Peace Lecturer Questions Need of World War II

Article courtesy Bluffton University

BLUFFTON, Ohio—The necessity of World War II isn’t as clear-cut as widely believed, Bluffton University’s Keeney Peace Lecturer told a campus audience Oct. 25.

EMU Professor Ted Grimsrud
EMU Professor Ted Grimsrud

The reasons often given for American involvement in the war raise complicated questions, said Ted Grimsrud, PhD, professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University. But unjust means were certainly used to wage the war, he asserted, citing bombing of civilians that inflated the conflict’s tremendous cost in lives lost. And it continues to cast “a long shadow” in terms of consequences for the United States, he said.

Providing an alternative narrative, though, are the roughly 12,000 conscientious objectors who performed alternative service during the war, noted Grimsrud. As servants—and, in some cases, transformers who later addressed social change—they strengthened organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee and the Catholic Worker Movement, he said.

Pointing to a death toll estimated at up to 80 million, most of them civilians, Grimsrud called World War II “the biggest catastrophe to ever befall humanity.” But the war has generally been viewed as necessary, a conclusion he disputed.

“Many people insist this is just a no-brainer,” said the former Mennonite pastor. Others see moral complexity but, all things—particularly the Holocaust—considered, believe it had to be fought, he added.

Grimsrud argued, however, that facts don’t necessarily support reasons put forth for going to war at the time, namely to maintain national autonomy, protect democracy against totalitarianism and save the Jews.

Neither Germany nor Japan was interested in invading and trying to conquer the U.S., according to the professor. Both countries knew the difficulty of such an undertaking and wanted to dominate only their respective regions of the world, he maintained.

The notion of the need to protect democracy was complicated in large part by America’s alliance with England, which ruled a colonial empire in opposition to people’s right to self-determination, and with the communist Soviet Union, which, under Stalin, was “as far from democracy” as any nation, Grimsrud said.

The Holocaust question was complex as well, he continued, explaining that while then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said that was why the U.S. was fighting, his war policies ignored it. “Nothing was done to stop the Holocaust as it was happening,” said Grimsrud. And demanding unconditional surrender by the Nazis delayed the war’s end, allowing them to continue the genocide for months, he added.

Although acknowledging the explanation may be “simplistic,” he suggested the war effort was sustained by other factors, including U.S.-Japanese imperialist conflict over the Far East, German undermining of American corporate interests and growing U.S. awareness of its potential for world economic and military dominance.

Early in the war, the U.S. urged noncombatant immunity—one standard for judging if the means used in warfare are just, Grimsrud noted. That changed, though, by 1943, when air attacks intentionally incinerated everything in their path for the first time, he said. Hamburg, Germany, was hit that July, sending displaced residents to work in suburban weapons plants where they helped the German war effort by alleviating a labor shortage, he pointed out.

All reluctance to strike civilians was gone, he continued, by early 1945, when Dresden, Germany, was bombed in February and Tokyo in March. A bombing campaign ensued across Japan over the next five months before the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Debate continues about the military necessity of those bombs,” which killed, whether immediately or eventually, hundreds of thousands of Japanese, Grimsrud said. “However, they clearly violated the ‘just means’ criteria of proportionality and noncombatant immunity.”

The surge in wide-scale bombing—considered a war crime by some—had a major impact on warfare in following years, he added. Total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. rose to about 6.7 million tons during the Vietnam War, nearly double the 3.4 million tons unleashed during World War II, he noted.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘We won, so it’s worth it,’” said Grimsrud, recounting not only the death toll but also the “tens of millions” injured and driven from their homes, and the environmental damage wrought.

The war’s legacy went much further, however. Among the Allies’ goals, as stated in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, were postwar disarmament and expansion of the right of self-determination to all people. Grimsrud said. But the result, he said, was “abject failure” in central Europe, where communism spread rather than democracy, and even in the U.S., where President Franklin Roosevelt, feeling constrained by the Constitution, had taken war action without congressional consent or public knowledge. After the war, the nation didn’t demobilize, as it had following previous wars, but instead became “a national security state” with the Pentagon at the center of power in the federal government, according to Grimsrud.

Both a small military and congressional declarations of war were “gone forever” by 1945, the professor said, and two years later, the U.S. was locked into the Cold War by the Truman Doctrine. “The past 65 years are a litany of one Truman Doctrine-inspired intervention after another,” including the 1991 Gulf War, which could have been avoided diplomatically but instead represented a lost chance for ongoing peace after the Soviet empire dissolved, he said.

Grimsrud concluded with an allusion to the visions of the Beast and the Lamb in Revelation 13 and 14. “The beastly power of militarism seems an overwhelming legacy of World War II,” he said. “But we may draw hope from the Lamb-like witness of those who opposed that war and whose inspiration has rippled down through the years and empowered an alternative legacy of nonviolent peacemaking.”

Bluffton’s Keeney Peace Lectureship was established in 1978 by the family of William Sr. and Kathryn Keeney to express appreciation for Bluffton’s influence and to strengthen the continuing peace witness among the community.

Discussion on “Peace Lecturer Questions Need of World War II

  1. I have had many history teachers tell me that we needed World War II to get us out of the Great Depression. According to them the war created many needed jobs for civillians. However, I think our country may be too quick to jump on the band wagon for war. Careful though and reasoning needs to take place before we risk everything for war. The United States now is worn out from war. I doubt these wars will end in my lifetime and I am only 20 years old. We seem to have gotten ourselves stuck in our current wars, it’s like we are not moving forward or back.

  2. For a gripping fictional account of this period’s complexities, read David Downing’s WWII thriller series: ZOO STATION, STETTIN STATION, SILESIAN STATION, and POTSDAM STATION. They’re not overtly theological (beyond a tip of the hat to Martin Niemoller), but they demonstrate that none of the warring parties had clean hands.

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