Deep down, everyone who has not been driven mad by religious obscurantism or some other ideology understands the value of peace. Ordinary people want to meet partners, secure fulfilling jobs, live in comfort, and find good schools for their children. In their spare time, they like to meet with friends, play sports, go to the cinema, or practice obscure hobbies. They want—like Candide—to cultivate their gardens, and they recognise that this modest wish would be imperilled by war.
Indeed, the realisation that war is a great evil is surely among the preconditions for building and maintaining a prosperous society in the first place. But a society which does not feel directly threatened will often tend towards the view that war is also an unnecessary evil. As George Orwell reminded readers of “The Lion and the Unicorn,” published during the Blitz, the intense anti-Nazism inculcated in them by German bombs had extinguished the memory of the popular approval that had greeted Neville Chamberlain upon his return from Munich just two years earlier. The myth of a clique of Guilty Men soothed the consciences of millions of Britons who had shared the view that war was worse than a bloodless triumph for Hitler on the continent.
An analogy may be drawn here with Ukraine. President Zelensky is often lauded—quite appropriately—for his “Churchillian” courage and fortitude. But it is easily forgotten that he won an election by promising to seek peace. The war in the Ukrainian east had already been raging for several years when he was elected. Despite the fact that Russian imperial ambitions were the cause of the war, the Ukrainians held out hope that Russian aims were limited, and that a negotiated solution could be found to end it. They voted for peace, but experience subsequently taught them that only the complete subjugation of their country would satisfy the Russians. Like the Britons of an earlier era, war seemed to be the greatest evil they faced—until they were confronted with the greater evil of conquest.
The belief that there is nothing worse than war—let’s call it Chamberlainism—is common enough in recent history. After the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in 1950, the greater part of the Western European liberal and socialist intelligentsia instinctively turned its ire on President Truman for mounting a response. They had nothing to say about the original aggression, but they were quick to denounce the resistance to it as “warmongering.” For the most part, this was not because they had any fondness for the North Korean communists. In fact, they were in the habit of calling themselves “neutralists.” They seemed to hope that Western Europe could become like a Greater Switzerland. It could, they thought, somehow safeguard itself as a peaceful idyll by refusing to choose between democracy and tyranny—an absurd lesson to have drawn from the preceding years.
The Korean War terrified European peaceniks, because it struck them as a portent of a communist assault on Western Europe, which they had convinced themselves only appeasement could prevent. Swiss essayist François Bondy, mulling his own nation’s history, diagnosed their problem: they “did not relish being confronted with a situation in which the issues of freedom and of peace [were] in conflict.” Thus, they chose not to acknowledge it at all. The Korean communists would proceed to establish one of the most tyrannical regimes in history—a real-world Airstrip One, which has now spent 73 years starving its people and preparing for nuclear war. By averting their gaze from their unpleasantness, European intellectuals did not have to consider what the alternative to US intervention really was.
II. The Phoney Peace Movements
If war—or, at least, the involvement of one’s own country in war—is the greatest of evils, then there is no need to think about the intentions of the parties to a conflict, or the consequences of one of them electing not to fight. But in dissuading us from confronting reality, our hatred and fear of war can lead us into the clutches of all kinds of sinister actors. Phoney peace movements led by totalitarians and their excusers have used their liberal enemies’ inclination towards pacifism against them for decades.
During the early months of 1940, the Nazis invaded Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and finally France. As Soviet Russia was then allied with Germany, the communists in Britain had already set about spreading pro-Nazi propaganda, but they quickly realised that it was making them odious. So, they came up with a new idea. They founded an anti-war organisation called the Peoples’ Convention and hid the fact that they were running it. The Peoples’ Convention emphasised all of the horrors of the Blitz, playing on the outsized share of the suffering experienced by the poor. While carefully avoiding overt capitulationism, it made a series of welfare demands that were impossible for the government to meet in wartime, and agitated for strikes in munitions factories if those demands were not met. The Convention enlisted the support of all kinds of compassionate but simple-minded religious figures like the Dean of Canterbury, who insisted that their work was only about social justice and had nothing to do with helping Hitler conquer Britain. Happily, this was to be but a short-lived experiment in cynicism. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the communists discovered that they were British patriots after all.