Stop With the World War II Analogies Already

News at Home

Mr. Briley teaches history at the Sandia Prepatroy School.

Please make a donation today!

In making his case for the American military invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush relies upon historical analogies and examples from his father's World War II generation.

For example, the president argues that failure to use force against Saddam Hussein will render the United Nations an impotent and meaningless organization just as the League of Nations collapsed before the aggressive expansionism of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Using the rhetoric of such World War II figures as Winston Churchill, Bush maintains that providing more time for weapons inspections was a policy of appeasement similar to that pursued by France and European powers when confronted by the rise of Adolph Hitler.

This is not the first time that the president has evoked imagery from the "Good War," branding the nations of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the contemporary "axis" of evil in the world. A new element from the Second World War has been added to the Bush history lesson and this is America as liberator. When the president asserts that the hour of Iraqi liberation is at hand images of American soldiers landing on the beaches of Normandy and later being embraced by grateful populations come to mind.

But is history really this simple? A healthy respect for the ambiguity and paradox involved with human motivation and historical causation seems missing from the Bush analysis. The League of Nations collapsed, but it should be pointed out that this organization was weakened at its inception by American refusal to join. Similarly, the unilateralism of the Bush administration may be far more destructive to the United Nations and global cooperation than Iraqi delays in complying with UN resolutions, and American plans for postwar reconstruction in Iraq apparently call for a more reduced UN role than contemplated by British coalition partners.

Also, efforts to portray the Iraqi dictator as a contemporary Hitler ring hollow. Any expansionist plans of Saddam Hussein have been contained through UN weapons inspections, a model which might be useful for the upcoming crisis with North Korea. And the Bush administration has been unable to link the Iraqis with the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The best that Washington is able to offer is an apparently clairvoyant doctrine of preemption. The Hitler and appeasement analogies ill served Americans during the Vietnam War era, when President Lyndon Johnson insisted that an American failure to halt Ho Chi Minh would be comparable to the British and French appeasement of Hitler at the 1938 Munich conference.

Nor should American troops assume that they will be welcomed as liberators despite clever operational slogans. While it is true that many Iraqis have little love for Saddam Hussein, it is naïve to believe that bombing will win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Instead of the historical analogies of World War II liberation, it might behoove us to recall the Philippine insurrection of 1899-1902 and the Vietnam War. Filipinos were glad to see the end of Spanish colonialism in 1898 but did not welcome inclusion into the American empire which resulted from the Spanish-American War. American marines fought a bloody and ruthless war to suppress the Filipino insurrection. Returning to the jungles of Asia in the 1960s, Americans encountered a fierce resistance from the Vietnamese people, including guerilla combat and the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe, a problem which is already becoming tragically apparent in Iraq. It should also be noted that the Iraqis, especially the Shiite population of the south, have a legacy of distrust for the United States dating back to the first Bush administration which they believed betrayed them in the initial Persian Gulf War.

In conclusion, perhaps the Cold War rather than World War II offers a more fitting analogy for the current conflict. During the Cold War, American foreign policy polarized the world in an anticommunist crusade. However, an overly zealous United States often ended up supporting authoritarian regimes and being drawn into peripheral conflicts such as the one in Vietnam. In a similar vein, the Bush doctrine has divided the world by enunciating you are either with us or the terrorists. Again these efforts to polarize the world have earned the United States considerable animosity and drawn American troops into a conflict tangential to its central purpose of combating terrorism.

In addition, during the 1950s as the United States devoted valuable resources to the Cold War, social problems were neglected which exploded during the ensuing decade. The current estimates for the war in Iraq, along with massive tax cuts, assure that the nation will incur high deficits which will make it exceedingly difficult to deal with needed health care and educational reforms.

The current war also evokes images of McCarthyism. One of the greatest casualties of the Cold War was freedom of thought, and we are already seeing this with the assault on civil liberties proposed by the revised Patriot Act and the failure of the war-oriented media to allow time and space for antiwar opinions. MSNBC has cancelled the liberal Phil Donahue Show, radio stations are refusing to play the Dixie Chicks because of a statement criticizing the pij resident, and teachers have been disciplined for hanging antiwar posters in their classrooms. The world was a scary place in the 1950s, and Soviet espionage was a fact of life, but the far greater threat to the American way of life was Senator McCarthy and his legacy. The first casualty in war is truth, and in considering historical parallels with the war in Iraq, we had best forget about the Second World War.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Rick Schwartz - 4/12/2003

I think this falls into a, "So's yer mother" response catagory. :-)

Ricardo Weiss - 4/12/2003

I thinks it's more than obvious that what motivates Mr. Schwartz is purely a visceral dislike of any criticism of Mr. Bush and the Republicans. Logic and truth be damned, as long as he can work in a few, cheap insults. Is he hoping for a bottom of the barrel slice of the action or just trying out a new computer keyboard ?

Rick Schwartz - 4/11/2003

"...the behavior of our immature and inexperienced President"

"...draft-dodging corporate-welfare deadbeats "

"...the baseball captain from Texas and his chickenhawk neo-con minders"

I thinks it's more than obvious that what motivates Mr. Harris is purely a visceral dislike of Mr. Bush and the Republicans. Logic and truth be damned, as long as he can work in a few, cheap insults.

Alec Lloyd - 4/10/2003

Mr. Briley, I thank you for keeping up with the criticism of your article. Many HNN authors are simply content to fire off their venom and ignore the result.

I would posit, however, that it is your grasp of reality is tenuous at best.

For example, you invoke the spectre of McCarthyism, and imply that some sort of witch-hunting war-fevered cabal is responsible for the boycott of the Dixie Chicks and the cancellation of Donahue’s cable show.

As pointed out before, Donahue’s ratings were pathetic. MSNBC isn’t a charity operation; if people don’t want to watch it, they change their programming. People have the right to decide what they wish to watch—and it has nothing to do with the late unlamented Sen. McCarthy.

Likewise, the Dixie Chicks were boycotted because they attacked not only the President in time of war (while overseas, no less) but said they were “ashamed” to share his home state.

Country music is based, at its core, on a set of shared values. Like rap, country music relies greatly on the perceived authenticity of its artists. Natalie Maines made it abundantly clear that she isn’t authentic and that she has more in common with the Hollywood Left than her listeners.

As a result, her fan base turned against her and her group. From a business perspective, it was a stupid move. The fans turned against her not because they disputed her right to speak, but because they disagreed with what she said. Both parties involved use their rights to the fullest—which had nothing do with the late junior Senator from Wisconsin or his policies.

One paragraph of this article has already been proven wrong:

“Nor should American troops assume that they will be welcomed as liberators despite clever operational slogans. While it is true that many Iraqis have little love for Saddam Hussein, it is naïve to believe that bombing will win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.”

They were welcomed as such, though only after it became clear that Saddam’s terror apparatus was no more.

Furthermore, the show of American resolve has already begun to play dividends elsewhere. China has begun to apply serious pressure to North Korea. Other states are adjusting their sails as well.

Many difficult and dangerous days lie ahead. The point of the World War II analogy is not that a given war is “good” or “bad” but that often taking the pass of least resistance is the surest way to increase one’s peril.

There has already been an excellent discussion on HNN of how apt the Munich analogy is in the present circumstances, and I have commented at great length. I suggest you search the archives for it if you want to see what people said. I feel my case was fairly strong, though I’m not inclined to restate it right now.

Jim Harris - 4/10/2003

Mr. Lloyd is clearly less stupid than most of the HNN truth squad, yet he resorts here to the same pitiful trick regularly employed by them: mis-attribution. Nothing I wrote remotely supports the absurd suggestion that I "urge" a "policy" of ignoring the threats of or mass-murders by ruthless dictators such as Saddam. Instead, my attention here has focused on the issue posed in the original article: the misuse of history by the Bush Administration to justify an un-American war. Were I to deploy the same crude rhetoric as Mr. Lloyd, I would counter-accuse him of implying that anyone who ever criticizes George W. Bush -for example, George H.W. Bush, or John McCain- must necessarily be an ally of Saddam, by being "against us" instead of "with us".

Of course, this war is not a “failure” militarily, no knowledgeable observer in her or his right mind ever predicted otherwise. Whether what is rebuilt out of the $100 billion carnage in Iraq compensates for the wanton and unnecessary squandering of America’s international reputation, and the propaganda victory recklessly handed to Osama bin Laden on a silver platter, remains to be seen. I don’t think past history is a reliable guide in this regard, but if it were, past practices (especially during the last 6-12 months) would surely incline one to skip quickly over the question of whether or not America will lose the peace, and concentrate instead on how the peace will be lost, and how badly.

Jim C. - 4/10/2003

"failure of the war-oriented media to allow time and space for antiwar opinions"

Hmm, let's see. I've heard plenty from

Susan Sarandon
Janeane Garofalo
Michael Moore
Lots of anti-war protesters
human "shields"
various Democratic legislators

Where's the "failure"? What planet does Briley live on?

"MSNBC has cancelled the liberal Phil Donahue Show"

Because ratings were in the toilet. Even liberals weren't watching!

"radio stations are refusing to play the Dixie Chicks because of a statement criticizing the pij resident"

Because outraged former fans said they'd wouldn't listen. Do you really expect music broadcasters to drive listeners away?

"The first casualty in war is truth"

As evidenced by this article.

Alec Lloyd - 4/9/2003

Mr. Harris, I would posit that compared to the torture chambers of Iraq, the Japanese internment camps were luxury resorts.

Ironic that in the same breathless sentence you also note the lack of concern about Auschwitz in the 1940s, yet seem to urge a similar policy in Saddam's Iraq--which was quite clearly inspired by the example of Nazi Germany.

Then again, the "Final Solution" began in 1942--when US forces were doing pretty much all they could to defeat the Axis.

Oh well, the statues are toppling in Baghdad, must go watch the "failed war" some more.

Jim Harris - 4/9/2003

Jerry asks:

" The US supported/suggested that the South Vietnamese government [break] the Geneva agreement...And the war began.

So doesn't that count as "thumbing its nose to the world"? "

It MIGHT have, except that in the 1950s, billions were not watching TV and internet reports of endless blustering, posturing, and vocal spinelessness in Washington, mass demonstrations around the globe, and tortured diplomatic bungling at the UN.

Thumbing one's nose at the world only matters if the world is paying you any attention. No doubt Dubya and cronies were making cracks about the French over Texas BBQs in the 1990s. It's when those draft-dodging corporate-welfare deadbeats got into the White House and did their nose-thumbing in front of the global news media that it became significant.

Jerry K - 4/9/2003

The 1954 Geneva Accords promised a nationwide election between North and South Vietnam. The victor would be the official government of a now reunified single nation.

The US supported/suggested to the South Vietnamese government that they CANCEL the elections. The elections were never held, the Geneva agreement was broken, because the US and South Vietnam saw the North as the likely victor. And the war began.

So doesn't that count as "thumbing its nose to the world"?

Jim Harris - 4/9/2003

History comes from facts, logic and interpretation, not "deals" between "left" and "right" (an obsolete dichotomy from the French Revolution deserving an early consignment to the intellectual dustbin). Naturally, that reality contradicts the basic premise of this website, which explains why real-life prominent historians shun it.

The current war is not well-explained by either World War II or Vietnam, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is a greater blot on America's moral standing in history than either.

Nothing in Iraq compares to our internment of Japanese-Americans, the needless bombing of Nagasaki, or the ignoring of Auschwitz in the 1940s, BUT...Germany and Japan were the aggressors then. Even a grade-school-aged historian knows the difference between picking a fight and fighting back.

Vietnam was messier than World War II and lacked any real prospect of liberating oppressed peoples, but was still not as outrageous as the current fiasco (if cheaper in lives). Vietnam was a bog into which America was slowly dragged - we did not publicly thumb our nose at the world, and then start bombing in cold blood.

This war is a travesty of long-held American principles of justice, fairness, honesty, minding one’s own business, and leading by example. It is a diplomatic, economic, and ethical disaster which deserves analysis on its own terms, not by facile historical comparisons. It serves no useful purpose, furthermore, to excuse the behavior of our immature and inexperienced President, by saying that Saddam is worse, a relativistic rationalization which makes the expression "damning with faint praise" sound like a statement of reverent worship by comparison.

Sydney Padua - 4/8/2003

Okay: let's make a deal. War supporters will stop with the WWII analogies, if the antis will stop with the Vietnam analogies. Mind you, the 'Nam stuff is piping up fainter and fainter every passing hour as real history replaces hysterical nostaligia.

Incidentaly, ONE radio station stopped playing the 'Chicks for one afternoon, and the Donahue show fell victim to dismal ratings, not sinister forces. The popularity of Michael Moore, the Rush Limbaugh of the left, should comfort those wringing their hands over 'silencing'.

Honest argument is wonderful, but the anti-war movement's self-aggrandizing fantasies about being repressed, is a bit sickening in the face of an enemy that feeds suspected dissidents through shredders. Suck it up, people-- a little unpopularity and name-calling is hardly jackboots at midnight.

Jim Harris - 4/8/2003

Before the HNN truth squad begins the carpet bombing conviction of Ron Briley for being Karl Marx Incarnate, because he dares question the cold war policies of Lyndon Johnson, and (by extension) the All-Holy Ray Gun, a few words from something other than the "Re-elect Bush in 2004" perspective.

The Soviet Union was just a bit more of a threat than Saddam. It had a bit more in the way of weaponry than a few old moldy jars of anthrax and saran which cost hundreds of billions of U.S. taxdollars to find. Resisting international communism, furthermore, did not involve the U.S trashing the UN or dissing traditional allies. Compared to the baseball captain from Texas and his chickenhawk neo-con minders, the cold warriors of yore were brilliant diplomats, creative statesmen, and brave leaders.