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Questioning the Good War

ISSUE:  Summer 2008

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, March 2008. $30

Compared to the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, World War II was a conflict of great moral clarity. Few question that the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan was, in the words of Studs Terkel, “the Good War,” and those who fought the Axis were the “Greatest Generation.” No doubt a victorious Germany would have established a “new order” based on its ideology of Aryan supremacy, whereby the Slavic population of Eastern Europe would serve their Nazi masters, democratic governments would vanish, the Jews of Europe would be annihilated, and those deemed unworthy would be euthanatized. Given such possibilities, can there be any doubt that the war against Nazi Germany was morally just?

Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker, a writer best known for the phone sex novel Vox (infamously given by Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton) and the passionately anti-microfilm nonfiction book Double Fold, may seem an unlikely candidate to tackle this question. Yet Baker has turned his obsessive talents to this question in creating an exhaustive chronology of the run-up of events to Hitler’s declaration of war against the US shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Given the terrible devastation of the war and the deaths of more than 60 million people, Baker asks whether World War II was, in fact, a “good war,” and “did waging it help anyone who needed help?” Although Baker utilizes the major scholarly works on World War II, he mostly uses primary accounts in newspapers, articles, diaries, memos, memoirs, and public proclamations to create his march of dates. Thus, Baker consciously eschews narrative, instead providing snapshots of events as they unfolded, day by day, month by month, allowing the reader to follow what people actually said at the time, as opposed to later views of the war by historians. It’s an interesting approach in concept, but by avoiding synthesizing multiple accounts, every piece of evidence carries equal weight. But Baker doesn’t pretend to be even-handed or representative in his selections. He admits his pacifist leanings and, therefore, seeks to find both the Allies and the Axis guilty of choosing war when a negotiated peace was possible.

The trouble is that whatever opportunities may have existed to avert the war, only those clouded by a specious moral relativism could claim equivalency between Hitler as the perpetrator of genocide and Churchill and Roosevelt as those who stopped Hitler—only not soon enough or peacefully enough for Baker’s tastes. He bolsters his slant by noting that in October 1941, Mohandas Gandhi stated in a speech that “there was only one correct response to this war: ahimsa, principled nonviolence, even at risk of imprisonment, starvation, and death.” Gandhi went on to state, “Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing … The difference is only one of degree.” (This is the same Gandhi who advised Jews to remain in Germany even if “the calculated violence of Hitler may result in a general massacre of the Jews.”) Baker similarly notes that Rhy Davies, a pacifist and a member of Parliament, stated that “Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declaration in a recent speech that there were millions of Germans who were curable and others who were killable was comparable to Herr Hitler’s attitude towards the Jews.”

Baker’s indictment of both Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s wartime leadership relies on contemporary accounts that describe the Allied leaders as eager not only to push their respective countries into war against Germany but, in the case of Churchill, ready to endorse the use of the deadliest of weapons against the enemy. With regard to Great Britain’s campaign of “terror bombing” against Germany, Baker charges that for Churchill, bombing was a form of pedagogy, “a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.”

Elsewhere, Baker observes that Churchill’s war cabinet in 1940 weighed the merits of poison gas in the defense of the British Isles, but Churchill ended the debate by ordering the stockpiling of mustard gas, remarking that “there was no need to wait for the enemy to adopt such methods.” Further evidence of Churchill’s cruelty, in Baker’s opinion, is the British naval blockade in 1940, which prevented food from reaching those suffering under German occupation. Churchill’s rationale was that “those who groaned beneath the Hitlerian yoke would have food if and when they threw the yoke off.” Baker uses Herbert Hoover as ethical contrast, as he chastised Churchill as “a militarist . . . who held that the incidental starvation of women and children was justified if it contributed to the earlier ending of the war by victory.” Then there is the issue of Churchill’s seeming cynicism. Baker informs us of an exchange in 1940 between Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, where the British prime minister showed impatience in regard to an anticipated air attack from Germany. “Are you in such a hurry to see your towns smashed to bits?” asked de Gaulle. Churchill replied, “You see, the bombing of Oxford, Coventry, Canterbury, will cause such a wave of indignation in the US that they’ll come into the war.” The reader is led to conclude that the British prime minister was indifferent to human life, but Churchill may have simply recognized that the Nazis, by bombing British cities, were committing a tactical error—rousing American public opinion against Germany, thus expediting the process by which the US would enter (and, surely Churchill must have hoped, end) the war. Baker, however, is not interested in a balanced assessment of Churchill’s wartime leadership; rather he is content to marshal sources that catalog the cruel nature of Churchill’s excesses against Nazi Germany, turning Great Britain’s prime minister into Hitler’s doppelgänger.

Given the racist and militaristic nature of the Third Reich, Churchill believed the defeat of Hitler’s Germany was imperative lest the world be reduced to a barbarity unprecedented in history. His approach to an all-out war against Germany was clearly expressed when he stated that “it would be better that the civilization of Western Europe with all its achievements come to a tragic but splendid end than the two great democracies should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living.” Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that as the leader of his nation, Churchill used every means at his disposal to defeat an enemy led by someone who was as unstable and bent on world domination as Hitler. Consequently, once the US entered the war, the policy of the Allies towards Germany insisted on “unconditional surrender.” There could be no negotiations, no appeasement with a murderous regime such as the Third Reich.

As the war took its deadly toll and civilians were killed on both sides in unprecedented numbers, the position of the Allies hardened, manifested in the controversial strategy that the best way to save lives was to win the war as quickly as possible. The result was an intensification of the Allies’ most deadly weapon: the use of air power in the form of “terror bombing” of major German cities, with the objective of turning the population against the Nazi leadership. Baker, in his selective use of sources, views this not as a strategy to bring about the end of the conflict but instead accuses the Allies of a sadistic war of revenge, an indifference to the loss of innocent civilian life, and a refusal to consider the possibility of peace talks. He cites a speech by Churchill in November 1941 in which the British prime minister emphatically states that peace talks would not happen, and that there would never be any negotiations with Hitler or “any party in Germany which represents the Nazi regime.” Baker interprets this to mean that there would be no negotiations with anybody in Germany who was actually in a position to order an end to the fighting. The conclusion he draws? Churchill was bent on destroying Germany even if it meant the death of millions of innocent people.

Baker also considers the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the efforts of pacifists to prevent the outbreak of conflict. Indeed, his sympathies rest squarely with the latter. His book is dedicated to the “memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists . . . They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.” But what were they right about? Can Baker believe that peace between Hitler and the Allies would have endured? Was such a peace even desirable, given Hitler’s obsession with ridding the world of its Jewish people as well as their cultural achievements? Baker does not address these questions, rather he salutes the admirable work of the pacifists who bravely tried to prevent war and risked their lives trying to help the victims of Nazi persecution. He concludes that peace, regardless of its consequences, is preferable than the most just war. For him, the real heroes of the Greatest Generation were not the Allied soldiers who fought the war, but the pacifists who tried to prevent it.

Like Churchill, President Roosevelt does not escape Baker’s judgment. Though American public opinion opposed involvement in yet another European war, Roosevelt did all that was within his power to help Great Britain. This support reached its climax in March 1941 when Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill, which was intended to provide direct aid to Great Britain. Nazi Germany viewed the bill as an act of provocation, and Hitler concluded that the influence of American Jewry was to blame for its passage. Great Britain, however, was still fighting alone against Germany, and it was only with the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States, that President Roosevelt was able to lead the nation into an alliance with its British ally.

Historians have debated whether Roosevelt provoked Japan’s attack by withholding needed shipments of oil and refusing last-minute peace overtures from the Japanese prime minister. In addition, there are questions surrounding why the American fleet was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Baker records a confrontation between President Roosevelt and Admiral Richardson, commander of the US fleet in October 1940. In a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, Richardson wrote that Pearl Harbor was the wrong place for his ships and subsequently asked the president, “Is the United States going to war?” Roosevelt replied that he thought positioning the fleet in Hawaii had a “restraining influence” on Japan. The president added, stated Richardson, that the Japanese couldn’t always avoid making mistakes, “Sooner or later they would make a mistake and we would enter the war.” In November 1941, the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, wrote in his diary of a meeting in the Oval Office concerning Japan, during which the president said, “The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” Finally, Baker cites the response of journalist Edgar Mowrer to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Mowrer could not understand how the president and his cabinet, who were anticipating war with Japan, had not known that Pearl Harbor was a possible target and therefore taken the necessary precautions. Mowrer suddenly realized that “nothing but a direct attack could have brought the United States into the war! Here was the ‘break’ for which Churchill had been waiting.” The Japanese warlords, Mowrer concluded, had saved the free world. Whether Roosevelt did maneuver the US into war with Japan so as to join Great Britain in the conflict against Nazi Germany, Japan’s ally, remains a contentious issue, although not for Baker.

Once their nations were at war, Churchill and Roosevelt shared the same strategy in regard to the incendiary bombing of German cities, the food blockade, and, in the case of the US, the development of the atom bomb, but Baker points out that neither leader did much to prevent the implementation of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the Jewish Question. Baker details Hitler’s increasing persecution of the Jews, the tepid response of the Allies to Crystal Night (1938), and the growing refugee crisis faced by German and Austrian Jews. But then he goes on to suggest the possibility that had war been avoided, there would not have been a Holocaust.

Baker’s book title comes from the diary of Franz Halder, a Nazi general imprisoned in Auschwitz late in the war, where he “saw flakes of smoke blow into his cell. Human smoke, he called it.” Because Baker’s study ends on December 31, 1941, he does not address the controversy surrounding the Allies’ refusal to bomb the Auschwitz death camp, which would have crippled Nazi Germany’s ability to murder its Jewish victims. But he does focus on the so-called Madagascar Plan, which Nazi Germany proposed as a solution to its “Jewish problem.”

Following the fall of France in 1940, Germany proposed to deport Jews in German-occupied Europe to the French colony in Madagascar, but this plan required the defeat of Great Britain, which controlled the Mediterranean sea lanes leading to the colony. The failure to defeat Great Britain thus aborted whatever chance there was of implementing the plan. Baker implies that had Great Britain not engaged Germany in war, Jews would have been removed from Nazi territory in Europe, and the mass murder of the Europe’s Jewish population would not have occurred. Baker, however, has little to say about Madagascar itself. Given the climate and conditions in Madagascar, Germany’s plan would have resulted in the slow death of millions of Jews, who would have been deported to an environment that lacked a survival infrastructure.

In another consequence of Germany’s failure to defeat Great Britain, Hitler turned east in a futile attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Shortly afterward came the implementation of the “Final Solution,” the order to annihilate European Jewry. But what if Churchill had negotiated with Hitler’s Germany and recognized its territorial ambitions in Europe? Would Hitler have invaded the Soviet Union? Would there still have been a Holocaust? Baker’s tome oddly has little to say of Hitler’s contempt for the Soviet Union, which he saw as the cradle of the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy. Despite the pact between both countries from August 1939 to June 1941, it would be naïve to believe that it wasn’t just a question of time before Hitler violated the treaty and invaded his arch foe. And so Baker’s belief that peace rather than war would have saved millions of lives, including the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, lacks plausibility given our knowledge of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism and contempt for much of humanity. He is wrong, therefore, in his implication: no Churchill, no war, no Holocaust. He is also wrong when he writes that despite the failure of American and British pacifists in their efforts to prevent war, “they were right.” The peace they sought would have only made it easier for Hitler to consolidate his gains and attempt further conquest.

Finally, what is troubling about Baker’s account is that he views World War II through the prism of a moral equivalency that makes the Allied leadership no better than their Nazi and Japanese foes. Are we to believe that Churchill and Roosevelt, by confronting the evil that was Nazi Germany, were no better than Hitler when it came to expending civilian life? That the starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto was as much the fault of the Allied policy to block food from German-occupied Europe as it was of a deliberate Nazi plan? This disturbing book makes no moral distinctions between those who fought to defend civilization and those who wished to destroy it. Contrary to the assertion in the book’s subtitle, World War II did not end civilization; it saved it.


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