History Repeats Itself

The following sentiments were expressed by Edgar Jones, a World War II veteran, in a July 1946 Atlantic Monthly piece called “One War is Enough.”

WE Americans have the dangerous tendency in our international thinking to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward other nations. We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless cities, thereby setting an alltime record for instantaneous mass slaughter.

As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency; and in Pacific contests we saw mankind reach the blackest depths of bestiality.


Secretary of the Navy Forrestal told the Woodrum Committee, “We are going to fight any international ruffian who attempts to impose his will on the world by force.” Such an eminent authority notwithstanding, we cannot maintain world peace by ourselves. Except by stunting our national growth and sacrificing our youth and resources, we cannot “settle” the Pacific situation the next time the “Asia for the Asiatics” movement gets underway. We cannot do guard duty over the Balkan status quo, or protect democratic minorities in Spain, or guarantee Chilean sovereignty.

In order to be free to develop ourselves, we must rely on an international police force to take care of international ruffians. Instead of envisioning ourselves in the role of benevolent world cops, we should be turning over our badges to international deputies of peace, who would relieve us of the responsibility of being constantly alerted for trouble. We should be working toward a united world, indivisible, with equal restraints and correspondingly equal liberties for all.

I stumbled across the piece because of a link from David Greenberg, who was making the point that we over-romanticize WWII in general and D-Day in particular. What strikes me about it, though, is how much similarity there is between Jones’ arguments and those we hear today.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hal says:

    Interesting way you have of saying things. What’s your point? That the torture is justified? That we do horrible things in the name of good and because WWII was good and we did nasty things then we’re justified now?

    C’mon James. Don’t hide behind inference. Just come right out and say what you’re thinking. . .

  2. James Joyner says:

    The main thing in that excerpt is that it demonstrates that charges of American unilateralism aren’t new.

    In terms of torture and other war crimes, I merely note that they are a fact of war. Even good ones that we remember fondly. We should prosecute those responsible but not let them distract us from the struggle at hand.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Ah, okay. That’s the problem with relying on inference. . .

  4. McGehee says:

    Actually, I think Hal’s pretty much the only person who didn’t get it on the first reading.