In the days before America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush and members of his administration repeatedly drew parallels between the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the menace of Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. As Bush and his advisers saw it, critics of the government’s planned military action in Iraq bore a striking similarity to the American isolationists and British appeasers who opposed standing up to Hitler. “Tyrants respond to toughness,” national security adviser Condoleeza Rice declared on Feb. 16, 2003. “That was true in the 1930s and 1940s when we failed to respond to tyranny, and it is true today.”
Not for the first time, the lessons of Nazi Germany and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis. The danger of Saddam Hussein was in no way comparable to Hitler’s threat to the security and survival of Western civilization — a fact made abundantly clear when the White House’s claim of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false.
Nonetheless, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, there is a lesson from World War II that should not be ignored, even though the Bush White House, for its own political ends, did so. It’s the vital importance of engaging in a full-throated national debate before actually taking the country into combat.
For more than two years –from the outbreak of war in September 1939 to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — millions of Americans took part in arguably the most vigorous prewar debate in this country’s history. What was America’s role to be? Should it remain an isolationist nation, clinging to its fortress mentality and focusing only on its own defense? Or, as one of the world’s leading powers, must it assume responsibility for helping to stop the rampages of Germany and its allies? Passionate arguments over those issues raged across the United States, from the White House and Congress to bars, offices, beauty parlors, and classrooms in the biggest of cities and smallest of towns. Harsh, even violent at times, the dispute ripped apart friendships and fractured families. It was, recalled the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “the most savage political debate in my lifetime.” Yet, for all its bitterness, it was a true exercise in democracy. Citizens’ groups on both sides sprang up to lobby government officials and public opinion. Grassroots activism flourished throughout the country, as volunteers circulated petitions, phoned their neighbors, staged rallies, and wrote letters to the editor. Everyone got a chance to make his or her case, and, as a result, the pros and cons of U.S. involvement in the war were carefully and thoroughly weighed.
By the time of Pearl Harbor, attitudes toward entering the war had shifted dramatically. According to polls, a substantial majority of Americans, once staunchly isolationist, now regarded “defeating Nazism” as the “biggest job facing their country.” Aware that they would have to pay a heavy price if they entered the war, most Americans nonetheless had come to the conclusion that it was necessary. The psychological and emotional preparation they had undergone contributed greatly to the country’s immediate unity once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy.
Contrast that with the way we went to war against Iraq — or for that matter, with our involvement in most of the wars this country has waged since World War II. Almost without exception, they’ve been launched by the executive branch of the government with little or no consultation with –or input by — Congress and the public. Throughout the Iraq war, only those actually serving there were asked to bear any significant sacrifices; the war’s harsh reality barely touched the vast majority of Americans.
In the end, though, there’s always a steep price to be paid for war, especially one that lasts eight years. The tab for the Iraq conflict has come due in a variety of ways, including the enormous drain on the country’s economy and the military, the crippling physical and psychological disabilities suffered by tens of thousands of servicemen and women, and the damage to our credibility abroad.
The debate over World War II was highly contentious, even painful, but that’s as it should be. It should be painful to go to war, and Americans should be given the chance, before any future conflicts, to participate in a national debate about whether the benefits are worth the heavy costs that will inevitably follow.