April 25, 2004


Stop with the Hindsight ... Or Should We Rerun All Our Wars? (Thomas Fleming, 4-19-04, History News Network)

World War I began with a presidential assumption that made Lincoln's 90-days-to-victory look owlishly wise. President Woodrow Wilson called on America to declare war on Germany presuming that he would not have to send a single American soldier to France. Brainwashed by British propaganda, he thought the war was as good as won. His army chief of staff put a memo in the files to this effect, a month after Congress voted for war. The Democratic leader of the Senate, questioning the reason for an emergency appropriation of $3 billion, said to the Army's spokesman: "Good lord, you're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?"

Add to this fiasco the arrival of British and French military missions who cried: "We want men, men, men!" and admitted the Germans were winning the war. Throw in a conference with British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, who told Wilson about the secret treaties the Allies had signed, dividing up Germany's African colonies and Turkey's Middle Eastern provinces and you have a benumbed president realizing his crusade to make the world safe for democracy was just another war to make the battered globe safer for imperialism. The eventual death toll was 50,300 dead in a mere five months of fighting on the western front.

On the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had long since shed Wilson's idealistic illusions. But he clung to some fairly serious unrealities of his own. One was the racist conviction that the Japanese were terrible pilots and mediocre sailors. It was their bad eyesight and monkey-like forebrains, don't you know? Desperate to stop Adolf Hitler's rampage through Russia, FDR cut off Japan's flow of oil from the United States to provoke a clash that would get the U.S. into the war against Tokyo's ally through "the back door," as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes called it.

We all know what happened next: The December 7, 1941, Japanese assault that sank battleships and destroyers in Pearl Harbor and killed 3200 American sailors. Talk about embarrassment! It was especially acute, when we factor in President Roosevelt's knowledge that the Japanese were going to attack us somewhere. We had broken their codes and knew they were committed to war. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited FDR in the White House at 1 p.m. on December 7. "He was white as a sheet," Knox later told his naval aide. "He expected to get hit but not hurt."

Whatever other crimes folk may want to lay at George Bush's door they can't claim he went looking for a 9-11.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2004 11:12 PM

What a world we have created, or let others creat for us. On the one hand political correctness has done it's damnest to eliminate a lot of history, and now the liberals are doing their damnest to revise what PC hasn't destroyed.

Now, on the other hand we have all this historical hindsight nonsense more geared to finger pointing than learning the lessons of the actual experience.

Posted by: Tom Wall at April 26, 2004 12:14 AM

Outside the U.S., much of popular opinion is that war is never necessary or right and can always be avoided if everyone sit down at the table and has a good, reasonable chat. Within the U.S., many seem to hold that war is sometimes right and necessary but that any commander worth his salt can fight it quickly on the basis of perfect intelligence, without casualties on either side and to the wild applause of the conquered. And, oh yes, with a faultless, pre-conceived exit strategy.

Of course the enemy knows this very well.

Posted by: Peter B at April 26, 2004 6:01 AM

FDR wesn't alone in underestimating the Japanese. "They can't fly or shoot; slanted eyes can't see straight" was actually a common misconception of the time. (And the Japanese had their own equivalent beliefs of gaijin inferiority; racism cut both ways on both shores of the Pacific -- White Supremacist attitudes on one shore, Japanese Supremacist on the other. Made the Pacific War really nasty.)

And the Japanese, like GW Bush, knew the slacker trick of how to take advantage of your opponent's underestimating you.

Posted by: Ken at April 26, 2004 12:40 PM


Worse, both sides had strong and inconsistant honor codes, eg, the Japanese thought individual surrender dishonorable, and the Americans thought mistreatment of POWs dishonorable.

Posted by: mike earl at April 26, 2004 1:05 PM

Revisionism surounding U.S. entry into WWII and
other ancillary events has long been a pursuit of the right. Any liberal revisionists are
late to the party.

Posted by: J.H. at April 26, 2004 3:38 PM

The death toll attributible to Wilson is more like 250,000, counting sickness.

But I question this report's view of how he got there. Steele's biography of Lippmann demonstrates conclusively that Wilson was maneuvering for war before the 1916 election. And despite what some guy in Congress may have thought, the professional officers were falling all over themselves to get to France.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 27, 2004 1:14 AM