The “Good War” Myth of World War 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Charles Beard

Andrew J. Bacevich has a review in The American Conservative of Richard Drake’s Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism: Charles Beard: Punished for Seeking Peace. The review sent me looking for the book and happily it is accessible on scribd.

One detail about WW2 that has often bemused me is the story of the unprovoked attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. The point that puzzles me is that the U.S. had just cut off 80% of Japan’s oil supply so was obviously faced with a situation of complete capitulation or war with the U.S. The “unprovoked” part of the story has tended to strike me as somewhat overstated. And then, when I try to get an overall picture of the whole shebang, I have sometimes wondered if in a few centuries history books will present World War 2 as a titanic conflict among imperial powers for dominance.

Here are some of Bacevich’s review comments that led me to beginning to read Drake’s book:

Beard’s offense was to have committed heresy, not once but twice over. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he opposed U.S. intervention in the European war that had begun in September 1939. And when that conflict ended in 1945 he had the temerity to question the heroic “Good War” narrative that was even then already forming.

Present-day Americans have become so imbued with this narrative as to be oblivious to its existence. Politicians endlessly recount it. Television shows, movies, magazines, and video games affirm it. Members of the public accept it as unquestionably true. From the very moment of its inception, however, Beard believed otherwise and said so in the bluntest terms possible.


Revisionists disagreed among themselves about many things, but on one point all concurred: on matters related to war, the official story is merely a cover, propaganda concocted for domestic consumption. The purpose of that story is to conceal truth and manipulate popular opinion.


While professing a commitment to peace, he also put the squeeze on Japan, confronting that nation with a choice of submission or war. When the Japanese opted for the latter, his administration was neither surprised nor disappointed.


Today the Good War narrative survives fully intact. For politicians and pundits eager to explain why it is incumbent upon the United States to lead or to come to the aid of those yearning to be free, it offers an ever-ready reference point. Casting World War II as a perpetually relevant story of good versus evil relieves Americans of any obligation to consider how the international order may have changed since Hitler inspired Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin to forge their unlikely ménage à trois.

In that sense, the persistence of the Good War narrative robs Americans of any capacity to think realistically about their nation’s role in the existing world.

History is written by the victors so today one can easily never come to an awareness of the depth of the arguments in against getting involved in a war with Germany. At best they might hear of those protesters as “pacifists” or “isolationists” — certainly as idealistic and naive. But that was not the case when one takes the time to look, or at least not generally the case. Just as today so then there were observers who saw the interests of big business elites driving policy, the interests of maintaining and expanding empires, and the way propaganda for public consumption about fighting for democracy, for the four freedoms, etc, was all smokescreen to hide the real interests of the former two.

Some interesting excerpts from Drake’s book….

Here is a narrative I recall well being taught in senior high school history class:

The American people, Luce observed, now stood face-to-face with a historical opportunity to become the leading nation on earth. Objectively they could be said to occupy this position of primacy already, but thus far had failed to rise to the challenge of exercising their power: “In the field of national policy, the fundamental trouble with America has been, and is, that whereas their nation became in the twentieth Century the most powerful and vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact.” The failure of Americans to play their proper part as the leader of the free world had had disastrous consequences for all mankind. To atone for our negligence, we would have “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence . . . .

The FDR administration had spoken nonsense:

The coming and the conclusion of the First World War contained the fundamental lessons needed to understand the current conflict. For the Committee, Beard distilled the essence of the lessons that he had learned from studying the documents found in the archives of Russia, Germany, and Austria: “I have spent many weary months studying these documents, and I will say, gentlemen of the committee, that these documents do not show that the European conflict was, in the aims of the great powers, a war for democracy, or for the defense of the United States, or had anything to do with protecting the interests of the United States.” The FDR administration had spoken nonsense in claiming that by fighting for democracy Britain was waging America’s battle. Britain then and now had its own imperialist agenda.

Only people who did not know anything about history or how civilizations work could believe such fatuities.

If, as the president had said, the British were fighting a war for democracy, we should be fighting it, not “buying peace with gold.”?? He did not think, however, that the war had anything to do with democracy, any more than the last war did.

Beard had a message for the American leadership class, whose deadly combination of pride, arrogance, and ignorance would prevent them from receiving it, but he felt obliged to try. The United States lacked the knowledge and the power to transform the cultures of Europe and Asia. We did not know what we were dealing with in these places, and we lacked the patience to learn. That was why we wanted everyone to look like us. It would make the world a happier and more harmonious place if the American way became the way for all peoples. He concluded, no matter what you hear from Washington, we cannot “provide democracy, a bill of rights, and economic security for everybody, everywhere in the world.” Only people who did not know anything about history or how civilizations work could believe such fatuities.

The tragic flaw in American foreign policy

The tragic flaw in American foreign policy, he lamented, lay in the country’s delusions about itself, “as if America were God” and charged with putting the world in order. He wondered v/here such a stupid and ignorant presumption originated. The United States had been a sensible country once, prone in the natural scheme of human fallibility to mistakes and crimes, but not pathologically disturbed to the point of megalomania, with all its weird insecurities and constant need for reassurance about its special place in the world. “We have broken utterly with the American principle of minding our own business and letting other people attend to theirs,” he rued. Washington and Lincoln would be horrified by our global foreign policy today: “This is the most monstrous and unparalleled revolution that has ever occurred in our history.” The cult of “the American Century” and “God’s chosen people” did not become a nation fitted to lead the world in anything worth doing. Indeed, with such flimsy ideas in their heads, the Americans seemed to him every bit as much a menace to mankind as Germany, Russia, and Japan.

Hitler best understood as a product of World War I

Hitler was best understood as a product of World War I rather than as a cause of World War II, which had many causes, not least the Western foreign policies that “were directed by the desire to protect the financial interests of a wealthy and effete minority.”

The trouble began when . . . .

So long as the Japanese cooperated with the British and American empires in the Pacific, our relations with them had been as collegial as any association of robber barons can be. The trouble began when, calculating that their cut was too small, it occurred to them that they could do better on their own.

I shall have to revise all previous ideas on this catastrophe

Beard had shocked Smith with a comment about Pearl Harbor “He made the astounding statement to me that he had seen a Navy message indicating that the Navy Department knew the location of the Japanese carrier fleet on the day before Pearl Harbour.” Smith averred that Beard probably had received this intelligence from Admiral Husband Kimmel himself and then added, “If this statement of Dr. Beard is correct, I shall have to revise all previous ideas on this catastrophe. I have never heard in all my career in the War Department any fact anywhere so sensational as this.”

The rule of history discovered by Beard

FDR’s provocative acts against Japan led directly to America’s involvement in the war. . . . .

The rule of history discovered by Beard could be formulated as follows: “When a nation evades its domestic problems by escape into foreign adventure, it puts off the day of internal reckoning ” . . . .

FDR had begun to emphasize foreign affairs as a way of covering up the failure of the New Deal to restore the economic health of the nation: “for that purpose he entangled himself in world power politics as a diversion of public mind.”


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Neil Godfrey

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25 thoughts on “The “Good War” Myth of World War 2”

  1. So, sometimes the victim really is to blame?

    I’m not being facetious. I have, of late, come to believe that “blaming the victim” is unjustifiably pejorative. Victims really do, in many cases, do things that at least facilitate their aggressors if not actually encourage them. Of course it should not need to be said, but apparently does, that this in no way exculpates the aggressors. The attack on Pearl Harbor was just wrong, no matter in what sense or to what degree the United States had it coming.

    1. The “victim blaming is bad” paradigm is not really relevant to this discussion. Japan was a victim of US aggression. Japan’s choice was to either get steamrolled by a rival imperial power or to retaliate in some manner to American aggression. If a thief attempts to rob a home and gets shot is it “victim blaming” to say the robber had it coming for his initial act of aggression?

      1. If a thief attempts to rob a home and gets shot is it “victim blaming” to say the robber had it coming for his initial act of aggression?

        Interesting analogy. Is deadly force justified in defense of property?

            1. • If deadly force is “justified” in defense of property, then:

              Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution

              The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

              trumps People v. Ceballos :: :: Supreme Court of California

              While the common law strongly privileges an individual’s right to protect his or her home, deadly force is not permitted in the defense of property unless there is a threat of physical danger to the occupants or a serious crime reasonably seems imminent.

              1. OK. So, whose lives were the Japanese defending when they attacked Pearl Harbor?

                Suddenly cutting off 80% of a country’s oil and fuel supply is more than a simple “property offence”. It is forcing the country to basically return to the medieval era overnight, an event that will have more than property damage implications.

                But it is not a simple conflict between white hats and black hats. Japan was an imperial power making her own bloody inroads into China and beyond, forcing her imperial rivals out of their share of the booty.

                The problem for a Westerner with a democratic conscience is the FDR narrative that was told at the time and myth that has been built up since. Japan had and still has its own myths about those years of “liberating Asia” from the western imperialists.

        1. Doug Shaver wrote: “Is deadly force justified in defense of property?”

          If the state sanctioned use of deadly force in defense of property is a normative right throughout the world. Then it is also a right of Americans, as maintained by their Constitution’s ninth amendment (Supreme Court of California be damned).

          See How did ‘sanction’ come to have two opposite meanings?

          My guess is that apart from people in the top ten countries with the highest population in the world. The “majority of people” maintain the right of using deadly force in defense of property.

    2. FDR’s policies were to curtail Japanese aggression. All happening before 7 Dec 1941:
      Japanese occupation of Korea.
      Japanese invasion of China (seen pictures my uncle took of rows of Chinese civilian’s heads chopped off, sitting on a street.)
      Invasion of Indochina.

      Another uncle was captured on Bataan, and spent the war in both Cabanatuan, and a free hell ship ride to a prison camp in Japan.

      So, no good wars. But FDR can’t be blamed for instigating a war with an already actively aggressive war machine like Japan, at that time.

      And, Japanese reps were in Washington supposedly trying to negotiate at the time of the attack on Dec 7.

  2. Um, ok, but…
    Even if there were provocations that sparked things into warfare, once that warfare was up and running (eg., Hitler was a product of WW1, but once he was exterminating Jews and taking over Europe…) how could it be stopped without military intervention? In other words, it’s all fine and good to look backwards and say that the war never needed to happen, which is probably true, but once it was happening, was there any way to stop it without stepping into it?

  3. “Only people who did not know anything about history or how civilizations work could believe such fatuities.”

    With the Roman Catholicism with its universal approach, and all Christian denominations that think they are different, such a lies as “with God all things are possible, and “believest thou this?” along with such crap as “on earth as it is in Heaven”, will the world be controlled by God the Vatican. The white Jesus and his followers have been killing every which way since the savior soul white Jesus took root on Earth to “spread the good news, love one another as I have loved you.” But first kill them because they’re not like you. Since 2,000 years ago this Christianity is a sickness and nowhere near what the original teacher taught.

  4. • Beard, Charles (1948). President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: Appearances and Realities. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-351-49690-2.

    [President (1929–1933) Herbert Hoover (succeeded by Franklin D. Roosevelt)] informed his entire Cabinet that economic and military sanctions “are the roads to war.”

    • Drake, Richard (2018). “Chapter 8 – Beard Finds an Ally in Herbert Hoover”. Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-1-5017-1513-6.

    Roosevelt wanted the war, Hoover believed. Stimulating hate, raising fears, and smearing opponents of the war, he bore personal responsibility for America’s intervention in 1941.

    IMO “Roosevelt wanted the war”. Why? is debatable.

    1. • I suspect that “Roosevelt wanted the war” (in part) per his perception of the enemy’s goals and characteristics; and his conception of a United Nations coalition.

      Theodore Kornweibel, jr. “How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies” [PDF]: 5–19.

      A month after Pearl Harbor [President Franklin Roosevelt] spoke of the need to convey to the American populace a more accurate understanding of six crucial aspects of the conflict:
      • the issues of the war;
      • the enemy’s goals and characteristics;
      • the concept of the United Nations coalition;
      • the importance of domestic production;
      • civilian roles on the homefront;
      • and the realities faced by the Allied fighting men.

  5. • Does “Good War” imply “Just War”?

    Noam Chomsky (20 April 2006). “On Just War Theory and the Invasion of Iraq. U.S. Military Academy at West Point“. YouTube. The Film Archives—22 June 2013.

    Cf. Transcription courtesy of Mariko Sakurai, corrected and improved by Scott Senn.

    Moraes, Frank (10 October 2015). “Just War Theory Provides No Moral Guidance”. Frankly Curious.

    Chomsky goes through a lot of discussion about what different scholars have had to say on the subject and he comes to a fairly obvious conclusion: what’s considered a “just” war is a reflection of the mores of the time and place. And it’s worse than that, because the scholars seem to all do the same thing: pick some war and define it as just. There is one point where a scholar picked the Afghanistan War, claiming that only hardcore pacifists and crazy people would think that wasn’t a Just War. But of course, the writer was just showing his own biases; there were huge numbers of people around the world who disagreed.

  6. Perhaps a “Casus Belli” was created by the embargo of oil to Japan, 1940–1941.

    Barnhart, Michael A. (2013) [now formatted and bolded]. Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919–1941. Cornell University Press. p. 267. ISBN 0-8014-6845-0.

    For Japan, there were, in essence, only two alternatives to war with the United States.

    • On the one hand, Japan might have given up all attempts to achieve self-sufficiency. The nation might have reconciled itself to being a have-not nation in 1918 or 1929 or even 1937. Japan, as Grew put it, might have resumed its place within the Anglo-American orbit. But all the factors discussed in this book made this outcome extremely unlikely.

    • On the other hand, [taking a huge risk] Japan might have actually achieved self-sufficiency with a greater Asian empire and defied the West to overthrow it.

    Currently, American foreign oil interests in relationship to America’s declared right to ensure future oil security, entails a “Casus Belli” if American foreign oil interests are compromised or even perceived to be possibly threatened.

  7. Ben-Zvi, Abraham (June 1975). “American Preconceptions and Policies toward Japan, 1940-1941: A Case Study in Misperception”. International Studies Quarterly. 19 (2): 228–248. doi:10.2307/2600270.

    During the years immediately following the Pacific War, two divergent interpretations regarding American-Japanese relations in the pre-Pearl Harbor era emerged. One of these, the “revisionist” line, argued that the Roosevelt administration deliberately pushed the: United States into a war with Japan in the Pacific as a way of entering the war in Europe through the back door. The other line praised the administration for being realistic, consistent, and prescient.

    Thus, in reviewing the early postwar literature on the origins of the Pacific War, one cannot avoid juxtaposing revisionist works (Morgenstern, 1947; Beard, 1948; Chamberlin, 1950; Sanborn, 1951; Tansill, 1952; Barnes, 1953) which charge the Roosevelt administration with the “sinister design” of intentionally provoking Japan into attacking the United States, and pro-administration works (Lindley and Davis, 1942; Bemis, 1948; Morison, 1948; Feis, 1950; Rauch, 1950; Langer and Gleason, 1953; Perkins, 1954).

    Today, less than 25 years after the publication of the first major revisionist work, this heated debate of the late forties and early fifties seems to be almost totally forgotten and irrelevant.

    1. Right, and what I tried to get across is that the charge that FDR had provoked the war had merit, but it was for good reason.

      This is an issue where the narratives had been largely defined by what was viewed as the right outcome. Those opposed to the war said that FDR provoked. it. Those in favor of the war said that he did not such thing and we were innocently attacked.

      Since the view of the war over time became that it was a “good war” and most people favored the war, the charge that it was provoked faded away.

      But the reality, IMO, is that America’s entry into the war was a good thing. FDR was right to want to get into the war in opposition to the Axis powers. And, he provoked the Japanese as a means to that end. I think it was the right decision and the right policy.

      The typical implication was always that if FDR did provoke the Japanese then that made him an evil lying scumbag and America’s entry into the war illegitimate, which is why defenders of the war always denied the charge. I don’t see it that way.

      The truth of the matter is, I believe, that the antiwar fascists were correct in their charge against FDR. FDR did provoke the war, BUT it was for a good cause… IMO.

      1. Which opens up the question of whether it is “good” for a president or government to lie to their electors and deceive them into backing a war they opposed entering.

        1. I think this gets at some of the same issues addressed in the Israeli thread.

          What I tried to address originally in my “article” was the fact that the reality of the situation defies its standard characterizations.

          My view on PH is essentially that Roosevelt certainty had no intention of appeasement, and was likely engaging in policy that he knew was risky, but took the attitude of, “Well if they don’t like, screw them, too bad.”

          I suspect that he knew his Pacific policy had the potential to provoke hostilities, but I don’t think he was explicitly trying to trigger such an attack. He was trying to do what he could to hamper the Axis powers within whatever scope he was able to, given the restrictions in place from Congress.

          He was doing his best to undermine the Japanese and Germans with the tools he had at hand, and he knew that doing so ran the risk of resulting in a confrontation with the Japanese, but he wasn’t going to back down from that.

          In the end, Pearl Harbor was a tragedy that I believe was far beyond what FDR ever imagined would happen. I assume that FDR likely thought it was possible some American ships at sea would get buzzed or attacked by a few fighters or something like that, but I assume that the scale of the PH attack was well beyond anything he ever imagined would happen. Obviously that’s a lot of speculation, but it seems reasonable based on what I’ve been able put together from various memoirs, etc.

          So the truth of the situation doesn’t fit well into any established narrative. FDR wasn’t an anti-American Communist willfully goading the Japanese and intentionally creating a an easy target waiting from them to attack like some of the conservative conspiracy theorists claimed, but Pearl Harbor also wasn’t a totally unprovoked surprise out of the blue either. It falls into a grey area, as so many things do…

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