Thursday, July 17, 2008

Questioning the "good war"

Some people are currently rethinking the standard approach to the Second World War. Most Americans have always believed that history's largest and deadliest military confrontation was a "good war" that had to be fought and that the Allies -- France, Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, et al. -- were the morally superior force.

Tonight, on Channel 2 at 8 p.m., is the last of a three-part series hosted by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson and titled The War of the World, which questions some of those ideas. At least one of his points is more semantic: that what we call World War II began not on Sept. 1, 1939, with Hitler's invasion of Poland, but in the summer of 1937, when full-scale hostilities began between China and invading Japan. A television critic for The New York Times disagreed with some of Ferguson's more controversial conclusions. (If you miss the program tonight, it -- and the other episodes -- will be repeated in August. Check the WGBH web site here for days and times.)

What attracted my attention is that this series is airing just as two Americans -- conservative Pat Buchanan and pacifist Nicholson Baker -- have written books that argue similarly. Buchanan's book is called Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, while Baker's is Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. I'm left to wonder why suddenly, some 60 years later, several people have reached similar conclusions.

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