Sunday, July 12, 2009

FDR, Maynard Hutchins, and entering WWII

I have been reading David Fromkin’s In the Time of the Americans, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, the Generation that Changed America’s role in the world. By page 538 Fromkin is up to 1940. FDR is agonizing over how much to be involved in helping Britain while protecting American interests. FDR’s advisers are swinging around to the idea that Britain can’t defeat Hitler by itself. This was a hot topic in 1940 and 1941. A majority in America wanted to help in some way. At first it was thought that America could get by with being the “arsenal of democracy,” but that idea was weakened by Germany’s success. FDR has Wilson’s portrait above his desk and he was reported to stare up at it at critical times. He thought Wilson made a mistake when he sent American troops to Europe, and he didn’t want to make the same mistake. On the other hand, it was intolerable to allow Germany to defeat all of Europe and Britain. If that happened then, given Germany’s ambitions, they would come after America. It was surely better to fight Hitler with Britain than later on without her.

Fromkin tells us that while FDR’s opinion was swinging in the direction of providing more support to Britain, there were still those who wanted the US to stay out of World War II no matter what: “there were true isolationists: people, in other words, who believed in defending only the Western Hemisphere. Then there were those who, though internationalists, believed the United States should act on its own rather than in alliance with foreign countries, or (though these tended to overlap) who gave priority to the Pacific and Asia rather than to the Atlantic and Europe. There were left-wingers, Progressives, and pacifists like Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, who still believed, as they had in the early 1930s, that wars were started by and served only the interests of imperialists and arms manufacturers. . . .”


Robert Maynard Hutchins was an intelligent man (see ). His “Secular Perennialism” is attractive as a framework for higher education. He helped Adler foster the idea of the “Great Books.” So how could such a broad-minded intelligent fellow believe something so patently stupid as “wars were started by and served only the interests of imperialists and arms manufacturers”?

We never do anything for just one reason. Perhaps there are exceptions to that common-sense principle, but I have yet to find any. So is it possible that Hutchins wasn’t aware of this? He was a great advocate of using Aristotelianism and Thomism in higher education and those two, Aristotle and St. Thomas were not overly interested in seeking multiple causes for a single result; so perhaps they colored Hutchins thinking about the causes of war. But if that is what he thought, that the most important principles at work in 1940 and 1941 were imperialism and the greed of the arms manufacturers, then Hutchins seems a strange failure of his own educational philosophy which sought to teach students “how to think.”

What Hitler’s Germany could be described as doing in 1940-41 would qualify as “imperialism,” and without doubt the German arms manufacturers like Krupp were delighted to furnish the German War Machine with weapons, but similar motives could not, with reason, be applied to Britain during this time frame.

I was in the “Arms Manufacturing” business from 1959 to 1999. I was in Engineering and not in Administration, but I was intimately familiar with how various “weapons systems” were developed and sold to the military. It would be true to say that our livelihood depended upon our selling weapons systems. I worked on the C-17 during my last years at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. Unless we could keep selling C-17s from our plant in Long Beach, which was created for that sole purpose, we would be out of jobs and the plant would have to be closed. So we wanted to keep building and selling C-17s. But the idea that we could force Congress to buy them is ludicrous. The military sold the idea to congress. The Marines and Army liked the idea of a transport that could land closer to the front lines on undeveloped landing fields. The C-17 could take troops and out-sized equipment very close to where they would be used. It was a good idea, but McDonnell Douglas didn’t invent it – at least not by itself. The military expressed the need and then there was a competition to see which supplier could best meet it. McDonnell Douglas won the competition, but it was not in control of it.

Were matters different in 1940-41? Not very. There wasn’t time for competition but that didn’t mean the Arms Manufacturers (which for the most part hadn’t come into existence) caused anything. FDRs administration “caused” the commercial aircraft companies to switch over to making military aircraft. The commercial Douglas DC-3 became one of the most successful “weapons systems” of World War II. That success didn’t keep Douglas from failing as a company, however. A few years after I went to work there it was swallowed up by McDonnell. I saw no evidence in all my years in this major industry of the sort of “control” that Robert Maynard Hutchins suggests.

Douglas wanted to sell its DC-3s, but to say that Douglas Aircraft Company and companies like it “caused” America to enter World War II is not “reasonable.” And for Hutchins to argue that position casts doubt upon his own ability to reason – and to realize that for something as complicated as America’s active entry into World War Two, there would be “many reasons” and not just two. And of those many reasons, the two he selected were by no means the most important.

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