War is a very unpleasant business but there are times when unpleasant things cannot be avoided. If a war has to be fought it is essential that it should be fought in such a way as to achieve something. The fact that there might be just cause is not enough. If the war fails in its objects it is sometimes the case that it would have been better not fought at all.
The Second World War is usually thought of as being the outstanding example of a just war. Perhaps it was, but what did it achieve? The ostensible cause was the German invasion of Poland. Britain and France declared war, presumably in order to save Poland. In fact Poland was invaded anyway and not only suffered six years of misery under the Nazis but a further four decades of misery under communist domination. If Britain and France went to war to save Poland it has to be said that this was a war that failed spectacularly to achieve its objective.
Of course it could be argued that the real aim was to stop German aggression and prevent the spread of totalitarianism. In fact the war ended with the whole of eastern Europe under the heel of totalitarianism, a situation that continued for more than forty years. The war cost sixty million lives. The subjugation of China to Maoist totalitarianism was an indirect result of the war and that subjugation added several tens of millions of additional dead. Hardly an impressive success.
If the war is regarded in terms of national self-interest the story is equally grim. The two powers that declared war in 1939, Britain and France, were as a direct consequence of the war reduced from the status of great powers to the status of third-rate powers.
The real question of course is whether not going to war would have led to worse consequences. Had Britain and France not declared war there’s no doubt that Germany and the Soviet Union would still have carved up Poland would there’s equally no doubt that Germany would eventually have gone to war with the Soviet Union. This had always been Hitler’s intention. And it was always going to be a hideously destructive conflict. The mass murders carried out by the Nazis would undoubtedly have occurred. But it is unlikely that the final death toll would have exceeded sixty million, and it might well have been considerably lower. The actual results of the war were so appalling that it is difficult to imagine how things could possibly have turned out worse.
While war with Russia was always Hitler’s intention, war with Britain and France was most certainly not his intention in 1939.
One also has to consider the possibility that while Britain and France might not have been able to avoid war an eventual war with Germany that war might have been better fought under much more favourable circumstances. The best time to have stopped Hitler would have been much earlier, in the early or mid-1930s. At that time German rearmament had only just begun on a serious scale and Germany could almost certainly have been crushed quickly and at a much lower cost. Even in 1938 when the crisis over Czechoslovakia first erupted it is likely that the war could have achieved its aims at a much lower overall cost. Czechoslovakia was a respectable mid-ranking military power with a well-equipped army and a large and modern armaments industry. British and French intervention might have had some chance of saving Czechoslovakia. In 1939 the chances of saving Poland were nil.
If you’re going to go to war it’s a very good idea to have a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve, and it’s an even better idea to have a clear notion as to whether such objectives really are achievable. In 1939 Britain and France had no such clarity of vision.
Even more importantly if you’re going to wage a war as part of an alliance it’s wise to be realistic about your allies. If their objectives are totally at variance with your own, as was obviously the case with the ill-advised alliance with the Soviet Union, you need to think very carefully about the extent to which it is wise to support that ally. Propping up the Soviet Union in 1941 was probably a good idea. Continuing to send aid once the danger of an imminent Soviet collapse was over was foolish and naïve. Giving Stalin the means to overrun eastern Europe was sheer stupidity. The Soviets overran eastern Europe with Sherman tanks and Studebaker trucks. Had Britain and the US limited their aid to Stalin eastern Europe might have been saved from decades of totalitarian misery. The British were particularly foolish in late 1941, sending Stalin the modern fighter aircraft that could have saved Singapore.
War is a horrible thing. It is even more horrible when it is waged for no useful purpose.