Why War?

The Conflict Philosophy is the leading cause of war and totalitarianism.

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.”

—Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Josiah Quincy, September 11, 1773

At 7:55 A.M. Hawaii time on December 7, 1941, the first Japanese bombs fell on the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. At the time, the United States was officially neutral. Japan was attacking a peaceful country without warning. People in the United States were outraged. Their immediate response was anger; they were more than eager to avenge the attack and go to war against Japan. As Japan was allied by treaty with Germany, Germany soon declared war against the United States.

Within a few days, the United States found herself allied with Great Britain and the U.S.S.R., which had been attacked by Germany on June 22, 1941, and at war with both Japan and Germany. (France had been defeated earlier by Germany and was out of the war.) What had been a European war became almost overnight a world war. The United States would soon be fighting Germany in the Atlantic, Europe, and Africa, and Japan in the Pacific and southeast Asia.

Why did Hitler march into Poland if he knew England and France might declare war on him? Why did he attack the U.S.S.R despite knowing its vastness and harsh winters?In spite of our Neutrality Act, many people in the United States had been emotionally anti-Nazi for some time because of Hitler’s ruthless invasions of neutral countries in Europe and his treatment of the Jews. Because of Japan’s war in China and the atrocities her soldiers were inflicting on Chinese civilians, many Americans were anti-Japanese even before Pearl Harbor. Yet until the attack, the majority of the people in this country did not want the United States to become militarily involved. They did not believe the war in Europe was our war.

As a matter of fact, President Roosevelt had won election to a third term in 1940 by appealing to this sentiment and promising that he would not take us into war. He had vowed that we would “not participate in foreign wars,” that he would “not send our Army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in case of attack,” and he had told America’s mothers and fathers “again and again” that their boys were “not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Yet in just over a year, FDR was standing before Congress and asking for a declaration of war.

It is easy to blame the Pearl Harbor attack on Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese militants under the leadership of Prime Minister Tojo. It is easy to say that Hitler was a “monster” and that he and his evil regime had to be destroyed if civilization was to survive. It is even easy to blame Roosevelt, as many have, for dragging the United States into the conflict against the wishes of the people. But the reasons why Germany, Japan, and the United States went to war are not that simple.

Europe had been on the brink of war for several years. But the war did not actually start until September 1, 1939. Why did Hitler march into Poland, then, in spite of the fact that he knew England and France might declare war against him to honor their pledge to Poland? And why did Hitler attack the U.S.S.R. in June 1941, in spite of the fact that he knew Russia’s vast expanses and rigorous winters could defeat almost any invading force, as they had Napoleon’s, and in spite of the fact that it would mean fighting on two fronts?

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor also went against all reason and logic. The United States was much larger and more powerful than Japan, and Japan could not realistically expect to win.

Why war? Begin with the fact that history is man-made. Everything that has ever been thought, done, and accomplished was performed by individuals. And men are ruled by ideas. To understand the causes of war, therefore, the historian must not only explore the facts, select those that are significant, weigh and interpret their relative importance in the light of all available knowledge, but he must also analyze them in the light of sound logic and the principles of human action. The historian must interpret the actions of the individuals involved on the basis of their ideas and values. He must consider the effects of their actions in the light of various theories. Only in this way can a historian hope to explain the origins of war.

The Liberal Social Philosophy

The eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment brought great advances in all fields of human knowledge. The liberal, pro-freedom philosophers and the classical economists laid the groundwork for individual freedom and economic prosperity. As a result of their teachings, many old feudalistic and mercantilist laws were repealed, opening the way to more efficient large-scale agricultural and industrial production. More and more the governments of the Western world were limited to the protection of life, property, and the equal rights of individuals. In line with the classical liberal philosophy, individuals were generally left free to pursue their own goals, so long as they did not interfere with the equal rights of others. At the same time, individuals were held responsible for providing for themselves and their families.

As restrictions and regulations were removed, the initiative of individuals was unleashed. Freedom to experiment, innovate, invent, save, and invest led to a veritable “industrial revolution.” Productivity rose. Production and trade expanded. This trend continued in the nineteenth century. Free traders Cobden and Bright, with an assist from the Irish Potato Famine, persuaded the British Parliament to repeal the Corn Laws, the tariffs on imported grain. Free trade lowered the price of bread and improved the diet of the poor. Living standards improved. With more to eat, people lived longer and healthier lives. The population increased.

Thanks to improved transportation and communication, the world grew smaller. Thousands took advantage of their new freedom to move; many migrated from relatively poor and crowded England, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, and eastern Europe to the wide open spaces of the Western hemisphere, especially the United States, and Australia. The division of labor developed internationally. Production was shifted to areas where the marginal productivity per worker was greater. New trade channels were developed.

Trade brought peoples in different parts of the world closer together. It fostered mutual respect and friendship. People came to realize that voluntary transactions brought gains to both parties and benefits to nation and state. The way to wealth was through trade, not conquest or war. Thanks to the understanding developed by the liberal philosophers and classical economists, peace and good will reigned in most of the world throughout the nineteenth century. Nations could safely renounce economic nationalism and war.

The Anti-Free Trade Philosophy

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the philosophy of individual freedom, individual rights, and individual responsibility that had paved the way for economic development and prosperity, began to give way to a different philosophy. People took economic progress for granted; they didn’t realize the connection between their well-being and the liberal philosophy. They didn’t realize that it was the protection of private property and the equal protection of the freedom of all individuals that had eliminated irreconcilable interpersonal and international conflicts, allowing widespread social cooperation, free enterprise and freedom of movement for men, goods, and capital. People didn’t realize the extent to which limiting government and leaving people free had contributed to the economic climate and their improved material welfare. They began to listen to a different breed of thinkers. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote a book about this shift in ideas: Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (1944).

In the West, especially in the United States and in England, the people had succeeded in limiting government primarily to protecting life and private property. Wherever and whenever the principles of free trade prevailed, people prospered and few serious conflicts arose. Unfortunately, however, an understanding of the reason for these more peaceful conditions did not keep pace with the economic improvements.

The new theorists who began to be heard on a wide scale toward the end of the nineteenth century held that irreconcilable conflicts existed in society. Whereas the liberal philosophy explained that everyone gains from voluntary transactions so that free trade tends to eliminate conflicts, this new doctrine argued that conflicts were inherent in social relations. It pitted nation against nation, rich against poor, exploiter against exploited, race against race, class against class, employee against employer, buyer against seller, importer against exporter, and the native-born against the foreigner.

Actually, these “new” ideas were not new at all but simply old theories in new garb. Their advocates adopted the idea long since discarded by classical and liberal scholars that the gain of one man is the loss of another and that no man profits except at the expense of another. From the Communist Karl Marx they took the doctrine of class conflict and exploitation; individuals should contribute “according to ability” and receive “according to need.” They borrowed from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mercantilists the idea that it is better to export goods in exchange for gold than to import goods, government should try to maintain an excess of exports over imports, i.e., a “favorable balance of trade”; to rely on imports was considered weakness; a nation should strive for self-sufficiency, autarky. This “conflict” philosophy spawned various movements—Marxism, Fabianism, Populism, nationalism, national socialism (Nazism), fascism, socialism, Communism which in time transformed the relatively peaceful capitalistic nineteenth century into the twentieth century of wars and revolutions.

Persuasion, not violence, had converted the immense majority of Germany to the tenets of militant nationalism.Worldwide depression in the 1930s fed the “conflict” philosophy. Few people understood its cause—government interference in the economy. People knew only that unemployment was widespread, prices were depressed, and many businesses were going bankrupt. Governments sought to cope with the unemployment, depressed prices, and bankruptcies by enacting makeshift programs—unemployment insurance, the dole, military conscription, farm price supports, protective tariffs, “easy money,” subsidies to some at the expense of others—all of which served only to nurture the “conflict” philosophy. Thanks to the flurry of government activity evoked by these interventionist programs, Berlin, London, Washington, and Tokyo boomed. But the rest of the world languished in depression. Entrepreneurs hesitated to undertake projects or hire workers. Widespread unemployment continued.

In Germany after World War I, rampant inflation had wiped out all savings, completely destroying the middle class. The people were hungry. Adolf Hitler, a rabble rouser with dramatic flair, had attracted a few misfits and malcontents to his movement. The depression added to the distress. Hitler appealed to national pride, built on envy and resentment, blamed the Jews for the economic problem, and began to draw larger audiences.

As economist Ludwig von Mises saw the situation, given the “conflict” philosophy of that day, “the immense majority of the German people saw no means to avoid disaster and to improve their lot but those indicated by the program of the Nazi party.” However, Mises explained, Nazism was not the only conceivable solution to Germany’s problems. “There was and there is another solution: free trade ... Why did it [Germany] choose Nazism and not liberalism, war and not peace? ... Hitler and his clique conquered Germany by brutal violence, by murder and crime. But the doctrines of Nazism had got hold of the German mind long before then. Persuasion, not violence, had converted the immense majority of the nation to the tenets of militant nationalism.” The answer the Germans chose depended on their ideas, the “conflict” philosophy they espoused.

Hitler made the Jews scapegoats and reached out for “Lebensraum” (living space) to obtain the food and other resources needed to make Germany self-sufficient. Hence the occupation of Austria (March 1938), the Czech Sudetenland (October 1938), and the invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939), also of Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Russia. As Mises wrote during World War II: “Germany does not aim at autarky because it is eager to wage war. It aims at war because it wants autarky—because it wants to live in economic self-sufficiency.”

Japan too needed “Lebensraum.” Its population was increasing. On the Asian mainland, it had successfully opened Korea and Manchuria to Japanese settlement, business, production, and trade. Because Japan protected the rights and property of residents in Korea and Manchuria, many thousands had migrated there from China.

Japan was becoming a modern industrial state and depended on imports more than most countries. Yet Japan’s attempts to buy food and resources abroad were blocked. Because of its attack on the U.S.S. Panay (1937) and its war with China, anti-Japanese sentiment was rife. Step by step, the United States, the British, and the Dutch imposed restrictions on trade with Japan; self-sufficiency was being thrust upon it. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to protect its flank as she struck the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya to obtain needed food, oil, rubber, and other resources.

When the war started in Europe in 1939, it was welcomed in some circles in this country because of the many thousands of men it took off the unemployment rolls and because of the war orders it gave to industry. Although officially neutral and forbidden by law to sell weapons to belligerent nations, the United States used various ruses to furnish ships, planes, tanks, and ammunition to the Allies, China, and (later) Russia. Roosevelt knew he was treading on dangerous, possibly unconstitutional, grounds in lending so much support to belligerent nations. He confessed to one adviser that what he was doing might subject him to impeachment. Under his calm exterior, he must have been concerned. He may even have been relieved when we were attacked and brought into the war; several witnesses who saw him on the evening of December 7, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, reported that he appeared more relaxed than he had for weeks.

Is a Return to the Free Trade Philosophy Possible?

New ideas and innovations are always an achievement of uncommon men. In the physical world, these great men may introduce on their own new products, new inventions, new discoveries. But one man alone cannot change social conditions unless he can convince public opinion. To do this he must explain his ideas or ideologies to many people.

Where there is life there is hope. War is futile.To return to a free trade world, the anti-free trade “conflict” philosophy, the breeder of war, must be rejected. The classical liberal philosophy needs to gain wide support. This takes time. But there are signs that many are becoming disillusioned with interventionist government, more critical of Congress and of the bureaucracy. Today’s intellectuals no longer lend full-hearted support to the Keynesian interventions with which Roosevelt tried vainly to rescue the nation from depression. Free trade rhetoric is being heard once more, even if the programs labeled “free trade” are not really free trade but mixtures of free trade and government control.

Where there is life there is hope. And the liberal free traders live, are speaking up, using every opportunity to point out, as Mises did in his many works, that the “conflict” philosophy is a “revolt against rationalism, economics, and utilitarian social philosophy” and “at the same time a revolt against freedom, democracy, and representative government.”

War is futile. It is imperative that the conflict philosophy, with the envy and resentment it spawns, be exposed as the leading cause of war and totalitarianism. The advantages of peaceful social cooperation ought to be explained by every available means to ever wider and wider audiences.