Security and the Lessons of World War II

When George Bush presided over the passage of the Patriot Act, Americans were treated to a number of assertions about the necessity of preparedness. Such an act, in time of emergency we were told, was essential to protect against hostiles ever vigilant in the prosecution of mayhem, and history was to be our guide.

Conservative pundits and personalities the media over subsequently touched only lightly, if ever, on issues of liberty, constitutionality, and limited government. The great body of the conservative chorus sings of the lessons of history. Among the most sacrosanct are those supposedly drawn from World War II.

Early invocations against the global manifestation of evil saw in every third world despot an aspiring Hitler. A world thus filled with enemies required the mobilization of forces both domestic and international. As a result, America got a massive act of thousands of pages the implications of which no one really understood and which has been continuously amended and renewed.

Lo and behold how surprised the Right was when the Administration of another political party assumed the helm and began to avail itself of these newly concentrated powers and simply raised the question of right-wing extremism.  The problem, though, was not with the act itself apparently, but only with its application. How sad. And perhaps even worse, is the degree to which derision and denigration are regularly heaped on those who dare raise questions of constitutionality or principle.

Now the current chief executive has signed yet another renewal of a policy that long preceded the Patriot Act, but which concentrated power every bit as much: The National Defense Resources Preparedness order—originally signed in 1950. In times of emergency, this order affirms the authority to seize all necessary resources within the nation. At least when this order was originally put forward, people had not yet considered the possibility of extending the definition of emergency so far as we do today.

In light of the War on Terror, a conflict without foreseeable end and for which there can be no clear demarcation of boundaries, this policy has about it all the characteristics, not of emergency, but of normal operating procedure. And is the Right protesting? No. Where is the conservative commentariat?  The frog rests comfortably in its pot …

I suspect one reason for such complacency is the mantra: “The Lessons of World War II.”

Fearful that we will be ”once more” caught off guard, we assert anything defense related as entirely reasonable. After all, is not the great exception to limited government, defense? Is not security the necessary, if not the fundamental duty, of government? But if you are worried that we might have gone too far, remember World War II! Remember Neville Chamberlain! Never ever give them an inch.

But there are other lessons too.

In my last post I suggested that we may have extended ourselves a bit too much onto the world stage. Surely one lesson of World War II worthy of consideration, is not to engage in multiple fronts at a time! Well, you might say, that applies only to the bad guys. America is different. We fought the badies on multiple fronts then, and we can do so now. But unless you want to assert that we can spend with abandon on both domestic and foreign programs without end, that seems naive in the extreme—not to say unhistorical

But if that doesn’t convince you, another lesson might be to constrain what we call an emergency. Let us not forget the great weakness of the Weimar Constitution: Article 48 was the section that allowed the president of the German government to suspend all fundamental rights in time of danger. I suggest people look it up and compare the wording of our emergency measures with the words of this provision.

Oh, but you say, this is America—nasty things can’t happen here. We are different. OK, but then, is this an historical argument, or the assertion of divine favor? I would suggest we, as Americans, are who we are because of the protections we once defended in law. If we aren’t defending them anymore, do we remain the same people?

Indeed, let us think deeply on the lessons of World War II, but then let us also ask, are we paying attention to the right ones?

9 thoughts on “Security and the Lessons of World War II

  1. “Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Herman Göring

    1. Can we get away from the stupid, and naive idea that the bad old politicians make victims of the Common People, because it’s usually the other way around.
      The Common People spend a lot of their time, demanding action for one bad event after another, from the 9/11 attacks to Darfour, then getting mad when the cost grows too painful in personal or monetary terms.

      The US Government is just the leadership, after all, and it doesn’t dream threats out of nothing, nor does it respond to events that threaten nothing. In a dangerous world, the politicians mainly chose which threat is greatest, most likely, and one where the use of Force might tip the outcome.

      Over the last 23 years since 1989, the US has toppled or destroyed, 28 nations.
      16 in the old Eastern Europe by Bush Senior, and 12 by the Bush Doctrine in the Arab world. Whatever percentage becomes democratic hardly matters, they are NOT arranging for our demise in the meantime.

      All in all, I think our politicians have performed admirably, and I think the US is the ONLY Nation that can MIX up the national Majong tiles like this. We had great luck doing the same for Eastern Europe. Let’s see if the Arab world won’t cut it’s own throat, or make us cut it for them.

  2. I agree with so much of what you say and imply. A couple of additional points:

    Americans are humans, just like the citizens of every other country in the world. What makes the United States exceptional is not the people, it is the founding and governing principles as embodied in the supreme law of the land, The US Constitution. As we abandon those principles we become a country like all others, as given to despotism and the absence of freedom as the worst in the world.

    The supporters of the Patriot Act and the expansion, or reassertion, of The National Defense Resources Preparedness order, talk of the obligation to provide for the security of the US and its citizens. These are but two tactical approaches to securing the nation. Few, if any, ever talk about retrenching back to our natural borders as a means to make ourselves more secure. No one speaks to the cost/benefit of reduced liberty in the name of security (save for the possible exception of Ron Paul). No one, to my knowledge, even deigns to examine the efficacy of such assertions of government control.

    It is right to question all of this, sadly that is being done by too few, especially among our “leaders”.

  3. In WWII, we spent 30% of GDP on the military at our peak, without bankruptcy. Today, we’re spending less than 5% of GDP on the military. Military spending is clearly not driving the USA to bankruptcy. Entitlement spending is. Go after entitlement spending, by all means.

    You seem to recognize the fallacy of the “lesson” of WWII being “don’t fight a multi-front war.” That was true for Germany, not true for the USA, due to geographical differences. America’s geography hasn’t changed much since.

    Congress can end the War on Terror anytime it wants, by repealing the AUMF it passed after 9/11, and/or by cutting off its funding. This will presumably happen once the Islamo-Fascist threat has been sufficiently neutralized.

    As for “retrenching to our natural borders,” how will that prevent, hostile regimes like Iran from building nukes, shipping them to US ports in shipping containers, and detonating them upon arrival?

  4. I strongly encourage people to explore the wonderful world of GDP calculations. All of them always include something of a variable called “G.” You decide if that is a problem. Meanwhile I will prepare a bill of sale to a certain bridge in Brooklyn.

  5. Tim Starr, the Russians did most of the fighting and dying in Europe and pretty much won the war themselves. If D-day had never happened, the Russians would still have been in Berlin the following summer. The bomb won the war in Japan. We were lucky to have the bomb and the Russians. That is the lesson we should draw from WWII

    When you ask how retrenching to our natural borders stop Iran from your Jack Baur/24 scenario, I would reply with the question, “how will having troops in everywhere, as we do now, stop Iran from the same scenario?”

    1. Oh come on this you know is not true. Russia would not have had a chance had it been just a one front war… and the same goes for the allies.

      1. After the Battle of Kursk in July of 1944, the Germans collapsed in the east. They had no ability to wage offensive war. I will grant that it was American material support that kept the Soviet war fighting machine going.

        As time marches on, few historians will say that Allied military operations in the west significantly hastened the collapse of Germany. Allied operations in North Africa and Italy were as punishing on the allies as they were on the Italians and Germans resulting in tactical victories but strategic washouts.

        Significant WWII historians such as John Keegan,-“The Second World War”, BH Liddell Hart,-“The German Generals Talk” and Norman Rich,-“Hitler’s War Aims” all readily admit that the Soviets did most of the heavy lifting. BH Liddell Hart interviewed many top German commanders after the war and their view of it is the same. The efficacy of America’s and Britain’s unique contribution, the strategic bombing of Germany, is even now being questioned by historians such as Randall Hansen in “Fire and Fury”.

        Recognizing these truths about WWII suggests, to me at least, that the key to victory and long run security is to focus on defense of the homeland while finding a proxy, like the soviets, to do your fighting and the dying whilst we provide material support.

  6. Yes, the Soviets did most of the ground fighting against the Nazis in Europe, but the Allies did most of the air-fighting, which was far more effective than you make out. (Going by the reviews of Hansen’s book, you misrepresent it, too). Stalin always wanted more supplies & more bombing raids by the Western allies. He never said he didn’t need them; quite the opposite, he said he couldn’t have won the war without them.

    The Bomb didn’t secure victory in Japan all by itself, either; Hirohito had to survive an attempted military coup d’etat AFTER Nagasaki in order to make his surrender broadcast. If it hadn’t been for prior demonstrations of conventional US military capability, more of the Japanese military might’ve taken part in the coup attempt, and it might have been successful.

    Sanctions on Iran, inspections of all shipping out of Iran, sabotage of its nuclear program, and assassinations of its nuclear scientists, are all things that are either already being done or must be done to prevent Iran from developing & using nukes against Israel/America/etc. Such measures are not consistent w/ non-interventionism. The only way out of it is to pretend that dictators who hate freedom so much they don’t allow it in their own countries and believe in hastening the advent of the Mahdi by destroying the Little and Great Satans are perfectly happy to peacefully co-exist w/ free countries like Israel/America/etc.

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