August 2, 2006


Scorched Earth: Was the destruction of German cities justified?: a review of Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the World War II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A.C. Grayling (Christopher Hitchens, Weekly Standard)

In a recent exchange with him at the Goethe Institute in Washington, I offered a criticism of British policy that went further than his. Like him, I was brought up in urban areas of England that still showed the scars of Nazi bombardment. Like him, I began to doubt the official justifications for the policy imposed by Air Marshal Harris. But these misgivings ought to begin well before the horrible attack on Hamburg in 1943. In 1938, the British government was contacted by emissaries from the Kreisau Circle, a group of courageous German oppositionists led by Count Helmuth von Moltke. They told Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax that if Great Britain would stand adamantly by its guarantees to Czechoslovakia, and promise to make a stand against fascist irredentism, they could put Hitler under arrest. Their aim would be the restoration of German democracy, but their pretext would be that they had averted a war. This could only be done if the British maintained a belligerent policy instead of a capitulationist one.

Who knows if this would have succeeded? We only know that officers as highly placed as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of German military intelligence, and many influential politicians and diplomats, were part of the plan. We also know that Chamberlain and Halifax refused to talk to them. There is something unbearable in the idea of a British regime, that would not fire or risk a shot against Hitler in 1938, later deploying horrific violence against German civilians instead. There is also something intolerable about the Munich deal with Hitler, a sellout of Prague which led inexorably to the Nazi-Soviet pact, resulting shortly in the destruction of magnificent German cities in order to bring a smile to the face of Stalin. I will never be one of those Englishmen who can complacently regard the years between 1940 and 1945 as a "finest hour."

On the other hand, once the battle had eventually been joined, one has little choice but to regard it as an anti-Nazi war at last. And to me, this involves viewing it from the standpoint of a German antifascist, or a non-German slave laborer or other victim of German racism. And here, atheist though I am, I have to invoke something like the biblical.

Odd sort of atheism that.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 2, 2006 6:17 PM

The Kreisau Circle couldn't have arrested Hitler's dog successfully. Where was their force coming from? What about the SS? Where was any sort of popular suport? A coup in 1938 was never going to be successful period.

Posted by: Bob at August 2, 2006 7:30 PM

It would have been easy.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2006 7:47 PM

Their aim would be the restoration of German democracy,

Oh, sure. The Von Moltkes and all their Prussian aristocratic pals were well-known radical democrats. I don't ever recall Hitchens saying anything so egregiously stupid.

Easy for who, Orrin?

Posted by: Peter B at August 3, 2006 8:49 AM

The German military.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2006 8:54 AM

"The German military." Of course.

Except that the Kreisau Circle, other than a couple of Abwehr officials, was made up of diplomats and other civilians. They had no military support to speak of.

Posted by: Bob at August 3, 2006 9:59 AM

The Germans will follow any order, but they need to be given an order. The military would have done Hitler if peers told them to--they were scared of war and looked down their noses at him.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2006 12:06 PM

The aristocratic officer class would not have wanted a return to the Weimar Democracy; no one wanted that. Claiming democratic restoration would have been hyperbole. But it would probably end the Nazi monopoly and return to some sort of normalcy.

Whatever the composition of the Kreisau Circle, the bulk of the officer corps did not like Hitler - certainly the general staff did not. Even if they weren't involved, they would not have objected and acted against the plotters - assuming, of course, the plot succeeded.

As for popular support, we also need to remember that Hitler was popular because he had NOT gotten Germany into a war. The people thought he was a brilliant statesman with great brinksmanship. When war did come in 1939, it was not greeted with enthusiasm, and people were scared in 1938. The idea that the generals had saved the country from war would have been accepted as plausible.

The Night of the Long Knives proved that as long as you're organized, it's possible to eliminate the leadership of an entire group. These officers would have had access to Hitler and the other Nazi leadership. They could have easily been killed. All it takes is one man with a gun.

We must remember that there were many Nazis in the party that were very scared of war (even during the Polish crisis in '39). It might have been easy to co-op Goering, relatively moderate with ties to business and who was the second most powerful man in Germany, to take over and pardon the assassins after the bodies of Hitler and Himmler were delivered and proved it was a coup accompli. There were a lot of rivalries in the Nazi party, and not all would have been sad to see some members go.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at August 3, 2006 12:27 PM

Weimar didn't work, as the Nazis proved.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2006 12:31 PM

I'm sorry, but why should I not believe that this type of story is simply another example of a post-war attempt by German aristocracy to shift blame for Hitler to England? "Oh, if only you had stood up to Hitler, we would have too, instead of loyally following him all along..." I don't buy it.

Posted by: b at August 3, 2006 1:20 PM

The German officer corps looked down on Hitler, sure. And yes, if Hitler and Himmler were killed and Goring killed or co-opted, then a coup would have worked.

But the point is that the Kreisau Circle and the other conspiracies and opposition groups were never going to pull it off. They were grossly incompetent. Their plan was to arrest Hitler, not kill him. That type of coup wouldn't work anywhere. In 2 days he would have been free and the Kreisau Circle et al would be dead.

Besides, the myth of the German resistence like the Kreisau Circle is mainly just that, a myth, just like the myth that every Frencman fought in the Resistence. They talked and talked and talked but never did anything until one half hearted attempt in 1944 when it was far too late. The "good" German just did not exist. They happily went along with Hitler.

Posted by: Bob at August 3, 2006 1:54 PM

Hitler was all smoke and mirrors, as he understood-had the military stood up to him he'd have been finished. But they needed orders to do so.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2006 2:36 PM

Wudda, cudda, shudda.

I have no idea if a coup would have been possible or if there was any way to have coordinated such a thing, but to attempt a white wash of German culpability by faulting the British for not nipping Hitler in the bud, is grossly unfair to those who had to make decisions on the basis of the available information at the time and not on the basis of research done nearly three-quarters of a century later.

It was tragic, but unavoidable, that so many innocents were killed during allied bombing raids.

Posted by: erp at August 3, 2006 3:58 PM

Because we know it to be true that FDR and Churchill repeatedly turned down entreaties from good Germans.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2006 5:32 PM

John Lukacs, who is nothing if not idiosyncratic, has argued in The Hitler of History that the coup plotters never would have had any kind of popular support. Lukacs pointed out that Hitler was popular and had he died suddenly before the war broke out the Germans might, even in the modern day, view him as a great German war hero like Otto von Bismarck or Frederick the Great.

Still, it seems worthwhile to tell the plotters to see what they can do, rather than give Hitler what he wants just because a screwball like Chamberlain thought a proven murderer might be trustworthy.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 4, 2006 7:21 PM

Lukacs finds a great and powerful Hitler absolutely necessary to everything else he believes and feels and so he imagines one.

There's nothing odder than conservatives who think Nazism, Communism, and Islamicism serious threats.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2006 7:29 PM


I've never understood your position that such movements aren't threats if they can only do astonishing damage in the short term. Even Lukacs said that Hitler's empire wouldn't have lasted forever. The whole idea was to stop him before he could directly threaten American soil. Same thing with Saddam Hussein (note the repeated refusal to credit President Bush for his stated wish to stop Hussein before he became an imminent threat). And look at much of the violence and corruption in the Muslim world: I expect it to eventually settle down but it sure could be a bumpy ride getting there.

I think you'd agree that it's worthwhile going after saber-rattling bad guys even if we're not entirely certain they're a threat.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 5, 2006 4:50 AM


Incidentally, considering that Mr. Lukacs is rather ambivalent about anticommunism -- something I find surpassing strange in a supposed conservative -- I'm guessing you might have fun reviewing A New History of the Cold War (published forty years ago but what short skimming I've done indicates a basic continuity of viewpoint with other books by Lukacs).

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 5, 2006 5:01 AM

Stop him before he could threaten American soil? He couldn't take Britain, Spain, or Russia. The war was over by Pearl Harbor. You can't organize a global empire around a racist theory.

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2006 8:17 AM

It would have been over by Pearl Harbor if we hadn't jumped in to save Uncle Joe. Lots of people had their lives and families destroyed, not to mention cities leveled, so FDR could prop up the Soviets.

Had Hitler been smarter or saner, he would have stayed pals with Stalin at least until the rest of Europe was safely under the German boot.

Posted by: erp at August 5, 2006 9:35 AM

But since we did jump in the Nazis had ground to a halt in the East after already giving up in the west.

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2006 9:45 AM


Lots of military historians seem to think he was close to overwhelming Russia, and I doubt Spain would've been able to hold him off had he actually decided to invade. At which point, of course, the Mediterranean would have become what one historian called an "Axis lake" and the situation would have been extremely bad.

Britain may have been better protected from a German invasion than some people realize, but if even one of those two events had occurred one can at least envision Churchill getting kicked out and the British suing for peace.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 5, 2006 4:31 PM

No historian thinks he was close to taking Russia by the time of Pear Harbor.

Yes, the point is he couldn't try.

Why shouldn't Britain have made peace?

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2006 4:52 PM

Matt, Lots, if not most, historians lean to port. Read them with very large grains of salt.

The Soviets had support cells all over the world. They were allowed to run rampant, so their regime lasted a long time and caused untold suffering. It was only defeated when the fiction of the success of a centralized economy was exposed by Reagan.

Had the Nazis won and the Soviets been ousted, they would have had a very hard time maintaining control even over just Europe, never mind establishing outposts in other parts of the world. Things would have rearranged themselves and order would have been restored as it had during the myriad other European wars.

Had the Nazis won, one thing's sure, the worldwide socialist movement would have been nipped in the bud. Would that have been a better or worse scenario? ¿Quién sabe?

Posted by: erp at August 5, 2006 5:30 PM


I must say I have a hard time believing that the Nazis were thankfully doomed to a quick collapse when the USSR's presence in Eastern Europe lasted about fifty years. If anything, I think the Soviet Union's structural problems were even worse than those of Nazi Germany. Also, why would anybody expect a quick collapse if we were just going to give up opposing them?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 2:38 AM


They came within, what, fifty miles of Moscow? When I was a kid, I seem to recall reading that the Germans came close enough to see the spires of the Kremlin through a good pair of binoculars. Even assuming that the Soviet Union wasn't saved solely by the winter, Churchill was right to estimate that for about a full year after the Nazi invasion the Soviets were a net drain on British resources and not in a position to help much at all. The Soviets were fortunate that their country was so cold and so vast.

Couldn't try? Of course Hitler could've tried. It is difficult to see Spain stopping him when virtually nobody else at that time could.

You'll have to take up the last question with the ghost of Winston Churchill, but I'm curious whether your premise is that Britain should've made peace because they were in imminent danger of invasion anyway, or because they weren't in any danger at all and thus the Nazis were no threat (based on your previous remarks, I'd guess your opinion is the latter one). I believe Churchill's answer was that negotiating a peace with the Nazi thugs would've inevitably left Britain as little more than a vassal state.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 2:52 AM

They got closer to Stalingrad and couldn't take it. Had they taken both they couldn't have maintained control. There were just too few Aryans for the Nazis to administer the globe. We need to think our foes were threats in order to make our wars seem more heroic.

Posted by: oj at August 6, 2006 8:25 AM

Matt, The Soviets lasted more than 50 years because they were propped up by world opinion, not because they had either the might or the right. We could have rolled over their tanks in 1956 and it would have been over, but since the movers and shakers here and abroad wanted the Soviet system to take over the world, we didn't move against them.

The Nazis couldn't have last much longer they did. They were out of supplies and men and were roundly hated. The peasants in Eastern Europe, having the Communists and the Czar off their backs, would have risen up to oust the Nazis and build free societies much like they're doing now.

Anything might have been possible. Instead millions were slaughtered.

Posted by: erp at August 6, 2006 4:20 PM

they were propped up by the Cold War. If we'd walked away they'd have fallen faster.

Posted by: oj at August 6, 2006 4:25 PM


I think you're underestimating the impact of brute force here and the horrible methods used to keep people in line. The Soviets kept Eastern Europe for fifty years and their economic system was a running joke. I think an awful lot of that can be chalked up to sheer brutality, in addition to the usual fellow travellers in the West and public concerns about nuclear war (which surely, to some extent, held back American willingness to confront the Soviets).

I'm also struck by the expectation that oppressed peoples would have risen up against the Nazis and overthrown them. The Nazis shot entire villages for things that wouldn't land an American in jail for a single evening. We already know they had no objection to wiping out entire categories of people who opposed them, and they already had the weapons and the territory. How would revolutions of this kind have taken place? Doesn't it make more sense to assume they would've occurred at a distant date when the Nazi ideology perhaps eased up a little and, like the Soviets, they were no longer willing to shoot the people who opposed them? Whatever else one can say, that definitely wasn't the case in the 1940s.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 11:17 PM

Nowhere was more battered than Warsaw and it rose up.

Posted by: oj at August 6, 2006 11:30 PM


See above. Also, why wouldn't the Nazis have been able to hold most of Europe and at least the European portion of the Soviet Union if Britain and America ducked out of the fight?

What's really intriguing is that your position is almost precisely parallel to that of John Lukacs: He too says the Soviets were no real threat and we'd have been better off ignoring them. So why the schizo policy of criticizing Lukacs for his criticism of Ronald Reagan's defense buildup? Shouldn't that by rights be your position?

Also, you said we should've stayed out of the Cold War, but aren't you the guy who says we ought to have duked it out with Russia at the end of World War II, instead of spending fifty years alternately loosening and tightening the screws before their basketcase polity finally heard the voices that told them to kill themselves?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 11:42 PM


The Poles are an endearingly tough people but one can't ignore that ultimately Warsaw was razed to the ground.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 11:43 PM


Also, that was with the Soviet troops at their backs, or so they believed.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 11:45 PM

PS Apologies to both of you for these late replies: Work (Even on Sundays!) keeps me from quick replies.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 6, 2006 11:50 PM

There weren't enough Germans to administer the captive population.

Yes, we should have ended the Soviet Union immediately, rather than engaged in a Cold War. Reagan came to office intent on ending the Cold War, which he viewed as immoral, and succeeded.

Posted by: oj at August 6, 2006 11:52 PM


Maybe not for the captive population. The dead population, on the other hand, would have provided the Nazis with considerably fewer problems. Unfortunately, Hitler was quite capable of turning captive people into dead people.

Wasn't the whole Cold War an attempt to heckle the Soviets and reveal their weaknesses? Granted, the expectation of collapse was frequently missing amidst calls for "containment," but if anything Reagan cranked up the pressure cooker, at least before Gorbachev changed the scenario somewhat.

Okay, as you have stated that we would have been wise to avoid World War II, I'm intrigued as to what you believe we should have done instead. Should we have avoided an embargo of Japan, even though -- considering their appalling behavior in China -- it was the right thing to do? Should we have ignored Hitler's declaration of war against our nation? I know you think we should've just continued marching against the Soviets, but how were we supposed to do that when the American people were tired of war and would have thought the whole idea was crazy? Personally, I'd wager that if Harry Truman had hypothetically done such a thing he would have been impeached.

Realistically, how could we have avoided this war?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 7, 2006 12:57 AM


No, he wasn't. They could barely exterminate the Jews and, indeed, failed to do so.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2006 7:49 AM


Yes, the point being that we stopped them before they could finish their evil works.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 7, 2006 3:03 PM

No. Our defeating them was incidental. No one cared about the exterminations. The Nazis just couldn't perform them very efficiently.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2006 4:00 PM

Matt, what you can't see is that even though Hitler was a very bad actor and he could have done quite a bit of harm before he ran out muscle and materiel, he wasn't even on the same planet as Stalin.

How could we have stayed out of it? FDR did a good job of keeping us out of it while Hitler and Stalin were pals, so if he didn't have the agenda as described above, he would have kept us out of it until it was over. As for Hitler declaring war on us. He wouldn't have done so had FDR taken steps to avoid the Japanese "sneak" attack.

Things aren't always what the seem.

Posted by: erp at August 7, 2006 6:15 PM


It may have been incidental or secondary, but we did put a stop to it. I think the Nazis could have essentially wiped out the European Jewish population had they not decided to keep some of them alive for slave labor (and, of course, whether killed or escaped, there aren't too many Jews left in Europe anymore). If the Nazis possessed more time -- think of the fictional, futuristic Nazi Germany from the novel Fatherland -- they'd have finished it. Shooting captive people simply isn't hard to do for people who have some barbaric ideology to back up their utter lack of a conscience.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 7, 2006 7:56 PM


I can't believe I'm being placed in the position of defending FDR's record on communism, but I agree with OJ that he was a dupe but not a traitor. It's important to remember that pursuing policies that have some abysmal result is not irrefutable evidence of malign intent. In FDR's case, I think he was simply naive about the Soviet Union and thought too much of his supposed ability to schmooze Joseph Stalin into compliance. This comes through with blinding clarity when you read the notes he was writing to Churchill at the time.

In what ways do you believe FDR could have avoided Pearl Harbor?

This book does a good job of arguing that Hitler and Stalin were quite similar figures in terms of destructive potential.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 7, 2006 8:08 PM


Actually it's almost impossible to shoot them. That's why the Nazis hat to find other means. Even then, with German efficiency and technology, they couldn't wipe out the Jews who no one cared about. But you imagine them wiping out all the rest of the peoples of Europe. As I say, it's strange how much faith conservatives have in the functionality of Nazism, Communism and Islamicism.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2006 8:48 PM


But they clearly didn't want to wipe out the Jews all at once, whatever their rhetoric indicated. They were content to use some of them as slave labor until they were no longer "useful." I know personal stories are frequently useless, but I am acquainted with a pair of married Holocaust survivors, and as I recall that was how both of them struggled through while still holding their lives (although one of them did spend some time at Auschwitz and I believe one other death camp, as opposed to a work camp). It seems that way with most of those who made it.

Perhaps you're surprised at my opinions in this area, but I'm surprised at your belief that if we'd backed off and Hitler had 10 to 20 years to kill the Jews, he would still have failed. The Allied ensured that Hitler's time was limited and he still essentially ended the Jewish presence in Europe, just as he'd always planned. That thought makes me angry but there's no escaping it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 8, 2006 2:19 AM


No. They did want to--were't capable. It's harder than folks think.

Posted by: oj at August 8, 2006 8:08 AM


The Nazis killed two-thirds of the European Jewish population in the span of a few years -- it strains credulity to imagine that a significant proportion of the other one-third would have remained alive if Hitler had, say, 10 more years.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 9, 2006 11:29 PM

Not as much as it strains credulity to imagine him lasting ten more years.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2006 12:02 AM


If the Soviets and their creaky economic system could hold onto Eastern Europe for a half-century, surely Hitler could have lasted for one-fifth of that time period -- especially if Britain and America weren't fighting him, as you appear to propose.

I think a lot of people in the 1930s understandably saw Hitler as a buffoon and concluded he wouldn't be around all that long anyway. Assuming that Hitler couldn't actually stick around for the long haul proved to be a critical error.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 10, 2006 1:03 AM

Yes, but they couldn't have had we not saved them and propped them up and even then they never gained a foot of soil in Europe after the war and had to more or less stop systematically killing the internal population because they'd already bitten off more than they could chew.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2006 7:06 AM


My apologies for the late reply.

The nuclear standoff served as a nice deterrent for further European adventures, no? They contented themselves with crushing a rebellion now and then in their own backyard. Admittedly, your first point is probably true if you're referring to our World War II alliance with them.

The point is their system didn't work but it did manage to stick around for a while. It helped them that the military conflicts in the Cold War were peripheral, in the sense that we weren't confronting the Soviets directly.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 5:28 AM

Ask a Pole, a Cuban or a Cambodian if it worked.

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2006 7:51 AM


Economically, no. It certainly "worked" in the sense that, for a time, it kept innocent people in slavery -- indeed, my whole point is that in doing such it managed to survive for 50 years despite all its other faults. But a goal like that is dysfunctional and wouldn't correspond to what most clear-thinking people would consider a working society.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 6:48 PM


One other thought -- You yourself have said that Nazism didn't work and also that it was very similar to communism. If you look at it from that perspective I think you'll understand what I meant.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 6:51 PM


Yes, if your point is really that the nuclear standoff successfully kept tens of millions of innocent people in slavery for fifty years then I agree it worked. That's what I meant by it not working though.

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2006 7:03 PM


Okay, not to belabor this overextended discussion, but let's do a brief backtrack: When you suggested that I ask someone who lived under communism whether it worked, what you do suppose they would say?

My point was that it didn't work, which is why I'm surprised you posed this question -- I don't think most people who lived under communism would say otherwise.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 10:42 PM


Excuse my word flippage, I meant: What do you suppose they would say?

Preview is my pal.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 10:44 PM

No, you said that the nuclear stalemate worked. tens of millions of dead, fifty years of hundreds of millions of slaves, a permanent war state in America and horrific social decay as a result suggest otherwise.

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2006 10:49 PM


Whoa, back up. Where did I say the stalemate worked in the usual sense of that word? All I said about it was it kept people in slavery and that doesn't fit the usual definition of a working policy. I also said it kept the Soviets from further European adventures, which seems undeniable; of course, on the flipside, that also hindered us from moving in the opposite direction.

I have no idea what I would've done about this situation or how it could've been altered, but I'm certainly not happy with any of the consequences you describe and I think we suffered tremendous damage for it. Of course, we were victorious in the end but that hardly suggests that things went swimmingly for those 50 years.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 11:31 PM



The nuclear standoff served as a nice deterrent for further European adventures, no? [...]

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 12, 2006 5:28 AM

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2006 11:36 PM

Think the Poles, Cambodians, Nicaraguans, Ugandans, etc. thought the stalemate worked nicely?

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2006 11:37 PM


No, they probably wouldn't use that word and I wouldn't expect them too. Keep in mind, however, that I'm focusing on further Soviet expansion in Europe after World War II. The absence of such expansion was an upside, but as I noted the downside was that Eastern Europe was kept behind the Iron Curtain. Even policies that don't actually work can have certain advantages.

Those western Europeans who weren't communists or fellow-traveling leftists would probably note, quite sensibly, that these circumstances preserved their freedom.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 13, 2006 2:53 AM

Yes, but you're wrong. Further expansion would have toppled them quicker.

Posted by: oj at August 13, 2006 9:00 AM


That's an awfully large bet to lose. Letting your opponent simply go in and take whatever he wants isn't exactly a winning geopolitical strategy. And it's difficult to envision how that could be said to work.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 13, 2006 8:26 PM

Yes, it obviously would have been better to simply chamnge the regime. The standoff was just the worst of the three.

Posted by: oj at August 13, 2006 8:43 PM


So I'm stuck examining the mind-bending implications of your statements that 1.) We should have "walked away" from the Cold War and presumably any conflict with the Soviets, and 2.) We should have, somehow, forcibly ended the Soviet regime.

Is this some kind of koan?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 13, 2006 11:00 PM

No. We should have stayed out of WWII. Having gotten in we had to take out stalin or it was pointless. If we weren't willing to we should have come home and ignored him. The worst option was propping the soviets up for fifty years.

Posted by: oj at August 13, 2006 11:21 PM


Betcha the Jews and at least the western Europeans didn't feel it was pointless.

Stalin was the leader of an evil, expansionist system whose dialectic was to destroy us -- it's hard to ignore that. It's also telling that the people who thought we should leave the Soviets alone (excepting odd folks like Howard Buffett, father of Warren and isolationist libertarian congressman from Omaha) were fellow-travellers of various kinds. Not many folks who weren't already enamored of the Soviets figured they were harmless to our interests.

I'm not sure how leaving them alone would have been a great option but resisting them in various ways was actually propping up their system.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 13, 2006 11:36 PM

The East Europeans do. A few million Jews don't. Tens of millions of Cambodians, Cubans, etc. do.

Posted by: oj at August 13, 2006 11:48 PM


Maybe so, but blaming a war-weary nation for not immediately launching a full-scale military assault on the Soviet Union isn't reasonable (although it's certainly an understandable impulse if you're on the wrong side of the divide). Harry Truman probably would've been impeached had he so much as suggested it.

And, failing in that, you think we should've walked away altogether -- a pointless gesture almost by definition.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 14, 2006 12:05 AM

Easy enough to manufacture a pretext and we had two atomic weapons.

Posted by: oj at August 14, 2006 8:05 AM


Of course, some of our wars were fought on manufactured pretexts, but you'd need a big one to justify attempting to wipe out another country, and in a republic the truth tends to come out eventually.

I agree that our possession of a-bombs gave us major leverage at war's end: Too bad so many traitorous nuclear scientists were passing along our secrets.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 14, 2006 10:29 PM

No, all were. All you needed was to let Patton make contact with them and you had a war. Recall that FDR covered up the Katyn Massacre because he realized it was cause enough for us to fight the USSR. But LeMay would have ended it before it started.

Posted by: oj at August 14, 2006 11:30 PM


All our wars result from manufactured pretexts? Well, the Civil War was correctly proclaimed as a fight to keep the Union together. The morality angle largely developed later.

There was no way we were going to fight the Soviets because of Katyn Forest. The American government downplayed the atrocity because Roosevelt wanted to present the Soviets as heroic resisters of the Nazis and public knowledge of Katyn definitely would have undercut the approved viewpoint (not to mention agitating Polish-Americans and the exiled Polish government). Plenty of Americans thought we were focusing too much war attention on Nazi Germany and, while we didn't always know the full extent of their actions, it's not as if we were unaware of their depravities.

Of course, it is almost a tautology that a war would've started had we let Patton attack the Soviets or General Jack D. Ripper bomb them. But keeping a war going would have required a pretext, and Katyn wouldn't have been one.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 15, 2006 12:39 AM

Publicize Katyn, send Patton forward, let LeMay bomb away. Wars are easy to start in a democracy.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2006 1:01 AM


You've probably heard the quote from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that all wars are popular for the first 30 days in a democracy. That's true for most wars, anyway, but not one directly on the heels of another. America had been fighting this one for over three years and the public wasn't going to support a full-frontal assault on yet another enemy right after we'd finally subdued the Nazis.

People might have relished George C. Scott's magnificent portrayal of Patton's bravado a quarter-century later, but I suspect most people also sympathized with Eisenhower for canning him. We're weren't seriously going to turn around and fight those guys -- not without a darn good threat to our immediate interests.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 15, 2006 1:20 AM

Then why'd the war with Japan continue? Why'd the Cold War start right away? No one sympathized with canning Patton or McArthur.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2006 7:40 AM


That too was part of World War II. You don't really think we were going to let the Japanese slink away considering what they did at Pearl Harbor? I'm sure you're aware that lots of American fighting men wanted to fight them and not the Nazis.

Just because we weren't attacking the Soviets outright doesn't mean we had let our guard down, particularly not against a form of government that saw our destruction as historically inevitable.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 15, 2006 11:39 PM

No, but I'm not the one who maintains we were exhausted and ready to stop fighting. Americans would rather have fought the Russians than the Germans.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2006 12:02 AM


Not psyched to directly take on another evil empire doesn't mean exhausted. Anyway, we were going to keep fighting Japan no matter how exhausted we were: They were toast the moment they picked a fight with us.

Somehow get Russia to declare war on us, like the Germans did, and your second statement admittedly becomes true. But we weren't going to openly make the first move. It was tough enough getting people on board with the Germans declaring war on us, and Russia never went that far.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 16, 2006 12:53 AM

So were Germany and Russia toast, that's the point.

Just push the army forward to clear the Soviets out of Eastern Germany, Polanmd, etc., and you've got your war, nevermind drop Fat Man or Little Boy in Moscow.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2006 9:02 AM


Sure you've got a war, until the public busts a gasket and Congress hands Truman a bus ticket back to Missouri.

There's an easy way to confirm this: Round up some World War II vets and people who were alive at that time, and ask them how they would have felt about this. Try to pick some reasonably honest people who haven't recently downed a few cold ones. Be sure to mention the part about nuking Moscow. Think they'd be enthused?

I predict if I got my grandfather on the phone right now we'd burn five minutes before he figured out I was seriously asking him this.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 16, 2006 8:55 PM

Of course, we established a narrative after we deserted Eastern Europe. You think he's going to say, "Sure, we could have saved 100 million lives, $5 Trillion, and prevented the 70s but chose not to?"

Nuke Moscow and it's over. No Party, no USSR.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2006 9:02 PM


So imagine yourself back in time talking to people in 1945. Tell them once we've finished Hitler, we'll attack the Russians in the absence of immediate provocation, invade Eastern Europe, and nuke Moscow. Think they'd be enthused? And if not, how likely is it that any leader who proposed such things would gain any traction?

It's inconceivable that my grandfather or most anybody else (except General Patton, who had a screw loose) was seriously entertaining thoughts like these at the time. Everyone knew the Soviets were duplicitous and they proved that soon enough, but people back then also didn't know how it would turn out or what kind of damage the Soviets would do. It is relatively easy to look back years later and say we should've avoided all that with one decisive action, but gee, who doesn't think such things about all kinds of historical occurrences?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 17, 2006 2:09 AM

Tell them? Why? They don't get a say or we wouldn't have been in Europe to begin with. the GI's doing the fighting opposed the war in Europe.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2006 11:35 AM


As I suggested earlier, imagine yourself asking ordinary citizens as well as GIs. Their answers would reflect the national mood. I suspect almost nobody would support the concept, which is why it was not proposed.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 17, 2006 7:34 PM

No one asked--that's why they fought.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2006 8:38 PM


The American people got a say and while they elected plenty of Republicans in 1942 (back when the loyal opposition didn't write surrender platforms into campaign statements), they re-elected Roosevelt in 1944.

If public sentiment against war with Germany had been truly overwhelming and not just the sort of dissatisfied talk people expressed in taverns, it would have produced tangible and obvious effects on how we prosecuted the war. It would've been the same way with a hypothetical attack on the Soviet Union, only this time the public really would've thought that was crazy. Nobody would need to ask them -- they would've told you. Our leaders weren't about to do anything that would get them labelled insane and then booted from office.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 18, 2006 1:54 AM

It led directly to the election results in '42. FDR still went to war with Germany.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2006 8:50 AM


Sure, people were upset about the course of the war and vented their frustration, a common event in American history (recall that battlefield success occurred just in time to save Abraham Lincoln from possible abandonment by his own party). Hold that election a few months earlier in 1942 and perhaps the GOP takes over the House. That's hardly a repudiation of the war with Germany, especially since Americans re-elected an ailing Roosevelt two years later (here's a Wikipedia illustration of the vote -- definitely not an overwhelming Roosevelt win but comfortable nonetheless).

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 18, 2006 9:40 PM

No, they couldn't take the Congress with the racists still Democrats. But conservatives did takje over in the '42 election. Didn't matter. War isn't democratic.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2006 9:51 PM


Sure it is, that's why we have civilian control of the military. Running a war ineptly, or at least appearing to do so, will have political consequences.

You yourself have occasionally written about the mistaken notion that war always assists the party in power, when history demonstrates otherwise. Politicians of all stripes are constantly taking into account public opinion; they definitely aren't going to forget it when deciding whether or not to launch an attack on another nation, nevermind drop the kaboom on their capital. Barry Goldwater learned what happens when you talk this way, and that was when American-Soviet relations were awfully stormy.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 19, 2006 12:10 AM

We have civilian control or else the military would never fight. They're bureaucrats whose main interest is themselves.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2006 8:30 AM


Precisely, like many bureaucrats they care primarily about protecting their power and their jobs. It's easy to imagine the public outcry had we attacked Russia right after thwarting Hitler. Afterwards, an official investigation committee would have listed those responsible and gone on to either create a new bureaucracy or shift power somewhere else, so they could claim to have done something.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 19, 2006 6:37 PM

Yes, after the fact folks will decry every war. Would have been too late for Communism though and lives, money and society would have been saved.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2006 8:07 PM


Not after the fact, during the fact. The public would have screamed bloody murder. It's impossible to imagine oneself talking to people at this time and there being much support for this sort of action. Perhaps after the fact is when the reckoning would've come, but American leaders weren't going to attack Russia when they knew what the public response was likely to be.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 19, 2006 11:50 PM

Maybe scream. So what? Screaming never stops wars. You've fallen prey to Whiggism. A common enough affliction, but it precludes thought.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2006 11:56 PM


Whiggism? How? It's been a few years since I read The Whig Interpretation of History, but I don't think Herbert Butterfield had guys like me in mind for criticism.

What's surprising to me is that you fully recognize that when 70% of the country wants a subsidized drug plan even when aware of the cost, they'll get it, but that if probably over 90% of the public would very strongly oppose a war, you believe that would have no impact on whether we attacked a foreign country.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 20, 2006 3:37 AM

Like any good democrat and patriot you have to believe that History happened in the only way it could and we were right every step of the way.

No one votes against you for a war you already won.

Posted by: oj at August 20, 2006 8:43 AM


No, I think we've done plenty of bad things. (Although I certainly think any fair appraisal would conclude that the good far outweighs the bad.) Besides, I already said that I'm unhappy with the course of the Cold War; I'm just not sure what I would've done differently. I wouldn't have been mashing "The Button" like it was a video game, however.

You seem to think this would be a fait accompli before the public could get upset about it. In other words, nothing goes wrong. You've got a version of this event set in your head and any deviation from that is bad.

Also, you're too tough on yourself in that last line. You too are obviously a good patriot who thinks America has done a lot of good -- in fact, your personal slant on it is to dream of ways things could've turned out even better.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 21, 2006 6:47 PM

Quite. We aren't bad, we could always do better. Seldom were the better options more obvious.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 6:53 PM


Yes, there were all sorts of alternative ways of dealing with the Soviets that appear obvious in hindsight. Holding our ancestors to that standard, however, is stretching it -- and that's assuming it's a good idea. Note that basically only Patton and Lemay were supporting your proposal. The Zeitgeist wasn't there.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 21, 2006 7:33 PM

No, that's the beauty of being a conservative is that the men of the Right advocated the superior alternatives then too.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 7:50 PM


In 1945? Who were they? Albert Jay Nock was a pacifist, and there weren't all that many men of the Right back then anyway. Besides, they were viewed as eccentric losers, and nobody listened to them anyway.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 21, 2006 8:14 PM

Taft, Nock, Mencken, etc.

Patton, LeMay, etc.

Yes, it's too bad there were so few, allowing for the worst course to be followed.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 8:41 PM


As noted, Nock was a pacifist. Taft was an isolationist who disliked NATO, and Mencken was not a conservative but a libertarian. I doubt any of them would have supported a direct attack on the Soviets. It wasn't going to be a valid option with only Patton and Lemay supporting it. There was virtually no enthusiasm for such a move or even serious consideration of it, either in or out of policymaking circles. Some governments might have done something like this, but not ours, and not most other governments accountable to the voters in some manner.

You are proposing a concept that was theoretically accessible but not practically available, and essentially judging past leaders for lacking the hindsight we have today. Even with that knowledge, most people would have thought it was crazy.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 21, 2006 9:35 PM