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Bad WWII History: Neutrality Edition

May 4, 2012

Tom Parker at Amnesty International, in his criticism of John Brennan’s recent speech on the U.S. drone campaigns, offers up a strange argument:

Wars are fought between states in defined theaters of conflict. Brennan drew a comparison with World War II, but World War II was fought on the territories occupied by the parties to the conflict and not just anywhere that was considered expedient.

In World War II the United States and its allies recognized the neutrality of non-combatant states.

A great example of how the Allies operated within these constraints and still managed to protect their citizens, involves the Nazi pocket battleship Graf Spee being scuttled in Montevideo harbor. Look it up, it’s a fantastic story.

Better yet watch the movie, it’s good too.

If we’re going to dig up WWII historical obscurities to make a modern policy argument, I suppose I would offer the blatant counterexample of the Allies’ rather selective respect for neutrality: Operation Fork. In May of 1940, Britain had come to the determination that the loss of Iceland to Germany was an unacceptable political outcome. Consequently, Britain drew up plans for the invasion and occupation of Iceland, a country whose known armed inhabitants numbered perhaps in the dozens. This was, of course, to prevent an invasion by Germany (none was planned) or a coup by Germans living in Iceland to seize control of the country (none were interested). Iceland’s neutrality did not much trouble the British government. As the Permanent Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs wrote in his diary at the time:

Home 8. Dined and worked. Planning conquest of Iceland for next week. Shall probably be too late! Saw several broods of ducklings.

British planners intended not just to violate Iceland’s neutrality and round up everyone of German origin – particularly those they erroneously believed to be involving in supporting German U-Boat operations – but also to permanently occupy the country – an act which Roosevelt had no qualms with, as by July of 1941 the U.S. had taken over the duties of occupying the neutral country, despite the fact that the Germans had, by this time, no real capability of invading the country and much bigger preoccupations on their Eastern Front. Roosevelt did this long before the U.S. had formally entered the war and justified it on the basis of protecting the U.S. from an imaginary German invasion that might have threatened Allied shipping, in reality it allowed Britain to direct more troops into its combat operations.

Allied policymakers generally justified violations of neutrality on the grounds that the Germans did not respect neutrality either – and the Germans used justifications for their violations of neutrality in a similar manner. The case of Norway is similarly instructive. Both the Allies and Germany feared the Norwegian port of Narvik would fall into the other sides’ hands, thus seizing effective control of neutral Sweden’s iron ore production. The British also feared Germany could use Norwegian waters to create a hole in their blockade. France’s Paul Reynaud rejected Allied concerns about Norwegian neutrality, and he and several Britons thought a naval expedition to the Baltic was strategically expedient. This plan was later moderated to Operation Wilfred, which entailed the mining of Norwegian waters to force ships into international waters where they could be sunk without legal problem. France and other more hawkish planners in Britain had previously mulled an Allied expedition to Finland to help them fight the USSR, which was then still cooperating with Germany in their division of Eastern Europe. The plan, however, would involve the occupation of Norwegian and Swedish territory. Norway and Sweden had denied transit rights for these troops, however, which made the duplicitous endeavor too risky – and then the conclusion of the Winter War made it entirely impossible, leaving Operation Wilfred as the sole option.

The crisis over Scandinavia was exacerbated by the Altmark incident, in which a British destroyer fired on and boarded German tanker inside neutral Norwegian waters, in violation of neutrality law. The incident gave the Germans cause to increase the priority of their own invasion plans of the country, and indeed Britain and France hoped the provocation of British naval operations would prompt a German counter-reaction that could justify sending troops to the country. Indeed it did, and ultimately, the limited violations of neutrality by the Allies before the invasion were rendered moot issues. Germany’s aggressive violation of European neutral states made the issue of neutrality moot.

There is also, of course, the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. Once Germany had launched Barbarossa and the Soviets joined the Allied cause, the Allies were in great need of a way to supply the Soviet war effort. One possible corridor of support would be run through Iran, which was run by the neutral but obviously pro-Axis Reza Shah Pahlavi. They issued an ultimatum to Tehran demanding the expulsion of the limited number of Axis nationals in the country – unlike Iceland, the Anglo-Soviet invasion was not a surprise attack. Yet they did invade neutral Iran anyway. When the Shah protested to Roosevelt on the basis of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt’s reply was rather telling:

Viewing the question in its entirety involves not only the vital questions to which Your Imperial Majesty refers, but other basic considerations arising from Hitler’s ambition of world conquest. It is certain that movements of conquest by Germany will continue and will extend beyond Europe to Asia, Africa, and even to the Americas, unless they are stopped by military force. It is equally certain that those countries which desire to maintain their independence must engage in a great common effort if they are not to be engulfed one by one as has already happened to a large number of countries in Europe. In recognition of these truths, the Government and people of the United States of America, as is well known, are not only building up the defenses of this country with all possible speed, but they have also entered upon a very extensive program of material assistance to those countries which are actively engaged in resisting German ambition for world domination.

In other words, the enemy had boundless geographical ambitions and no respect for sovereignty, and so any country that truly cared about sovereignty would forfeit its right to it and aid the Allies in their war effort against Germany. If they didn’t, then they were just as liable to military action as the enemy itself. Does this rhetoric sound at all familiar?

The invasion of Iran resulted in the Allies establishing a logistical corridor to the USSR, making use of Iranian oil resources, and Soviet-sponsored breakaway movements among Iran’s Azeri and Kurdish populations. Britain forced the Shah to abdicate and then live in exile, where he died before the war’s end.

The Graf Spee incident makes a better movie than Wilfred, R4, or the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, I suppose. But it is simply false to suggest that the Allies had some kind of high-minded respect for neutrality during World War II. When strategically expedient, neutrality was violated, at times for reasons that were far more legally spurious than U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, after all, is at least engaged in conflict with the U.S. In the case of Iran, not even the justifications used for planned or actual violations of Norwegian and Scandinavian neutrality – the presence of German naval vessels or personnel supporting them, or German invasion – were present, instead it was done as a naked attempt to secure logistical assets necessary for aiding the Soviet war effort.

The war on terror is obviously not World War II. But what is rather bizarre – and it is a problem that is certainly not limited to Tom Parker, but to those who write about international security issues more broadly – is the casual and ahistorical use of World War II as some kind of moral standard for wartime conduct. This is evident when Parker continues on the subject of torture:

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, another thing we didn’t feel the need to do in World War II was torture people and, lest we forget, the other side in that conflict had death camps, Kamikaze pilots, V1 guided missiles and V2 ballistic rockets.

Was torture of Axis POWs widespread during World War II? No – well, at least by the Western Allies, I’m not about to go to bat for the ethical standards of the NKVD. Did it happen? Yes, absolutely it did. It was certainly not a matter of pride and open flaunting, as the morally reprehensible promotion of enhanced interrogation as some kind of patriotic virtue during the War on Terror mas made it. But it happened. The London Cage was certainly involved in such ugliness:

Among the documents stored at the National Archives at Kew is the manuscript of [Cage commander Lt. Col. Alexander] Scotland’s memoirs. In his first draft he recalled how he would muse, on arriving at the Cage each morning: “‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ For if any German had any information we wanted, it was invariably extracted from him in the long run.” There was pandemonium at the War Office when the book was submitted to be censored in June 1950. Officials begged Scotland to quietly lock the manuscript away, then threatened him with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Special Branch detectives were sent to raid his retirement home at Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. The Foreign Office urged suppression of the book, as it would assist “persons agitating on behalf of war criminals”. An assessment by MI5 pointed out that Scotland had detailed repeated breaches of the Geneva convention, with his admissions that prisoners had been forced to kneel while being beaten about the head; forced to stand to attention for up to 26 hours; threatened with execution; or threatened with “an unnecessary operation”.

It is also notable that this sort of treatment continued after the end of the war. As the article notes, when prisoners were transferred to prisons in the British occupation zone of Germany, the treatment they received was far worse. Doubtless there were also many allegations of Allied torture after WWII that were played up to help the legal cases of German war criminals, and in WWII it appears the use of torture was something that was quietly tolerated at certain facilities rather than vigorously advocated for in the public sphere. But it still happened.

And of course, focusing on torture as the one bad thing done to POWs obscures the much bigger moral blemish on Allied conduct during World War II – especially in the Pacific – of executing surrendering troops, or even outright killing of prisoners. Or incidences, in the Pacific, of mutilation of Japanese war dead that would utterly horrify groups such as Amnesty International today. Or the number of Allied actions that would be today considered unacceptable war crimes ranking far worse than torture, such as the firebombing of civilian population centers.

None of this is intended to excuse the use of torture in the War on Terror, a practice even more morally unacceptable than it is practically ineffectual. But it is entirely unnecessary, and often historically inaccurate, to use World War II as a moral cudgel against the military operations of today. World War II was, by and large, a war fought on the basis of strategic expediency. It involved the routine violation of Allied civil liberties and numerous cases of disregard by Roosevelt for America’s own preferred position of neutrality. If the U.S. policies being pursued on the War on Terror are wrong, it is not because they somehow represent a moral descent in American wartime ethics from those days. It’s rarely a useful historical comparison, as Brennan’s own invocation demonstrates, and it’s almost always used in such a way that deliberately obscures or ignores what happened in the war, rather than promoting sound understanding of its events. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here? Perhaps, but it’s not hard to make a policy arguments without these sorts of analogies.

Update: corrected errors in section describing Altmark incident, thanks to Rex Brynen for the correction.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Rex Brynen permalink
    May 4, 2012 9:54 am

    Good piece!

    However, one historical nitpick: the Altmark wasn’t a troop transport. Rather, it was a tanker that had been used to support the Graf Spee, and was returning to Germany with British PoWs when it was intercepted in Norwegian waters. It wasn’t captured, but run aground (and the prisoners freed). It doesn’t change the point about Allied treatment of neutrality, however.

    • May 4, 2012 1:47 pm

      Oops, yes, you’re absolutely correct. I also should have mentioned that the Altmark itself was violating neutrality law by taking PoWs into Norwegian waters – although I believe that doesn’t make the boarding of the Altmark any less illegal.

  2. fromthefourthcorner permalink
    May 5, 2012 12:25 am

    Good post. I hate the simple good v evil narrative of WWII which seems to prevail. No doubt the Axis were not good but that doesn’t make all the allies actions moraly right simply because they were fighting them!

  3. May 5, 2012 6:21 pm

    what is rather bizarre – and it is a problem that is certainly not limited to Tom Parker, but to those who write about international security issues more broadly – is the casual and ahistorical use of World War II as some kind of moral standard for wartime conduct.

    WW2, as Walzer put it in Just and Unjust Wars (I’m paraphrasing), is, for many people (and for understandable reasons), the paradigm case of a just war. Because the cause was so clearly just and because defeat of the Allies would have been so clearly awful from a moral standpoint, I think there is a tendency on the part of some writers (esp. those who are not historians) to assume — wrongly — that the conduct of the war by the Allies must have been, by and large, reflective of the justice of their cause. In other words, the perhaps unconscious equation is just cause (jus in bello) = moral conduct (jus in bellum). How anyone acquainted with the firebombing of Japanese cities or the bombing of Hamburg or Dresden, for example, can make this equation is puzzling, admittedly, but I suspect that this is what is going on. It is more accurate, of course, to admit that the Allies did some bad things in the war and even if ultimately one wants to try to justify some of the acts, as Walzer does, on a Churchillian theory of ‘extreme emergency’, they were still not exemplars of moral wartime conduct.

    • May 6, 2012 12:10 am

      Correction —
      jus ad bellum = just cause
      jus in bello = just conduct


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