Archived Sections, From the Editor

How necessary?

Did we really need to fight World War II?

Ken Burns’ massive seven-part film retrospective on the Second World War caught the attention of a huge sector of the television viewing public during September and October, a coup for PBS. Burns said he wanted to finish the series, which featured families in Luverne, Minnesota, among other communities nationwide, “before all the WW II veterans died off.” They are leaving us currently at the rate of 1,000 a day.
Burns gave WW II a title hardly any viewer would reject: “a necessary war.” How could anybody argue that standing up to a pair of megalomaniacs bent on world domination — one in Europe, the other in East Asia — could have been anything less than “necessary”?
I can’t argue with that either.
However, I’m still haunted by a lecture given by my college history professor. This archconservative Republican, who loved Hoover and loathed FDR, said, “We have to understand WW II in the light of WW I. Before the First World War, England controlled the sea lanes. Germany had just built a navy. England had colonies around the world. Germany was just beginning to gain some of her own. Great Britain saw Germany as an economic threat and wanted an excuse to bring her down. The First War was the perfect opportunity.”
And then came the impossible set of post-war requirements laid on Germany. The Germans couldn’t rebuild their economy, couldn’t have a military and had to pay ruinous reparations with money they couldn’t earn. No wonder Hitler found the demoralized, inflation-riddled Weimar Republic a fertile field for demagoguery.
This is a complicated way of asking the question: How “necessary,” really, was “the necessary war”? In light of how Germany’s enemies behaved after the First War, not very. As Ronald Reagan liked to say, when excusing his administration’s worst blunders, “mistakes were made.”
We had to fight the Second World War. It would have been immoral not to. But who talks about the immorality that made it “necessary”? Let us learn something from it all