U.S. poster from 1953.
Excerpted from Leaving World War II Behind
Hitler was clearly preparing for war long before he started it. Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, annexed Austria, and threatened Czechoslovakia. High-ranking officials in the German military and “intelligence” plotted a coup. But Hitler gained popularity with every step he took, and the lack of any sort of opposition from Britain or France surprised and demoralized the coup plotters. The British government was aware of the coup plots and was aware of the plans for war, yet chose not to support political opponents of the Nazis, not to support the coup plotters, not to enter the war, not to threaten to enter the war, not to blockade Germany, not to get serious about ceasing to arm and supply Germany, not to uphold the Kellogg-Briand Pact through court proceedings like those that would happen after the war in Nuremberg but could have happened before the war (at least with defendants in absentia) over Italy’s attack on Ethiopia or Germany’s attack on Czechoslovakia, not to demand that the United States join the League of Nations, not to demand that the League of Nations act, not to propagandize the German public in support of nonviolent resistance, not to evacuate those threatened with genocide, not to propose a global peace conference or the creation of the United Nations, and not to pay any attention to what the Soviet Union was saying.
The Soviet Union was proposing a pact against Germany, an agreement with England and France to act together if attacked. England and France were not even slightly interested. The Soviet Union tried this approach for years and even joined the League of Nations. Even Poland was uninterested. The Soviet Union was the only nation that proposed to go in and fight for Czechoslovakia if Germany attacked it, but Poland — which ought to have known it was next in line for a Nazi assault — denied the Soviets passage to reach Czechoslovakia. Poland, later also invaded by the Soviet Union, may have feared that Soviet troops would not pass through it but occupy it. While Winston Churchill seems to have been almost eager for a war with Germany, Neville Chamberlain not only refused to cooperate with the Soviet Union or to take any violent or nonviolent step on behalf of Czechoslovakia, but actually demanded that Czechoslovakia not resist, and actually handed Czechoslovakian assets in England over to the Nazis. Chamberlain seems to have been on the side of the Nazis beyond what would have made sense in the cause of peace, a cause that the business interests he usually acted on behalf of did not completely share. For his part, Churchill was such an admirer of fascism that historians suspect him of later contemplating installing the Nazi-sympathizing Duke of Windsor as a fascist ruler in England, but Churchill’s more dominant inclination for decades seems to have been for war over peace.
The position of most of the British government from 1919 until the rise of Hitler and beyond was fairly consistent support for the development of a rightwing government in Germany. Anything that could be done to keep communists and leftists out of power in Germany was supported. Former British Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Party David Lloyd George on September 22, 1933, remarked: “I know there have been horrible atrocities in Germany and we all deplore and condemn them. But a country passing through a revolution is always liable to ghastly episodes owing to the administration of justice being seized here and there by an infuriated rebel.” If the Allied powers overthrew Nazism, Lloyd George warned, “extreme communism” would take its place. “Surely that cannot be our objective,” he remarked.[i]
So, that was the trouble with Nazism: a few bad apples! One must be understanding during times of revolution. And, besides, the British were tired of war after WWI. But the funny thing is that immediately upon the conclusion of WWI, when nobody could have possibly been more tired of war due to WWI, a revolution happened — one with its share of bad apples that could have been magnanimously tolerated: the revolution in Russia. When the Russian revolution happened, the United States, Britain, France, and allies sent first funding in 1917, and then troops in 1918, into Russia to support the anti-revolutionary side of the war. Through 1920 these understanding and peace-loving nations fought in Russia in a failed effort to overthrow the Russian revolutionary government. While this war rarely makes it into U.S. text books, Russians tend to remember it as the beginning of over a century of opposition and insistent enmity from the United States and Western Europe, the alliance during WWII notwithstanding.
In 1932, Cardinal Pacelli, who in 1939 would become Pope Pius XII, wrote a letter to the Zentrum or Center Party, the third largest political party in Germany. The Cardinal was worried about the possible rise of communism in Germany, and advised the Center Party to help make Hitler chancellor. From then on the Zentrum supported Hitler.[ii]
President Herbert Hoover, who lost Russian oil holdings to the Russian revolution, believed that the Soviet Union needed to be crushed.[iii]
The Duke of Windsor, who was King of England in 1936 until he abdicated to marry the scandalously previously married Wallis Simpson from Baltimore, had tea with Hitler at Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat in 1937. The Duke and Duchess toured German factories that were manufacturing weapons in preparation for WWII, and “inspected” Nazi troops. They dined with Goebbels, Göring, Speer, and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. In 1966, the Duke recalled that, “[Hitler] made me realize that Red Russia was the only enemy, and that Great Britain and all of Europe had an interest in encouraging Germany to march against the east and to crush communism once and for all . . . . I thought that we ourselves would be able to watch as the Nazis and the Reds would fight each other.”[iv]
Is “appeasement” the proper denunciation for people so enthused about becoming spectators to mass slaughter?[v]
There’s a dirty little secret hiding in WWII, a war so dirty that you wouldn’t think it could have a dirty little secret, but it’s this: the top enemy of the West before, during, and after the war was the Russian communist menace. What Chamberlain was after in Munich was not only peace between Germany and England, but also war between Germany and the Soviet Union. It was a longstanding goal, a plausible goal, and a goal that was in fact eventually achieved. The Soviets tried to make a pact with Britain and France but were turned away. Stalin wanted Soviet troops in Poland, which Britain and France (and Poland) would not accept. So, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, not an alliance to join in any war with Germany, but an agreement not to attack each other, and an agreement to divide up Eastern Europe. But, of course, Germany didn’t mean it. Hitler simply wanted to be left alone to attack Poland. And so he was. Meanwhile, the Soviets sought to create a buffer and expand their own empire by attacking the Baltic states, Finland, and Poland.
The Western dream of bringing down the Russian communists, and using German lives to do it, seemed ever closer. From September of 1939 to May of 1940, France and England were officially at war with Germany, but not actually waging much war. The period is known to historians as “the Phoney War.” In fact, Britain and France were waiting for Germany to attack the Soviet Union, which it did, but only after attacking Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, and England. Germany fought WWII on two fronts, the western and the eastern, but mostly the eastern. Some 80% of German casualties were on the eastern front. The Russians lost, according to Russia’s calculations, 27 million lives.[vi] The communist menace, however, survived.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, U.S. Senator Robert Taft articulated a view held across the political spectrum and by civilians and officials in the U.S. military when he said that Joseph Stalin was “the most ruthless dictator in the world,” and claimed that “the victory of communism . . . would be far more dangerous than the victory of fascism.”[vii]
Senator Harry S Truman took what might be called a balanced perspective, though not so balanced between life and death: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”[viii]
In line with Truman’s view, when Germany moved swiftly into the Soviet Union, President Roosevelt proposed sending aid to the Soviet Union, for which proposal he received vicious condemnation from those on the right in U.S. politics, and resistance from within the U.S. government.[ix] The United States promised aid to the Soviets, but three-quarters of it — at least at this stage — didn’t arrive.[x] The Soviets were doing more damage to the Nazi military than all other nations combined, but were struggling in the effort. In lieu of promised aid, the Soviet Union asked for approval to keep, after the war, the territories it had seized in Eastern Europe. Britain urged the United States to agree, but the United States, at this point, refused.[xi]
In lieu of promised aid or territorial concessions, Stalin made a third request of the British in September 1941. It was this: fight the damn war! Stalin wanted a second front opened against the Nazis in the west, a British invasion of France, or alternatively British troops sent to assist in the east. The Soviets were denied any such assistance, and interpreted this refusal as a desire to see them weakened. And weakened they were; yet they prevailed. In the fall of 1941 and the following winter, the Soviet Army turned the tide against the Nazis outside of Moscow. The German defeat began before the United States had even entered the war, and before any western invasion of France.[xii]
That invasion was a long, long time in coming. In May of 1942 Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov met with Roosevelt in Washington, and they announced plans for the opening up of a western front that summer. But it was not to be. Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to instead invade North Africa and the Middle East where the Nazis were threatening British colonial and oil interests.
Remarkably, however, in the summer of 1942, the Soviet struggle against the Nazis received such favorable media coverage in the United States, that a strong plurality favored a U.S. and British opening of a second front immediately. U.S. cars carried bumper stickers reading “Second Front Now.” But the U.S. and British governments ignored the demand. The Soviets, meanwhile, kept pushing the Nazis back.[xiii]
If you learned about WWII from Hollywood movies and popular U.S. culture, you would have no idea that the vast bulk of the fighting against the Nazis was done by the Soviets, that if the war had any top victor it was certainly the Soviet Union. Nor would you know that huge numbers of Jews survived because they migrated east within the Soviet Union prior to WWII or escaped east within the Soviet Union as the Nazis invaded. Through 1943, at enormous cost to both sides, the Russians pushed the Germans back toward Germany, still without serious help from the west. In November of 1943, in Tehran, Roosevelt and Churchill promised Stalin an invasion of France the following spring, and Stalin promised to fight Japan as soon as Germany was defeated. Yet, it was not until June 6, 1944, that Allied troops landed at Normandy. By that point, the Soviets had occupied much of Central Europe. The United States and Britain had been happy for the Soviets to do most of the killing and dying for years, but did not want the Soviets arriving in Berlin and declaring victory alone.
The three nations agreed that all surrenders must be total and must be made to all three of them together. However, in Italy, Greece, France, and elsewhere the United States and Britain cut Russia out almost completely, banned communists, shut out leftist resisters to the Nazis, and re-imposed rightwing governments that the Italians, for example, called “fascism without Mussolini.”[xiv] After the war, into the 1950s, the United States, in “Operation Gladio,” would “leave behind” spies and terrorists and saboteurs in various European countries to fend off any communist influence.
Originally scheduled for the first day of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s meeting with Stalin in Yalta, the U.S. and British bombed the city of Dresden flat, destroying its buildings and its artwork and its civilian population, apparently as a means of threatening Russia.[xv] The United States then developed and used on Japanese cities nuclear bombs, a decision driven, in part, by the desire to see Japan surrender to the United States alone, without the Soviet Union, and by the desire to threaten the Soviet Union.[xvi]
Immediately upon German surrender, Winston Churchill proposed using Nazi troops together with allied troops to attack the Soviet Union, the nation that had just done the bulk of the work of defeating the Nazis.[xvii] This was not an off-the-cuff proposal. The U.S. and British had sought and achieved partial German surrenders, had kept German troops armed and ready, and had debriefed German commanders on lessons learned from their failure against the Russians. Attacking the Russians sooner rather than later was a view advocated by General George Patton, and by Hitler’s replacement Admiral Karl Donitz, not to mention Allen Dulles and the OSS. Dulles made a separate peace with Germany in Italy to cut out the Russians, and began sabotaging democracy in Europe immediately and empowering former Nazis in Germany, as well as importing them into the U.S. military to focus on war against Russia.[xviii]
When U.S. and Soviet troops first met in Germany, they hadn’t been told they were at war with each other yet. But in the mind of Winston Churchill they were. Unable to launch a hot war, he and Truman and others launched a cold one. The United States worked to make sure that West German companies would rebuild quickly but not pay war reparations owed to the Soviet Union. While the Soviets were willing to withdraw from countries like Finland, their demand for a buffer between Russia and Europe hardened as the Cold War grew and came to include the oxymoronic “nuclear diplomacy.” The Cold War was a regrettable development, but could have been much worse. While it was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons, the U.S. government, led by Truman, drew up plans for an aggressive nuclear war on the Soviet Union, and began mass-producing and stockpiling nuclear weapons and B-29s to deliver them. Before the 300 desired nuclear bombs were ready, U.S. scientists secretly gave bomb secrets to the Soviet Union — a move that may have accomplished just what the scientists said they intended, the replacement of mass slaughter with a standoff.[xix] Scientists today know much more about the likely results of dropping 300 nuclear bombs, which include a worldwide nuclear winter and mass starvation for humanity.
The hostility, the nuclear weapons, the war preparations, the troops in Germany, are all still there, and now with weapons in Eastern Europe right up to the border of Russia. World War II was an incredibly destructive force, yet despite the role played in it by the Soviet Union it did little or no lasting damage to anti-Soviet sentiment in Washington. The later demise of the Soviet Union and end of communism had a similarly negligible effect on ingrained and profitable hostility toward Russia.
Excerpted from Leaving World War II Behind.
A six-week online course on this topic begins today.
[i] FRASER, “Full text of Commercial and Financial Chronicle: September 30, 1933, Vol. 137, No. 3562,” https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/title/commercial-financial-chronicle-1339/september-30-1933-518572/fulltext
[ii] Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of the End of Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008, p. 32.
[iii] Charles Higham, Trading With the Enemy: An Exposé of the Nazi-American Money Plot 1933-1949 (Dell Publishing Co., 1983) p. 152.
[iv] Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War (James Lorimer & Company Ltd. 2015, 2002) p. 45.
[v] The New York Times has a page about the Appeasement of Nazis with reader comments permanently displayed below it (no further comments allowed) claiming that the lesson was not learned because Vladimir Putin was Appeased in Crimea in 2014. The fact that the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Russia, in part because they were being threatened by neo-Nazis, is not mentioned anywhere: https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/30/sept-30-1938-hitler-granted-the-sudentenland-by-britain-france-and-italy
[vi] Wikipedia, “World War II Casualties,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties
[vii] John Moser, Ashbrook, Ashland University, “Principles Without Program: Senator Robert A. Taft and American Foreign Policy,” September 1, 2001, https://ashbrook.org/publications/dialogue-moser/#12
[viii] Time Magazine, “National Affairs: Anniversary Remembrance,” Monday, July 02, 1951, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,815031,00.html
[ix] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 96.
[x] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2012), pp. 97, 102.
[xi] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 102.
[xii] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 103.
[xiii] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2012), pp. 104-108.
[xiv] Gaetano Salvamini and Giorgio La Piana, La sorte dell’Italia (1945).
[xv] Brett Wilkins, Common Dreams, “The Beasts and the Bombings: Reflecting on Dresden, February 1945,” February 10, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/02/10/beasts-and-bombings-reflecting-dresden-february-1945
[xvi] See Chapter 14 of Leaving World War II Behind.
[xvii] Max Hastings, Daily Mail, “Operation unthinkable: How Churchill wanted to recruit defeated Nazi troops and drive Russia out of Eastern Europe,” August 26, 2009, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1209041/Operation-unthinkable-How-Churchill-wanted-recruit-defeated-Nazi-troops-drive-Russia-Eastern-Europe.html
[xviii] David Talbot, The Devil’s Chess Board: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015).
[xix] Dave Lindorff, “Rethinking Manhattan Project Spies and the Cold War, MAD — and the 75 years of no nuclear war — that their efforts gifted us,” August 1, 2020, https://thiscantbehappening.net/rethinking-manhattan-project-spies-and-the-cold-war-mad-and-the-75-years-of-no-nuclear-war-that-their-efforts-gifted-us