The Great War of the 20th Century: Did it ever really end?

See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief…
Change places and, handy-dandy,
which is the justice, which is the thief?
Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
And the creature run from the cur?
There thou mightst behold the great image of authority:
a dog’s obeyed in office…
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.
Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.
- King Lear Part IV, Scene 6

 The media coverage of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (January 27, 1945) revealed that the conflict of the 20th century still simmers under the surface of the solemn commemorations. The US and NATO’s Western founding members need to sell weapons and maintain US hegemony, so they have doubled down in recent years on demonizing Russia, reviving the nuclear arms race, and conjuring a threat that Russia supposedly poses to “freedom and democracy.” There is much talk of “dictators,” “thugs,” “authoritarians,” “oligarchs” and “strongmen” to the point that through careless misuse of these terms they have lost all meaning. The US and its allies have supported Eastern European NATO members and Ukraine in their attempts to equate Nazi atrocities with the nature of the Soviet Union in mid-20th century. By implication, the equivalence applies to modern Russia—both the state and the nature of the people themselves. These countries, along with Israel, have even supported or turned a blind eye to efforts in the former Warsaw Bloc, Baltic States and Ukraine to glorify “national heroes” who collaborated with the Nazi occupation and participated in war crimes and genocide.

Russians-Liberated-Auschwitz-1024x576
Soviet troops open the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp after liberating it in 1945. Credit: Fototelegraf

Upon the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, several news sources and official pronouncements stated that Auschwitz was liberated by American soldiers, after which they had to make hasty corrections. Strategic Culture reported:

Germany’s most-read magazine Der Spiegel, American-European journal Politico, a U.S. embassy announcement, as well as American Vice President Mike Pence, are among recent sources who have either falsified or downplayed the heroic role of the Soviet Union in liberating Auschwitz. This is part of a disconcerting trend of rewriting the history of World War Two, by which, preposterously, the Soviet Union is being equated with Nazi Germany. Such pernicious fiction must be resisted and repudiated by all conscientious historians and citizens.

Der Spiegel and the U.S. embassy in Denmark both had to issue embarrassed apologies after they separately stated that it was American forces which liberated Auschwitz. It is mind-boggling how such an error on the 75th anniversary of one of the most iconic events in history could have been made—by a leading magazine and a diplomatic corps.

More sinister was an article published in Politico on January 24 written by the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki which claimed, “Far from being a liberator, the Soviet Union was a facilitator of Nazi Germany.”

The Polish politician is no exception. It has become a staple argument in recent years contended by other Polish leaders and politicians from the Baltic states who seek to revise the history of the war, blaming the Soviet Union for being an accomplice with Nazi Germany. The corruption of history is partly driven by a desire to whitewash the nefarious role played by these countries as quislings to the Third Reich who helped it carry out the Holocaust.[1]

If this trend continues, we may eventually see a Hitler himself turned into a tragically defeated hero who tried to save Europe from communism (a belief already common among holocaust deniers). At the end of WWII, US General Patton is famously alleged to have said, “We defeated the wrong enemy.” That was a politically incorrect thing to say then, but the sentiment has always been there.

The present moment is best understood if one looks at history as if The Great War of 1914-18 never really ended (it was never called WWI until the sequel in 1939).[2] It just continued on by other means—as the Bolshevik Revolution and the reaction against it, as the rise of fascism, then open conflict again from 1939-45, then independence struggles in the colonized world, proxy wars, covert wars, propaganda wars, sponsored terrorism, the New World Order announced in 1991, and the present escalating tensions between US+NATO+assorted allies, Russia, Iran, DPRK and China.

In April 1961 John F. Kennedy said in his “secret societies speech”:

Today no war has been declared—and however fierce the struggle may be, it may never be declared in the traditional fashion. Our way of life is under attack… a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence—on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day… It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.[3]

One might think that Kennedy was talking about (or should have been talking about) the kind of warfare the US government had carried out in Guatemala, Cuba, Iran and Congo in the preceding decade, but in the quote above, for effect, I deleted his attribution of these nefarious traits to an enemy which he left unnamed, which was obviously the Soviet Union: “… we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence.”

It would be a stretch to think that he was referring to America’s covert warfare tactics. Though it would have been good for him if he had seen this danger, he was clearly referring to the Soviet Union. He told the gathered news correspondents that the US was at a disadvantage because it was too open, its press too free. What should have been American secrets were freely available for the enemy to read in American newspapers; whereas the opposite was not the case, and he begged the assembled media people to contemplate the contradiction presented by the nature of the global conflict—the question of how to balance the need for state secrecy with the right to privacy and freedom of speech and information. We all know how this question has been resolved since September 11, 2001.

The real threat at the time, not alluded to in Kennedy’s speech (ironically, considering the events of November 22, 1963), was the rising power of US government agencies—their growth into a “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence.” By the 1906s, the CIA had mastered the art of influencing academia, journalism and entertainment to implant a false consciousness in the American mind. The enemy threat that JFK spoke of was really a domestic threat. As the CIA liked to boast at the time, they had a “Mighty Wurlitzer” they could crank up at any time to implant chosen narratives in media throughout the world.[4]

Today this is most evidently on display in the attitudes of journalists who promote the false notion that the US was doing just fine before the atrocious, open vulgarity of President Trump. To take just one example, here is a Washington Post writer waxing fondly about the wisdom of former president GW Bush:

GWBush on isolationism

Though the liberal establishment used to mock GW for being dimwitted, and revile him for lying to the country in order to lead it into a disastrous and unnecessary occupation of Iraq, now he is often admired for his intelligence and remembered fondly for his sound understanding of America’s important role in the world to intervene on the side of justice.

The video clip cited in the tweet comes from a talk George Bush gave to a live audience during his book promotion tour in 2011.[5] He sounded almost intellectual and knowledgeable, which was a contrast with his reputation for not being able to say anything substantial while speaking from a script or coherently while speaking extemporaneously. He spoke about his distaste for isolationism, protectionism and nativism, and this is what makes him seem now, to some observers, like a wise and moderate prophet who saw the coming Trump era, as if these three tendencies haven’t always existed. In this brief passage he conflated these wicked “isms” with the American reluctance to intervene in the rise of Hitler and later to be involved in the war in Europe, saying, “So if you study the ‘20s, for example, there was an American First policy that said, ‘Who cares what happens in Europe?’ Well, what happened in Europe mattered eventually because of World War Two.”

Why are leading journalists going along with such simplistic and misleading interpretations of history? Bush was well-known in his first term for often making a false equivalence between the threat posed by Hitler and that posed by Saddam Hussein in 2003. Like his father in 1990, he often invoked the mistakes made by appeasers like British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s, and here he puts the blame on the American electorate for its reluctance to join another war in Europe shortly after the previous war that was supposed to end all wars.

This is a mistaken interpretation of history, but many contemporary progressives go along with it because it supports the contemporary zeal for “humanitarian interventions” in places such as Syria and Libya. However, the US has always been deeply divided on intervention and foreign entanglements, even though the US has always been consistently interventionist in its actions, regardless of how much dispute there was within the country about the matter. A few small colonies on the east coast became the United States, and after that it was a story of continual expansion and conquest until it became a global empire in the 20th century. In the 1930s, there was more than just a simple binary argument about whether to fight “evil” in Europe, as GW Bush would say. There was a matrix of competing forces wanting to join the war or stay out of it for the mixed and contradictory reasons outlined below.

  1. Left anti-interventionism

In the 1930s, the Nye Committee in Congress investigated big bank interests and profiteering in the defense industry during WWI. The committee was trying to shut down the possibility that financial interests would lead the nation into the next war. During this period when Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had been elected and socialism and the Communist Party were a major forces in the country, the Nye Committee was recommending a small 3% profit cap on all defense industries, essentially arguing for what critics called “communizing” free enterprise in this sector. The policy was, obviously, never adopted, and twenty-five years later President Eisenhower, after having overseen eight years of rampant growth of military spending (with 30,000 warheads in the nuclear arsenal), famously warned about the undue influence of the military industrial complex on the soul of the nation. Today the annual Pentagon budget is well over a trillion dollars, though the true figure is unfathomable.[6]

  1. Right anti-interventionism

During the Depression there was a populist America first movement that turned a cold eye toward Jewish refugees from Europe and other immigrants.

  1. Non-extremist non-interventionism

Many citizens, without strong political leanings or negative attitudes toward immigrants, simply had no interest in joining another war in Europe because they were old enough to remember the last war which in eighteen months led to 116,000 deaths and 350,000 casualties among the 4.3 million soldiers deployed. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, so if that was not true by 1938, the public felt betrayed and had no interest in fighting the next war.

  1. American financial interests against Hitler, FDR’s opposition to Nazi policies

FDR’s ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, was a historian who went reluctantly to the posting with instructions to arrange repayment of loans to American banks and to protest the excesses of the Nazi regime. Hitler brushed him off.[7]

  1. Ethical reasons to intervene

Moral outrage at the persecution of Jews and minorities, and at the viciousness of the Nazi government, was a factor that prompted many to call for intervention. There were non-socialist, liberal Americans who saw the threat posed by German fascism and argued for a defense of France and Britain and their colonies.

  1. Defense of socialism and the Soviet Union

The left was so influential in the 1930s that big business interests feared the country was being transformed into an American version of the Soviet Union. In 1933, Major General Smedley Butler alleged that he was invited to participate in a coup against FDR that involved business interests and military leaders. Because the failed plot had not advanced to the level of execution, the conspirators had plausible deniability. No plot was ever proven to exist, but Smedley Butler’s allegations indicated the level of animosity that was “in the air” toward FDR. Some conservative historians still believe FDR’s administration and the US government were riddled with communists loyal to the Soviet Union.

Socialists in the US perceived both fascism and imperialism as a threat to the world. They thought the Soviet Union should be an ally, and they believed their French and British allies would have to give up their colonies after the war. Time Magazine owner Henry Luce foresaw a coming century of American dominance, but FDR and his vice president Henry Wallace favored a “century of the common man.”[8]

  1. American anti-communist interests that strengthened Germany

The 20th century wars in Europe can best be understood by zooming out and looking at the big picture of what had been happening since Marx and Engels wrote in the opening of The Communist Manifesto, “There is a specter haunting Europe.” One might even go back farther and say the long war has been ongoing since the 1790s when reactionary bourgeois interests pushed back the radical agenda of the French Revolution. Yet a closer turning point would be the outbreak of WWI when capitalism and imperialism went into a prolonged crisis and the Bolshevik Revolution posed the first serious threat to their continuation. The world wars and the “cold war” were a prolonged war against socialism—a civil war within Eurasia and the Americas—with capitalist empires vying for dominance while they all shared an interest in defeating socialism from within and without their respective national territories.

Berlin Views Hitler Calmly-01

In the US, the government contained two factions working at cross purposes before, during and after WWII. While FDR and his vice president Henry Wallace wanted to co-exist peacefully with the Soviet Union after the war and free the world from British and French colonialism, another faction, working in the wartime intelligence agency, the OSS (which would later transform into the CIA), wanted to strengthen Germany, peel “moderate” Nazis away from Hitler, and use them after the war to build up a defense against the Soviet Union in the conflict that they would create.

Before and after the US got involved in the war, this faction wanted to sit back and watch what happened as Germany and the Soviet Union fought it out. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, debate raged about whether to send aid to the Soviet Union, and Senator Harry Truman voiced this popular opinion: “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.”[9] These were the words of the haberdasher from Missouri who was plucked from obscurity to become senator and then president in order to front for the right wing of the Democratic Party that came to power in 1945. With the hapless and ignorant Truman in the White House, the cold war hawks in his cabinet shredded FDR’s plans for the post-war order, and unnecessarily turned the Soviet Union into an enemy.

During Hitler’s rise in the 1930s, numerous American banks, investment firms and industries reaped enormous profits by helping Germany build up its industrial and military capacities. Britain and the US controlled most of the world oil supply, and if they had really been concerned about the threat posed by Germany, they could have cut off its access to oil. No oil, no war. It was that simple. This trade was done partly out of greed but also out of a desire to strengthen Germany so that it could defeat socialism in Europe and the Soviet Union.[10] The policy was similar in Britain and France during the 1930s because these two countries continuously rebuffed Soviet offers to form an alliance against Germany. Stalin finally gave up trying to convince them to act together against the German threat. It was only then that he entered the non-aggression pact with Hitler (not an alliance, as anti-communist historians constantly mislabel it). Stalin had no illusions about Hitler honoring the pact for long, but it bought time for the Soviets to prepare for the invasion that came in June 1941.[11]

In conclusion, it is extremely disingenuous of George Bush to speak of phantom “isms” that prevented the US from intervening earlier in the war in Europe. He might also be inexcusably ignorant of his own family’s history of profiting from dealings with Nazi Germany, as discussed below.

Most discussions of wars focus on what had to be done to end them once they had started—on their proximate effects. These produce the simple narratives about good and evil, moral justifications for intervention, and patriotic tales of the soldiers who defeated villainy. I prefer to focus on the long prodrome of the illness—actions taken and actions not taken to prevent the catastrophe that every honest observer could see coming. This essay is about World War II, but this focus on ultimate causes should be applied to all conflicts since in which the US intervened after years of creating the destabilization that led to war—in Central America, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Central Africa, for example.

WWII could have been prevented if Britain, France and the US had acted decisively with the Soviet Union to stop Germany from re-arming, but they wouldn’t do this because they implicitly understood socialism as a greater threat.[12] Within Germany, liberal parties could have formed an alliance with socialists to prevent Hitler’s rise to power. It is no different today when the American Democratic party would prefer to lose to Trump than to abandon its corporate donors and follow popular pressure to alleviate the suffering of impoverished Americans. Meanwhile establishment journals like the Washington Post cheer for the hypocritical Democratic Party attacks on Trump. Of all the high crimes Donald Trump (or previous presidents) could have been impeached for, they chose to impeach for the president’s brief discussion with a foreign leader about a Democratic vice president’s nepotism.[13]

GW Bush is inexcusably ignorant of US history or disingenuous because the reluctance to intervene in WWII is on display in his own family history, not in some vaguely defined form of isolationism. It was his grandfather, Prescott Bush, who belonged to the investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman which profited from its links to the German industrialist Fritz Thyssen.[14] Stone and Kuznick summarize the situation in The Untold History of the United States:

Many American companies continued doing business with Nazi Germany right up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As Ford Motor Company was happy to point out in its 2001 investigation into the activities of Ford-Werke, at the start of the war, 250 American firms owned more than $450 million worth of German assets, with 58.5 percent being owned by the top ten. Among the companies were familiar names like Standard Oil, Woolworth, IT&T, Singer, International Harvester, Eastman Kodak, Gillette, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Westinghouse, and United Fruit. Ford ranked sixteenth, holding only 1.9 percent of the total U.S. investment. Standard Oil and GM topped the list, holding 14 and 12 percent, respectively.[15]

These corporate interests also provided personnel for the OSS during the war and the CIA after the war. The war between fascists and socialists was being fought within the US government itself, with future CIA director Allen Dulles actively recruiting and exfiltrating “moderate” Nazi war criminals during and after the war. Operation Paperclip cleansed the records of Nazi scientists and brought them to work in the American aeronautics and space program.[16]

The right wing of the Democratic Party pushed out the New Deal left wing at the 1944 convention by sidelining incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace and positioning Harry Truman on the ticket as the next vice president. It was assumed that, with the war still ongoing, FDR would easily be re-elected president, but it was also understood that because of his poor health he wasn’t likely to live much longer. Thus it was an intraparty coup—an undemocratic backroom deal—that sidelined the popular Henry Wallace at the convention and put the unpopular cipher Harry Truman in line to become president. After becoming president in April 1945, he was easily manipulated into dropping atom bombs on Japan and overturning FDR’s plans to co-exist with the Soviet Union and support the independence for European colonies throughout the world.

If mainstream journalists and intellectuals ever wake up to this broader arc of history, they might start to question not only the key role of the Soviet Union in the victory over fascism, but also the false notions about communism and revolution that they have absorbed as received wisdom throughout their lifetime. But that’s a discussion to pursue another day, or, if you prefer, to read about in the fine articles written on the topic by Stephen Gowans.

Notes

[1]. Editorial, “Rewriting History of World War II Is Ominous Warning,” Strategic Culture,” January 31, 2020.

[2]. Tim Sherratt, “When did the ‘Great War’ Become the ‘First World War’?Discontents, August 29, 2011.

[3]. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, “The President and the Press: Address Before the American Newspaper Publishers Association,” April 27, 1961.

[4]. John Stockwell, The Praetorian Guard (South End Press, 1991). Or see the previous blog post citing this source.

[5]. C-SPAN, Q and A with Former President George W. Bush, January 24, 2011 (transcript: https://www.c-span.org/video/transcript/?id=8263).

[6]. Lee Camp, “The Pentagon Can’t Account for $21 Trillion (That’s Not a Typo),” Truthdig, May 14, 2018.

[7]. Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown, 2011).

[8]. Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Publishing, 2012). See pages 101-109, and chapters 2,3 and 4 for an overview of Henry Wallace’s career in the 1930s and 1940s.

[9]. Turner Catledge, “Our Policy Stated,” New York Times, June 24, 1941. In Kuznick and Stone, 96.

[10]. Michel Chossudovsky, “Sleeping With The Third Reich: America’s Unspoken ‘Alliance’ with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union—Nazi Germany largely depended on oil shipments from US Standard Oil,” Global Research, November 13, 2019.

[11]. Michael Jabara Carley, “The Canadian Prime Minister Needs a History Lesson,” Strategic Culture, September 1, 2019.

[12]. Jay Janson, “27 Million Died In Russia Because Wall Street Built Up Hitler’s Wehrmacht To Knock Out Soviet Union,” Countercurrents.org, August 9, 2017.

[13]. Primo Nutmeg #210 Jimmy Dore, February 3, 2020, 9:00~ . Jimmy Dore: [Democrats in Congress] all come together now to pass Trump’s agenda…. The gave him his space force. They gave him money for his wall. They gave him expanded spying powers. They gave him NAFTA 2.0. They gave him an extra 131 billion dollars to go bomb people—a guy who they say is under the thumb of Vladimir Putin. Why would you give him more money to go bomb people if he’s doing it at the behest of Vladimir Putin? Because that’s a big sham. Because the Democrats really like his programs and they can’t really oppose him on substance, so they opposed him on Russiagate, or they oppose him on impeachment—that phone call to the Ukraine—whatever. Celebrities drive me nuts because I live in Hollywood and I’m around those people when they go on social media and they say, “You better vote blue no matter who, and we all got to come together. We all agree at the end of the day.” No. What they should be doing is coming on social media and pressuring and threatening Democratic politicians with their lives if they don’t represent workers because they’re not going to vote for you if you don’t. That’s the message they should be sending, not voter shaming by saying, “You’d better vote for a guy who doesn’t represent you.”

[14]. Michel Chossudovsky, “Bush Family Links to Nazi Germany: ‘A Famous American Family’ Made its Fortune from the Nazis,” Global Research, November 16, 2019.

[15]. Kuznick and Stone, 82.

[16]. David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (Harper Perennial, 2015). See Part 1, pages 15-94, for the story of the OSS and the formation of the CIA.