David R. Henderson  

Counterfactuals and World War II

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The Symmetry of Counterfactuals

Last week, Bryan Caplan raised the issue of what would have happened to the world had Lenin died five years earlier. One of the commenters criticized the idea of considering counterfactuals and, in response, I defended the idea of counterfactuals.

One that I have struggled with, given my belief that the U.S. government should stay out of other people's wars, is what would have happened had the U.S. government not got into World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, a strong majority of Americans wanted to avoid the war. World War II was really the turning point that made the U.S. the world's superpower and the world's policeman. From that viewpoint, therefore, even aside from the huge cost of WWII to the U.S. at the time, I think it would have been a good idea to stay out. Staying out would have been easy. Had FDR not tried to strangle Japan's economy by trying to cut off its supply of oil, Japan's government would probably not have attacked Pearl Harbor. And without that attack, FDR would not have been able to get into the war with Germany.

But most people I talk to say that, even though the U.S. could have stayed out of World War II, it shouldn't have.

That's too big an issue to resolve here, but here's the point I want to make. When I discuss this issue with those who favored U.S. participation in WWII, invariably we engage in counterfactuals. Would Hitler have conquered the Soviet Union? What would have happened to Western Europe? What would have happened to China? Etc. Ken Judd, a colleague at Hoover who favored U.S. participation in WWII told me, when we were discussing this a year ago, that I needed to have good answers to these questions in order to argue for U.S. staying out. But I pointed out to him that it's symmetric: he needed to argue persuasively for different answers to these questions in order to support U.S. participation. In other words, even those who want to argue for the war must argue that what would have happened without U.S. participation would have been worse.

Bottom line: to argue for anything, there's no avoiding counterfactuals. And it's symmetric. Those who want to make a case for U.S. participation in WWII can't avoid the need to figure out what would have happened without U.S. participation.

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (20 to date)
JPIrving writes:

Agreed, I have always felt that the U.S. didn't really win in WWII. Swapped one unacceptable evil for another. And got Keynesiansims in what remained of the West. Sure Nazis were beaten, but half of Europe was enslaved and permanently impoverished. China fell to communism. Perhaps the more interesting counter factual is if the U.S. had rearmed the Germans and made them finish the soviets. The China might be the biggest economy today under that scenario.

War is so terrible, imagine how much richer, and how many more of us there would be had that monstrosity never happened....I was just in Berlin, still bullet holes in the stone buildings around the museum and all over the Berliner Dom.

fundamentalist writes:

I agree that the US should have remained neutral in WWII. The US knew about Stalin's mass murders by 1936 of far more people than Hitler murdered, yet sided with Stalin anyway. How does that make any sense. And we traded imperialistic Japan for Chairman Mao, who topped Stalin as the world's greatest mass murderer.

Had the US remained neutral, Japan would have enslaved and murdered a lot more people, but as many as were killed in the war and later by Mao? Not likely. And Hitler would have continued to murder Jews, but would he have murdered as many people as the war killed and Stalin later murdered? Not even close. Hitler was a Sunday School Teacher compared to Stalin.

Ed Hanson writes:

My counter-factual.

Ignore that Japan was brutally raping China, and that we and the British should have continued to supply its war machine with oil. Assume therefore, no Pearl Harbor. Even assume that Japan would have would have limited its empire to China and near border states. Even assume that Australia would have been spared or made a separate peace and survived. Accept that world.

In Europe, the Soviet Union would at best, be thrown back past the Urals and capable of only guerilla war. England either conquered or a vassal state. Accept that world too, ignore the expanding final solution.

If you are an isolationist libertarian or just an anti-war passivist, nothing in this new world seems threatening. And, perhaps, with our Navy and expanded home Army, we would be safe from invasion. Feel free to to determine the world economics and be satisfied with this world. I personally find this a terrible world, but it is your world, not mine.

Here is the big but, the US (and Canada) survives as the one unconquered rich part of the world. And in a conventional war, reasonably safe. But how long would the world remain conventional, How would the US produce the desire or the means to secretly create the Manhattan Project. Simply put, it would not, and only fantasy would think that a nation at peace would do so. The Germans would have created the bomb and by use and threat of use, conquered the United States. I am afraid the only hope of a different ending would be faint.

Strange to look at a parallel universe, but sometimes it shows our stumbling through, doing our best or worst, makes a better world.

Miguel Madeira writes:

URSS will have conquered all Germany and Austria.

France, Italy and Greece will be "Jugoslavias", controled by their native communist guerrillas.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"In Europe, the Soviet Union would at best, be thrown back past the Urals and capable of only guerilla war."

Battle of Stalinegrad - July 1942 / February 1943

Anglo-american invasion of Italy: July 1943

Good point David!

I think the bailout hysteria conformed to this advice. If we don't bailout the big banks, they said, we would enter a depression.

Sam writes:

If the US did not support Britain through lend-lease, and did not resist Japanese imperial advances in east Asia (possibly including being reconciled to giving up the Philippines?), then maybe you could have a US that did not enter World War II. But you then have to start your counterfactual earlier: what was different about Roosevelt and the national mood that allowed Britain to be overrun and hegemony over the Pacific to be lost?

That's what makes counterfactuals so unsatisfying. Unless the root of the difference is a chance that tips the outcome of a close battle, you have to start very far back to explain why things turned out differently. If the US response to the "Amo doctrine" had been anemic in 1934, it could have become an issue in the 1936 election, requiring Roosevelt, even if re-elected, to take a harder line in the Pacific. etc.

Chris T writes:

So, after Eurasia is conquered by the Soviets or Nazis, how long do you think it would be before they turned their attention on the United States? The combined resources of Europe and Asia would overwhelm us. That is why it has been de facto American policy to prevent any one power from controlling both.

Yancey Ward writes:

I don't think Germany ever would have conquered the Soviet Union. Remember, Germany would have had to divert resources protecting against possible US involvement in any case (and I am not even convinced this diversion would have mattered in a battle against the Soviets in the longer run) Indeed, I think if the US had not entered the war, all of Europe except Britain would have been controlled by the Communist regimes eventually. I do think the entry of the US saved lives- probably counted in the millions.

As for the nuclear weapon issue, I still think the US would have developed them first. The origins of what became the Manhattan Project predate Pearl Harbor by a couple of years- the threat of a potential enemy creating these weapons was recognized in the 1930s. It is true that action was escalated in 1942, but I suspect this would certainly have occurred whether the US was active on the field of battle or not.

Chris T writes:

Yancey - Considering that the Soviets lost well over 20 million people, I don't think losing a few cities would have bothered them much.

Boonton writes:

I would love to see a well thought out but slightly different counter-factual. What would history have looked like from an economic POV if there was no aggressive Germany or Japan to worry about. Assume that Germany was non-aggressive but strong enough to deter a Soviet invasion of Europe past Poland.

On the positive side:

* Keynesian stimulus to get us out the Great Depression would have been centered on more productive investments. Perhaps our Interstate highway system would have come ten years earlier.

* Millions of people would not have been killed in the prime of their lives. How many inventions, novels, movies etc. were not produced by those people? Less dramatically, but equally important, how many day to day jobs producing mundane goods and services were not done by those people?

On the negative side:

* WWII was real Keynesian stimulus. At least in the US there seems to be a real hang up to using Keynesian policy to the hilt. If we didn't have a war to focus economic policy, would our recovery have stalled?

* It's tempting to think we could have had 1960 in 1945.....but could we? A lot of growth post-WWII seemed to come from war spin off industries. Nuclear power, for example, spun off of the Los Almos project. Would it have happened without a war? The space program? Again from the German rocket program. International air travel? From the attempts to get around German u-boats (Howard Huges's Spruce Goose) and strategic bombing campaigns. Medicine likewise had great advances. Finally, probably the most boring but highly productive, was the advances in processing huge amounts of data. This set the stage for a lot of practical scientific advances after the war (for example, using double blind clinical studies to demonstrate that new drugs are effective rather than ancedotal evidence) as well as set the stage for the future computer revolution.

I hate to say it but while WWII was a bad thing I can't say for sure our standard of living today isn't higher because of it.

Boonton writes:

And something else to keep in mind about the USSR, most of the USSR's advances came from copying. It got its missile program from captured Nazi scientists. It got the atomic bomb from the US and UK. If WWII hadn't happened, there wouldn't have been German rocket scientists nor would there have been a US atomic bomb program.

I suspect there's a 50-50 chance the USSR would have never put many resources into those programs on its own and would have concentrated on an expanded conventional military. Maybe not even that since modern fighter planes, even tanks come from WWII's German innovation.

Tom Grey writes:

For any who DO favor war (as I often do), here's a fair question: how many would have had to die before you think it was too many?

For me, WW II (and the Civil War) were long before I was born. What about winning in Vietnam, by enforcing the Paris Peace Accords when the lying commies violated the terms in '74-'75?

I remain ashamed of the West's acceptance of commie genocide in the Killing Fields.
How many have to die before it justifies war?

Boonton writes:

For me, WW II (and the Civil War) were long before I was born....

What's interesting about your statement is how very economically rational it is. You are happy to favor wars that other people would have had to pay for. You're gung ho for spilling blood 100 years removed from yourself!

But for the modern era, you favor war in 1974-75, which I suspect would not have subjected you to the draft as you were probably a little kid then.

What's interesting is you choose modern day, viable options for war. What about full scale invasions of North Korea, Iraq and China?

Boonton writes:

How many have to die before it justifies war?

Interesting how insights people like Hayek had over central planning never seem to come into play with statements like this. Supposedly central planners could never manage, say, a nation's coal production, but can manage to kill just the right number of people on the other side of the globe, in a foreign culture, who speak a foreign language that is only familiar to a tiny minority in order to precisely offset the lives lost with lives saved!

Ed Hanson writes:

Madeira and Ward

I am not only counting on the lack of possible American pressure in England and North Africa, to provide more resources for Germany in Russia. I also am assuming no lend-lease aid to Russia, and very little to England due to the US neutrality. I consider US aid to Russia as critical on the margin which allowed the soviet Army to survive the worst of times.

It remains my belief that the Manhattan Project would not have been funded at emergency high war levels if the US stayed out. But that is not the only technological advance that would have been slowed such to be too late. I believe the development and production of the B-29 would have been nothing like it was. Even if the bomb had been developed along with Germany, Germany would have had real delivery systems that the US would not be able to match.

Curt writes:

I agree with David that for this type of historical analysis there is a need for counterfactual thinking. But it is of course problematic since we don't know what would have happened had things been otherwise (and I think we are rarely sure of why what actually happened did happen).

When making a decision in real-time, then we are weighing up possible scenarios in terms of supposed probabilities, but again we won't know for sure what would have happened had we chosen differently.

Aaron writes:

Many people do understand the level of Lend Lease Aid provided to the Soviets. It was massive and important.

"For example, the USSR was highly dependent on trains, yet the desperate need to produce weapons meant that fewer than 20 new locomotives were produced in the USSR during the entire war. In this context, the supply of 1,981 US locomotives can be better understood. Likewise, the Soviet air force was almost completely dependent on US supplies of very high octane aviation fuel. Although most Red Army tank units were equipped with Soviet-built tanks, their logistical support was provided by hundreds of thousands of high-quality US-made trucks. Indeed by 1945 nearly two-thirds of the truck strength of the Red Army was US-built. Trucks such as the Dodge 3/4 ton and Studebaker 2.5 ton, were easily the best trucks available in their class on either side on the Eastern Front. US supplies of waterproof telephone cable, aluminium, and canned rations were also critical."

I believe it was 40% or 60% of USSR aviation fuel came from the USA.

Now, keep in mind the Germans were also fighting Lend-Lease equipped Britain as well.

Tom Grey writes:

Hey Boonton,
I entered Annapolis (USNA) in 1974 (left in '76 for Stanford), so I was not too young to favor winning Vietnam, for capitalism against communism, modeled on S. Korea. (Unfortunately, after not accepting Ho Chi Minh in 1956, the US couldn't be said to be fighting for democracy.)
I (thought I) was ready and willing to fight, die, and kill to stop commies -- but I did think we should be helping S. Vietnam to mine Hi Phong (?).

I actually oppose Lincoln's Civil War -- peaceful secession should generally be accepted, altho slavery is terrible. My first question about how many have to die before opposing a war is in reference to that war. What about you? Do you, today, support Lincoln's war of choice?

On counterfactuals -- how many have to die in Darfur, whether called genocide or not, before you favor some intervention?

I'm glad Saddam was not allowed to get a nuke (yes to invasion in Iraq).
Invading China is too much.
N. Korea's nuclear plant perhaps should have been bombed for non-compliance. Nations don't use many real less than "full scale invasion" punishments, so far

What about you? Aren't you a bit of an intellectual hypocrite to ask questions you don't answer?

The world is going to become 'more interesting', and less safe, after Obama allows Iran to get a nuke ...

So WW II doesn't interest me quite so much -- after Pearl Harbor, it's clear the US is going in. However, I'm not convinced the US needed to do D-Day in 1944, rather than waiting another year (for Germany and USSR to bleed each other further). Had the US not invaded then, perhaps the Red Army would have had its own "Battle of the Bulge" near Kiev or Warsaw, and possibly lost.

Once the US gets a nuke, it does NOT have to invade at all. Just use a nuke on Dresden, instead of the fire-bombing, and get Germany to surrender on its Western Front / allow an invasion unopposed.

Boonton writes:


You set the stage for war to be justified on utilitarian 'how many die analysis'. As such its sensible to point out that no one may die if Iran or N. Korea get the bomb but people die every day deprived of their freedom in both countries (N.Korea being much worse).

I don't use this metric to argue for or against war because of the Haykean reasons I stated, I don't think such calculations are to be trusted. The Iraq War, for example, has casualities running over 100K I believe and sectarian violence no doubt will push that much higher as well as the reduced lifespans you get from pollution, violence, lack of basics and all that comes from living in a war zone. In order for this to be justified on a 'lives saved' argument you have to make a lot of assumptions such as if we did nothing Saddam would have acquired a nuclear bomb AND used it on a very highly populated city AND that his regime would have lasted decades more and would have killed people at a rate that was probably higher than during the last years of his regime.

Maybe this is true but I think you have to agree such calculations aren't very objective and since war is so highly unpredictable I wouldn't trust anyone trying to make them before the fact.

Once the US gets a nuke, it does NOT have to invade at all. Just use a nuke on Dresden, instead of the fire-bombing, and get Germany to surrender on its Western Front / allow an invasion unopposed.

Hate to say it this type of counterfactual doesn't interest me as much as the larger one I proposed. But one issue I see with this is that unlike Stalin, Hitler was looking at some pretty advanced weapons. A situation where D-Day was deferred, the UK and US 'took a breather' to let Germany and the USSR duke it out might have been one where Hitler gets the atomic bomb first and controls all the natural resources of the USSR. Alternatively I could see Stalin throwing up his hands and making a seperate peace with Hitler, giving him some resource rich territory in exchange for halting the invasion. He wouldn't have liked that, of course but I could see him possibly teaming up with Germany against the allies.

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