It is obvious that the war fought by the Axis powers – Germany, Italy, Japan – was an extraordinarily and unprecedentedly savage war of imperial conquest and enslavement. And conversely, according to the “good war” myth, their adversaries – primarily Britain, the USA, the USSR – were therefore fighting:
- a war of self-defence
- a war for liberation
- a war for democracy
- a war against fascism, racism and genocide
The Atlantic Charter, issued by Churchill and Roosevelt in August 1941, is a convenient reference point. As a statement of war aims it was subsequently subscribed to by all Allied states via the Declaration by the United Nations of 1 January 1942, signed by 26 belligerent states (8 of them client governments-in-exile) and acceded to by a further 21 states by the end of the war, thus forming the basis of the post-war United Nations Organisation.
In the Charter, the Allies proclaim that:
- First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;
- Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;
- Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them
But as we shall see, this proved no more than a paper proclamation of liberation to legitimise a war for empire, no more genuine than the “co-prosperity sphere” Japan proclaimed for East Asia in August 1940.
A war of self-defence?
To begin at the beginning, it should be stated clearly that the Britain and the USA did not simply enter the war in self-defence, as innocent victims of Axis aggression.
Britain was not attacked by Nazi Germany in September 1939, and indeed the British ruling class had been happy to accommodate the rise and expansion of fascism in Europe throughout the 1930s, tacitly supporting Franco’s overthrow of the Spanish republic and consigning Czechoslovakia to Nazi conquest in 1938-9. Britain only entered the war at the point where German expansion was deemed to threaten British imperial interests and Franco-British client states, specifically the anti-semitic and authoritarian Polish regime.
The myth endures that the USA entered the war in because of the “unprovoked and dastardly” Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” as Roosevelt described it to Congress the next day. This myth was deployed immediately and throughout the war by the rulers of the USA to mobilise the American people for all-out war, but again it requires serious qualification. Firstly, surprise attack of this nature was a commonplace of warfare over the previous two centuries and Pearl Harbor was by no means an unprecedented act of Oriental treachery. Secondly, the US had wilfully provoked a Japanese attack, knowing it would lead to war, by placing Japan under an oil embargo in 1940 that gave Japanese imperialism the simple choice to fight the USA or to capitulate. Thirdly, as a glance at the map below will show, the USA was itself an imperial power, that in the preceding half-century had carved out its own empire, ruling Latin America and the Caribbean through puppet regimes backed by the threat of invasion, and constructing a network of bases and conquered territories across the Pacific right up to Japan’s doorstep – in which process the US military had, for instance, killed perhaps 200,000 Filipinos in the war of conquest of 1899-1902. Hawaii itself, the site of the Pearl Harbor attack, was not a free part of the USA but a component of this empire, annexed in 1898. In short, the USA was not an innocent victim of Japanese imperialism – it was a rival and competitor in the struggle between imperialist powers and went to war to defend its empire.
Britain – a war for empire?
The British ruling class fought not for liberation but to defend the British Empire. Britain did not, as nationalist myth would now have it (and contemporary propaganda), stand valiantly alone against the overweening power of German-dominated Europe. Britain stood at the head of the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Churchill made no secret of the fact that he was directing a war in defence of Empire, and this can be seen by a careful reading of his most famous speeches:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…for without victory there can be no survival – let that be realised – no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for.
The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
What this meant in practice can be seen in the Indian experience of the war. 400 million Indians woke on 3 September 1939 to find that they were at war with Germany – unlike the white governments of Australia and Canada, Indians were not consulted, they were simply sent to war by their rulers from London. When Churchill told the House of Commons that “India has a great part to play in the world’s struggle for freedom”, that evidently did not include the freedom of India itself. The Indian independence movement was entirely ready to willingly commit a free India to the war against fascism – indeed, its leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, had more genuine anti-fascist credentials than Churchill himself – but London would not accept this. Instead, the independence movement was met with large-scale repression in which perhaps 10,000 Indians were killed and 100,000 imprisoned. So much for the Atlantic Charter’s respect “for the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”.
The nadir for war-time India was the Bengal famine of 1943. In a year of good harvest, the cost imposed on India of supporting the massively increased military presence of wartime led to inflation of food prices and catastrophic famine. The London government opposed the provision of any famine relief. Churchill blocked the Canadian government and local commanders from providing food aid, proclaiming “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”. Even his underling Amery, Secretary for India, was moved to tell Churchill to his face that he had a “Hitler-like attitude”. The resulting, entirely man-made famine killed between 1.5 and 3.5 million Indians and should be ranked alongside Stalin’s Holodomor as an act of state murder on an unimaginable scale.
The USA – a war for empire?
US imperialism was of a different and less flagrant stripe. But it is clear that the US government sought to use the war to transform its informal regional empire in Latin America and the Pacific, based less on formal territorial rule and more on economic domination and puppet regimes backed by the threat of military intervention, into global hegemony of the same ilk. As Secretary of State Cordell Hull revealingly declared in 1942,
Leadership toward a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs will devolve largely upon the United States because of our great economic strength. We should assume leadership and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure self-interest.
And certainly the outcome of the war was the translation of US regional empire into global empire. From 1945, the vastly enriched US economy dominated a world in which old-style imperial barriers were broken down in the name of the “open door” policy; a ring of allies, client states and military bases encircled the world, all underwritten by the terrible threat of the atomic bomb.