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The Causes and Consequences of World War II, Part 2


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World War II was not a war between freedom and tyranny. Rather it was a conflict between alternative systems of collectivism. By the 1930s, there was not one major country devoted to and practicing the principles of classical liberalism — the political philosophy of individual liberty, free-market capitalism and free trade. Regardless of the particular variation on the collectivist theme, practically every government in the world had or was implementing some form of economic planning and restricting the personal and commercial freedoms of its own citizenry.

In the Soviet Union, the state owned and controlled all of the resources and means of production of the society. Production and distribution were directed by the central-planning agencies in Moscow. In fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, property and resources remained nominally in private hands, but the use and disposal of that property and those resources were controlled and directed according to the dictates of the state. In Great Britain, free trade and the gold standard had been abandoned in the early 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression. Protectionism, interventionism, welfare-statism and monetary manipulation were the active policy-tools of the British government.

Throughout Europe and the rest of the world, the various nation-states had erected tariff barriers, regulated industry and agriculture, limited the free movement of their people, and restricted civil liberties.

The United States followed the same course. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was a conscious and active attempt to impose a fascist type of economic order on America. And even after much of the New Deal had been declared unconstitutional in 1935, the Roosevelt administration continued on the collectivist road with economic regulation, deficit-spending, public works, welfare-statism, and monetary central-planning through the Federal Reserve System.

Indeed, outside of the Soviet Union, the competing collectivisms were merely different forms of economic and political fascism. The common denominators of all of them were economic nationalism, government control of the economy, and political absolutism. And this applied to the United States as well. As John T. Flynn concisely expressed it in his 1944 book As We Go Marching, the only difference is whether one thought of these policies as “the bad fascism” or “the good fascism,” with the distinction being determined by whether it was some other government carrying out these policies or one’s own.

The totalitarian regimes in Germany and Italy had merely taken the collectivist premise to its logical conclusion. It was for this reason that Friedrich A. Hayek entitled his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, a book in which he demonstrated that the road being followed by England and the United States was the same one travelled by Germany. The only difference, Hayek observed, was that Nazi Germany was further along that road.

Economic nationalism requires that each nation-state has within its boundaries a territory sufficiently large to assure economic self-sufficiency. Hitler’s drive for “living room” for the German people epitomized this doctrine. Instead of the Marxian concept of society divided into “social classes,” Hitler divided the world into “racial groups,” the Germans being classified by him as the superior racial group. Nationalism also means that the individual possesses neither significance nor value other than in his assigned role in serving the state, with the state being the political agent for the collective’s power and destiny.

And what were the British motives for resisting the Nazi quest for conquest? Speaking about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Winston Churchill rejoiced: “No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States on our side was to be the greatest joy … England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live.” No reference is made here to liberty or property, to the sanctity of the individual, and the limiting of government. The preservation of “the nation” and “the empire” was what mattered to him. Indeed, Churchill’s political philosophy was reflected in the early 1930s, when he declared that if Britain ever found itself in the position that Italy and Germany had found themselves in after the First World War, he only hoped that Britain would find its Mussolini or Hitler to guide it.

And Churchill’s disregard for the rights of other peoples and other nations was demonstrated by his advocacy of a British invasion of neutral Norway in the early spring of 1940. Of course, Hitler beat the British to that act by only a week. But only then did the invasion of a neutral country become a morally despicable act in Churchill’s eyes. His disregard for other people’s freedom was also reflected at a wartime conference with Stalin in Moscow, at which he offered to divide up the Balkan area of southeastern Europe between Britain and the Soviet Union. He even made up a percentage table of degrees-of-influence Britain and the U.S.S.R. would have in each of the countries up for grabs.

And World War II was a godsend for Franklin Roosevelt. Having set out to give America a “New Deal,” unemployment was still hovering around fifteen percent by 1937 and 1938. And disillusionment was setting in among the American people as the levels of government spending and budget deficits kept getting larger and larger.

But Roosevelt now had another chance: he would give the world a “New Deal.” He put on Woodrow Wilson’s mantle of leadership to make the world safe for democracy. And he was surrounded by advisors who saw the world’s salvation through welfare-statism and government planning.

The problem, however, was that most Americans did not want to be either the world’s policeman or its global social engineer.

But Roosevelt had made up his mind about what was good for America and its citizenry. So, he set out to bring America into the war. The evidence of this is so strong that both pro- and anti-Roosevelt historians admit the fact that he violated constitutional restraints and broke congressionally passed neutrality acts to create conditions inevitably leading to America’s entry into the Second World War. The only dispute now is an interpretive one — was it or was it not a good thing that he did so?

And all the time, Stalin sat in the wings. By signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler — a pact that divided up Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union — he had made possible Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939. Even after the German invasion of the Soviet Union — when the Soviet Union was then the ally of Britain and the U.S. — Stalin was putting out feelers for a separate peace with Hitler. Hitler was just unwilling to pay Stalin’s price for that peace.

And at the wartime conferences at Teheran and Yalta with Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin made sure that in the bright and better world at the end of the war, the Soviet Union would be assured domination of the European continent. In fact, at the Teheran Conference in 1943, Roosevelt even suggested that after the war, the governments of Eastern Europe should all be “friendly” to the Soviet Union. He merely asked Stalin not to make this public — 1944 was an election year, and Roosevelt did not want to lose the Polish vote. The Marxist butcher who had killed tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union was thus given a free hand in half of Europe. What did Roosevelt want in return? That Stalin agree to have the Soviet Union join the United Nations and work with the U.S. for world peace!

In this assortment of “allies” and “enemies,” the advocate of liberty could find no champion. The “bad fascists” were busy at work in their death camps in Poland and Germany. The “good fascists” were busy at work firebombing civilian targets all over Germany and raining mass destruction on the Japanese. And the “well-intentioned” communists in the Soviet Union were busy charting their course to subjugate Eastern Europe and vast stretches of Asia, as the next steps to world Marxist victory.

For a second time in the 20th century, the world had been plunged into a global conflict. And for a second time, surrounded by mass destruction and millions of corpses, the living believed that a better world would now rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Their hopes were to be dashed almost immediately. The Cold War was about to begin. And liberty was again about to be sacrificed on the altar of the state.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).