On June 6th, 1944, thousands of Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy and began what we know as the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.
One the eve of D-Day, as those soldiers, sailors, and airmen prepared to take part in the largest amphibious invasion in military history – an operation that would see thousands of them give the last full measure of devotion on the beaches of Normandy – they read the following words from the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower:
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
But was Operation Overlord indeed a great crusade for which liberty-loving people everywhere prayed success, intended to create security for ourselves in a free world?
In the wake of President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, left-libertarians have again joined their liberal brethren in condemning the United States for our involvement in WWII. Some are content to accuse the US of starting the war by provoking Japan with economic sanctions and a crippling oil embargo.
Others declare that we owe Japan a formal apology for our use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and insist that the use of these weapons, as well as the firebombing of cities like Dresden and Tokyo, constitute war crimes by the American military.
While some libertarian non-interventionists like Rep. Ron Paul have openly defended our involvement in the second World War, many rank and file activists refuse to distinguish our defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from the perpetual skirmishes and unwarranted interventions that effectively became the foreign policy of the United States as soon as the Cold War began.
This blanket rejection of our right to a national defense frequently allows neoconservatives to smear non-interventionism as a “blame America” philosophy, and its fatalistic reasoning strikes many otherwise libertarian-leaning conservatives as outright suicidal.
Unfortunately, this flaw in 20th-century libertarian thought is as old as the movement itself.
In his 1963 treatise War, Peace, and the State, Murray Rothbard concluded that, while revolution can occasionally be excused, there is never a moral basis for war between two states – essentially denying the existence of a just war.
“All State wars, therefore, involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare) involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians ruled by the enemy State. On the other hand, revolutions are generally financed voluntarily and may pinpoint their violence to the State rulers, and private conflicts may confine their violence to the actual criminals. The libertarian must, therefore, conclude that, while some revolutions and some private conflicts may be legitimate, State wars are always to be condemned.”
Rothbard’s reasoning is founded upon the non-aggression principle, a doctrine central to classic libertarianism, but not without exploitable logical and ethical weaknesses, and opposition within the modern liberty movement.
Still, his broad application of the NAP, coupled with the post WWII explosion of the welfare/warfare state, provided enough reason for many of Rothbard’s disciples to beat their swords into servers and their bows int blog posts, condemning every war that America has ever fought.
It’s understandable that libertarians sick of having their patriotism called into question for refusing to support decades of proxy wars and nation-building would tend to overreact and condemn every past mobilization as the same sort of shallow, arrogant global engineering our tax dollars have indulged over our lifetimes.
Understandable, but wrong.
And not just wrong, but absurd.
Our struggle and eventual victory against the Axis powers was just and right and good, and saying that we should indeed have sent our boys to storm the Normandy beaches and our planes to burn Tokyo doesn’t make you a warmonger.
It is perhaps the tangled reality of WWII, more than any other American conflict, that brings into sharp relief the real-world failure of the NAP. Any attempt to apply it to that colossal struggle spawns more questions than it does answers. Among them are the following:
Was WWII merely a continuation of WWI? Did the harsh war reparations imposed on Germany constitute aggression? What about economic sanctions and embargoes? Was the United States justified in declaring war on Germany based solely on their declaration of war against us? Should aggression against allies and strategic partners be considered aggression against the United States?
And then of course once you reach beyond the hypothetical, there’s the enormity of the human cost of the war that cannot be swept under the rug with heady talk of righteous non-intervention.
Responding to a Sucker-Punch Isn’t Aggression
The fact of the matter is that the American people were generally content to remain neutral in the conflict overtaking Europe and Asia, right up until the time that a Japanese carrier fleet unleashed hell on our unsuspecting soldiers and citizens on a lazy Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
Four days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States as well, presenting an immediate multiple-front threat to us.
The American people mobilized for war reluctantly, having already suffered from what they considered a needless intervention in the Great War less than a generation before.
Our response to Pearl harbor was not governed by manifest destiny, nor from any apparent desire for conquest. Conversely, the way in which we conducted ourselves in the war, start to finish, makes this conclusion utterly implausible.
At the end of the war, we alone possessed nuclear technology – and with it, the ability to conquer anything we chose. That such power was restricted to forcing an immediate surrender from a single sworn enemy who had launched a surprise attack on us four years earlier is a testament to the historically unparalleled restraint of the American people.
It’s Actually Very Libertarian to Liberate People
The destruction of Pearl Harbor was inadequate to prepare our troops for what they would find on the European front as they moved deep into the heart of Germany and uncovered the evil there.
Few in our hemisphere knew anything of Hitler’s ethnic agenda at the onset of the war. When the camps started appearing around Europe, some rumors spread, but few believed Time Magazine’s 1938 Man of the Year to be capable of such unspeakable evil.
At its zenith, the European Axis enslaved nearly 40 countries and sent 20 million people to the death camps, in what was the penultimate threat to human liberty – eclipsed only by the enduring specter of communism.
One such victim was legendary German pastor, theologian, and underground resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in the face of Nazi oppression delivered a challenge that continues to reverberate in the American consciousness:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Bonhoeffer was hanged in a German prison just two weeks before Allied soldiers arrived to liberate the camp.
There’s a sense in which we here in America discuss liberty as a hypothetical – implying the approval or dismissal of others to do as we please. But to the millions of tortured and enslaved souls trapped in the clutches of the Third Reich, liberty was real, tangible, and precious.
Their fight for liberty was not a political or rhetorical one, but like our war for independence, it involved guns, bombs, pain, death, despair, and rescue.
The United States picked a side in that fight for liberty, and we applied our strength as a nation to ensure that a generation of Europeans were given the opportunity to experience the liberty that our forefathers purchased for us at the same cost.
The defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of occupied Europe was not a story of American conquest, but a one of history’s few stories of real liberation – a brilliant moment that showcased the defeat of tyranny and a dawn of freedom that can only be appreciated after the darkest of times.
Not all shackles can be loosed by majority vote, and Americans of all people should understand that.
Libertarians Can Acknowledge the Necessity of War Without Being Warmongers
Peace is a worthy goal, but the reality that there are some things worth fighting for highlights the fact that peace itself is not the ultimate virtue. Libertarians – even the most peacenik of us – understand this well enough in domestic issues.
There’s broad acknowledgement of the individual right to self-defense enshrined in our Second Amendment, and libertarians are the first to defend the universality of this right when battling liberals on gun control.
If someone initiates force against me or my property, I have a right to defend myself with commensurate force. But many NAP-fearing liberty folks – like Rothbard – shy away from extending the same right to sovereign nations.
It’s quite true that individuals have rights, while groups and governments do not, and thus some differences must be drawn with regard to defense. At the same time, we individuals do not live in individual realities. My right to self-defense extends to defense of my family, despite the fact that they are neither my person nor my property.
Likewise, as long as I have a nation and a government to call my own, my right to defend myself, my family, and my property can be delegated and conjoined with the rights of others to do the same, resulting in a right to national defense.
Pardon the philosophical shortcut, but some objections need to be disarmed before they can be locked and loaded.
Libertarians who acknowledge a national right to self-defense by existing states – quite independent of our feelings about the state itself – are not warmongers.
And frankly, we’re getting sick of being called that.
Part of the exercise of my individual liberty is the right – and the responsibility – to apply my resources to the promotion of liberty outside my individual sphere, and at every political and personal intersection that my life shares with the lives of others.
One such intersection is national policy, and no national decision is of more consequence to that individual right than the question of war.
America’s liberty was as gravely threatened by Nazi Germany as by Imperial Japan – maybe more, given the former’s concurrent pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The Greatest Generation had every right to come together as a nation and assert their right to self-defense – and that doesn’t make them pro-war imperialists.
Peace loving people thrust into war have only two options, continue the war or end it. Rothbard’s suggestion was that libertarians seek the fastest diplomatic solution to war, in order to minimize the government’s aggression against its own people, but even he acknowledged that diplomacy has limitations.
Historically, most wars only end when one side wins and another loses.
Therefore, along with pursuing diplomacy (which, admittedly, the United States didn’t consistently prioritize through the course of WWII), the most libertarian outcome to be desired is a swift end to the conflict by means of military victory.
The Pax Americana, nominal as it may seem in the age of neoconservative dominance, is nonetheless historically significant in its scope. The absence of additional world wars and the frequently-sidestepped nuclear holocaust threatened by the Cold War are proof that a strong national defense can indeed be born of a sincere desire for peace and stability.
The involvement of the United States in the Second World War, and specifically our liberation of Western Europe, was not only right, reasonable, and morally justified, but decidedly libertarian.
400,000 Americans sacrificed their lives, not to ensure that the United States enjoyed a global empire, but to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and others who had lived under the calculated brutality of Nazi Germany.
And that’s a war effort that every American – and every libertarian – can be proud of.