideological backgrounds. A state that cannot protect ordinary people from the threat or reality of factional violence (whether from the left, the right, or a sectarian source) is a state that soon gives way to dictatorship or civil war, if not both. This is a lesson that the architects of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy have failed to apply: regime-change is easy; state-building is difficult and almost necessarily illiberal. The state must overawe every tribe, every sect, every party, every revolutionary mob. The interwar German state was itself in awe of the dangers to its left and right, and the subsequent Nazi state was the wholly owned creature of the Nazi Party, as the USSR was the creature of the Communist Party.

There are other precepts equally hard for the liberal American of the 21st century to learn from the course and conclusion of World War II. First among these is the need to consider trade and industrial policy in light of strategic competition and not only in terms of consumer economics or fuzzy notions about the intercourse of nations creating the conditions for peace. In the case of Japan, it was the truly isolationist Tokugawa regime that posed no threat to its neighbors; engagement and competition with the great European powers made later imperial Japan thirst to acquire foreign possessions and more natural resources. Japan’s brutality in Manchuria had, alas, considerable precedent in the brutality of European imperial ventures in Asia and Africa. The United States sought to restrain Japan after the annexation of Manchuria through trade policies including an oil embargo, to which Japan finally responded with war. As America now considers with trepidation the economic rise and military assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China, we would do well to revisit the events leading up to Pearl Harbor.

Looking East

But there are lessons from the European war that pertain to the rise of China as well. Paul Miller is right to argue that the beginnings of the Second World War in Europe precede the First World War itself and trace to the rise of Germany as a new great power. Germany was an economic strategic rival to the British Empire and the United States long before it went to war with them. While the United States and Germany both embraced forms of economic nationalism, with a view toward maximizing their industrial strength, the British had a preference for free trade. This contributed over the last quarter of the 19th century to the narrowing of the power differential between the British and the Germans, and by the time of the First World War, the industrial advantage was decidedly on the side of the Germans.

Nor was this advantage lost forever after Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Germany reindustrialized and rearmed to the point of being beyond the power of Britain to police by the end of the 1930s. Professor Miller is again right to direct attention to earlier occasions—to 1924 or 1935—when the German threat might have been arrested. By the time that Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement in 1938, it was almost certainly too late. Britain was in no position to win a war with Germany that year, nor the next, when Chamberlain led Britain to war over Hitler’s invasion of Poland. At that date, only America’s arms and industry could ensure Britain’s survival and final victory.

The policy toward trade and industry followed by the United States since the end of the Cold War has had the effect of accelerating the industrialization of China while slamming the breaks on America’s own manufacturing sector in comparison to the growth of financial and administrative services. China is now the world’s leading manufacturing power, and the decisive question for the future is how much and how rapidly that lead will grow. The answer to that underlies the question of how aggressively China will behave in the future. America’s relationship with China today is partly parallel to the strategic economic competition between Britain and Germany in the decades before World War I and partly parallel with the problem that Japan’s great-power ambitions presented in the years leading to World War II.

Miller and other foreign-policy experts emphasize the need for ongoing U.S. global leadership, and in this they have the right aim but too often prescribe the wrong policies. Leadership does not mean attempting to manage and involve oneself deeply in conflicts all around the world—it means, rather, limiting one’s commitments to those that matter most and structuring secondary commitments in support of the primary objective. The Allies did this in World War II when they welcomed Stalin into the coalition against Hitler. But the British Empire in the years before World War I is a cautionary lesson of what happens when a liberal power attempts to be everywhere at once, overseeing an empire on which the sun never sets.

It was no accident that the British succeeded in checking Napoleon early in the 19th century at a time when the empire was reduced, shorn of the colonies that had become the United States and without having yet taken on full responsibility for India. The “splendid isolation” that Britain practiced in the 19th century was in reality offshore balancing, but it was always in tension with the demands of empire and, even then, a liberal propensity toward ideological interventions of the hard and soft kinds alike.

By the time of the First World War and continuing through the time of the second, the British Empire had swollen to unmanageable proportions, and militarily undefendable ones, leaving British power stretched thin and tied down from South Africa to Singapore to India. America’s worldwide empire of bases today may likewise prove a burden on our ability to meet the most serious challenges. The burden becomes lighter only if our rich allies, such as Germany, provide more for their own defense. The fact that NATO, an alliance that outspends Russia by many multiples of its defense budget, has been so powerless to deter recent Russian mischief is a function of how structurally flawed this aging organization is: overdependent on American spending and troops and overextended into marginal countries that are more a security risk than any kind of an asset. A smaller, better balanced NATO and fewer, better chosen U.S. strategic commitments worldwide would lead to a more effective check on states like Russia and China.

Yet reform of our foreign policy has been blocked by elites in both major parties, by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike. They frame their attacks on reformers in starkly moral terms, accusing them of appeasement or fascist sympathies or collusion with Moscow. Morality matters in foreign affairs, and it can be a powerful force at home and abroad. Miller is right to caution against too cold-blooded a Realpolitik. But moralism is not morality, and a Manichean myth of World War II and its lessons is not history, nor a sound guide to policy. Only reality in all its complexity, moral and strategic, can show us the way through the minefields of today. And only a realistic reckoning with World War II, its causes, and its consequences can help us avoid another conflagration so horrific—or win the next World War if it must come.