Several weeks ago, as protesters filled the streets of America, President Trump took his now-infamous photo op at St. John’s Church, after clearing the streets with tear gas. Just as striking as the actual event, however, was the administration’s description. “Like Churchill, we saw him inspecting the bomb damage,” said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “[Churchill] sent out a powerful message to the British People.” McEnany’s controversial comparison marked the latest example in a long tradition of seeing current affairs through the lens of World War II.
From President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” to President Trump’s accusation that the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War,” World War II looms huge in the national imagination. It sometimes feels as though the war was the defining moment of American foreign policy. This fixation also appears in popular culture. According to IMDB, 7,142 films and TV episodes have been made about World War II, double the combined total for World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Book database Goodreads shows that the fixation on World War II is even more pronounced in print.
It’s not hard to see why World War II attracts so much attention. It was the largest war in history and marked a pivotal point in US foreign policy. Yet it isn’t representative of war as a whole. Out of the numerous conflicts in which the United States has fought, World War II was perhaps the only example of a ‘just war.’ As a result, the country’s myopic focus on World War II creates needless aggression and unwillingness to negotiate.
World War II is typically portrayed as a conflict of good against evil. The fascist regimes (particularly Nazi Germany) were, beyond a reasonable doubt, among the most vicious and brutal regimes in world history. If not for the intervention of the allied powers, the axis would very likely have dominated the globe. The war conjures up vivid images of a bold crusade. Today, however, World War II has been used to justify not just fighting Nazis, but invading Iraq and tear-gassing Black Lives Matter.
Upon holistic examination of these wars, warfare seems a murky business, where both sides are driven by complex motivations and the outcome is less a decisive conclusion and more a prelude to the next conflict.
Comparisons to World War II in contemporary politics are rarely warranted. The clear moral divide in World War II is an exception, rather than the rule. An examination of any of the other conflicts waged by the US in the 20th or 21st century yields a very different conclusion about the nature of war. World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and the War on Terror have all lacked the moral certainty or straightforward execution of World War II. All also yielded ambiguous results or found their gains soon overturned, as occurred after World War I.
Upon holistic examination of these wars, warfare seems a murky business, where both sides are driven by complex motivations and the outcome is less a decisive conclusion and more a prelude to the next conflict. But that is not the picture most of the American public sees. For the American public, World War II is the definitive example of warfare, and so future military conflicts will naturally be morally unambiguous, decisive, and stem from obvious causes.
Because of its unusual moral clarity, World War II also offers many other misleading ‘lessons’ about conflict. World War II narratives ignore or disparage attempts to create solutions without violence. Thus, individuals who propose diplomacy, negotiation, or even low-level pressures like economic sanctions are accused of ‘appeasement’ in reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s acquiescence to Hitler at the Munich Conference. American politicians now use Chamberlain’s name as shorthand for the futility of negotiation. Newt Gingrich applied the pejorative to Ronald Reagan during the detente with the Soviet Union. An even greater outpouring of World War II-centric criticism appeared during Barack Obama’s negotiations with Iran. Gingrich called the deal “The Munich of the Middle East.” Had Gingrich and other politicians paid more attention to the history of diplomacy before and after the Second World War, they might have a better understanding of the numerous times diplomacy has benefited both parties, or even turned rivals into partners. Sadly, the typical World War II narrative is light on nuance, and heavy on shooting Nazis.
In a changing world, countries need to constantly adapt their approach to foreign policy. The typical way to do that is by taking in the lessons of modern history. Yet the United States government and public have been slow to take in lessons about international affairs, preferring to stick to the familiar story of World War II, the so-called good war. It’s easier to commemorate the triumph of the “greatest generation” than the failures and partial successes that make up much of the rest of American military history. Yet failures teach the greatest lessons, and it is only by widening its historical perspective that the United States can, to borrow the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, avoid being “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Thomas Brodey is a History and Political Science major at Amherst College. He writes a column for the Amherst Student newspaper and is the editor-in-chief of the Amherst Dialectic academic journal.