As we all know, the United Nations was founded "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." The words can only elicit deep regret when we consider how we have acted to fulfill that aspiration, though there have been a few significant successes, notably in Europe.
The global conquest took a particularly horrifying form in what is sometimes called "the Anglosphere," England and its offshoots, settler-colonial societies in which the indigenous societies were devastated and their people dispersed or exterminated. But since 1945 Europe has become internally the most peaceful and in many ways most humane region of the earth - which is the source of some its current travail, an important topic that I will have to put aside.
In scholarship, this dramatic transition is often attributed to the thesis of the "democratic peace": democracies do not go to war with one another. Not to be overlooked, however, is that Europeans came to realize that the next time they indulge in their favorite pastime of slaughtering one another, the game will be over: civilisation has developed means of destruction that can only be used against those too weak to retaliate in kind, a large part of the appalling history of the post-World War II years. It is not that the threat has ended. US-Soviet confrontations came painfully close to virtually terminal nuclear war in ways that are shattering to contemplate, when we inspect them closely.
And the threat of nuclear war remains all too ominously alive, a matter to which I will briefly return.
A somewhat more persuasive stand, I think, is that of the pacifist thinker and social activist A.J. Muste, one of the great figures of 20th century America, in my opinion: what he called "revolutionary pacifism." Muste disdained the search for peace without justice. He urged that "one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist" - by which he meant that we must cease to "acquiesce [so] easily in evil conditions," and must deal "honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem" - "the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil - material and spiritual - this entails for the masses of men throughout the world." Unless we do so, he argued, "there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten per cent of the violence employed by the rebels against oppression" - no matter how hideous they may be.
He was confronting the hardest problem of the day for a pacifist, the question whether to take part in the anti-fascist war. In writing about Muste's stand 45 years ago, I quoted his warning that "The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will teach him a lesson?" His observation was all too apt at the time, while the Indochina wars were raging. And on all too many other occasions since.
The allies did not fight "the good war," as it is commonly called, because of the awful crimes of fascism. Before their attacks on western powers, fascists were treated rather sympathetically, particularly "that admirable Italian gentleman," as FDR called Mussolini. Even Hitler was regarded by the US State Department as a "moderate" holding off the extremists of right and left. The British were even more sympathetic, particularly the business world. Roosevelt's close confidant Sumner Welles reported to the president that the Munich settlement that dismembered Czechoslovakia "presented the opportunity for the establishment by the nations of the world of a new world order based upon justice and upon law," in which the Nazi moderates would play a leading role.
As late as April 1941, the influential statesman George Kennan, at the dovish extreme of the postwar planning spectrum, wrote from his consular post in Berlin that German leaders have no wish to "see other people suffer under German rule," are "most anxious that their new subjects should be happy in their care," and are making "important compromises" to assure this benign outcome.
Though by then the horrendous facts of the Holocaust were well known, they scarcely entered the Nuremberg trials, which focused on aggression, "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole": in Indochina, Iraq, and all too many other places where we have much to contemplate.
The horrifying crimes of Japanese fascism were virtually ignored in the postwar peace settlements. Japan's aggression began exactly 80 years ago, with the staged Mukden incident, but for the West, it began 10 years later, with the attack on military bases in two US possessions. India and other major Asian countries refused even to attend the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty conference because of the exclusion of Japan's crimes in Asia - and also because of Washington's establishment of a major military base in conquered Okiniwa, still there despite the energetic protests of the population.
"Today it is we Americans who live in infamy," Schlesinger wrote, as our government adopts the policies of imperial Japan - thoughts that were barely articulated elsewhere in the mainstream, and quickly suppressed: I could find no mention of this principled stand in the praise for Schlesinger's accomplishments when he died a few years later.
We can also learn a lot about ourselves by carrying Schlesinger's lament a few steps further. By today's standards, Japan's attack was justified, indeed meritorious. Japan, after all, was exercising the much lauded doctrine of anticipatory self-defense when it bombed military bases in Hawaii and the Philippines, two virtual US colonies, with reasons far more compelling than anything that Bush and Blair could conjure up when they adopted the policies of imperial Japan in 2003. Japanese leaders were well aware that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming off the Boeing production lines, and they could read in the American press that these killing machines would be able to burn down Tokyo, a "city of rice-paper and wood houses."