All Commentary
Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Great Wars & Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal

Essential to the maintenance of support for the government (almost any government, any time) is the idea that the nation’s wars have been just and heroic, and that the leaders who presided over them were great men. Ugly truths about those wars and leaders are routinely swept under the rug. Court historians (and yes, democracies have them) try to convince people that all the blood, sweat, and tears were never expended in vain.

History professor Ralph Raico is a dedicated opponent of the court historians’ cant and deception. Great Wars and Great Leaders is a collection of his essays challenging the conventional wisdom, ranging from the beginning of World War I to just after World War II.

As Robert Higgs notes in his introduction, “Raico’s historical essays are not for the faint of heart or for those whose loyalty to the U.S. or British state outweighs their devotion to truth and humanity.” Raico is usually called a “revisionist” historian, but a more fitting term would be “correctionist” because his work corrects false ideas that glorify wars and political leaders who deserve the sharpest condemnation.

The book’s opening essay is about World War I. What most Americans think they know about that war is roughly this: Militaristic Germany was itching for a reason to launch an expansionist war, and the outbreak of fighting in the Balkans gave it an excuse to attack the peaceful democracies France and Britain. Eventually the United States was compelled by German belligerence to enter the war and “make the world safe for democracy.”

The victors get to write the history, and Raico shows that it’s mostly wrong. The Germans and their Austrian allies were not as devilish as they’ve been portrayed, and the Allies were far from angelic. Most important, President Woodrow Wilson was an authoritarian eager to engage in military interventions to advance his fevered notions of “good government.” Raico points out that Wilson had sent U.S. troops into Mexico in 1914. Some of them died—utterly in vain.

Throughout 1915, 1916, and early 1917 Wilson pursued a provocative policy meant to serve British interests. He was glad to trample on international law with respect to the rights of neutrals and declined to pursue diplomatic efforts at restoring peace. Nevertheless, most historians grade Wilson a “near-great” president. Raico shows how undeserved that accolade is.

Winston Churchill’s lustrous reputation also takes a beating in the book. Most people think of Churchill as a rock-ribbed defender of Western traditions. After all, he was a Conservative prime minister who abhorred communism and fascism. Raico makes it plain, however, that he had no real principles when it came to the economic order. At one point in his career Churchill advocated free trade, but he later abandoned that position when it became a political liability. Nor was Churchill an opponent of the advancing British welfare state. He supported the Trades Union Act that gave legal privileges to unions and advocated “a sort of Germanized network of state intervention and regulation” over the labor market. That made him popular with the socialists. Beatrice Webb applauded him for his support of “constructive state action.”

There are hordes of politicians who will get on popular crusades even though they carry the seeds of long-run social ruin. What puts Churchill in a different class is his willingness to sacrifice innocent lives. Raico gives several particulars. Against the advice of his officers Churchill ordered the British fleet to fire on the French Navy, harbored at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria after the Germans had defeated France in 1940. The French commander had said that he would neither surrender his ships to Britain nor permit them to fall into German hands. Nevertheless, the British shelled the ships, killing more than 1,500 sailors. Raico comments that this was a war crime and Germans at Nuremberg were sentenced to death for less. Worse still was the continuing bombing campaign against German cities long after it was evident that Hitler was on the verge of defeat. The bombing of Dresden, a city with no military importance, killed some 30,000 civilians in February 1945.

Another “great leader” Raico demolishes is Harry Truman. Truman is often praised these days for his supposed common sense, but the truth is that he was a statist demagogue whose instincts were to escalate the New Deal’s attacks on liberty and property. Americans are fortunate that most of his efforts were parried by Congress or the courts. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about his decision to use atomic bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Raico eviscerates the excuse that Truman “had to” use the bomb because the Japanese would otherwise have fought on and killed half a million Americans.

This book defines “iconoclastic.” I strongly recommend it.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Ralph Raico (1936-2016) was an American libertarian historian of European liberalism. He was formerly a professor of history at Buffalo State College.