My wife says I’m too argumentative, but my skepticism (as I prefer to call it) is the product of having been raised in a part of the world where prejudices were the rule. As I grew older, I learned better. I encountered other, wiser views (from books and individuals), but I also discovered that the “other side” could also have its own bias and prejudice. With regard to Pauwels’ polemic, here are several examples that, I think, call into question the objectivity of his analysis.
For starters, I think he totally misunderstands the term “good war.” It was not coined to mean an altruistic, selfless endeavor on the part of the U.S. or to suggest that we were somehow noble or “good.” It refers to a war that had few moral ambiguities as to who the enemy is and what the threat is—in contrast to the Vietnam War, for instance. By that definition, it was a good war.
Even Pauwels’ opening statement troubled me: “This book is not the fruit of arduous research undertaken in Washington’s monumental National Archives or found in other imposing collections of documents; in order to create it, little or no use was made of what historians call ‘primary sources.’ ” No historian I know of would be so dismissive of primary sources. On the other hand, for example, he cites a report from the German ambassador of Mexico to the Nazi government as proof of America’s attitude vis-a-vis German economic competition in Latin America. He even footnotes it. He may be right about the attitude, but I cannot imagine any source being less reliable. Maybe he ought to do some “arduous research.”
I was also disappointed by his stereotyping. He wrote: “the wartime role of America’s political and economic leadership was not guided by purely idealistic motives . . . .” Well, I certainly agree with that. So does every historian I know. But I was puzzled because he did not stop there. The full sentence reads “the wartime role of America’s political and economic leadership was not guided by purely idealistic motives, AS IS GENERALLY ASSUMED.” He adds: “The overwhelming majority of conventional syntheses dealing with the role of the United States in the Second World War are typical examples of so-called ‘feel-good-history.’ “
I don’t know who he’s been talking to or what books he’s been reading, but he is terribly out of touch if he believes that “the overwhelming majority” believes that way. I am from the most conservative, most obnoxiously “patriotic” America-we’re-number-one hooray-for-our-side God-loves-America region in the country, and I attended a state university in a city that used to boast it had more churches than service stations, but nobody who has ever taken a history course here believes or assumes any such thing. Sure, I know people who think we saved the world all by ourselves, but, again, they are uneducated people. They are the kind of people who think the moon landings were fake, that alien abductions are real, and that George Bush was a great president. But I have never READ anything of that sort from a serious writer. Instead, Pauwels prefers to stereotype. And stereotyping IS prejudice.
He uses the phrase “heartwarming historical literature.” Frankly, I have never read any “heartwarming historical literature,” as he calls it, in my life. I’ve seen some movies like that. And there is a lot of heartwarming fiction out there, but it’s not historical and it’s not literature. What he asserts is a figment of his imagination. I don’t know what the French term is, but he has engaged in a logical fallacy: we call it a straw man argument. X says this is what Y believes and here is what is wrong with it—-even though Y never said it and doesn’t believe it. Moving on . . . .
That power elites direct most (all?) societies is undoubtably true. This is hardly news.
Pauwels also asks some odd questions, such as “Why did US policy-makers not eradicate all forms of fascism in Germany and elsewhere after 1945?” If he thinks the U.S. could have accomplished this, he has a grandiose notion of U.S. power that surpasses Bush’s. One might as well ask why European governments did not eradicate the anti-Semitic forces there. And still haven’t.
I respect some of his sources. I know of Parenti, and I have long admired Noam Chomsky. Although I do not agree fully with everything Chomsky writes, I think he is the superior thinker of the two. I must also quibble with another assertion made by Pauwels: “the undisputable historical fact that the Soviet Union made the biggest contribution to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.” In the first place, there are few “undisputable” “historical” “facts.” He sounds like my late uncle, a Pentecostal preacher.
Second, it is indisputable that the loss of life in the Soviet Union was unparalleled, and its resilience was amazing. It fought the largest tank battles of all time and won. But whether this makes it the “biggest contribution to the allied victory” is highly debatable. I say this for several reasons. Had Britain chosen to make peace after France fell, we might not even be talking about an allied victory. Had Stalin not repeatedly purged his officer corps and had he not made a pact with Hitler that divided up Poland, maybe Hitler would have had a two-front war from the outset. May a person help set a house on fire and then, after it spreads to his house, claim credit as the major reason the fire was extinguished?
He also minimizes the effects of Lend-Lease equipment sent to the Soviet Union, relying on highly suspect Soviet assertions that portrayed such aid as a trifle. More recent studies since the collapse of the USSR show otherwise.
Finally—and again, I have not read the entire book—Pauwels seems troubled by hypocrisy on the part of the West. He points out that Eisenhower called it the “great crusade” and that Britain and the U.S. hypocritically proclaimed the “Four Freedoms.” As for me, I am not even surprised at this sort of thing. In Russia, they called it the “Great Patriotic War.” Such hyperbole is part of war. No doubt Britain wanted to hold onto its colonies and run their lives; no doubt Stalin had the same thing in mind for Eastern Europe. It turned out, of course, that the Soviet regime ended up as corrupt as its capitalist competitors, and, by my lights, far more brutal. It became about as pro-labor as the Tsar. But enough of my sermonizing.
When I reached the part about Japan, I gave up. He is absolutely right that America did not enter the war until Japan declared war on the U.S. (which occurred almost simultaneously with the attack on American military installations). What’s his point? On this issue, even Chomsky is too glib.