I met a man from Mississippi the other day. We sat next to each other over dinner at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When he heard my British accent, he thanked me for our support for the United States military in Iraq.  He said that America had rescued freedom and democracy in Europe in two world wars, and was pleased that Britain was, in return, standing now with America.

It is quite a common perception in America that it stood up for democracy and freedom in Europe.  Just this week, President George W. Bush compared the war in Iraq with the two World Wars

We defeated fascism; we defeated communism; and we will defeat the hateful ideology of the terrorists who attacked America. Each of these struggles for freedom required great sacrifice. From the beaches of Normandy to the snows of Korea, courageous Americans gave their lives so others could live in freedom.

I am not making a point about Republicans: a decade ago Bill Clinton said:

Our people fought two world wars so that freedom could triumph over tyranny.

I am an economist, not a historian, so doubtless somebody will put me right if I have got this wrong, but that isn't how I understand America's involvement in either of the World Wars.  The way I heard it, America was a determined isolationist in the run up to both wars:

  • Britain went to war on August 4th 1914 in response to an unprovoked invasion of Belgium.  The US entered the war on April 6th 1917, nearly three years later, following aggression against American shipping by German submarines (and about two years after the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7th, 1915).  
  • Britain went to war again on September 3rd 1939 when Poland was invaded. Canada, Australia, New Zealand & South Africa all immediately joined Britain by declaring war on Hitler in 1939, and the United States did not. It wasn't until more than two years later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 6th 1941, that the United States entered the war. Hitler declared war on the United States, not the other way round. Though some brave and principled Americans chose to join the Canadian armed forces to help fight the Nazis, the US Government  remained officially neutral until it was attacked, and most Americans opposed joining the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

What's more, as the third volume of Robert Skidelsky's magisterial biography of J. M. Keynes describes, Britain paid a heavy price for US support. The United States demanded that in return for Lend Lease, which Britain desperately needed to sustain its war effort, Britain pledge itself to abandon any aspirations of post-war empire, dismantle the system of imperial preference and shrink the sterling area to prevent it from competing with the dollar.  Skidelsky describes the way that Washington managed the flow of Lend-Lease supplies which had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of leaving Britain dependent on US help after the war on whatever terms America chose to impose.  And the terms they imposed were not generous.  Did you know that, even today, Britain is still re-paying America for its World War II debt?  The British Treasury still has to write cheques to the US Treasury, year after year, to pay back the costs of fighting the Nazis. (Britain will make its final payment in December 2006.)  Not exactly the behaviour of a close friend and ally, fighting shoulder to shoulder for democracy and freedom.

Of course, I realise that without the help of America, Britain would almost certainly not have won either war; and I pay tribute to the brave American men and women who fought in those wars.  I certainly don't mean to belittle their sacrifice. (And we should also remember that without the superhuman efforts of the Russians, America might not have won the second world war either.)

The way I see it, Britain stood up for democracy and freedom, reflexively and immediately. The United States, by contrast, was dragged kicking and screaming out of isolationism.  When the US join the second world war, several years later, it exploited the opportunity to pursue its global objectives, including making sure that Britain's economic and military power would be sharply reduced, to strengthen America's position as a global power.

Now I don't hold this against America, or Americans, today. All water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned.  I understand the reasons for America's isolationism then, and, as I say, I'm glad they joined the war on our side eventually.  Better late than never and all that. I'd rather they hadn't screwed us on Lend Lease, but let's let bygones be bygones, eh?  But if Americans are going to boast about their involvement as an example of America's commitment to liberty and democracy, then they must expect to be reminded of the inconvenient facts.

I didn't say anything to the man from Mississipi about any of this, as I didn't (and don't) want to be rude to my hosts here in America. I didn't want to have a fight with a big man at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Maybe I've got this all wrong – I'm an economist not a historian. In which case, please put me right. 

Update: have a look at Neil Hall's interesting comment on this post which describes how the United States profited from the second world war. 


Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


Tony Hatfield · August 29, 2005 at 2:31 am

Edmund Blackadder and Baldrick have an interesting debate on why WW1 started; this is an extract from “Goodbyee,” the last and probably the best of Blackadder4.

Baldrick: Permission to ask a question, sir…

Edmund: Permission granted, Baldrick, as long as isn’t the one about where babies come from.

Baldrick: No, the thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right, and ages ago there wasn’t a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right, and there being a war on came along. So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

Edmund: Do you mean, “How did the war start?”

Baldrick: Yeah.

George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire building.

Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. (aside, to Baldrick) Mad as a bicycle!

Baldrick: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry.

Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.

Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.

Edmund: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.

George: By gum this is interesting; I always loved history — The Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and his six knives, all that.

Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two super blocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.

Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?

Edmund: Yes, that’s right. You see there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

George: What was that, sir?

Edmund: It was bollocks.

Baldrick: So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.

If you think it too flippant just push the delete button, Owen!

Owen · August 29, 2005 at 5:42 am

Tony: Excellent. I think I understand the main causes of World War II, but I have never really got my head round why World War I began. This is very illuminating.


am · August 29, 2005 at 11:59 pm

“And we should also remember that without the superhuman efforts of the Russions, America might not have won the second world war either”

You think Germany would have survived having all her cities nuked?

dearieme · August 30, 2005 at 9:09 am

Professor Fischer argued that WWI was caused by the rulers of Germany itching to find a pretext to attack Russia, because Russia was industrialising so successfully that if they didn’t beat her soon, the chance would be gone. A major cause of the American entry was the Zimmermann telegram (from the German Foreign Office), which offered Mexico large slices of the USA if it joined the German side if the USA entered the war. After Zimmermann owned up to the telegram being pukkah, the USA duly entered the war, but not as an ally but rather a “co-belligerent”. As for WWII, you are quite right: the USA had no intention at all of fighting until attacked by Japan and having war declared on her by Germany.

Neil Hall · August 30, 2005 at 2:18 pm

It is also worth mentioning that the United States profited enormously from the war.

Firstly, Britain had to sell all its huge portfolio of overseas investments, picked up by American investors at firesale prices. Secondly, U.S. arms manufacturers were able to sell weapons to Britain at grossly inflated prices (nothing unique about U.S. as opposed to other arms manufacturers in that respect).

Thirdly, once the foreign assets had run out, Britain was forced to borrow heavily to carry on the war, and as you point out, the terms offered by the U.S. were not generous, and gave the U.S. huge political and economic leverage against Britain. Probably the reason (amongst many other examples) why Britain sold the U.S. its jet engine technology for peanuts (£400,000 IIRC).

Britain was financially devastated by the war. I was struck by a throwaway line towards the end of Churchill’s History of WWII, to the effect that the resources expended on the war by Britain exceeded those of the U.S. every year for the first five years of the war, and only in the final year [when it mattered for the U.S. to be able to dictate the outcome] did the U.S. spend more.

Neil (not a historian either!)

PS. Owen, could you provide a “preview” button, please?

Brian · August 31, 2005 at 12:59 am

‘am’ asks the interesting question:

You think Germany would have survived having all her cities nuked?

This prompts another question: You think the US would have used a nuclear weapon, or several nuclear weapons, against Europeans and at the heart of Europe?

I merely ask the question, without for a moment seeking to suggest what the answer should be. On the one hand Britain, with arguably more influence in Washington then than nowadays, would probably have been strongly opposed to the massive destruction and contamination that ‘nuking’ German cities would have entailed, at the heart of our own continent and in an area surrounded at close quarters by occupied friendly states and populations; the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union?) would also probably have been opposed, for other, geo-political reasons (but probably wouldn’t have been consulted); there might have been a racially-influenced reluctance to use such a fearsome weapon against fellow-Caucasians; and considerations of the costs of reconstruction after nuclear attacks might have weighed heavily (remember that no nuclear weapon was used against Tokyo). On the other hand, the long-term and geographically widespread consequences of a nuclear explosion from radiation weren’t fully appreciated at the time, and could not have been; and the attractions of probably ending the war quickly and avoiding any need for a protracted land war to liberate Europe involving hundreds of thousands of American and other Allies’ casualties might have been irresistible, as they were in the case of Japan.

We shall never know the answer. But even hypothetically it doesn’t seem to me at all obvious what the answer would have been.


am · August 31, 2005 at 1:34 am

Brian, the US performed over 100 atmospheric nuclear tests within the continental US. Given that, one doubts that there would have been much concern over collateral damage in Europe.

Owen · August 31, 2005 at 7:26 am

Without the Russians, would the war have lasted long enough for the US to develop weapons before Germany had conquered Europe? (The first nuclear test was July 1945.)

Ronnie · September 1, 2005 at 1:44 pm

What did you expect your Mississipian to say? In the last century and this we expect to fight only for widely noble reasons and not just for the succession to thrones, and we certainly do not want to be reminded of any baser motives. It’s a bit like singing “Land of hope and glory”. The other thought is that as a formidably educated man, even from Oxford, you must be a bit of a historian.

chris · December 22, 2006 at 8:50 pm

bingo total agree

i think that we could have won without american ivolment though or aid to both sides

US aid to the USSR indeed was substantial. But of the total amount, all of which — with the exception of some aircraft that were flown northwest across Canada, across Alaska and delivered in Siberia — had to travel by slowboat convoys across the Atlantic ocean to the ice-free north russian port of Murmansk. About midway through the war, by 1943, the US and USSR had jointly constructed a modern railroad line in Iran, north from the Persian gulf and through that country to the soviet border in the transcausian region.

The bulk of our aid came into Russia via that route, involving a long transit across the Atlantic, around Africa to the Persian gulf, and up a long rail connection to central Russia. All this meant that the bulk of the aid we delivered to the USSR starting coming at a time after which the strategic balance in the gigantic and continuous battles on the eastern front already had shifted to the soviet side.

In other words, the aid received by the Soviet Union from the USA certainly accelerated the schedule of the soviet victory over nazi Germany. But by the late July 1943, the axis forces had been cleared from north Africa; allied forces already had conquered Sicily; Mussolini was deposed and Italy — hitherto a major german ally — dropped out of the war; the battle of the Atlantic against Germany’s U-boat fleet had decisively turned in favor of the United Kingdom; in the far east, Japan’s aircraft carrier fleet had been smashed for more than a year and the Japanese had been the defensive against US navel and “island-hopping” advances for almost a year. And in south central Russia, the great battle of Kursk in early July 1943 sealed the doom of Hitler’s tank and motorized armies, a doom that had begun in the failed winter battles before Moscow in late 1941, had accelerated in the catastrophe at Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943, and was growing as allied air power began the destruction of Germany’s key war industries in daylight bombing and the incineration of entire cities such as Hamburg in night bombing with incindiery bombs.

2) Russia, despite that it fully utilized American-manufactured 2-1/2 ton trucks and jeeps in large numbers later in the war, along with use radio-communications gear, much of their rail transportation equipment, and supplemental foodstuffs for their military population, manufactured most of their own military armaments.

As a matter of fact, German military planners learned that most of these were far better suited than their own to combat conditions in Russia — especially in the inclement weather that prevailed there. For example, as early as July 1941, german panzer units near Smolensk came up against a unit of newly-mobilized T-34 tanks, regarded as the best all-around tank of the war on any front in World War II. German shells reportedly bounced off the sides of this new tank, while its 76mm armor piercing shells smashed the treads and much of the armor of the Mark IV panzers that were the backbone of the German armored forces at that time.

The same generalizations could be made about Soviet artillery, antitank guns, fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft and even their infantry machine guns. German weapons frequently were finely engineered examples of craftsmanship, but which would freeze up under winter conditions, or jammed stop firing after having been dropped in muddy water. Russian weapons were crudely and cheaply manufactured, but never jammed and operated in all Russian climate conditions.

The fact that the USSR still had an armaments manufacturing industry in 1942 and 1943 was itself one of Stalin’s secret weapons. Most of the prevwar soviet heavy industry was located in western Russia, the same areas that were about to be overrun by the german armies during June-October 1941.

But as early as late June, just days after operation Barbarossa was mounted, the decision was approved by the State Defense Committee of the USSR (Stalin and his top wartime key people) to evacuate as much as possible of the USSR’s manufacturing plants — and above all the military arsenals — far to the east in and behind the Ural mountains of western Siberia. Amid the chaos of battle, and in winter termperatures that were causing German troops outside Moscow to lose their combat capabilities — Russian workmen newly arrived at jerrybuilt factories in Siberia already were turning out tanks, aircraft, artillery, small arms and all else needed by modern armies, and these were being sent off immediately for use by the vast armies that the Soviets would arm and train in time to play their role in surrounding, trapping and breaking the german 6th army and 4th tank army in the cauldron of Stalingrad.

One must come to the conclusion that Hitler, his nazi regime and his admitedly large and modern armies, were all doomed that moment he took his fateful decision to invade Russia. There, for the first time, the german forces, although undeniably dynamic and powerful, ran up against a truly superior force, one that might indeed beat itself through ineptitude or executive indecision or mistake. But all told, Stalin was a far better generalissimo than his nazi counterpart, his resource base was infinitely greater than that of Germany, and in the test of four years of the most grueling and sustained combat in history, the russian nation proved more steadfast than their german counterpart. Their were, of course, few differences in the way their countries were led, both by bloody and vicious dictatorships. But historical hindsight shows that the soviet dictatorship was better organized than its nazi counterpart, and whereas Adolf Hitler kept repeating his tactical errors, especially after he had taken over day to day command of all the german armed forces, Josef Stalin never repeated any particular blunder, and after 1942, he wisely allowed his best generals to run the war effort.

My judgement from all the evidence is that Russia would have won her war against Germany regardless of US or British participation, although that participation greatly speeded up the destruction of Germany and its armed nazi leadership.

Moreover, it is evident that had the US, British and Canadian forces not landed in western France in June 1944, the soviet armies would have fought their way not only across all of Germany, but would have reached the english channel as well.

The question has been raised about a possible german armistice with the USSR in 1943. But that possibility does not take into account Hitler’s crazed racial philosophies or his equally crazed unwillingness to retreat his forces from any trap he had put them into. After Stalingrad, and certainly after Kursk, the Soviet leadership never would have made peace on any basis othr than removing all Germans from any part of Europe east of their 1941 starting line. This, Hitler would never have accepted, because he was still dreaming of non-existent forces and possible victories even as he awaited his suicide while he was trapped in his bunker deep under the earth in Berlin. And by mid-1943, Josef Stalin and his marshals knew that would crush Hitler and nazi Germany, regardless of anything the western allies did or did not do.

hv obiedo · October 12, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Many yrs ago I did a paper in college with the same theme as this article
my proffessor said it was interesting view.The russiains have proved they could defeat germany on their own without US aid, as we all have seen, you are correct.

Ephems of BLB · August 29, 2005 at 2:08 am

Two wars to defend freedom: exploding an American and a British myth

American claims to have fought two world wars to defend freedom against tyranny need qualification in the light of the facts and dates. There’s a sort of parallel with Britain’s failure to support Poland in 1939… [more >>>]

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