To many millions of Americans—most particularly, veterans and their families—it remains a noble enterprise. As indeed it was, that necessary, dirty business of defeating Nazi totalitarianism and Japanese militarism. Nothing is ever simple, including World War II: the United States was tardy in taking the measure of the threat posed by Hitler’s Third Reich; the unsatisfactory endgame of the war consigned east central Europe to the empire of another totalitarian power with which we were in uneasy alliance; the Cold War followed. But when all the “buts” have been considered, the fact remains that World War II had to be fought. And it was a very good thing that the United States and Great Britain won, and that Germany and Japan lost.
Yet historian Paul Johnson did not exaggerate when he described World War II as “one of the greatest man-made disasters in history.” The precise casualty figures will never be known. Sixty million dead, with civilian casualties exceeding military, is one informed estimate: 25 million Russians, 15 million Chinese, 6 million Jews, 6 million Poles, 4 million Germans, over 2 million Japanese. A further ten million people were expelled from their homes during the last phase of the war and in the months immediately thereafter, in what another historian calls “the largest single migration of people in a short period of which we know.” The sheer magnitude of these numbers blunts their impact, just as the ubiquitous photos of bombed-out cities give destruction a terrible sameness: is that the rubble of Rotterdam, or Coventry, or Dresden, or Osaka, or Warsaw, or Berlin, or Stalingrad? Dwight D. Eisenhower said it simply and well: “The loss of lives that might have been creatively lived scars the mind of the modern world.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.