JACK SPENCER: Lessons learned and lessons misunderstood
On Memorial Day we honor those who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our continued freedom. We do this without reservation. There should be no distinction between those who served in wars that were issues of political dispute and wars that had popular approval.
Decisions, such as the deployment of troops or declarations of war, are the responsibility of our leaders. For the men and women who laid their lives on the line, it was a matter of conviction, courage and duty to a higher calling.
Nonetheless, while honoring those who gave their all, it is important to remember any mistakes or miscalculations that led to them being placed in harm's way. Most of the value of history is lost if we learn nothing from the past.
There are bound to be a number of lessons that should be learned from an event as all-encompassing as World War II. Perhaps the most recognized of these lessons concerned the missteps that led to the war. As Winston Churchill wrote, World War II was not only the most cataclysmic war in history, it was one of the most preventable.
Had the French simply marched in 1936 when Adolf Hitler's German troops entered the Rhineland, World War II might have been averted. German documents seized after the war showed that the German generals would have retreated in the face of even a minor show of force by France. Arguably, had the French marched, all of Hitler's later schemes might have been thwarted.
From 1936 onward, the price of stopping Hitler (in terms of lives and casualties) increased with each act of aggression. By failing to act when the price of stopping Hitler was low, France and the other nations of "the West" set upon the path of avoiding and delaying an inevitable day of reckoning. With each delay Hitler, and the danger he represented, grew stronger
When the war finally came in 1939, Germany's power had reached awesome proportions. By that time, the price of stopping Hitler was very nearly too high to bear.
Dangers become greater and more menacing when we delay facing up to them. To many, this lesson is the primary legacy of World War II. It is most often cited as it pertains to national security. However, its application is far more universal. It applies equally to all dangers, including those in the realm of economics. In addition, it applies to individuals as well as to nations.
Another legacy of World War II lives on today in politics. It provides a key argument seemingly supporting the economic philosophy of the left. Simply put, it is the historical reality that the U.S. government's massive spending on World War II ended the decade-long depression and led to the unprecedented economic boom of the post-war years.
This argument is simplistic and flawed, yet hard to put to rest. It is the counter to those who point out that the spending programs of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s failed to end the depression.
Liberals who possess a general knowledge of history often see the fact that World War II ended the depression as proof that Roosevelt's programs failed in the 1930s because he didn't spend enough. Therefore, their argument continues, if government has yet to spend us into economic happy days, it just needs to spend even more.
Yes, the U.S. government spent heavily on the implements and necessities of World War II. However, most of the vital elements of the economic recovery the U.S. experienced in the 1940s, and subsequently in the 1950s, cannot be duplicated in peacetime.
First and foremost, when the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the attitude of its citizens was almost single-minded. They were willing to make sacrifices, such as putting up with rationing and financially supporting the war effort with bond purchases.
In addition, 16 million men were taken out of the workforce and sent overseas to fight. This, at a time when factories and shops were expanding to meet wartime demands, created vacancies throughout the economy and virtually eliminated unemployment. Also, it should be noted that government spending during World War II was financed at a very low interest rate. Here again, the patriotism and single minded sense of purpose shared by the entire nation played a pivotal role.
It's no secret that any industrial nation gearing up for war will likely experience an improved economy. This is especially true when the effort has popular backing. But usually, when peace arrives, the artificial stimulus feeding the economic expansion subsides and the economy slows - at times very drastically.
This leads to the key point that unhinges the argument that World War II proved we could spend our way to prosperity. At the end of World War II the US economy didn't have to slow down. When the clouds of the conflict cleared, virtually the entire world lay at our feet.
The U.S. emerged with literally an entire world of new markets to conquer economically. These included the vast remnants of the British Empire. There is no way for that unique situation to be recreated. It resulted from the unplanned, chaotic havoc and destruction of a worldwide war.
It is often forgotten that, even with our advantageous position, the end of World War II brought tremendous economic upheavals and displacement. Without the world of new markets in which to expand, there's little reason to believe the U.S. could have avoided a huge economic tailspin.
In other words, economic upswings sparked by massive government spending tend to be artificial and temporary. Unless followed up by something "fundamentally real" to keep the economic expansion rolling, the final result of massive spending will probably be detrimental.
It's also worth mentioning that only the U.S., with our free market economy, was in a position to take advantage of the post-war opportunity. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, which is generally considered to have been the other primary victor of World War II, couldn't compete. With its socialized and centralized "planned" economy, the U.S.S.R. was not up to the task.
Our free market economy allows human creativity to flourish, inviting invention and innovation. That, combined with the brand new markets around the world, was what fed the unprecedented economic boom that followed World War II. This was the force that set the U.S. apart as the world's leading economic power throughout the second half of the last century.
It was inevitable that other nations would finally rise up and provide us with serious competition. Not surprisingly, they are doing so by copying us. How ironic and tragic it would be if we now move in the other direction.
Those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II have been called the "Greatest Generation." The fact is that every generation has challenges to confront, and they are never small ones.
Forgetting or never learning the lessons of history is the worst way to tackle the future. Drawing the wrong conclusions from history would be just as disastrous.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.