World War II

Start Free Trial

World War II is often referred to as the "Good War." Evaluate that title for the war. Is it appropriate? Why, or why not? Take into consideration everything you have learned about World War II and the perspectives that might identify this war as "good."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A good war is surely a contradiction in terms as all wars involve death, suffering, and misery, often on a massive scale. And World War II was no exception. It's estimated that somewhere in the region of 85 million people died during the conflict, the vast majority of them innocent civilians.

Yet if WWII wasn't a good war, it was certainly a necessary one. That doesn't mean that its nightmarish death toll was somehow worth it in the end. But it does mean that the war had to be fought in order to prevent Hitler and his allies from conquering ever more territory across the globe, subjecting millions of people to mass murder and tyranny.

Under the circumstances, there was simply no other way of stopping the Axis Powers. They'd already shown throughout the 1930s that they were only interested in diplomatic negotiations if they could be used to further their territorial ambitions. (Such as the notorious Munich Agreement, which awarded the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany).

As the Axis Powers were hell-bent on territorial expansion come what may, with all the disastrous consequences that would've entailed, only force was capable of stopping them in their tracks. That being the case, the war waged against them was perfectly justified.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When many people think of World War II, they think of it as "the good war." This is likely because it is seen as a clear-cut case of a fight against evil. The Nazis were bent on dominating Europe, just as the Japanese were committed to conquering Asia and the Pacific. The Axis Powers employed truly terrible methods to achieve their draconian goals, including genocide and other gruesome crimes against humanity. In this sense, fighting to stop them was clearly seen as the good fight.

However, your question raises the issue as to whether a war can ever truly be good. World War II resulted in what is possibly the greatest loss of life in history. Some estimates put it at eighty-five million dead. No matter the cause or motives, can such wanton destruction and killing ever be considered good?

Also, even though the Allies were fighting against the evil Axis forces, they were no saints. Remember that even the Allies did not shirk from directly attacking civilians. German and Japanese cities were indiscriminately bombed, which resulted in the deaths of countless non-combatants. Prisoners of war were tortured and executed by the Allies, and the protocols of the Geneva Convention were regularly ignored. On the US home front, about 120,000 people of Japanese heritage, many of them American citizens, were interned on the mere suspicion that they may have sympathies with the enemy. When the Soviet army took Berlin in the spring of 1945, what was perhaps the largest mass rape in history occurred. If you look further, I am sure you could find many more examples of Allied forces committing atrocities.

So the answer as to whether or not World War II was a good war is very ambiguous. The Axis Powers needed to be stopped. That was clear to most citizens of the Allied countries. (Contrast this to most of the other wars of the twentieth century, in which it was unclear to many whether or not the fight was necessary.) The methods by which the Axis Powers were defeated have been justified by many as necessary to stop them. The popular slogan "peace through victory" reflects this. However, you must ask whether or not a war can be a good war if it results in such large-scale trauma, death, and destruction—no matter the motives.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Allied Powers that fought in World War II are often considered to be the "good" states that fought in the "Good War" due to their combined military effort against Hitler and the rise of fascism. The United States is often celebrated for its military participation in World War II and its fight against Hitler's attempt at both world domination and the total extermination of Jewish people. At a surface level, this title may appear to be an accurate description of the fight against fascism.

However, simplistic analyses tend to not mix well for accurate and critical understandings of historical events and eras. For example, while the United States did aid in stopping the Nazis, the United States also denied entrance for thousands of Jewish refugees (who were then forced to return to Europe, where many were murdered in Nazi concentration camps), forced Japanese Americans into detention camps in the western United States, dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese islands (causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and generations of suffering and birth defects), and brought Nazi scientists to the United States after the war to participate in government research and projects.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Arguably there are no "good wars." But World War II is seen in this light because of the clear menace represented by the Nazis and axis powers. Hitler was genuinely bent on world domination and the establishment of a "thousand year Reich" and his methods for doing so were inarguably diabolical. The practices of the SS and the fact of genocide and the concentration camps certainly make the Nazis appear "evil." Which suggests it was necessary and "good" to defeat them. Many, however, argue that they were defeated by their own ambition and the disastrous campaign to take Russian (Operation Barbarossa).

On the other hand, the people of Germany and the axis powers suffered immensely as a result of their leader's ambitions. One need only think of the fire-bombing of Dresden or the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to realize that there is no clear "good" in war.

The Good War (1984) is also the title of an oral history of World War II by the populist historian Studs Terkel. The title captures the idea that many involved in the conflict on the allied side felt they were fighting for "good". But most people in war justify their actions by thinking they are on the "good" side.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team