Did the American Left support democracy in World War II?

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers. You might also be interested in my post from this morning: Five ideas from praktike (on how we should be dealing with the War on Terror). In this post I actually agree with commenter-to-the-blogosphere praktike who’s somewhat to the left of me.

I don’t want to appear to be picking on the
Arch-Blogger but I think he’s mistaken when he writes:

There was a time when the Left opposed fascism and supported democracy, when it wasn’t a seething-yet-shrinking mass of self-hatred and idiocy. That day is long past, and the moral and intellectual decay of the Left is far gone.

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But I’m afraid it doesn’t conform to the actual historic record. The American Left did support the Communists against the Fascists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. But they certainly did not support democracy during World War II.

When the Third Reich invaded democratic Poland in September of 1939 the American Left did not call for support of the Poles. Nor did they call for support of the Danes and Norwegians when Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway in April of 1940. They maintained solidarity with the isolationist America First Committee when the Germans invaded democratic France and the Low Countries in May of 1940. There also wasn’t a peep from them as the Soviet Union, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, occupied parts of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, etc.

In fact it wasn’t until Germany violated that pact and invaded the Soviet Union that a rift began to form between the isolationist Right and the Left. Three months after the invasion Norman Thomas, chairman of the American Socialist Party, announced his break with the America First Committee and threw his support behind intervention in the European war against Germany. I think the record here is clear: the Left wasn’t supporting democracy, it was supporting socialism. And, in my opinion, that was the beginning of the consensus that enabled the United States to enter the war.

So, Glenn, when was it that the American Left supported democracy? Or did you have some other Left in mind?

13 comments… add one
  • Congratulations on the link from He Who Must Not Be Named.

    While much of what you say is true, as I blogged here it is also the case that before Pearl Harbor the Democrats were more in favor of intervening in World War II than the Republicans. Today’s conservatives have, on occasion, tried to argue that the leftist contempt for intervention is reaches back before Vietnam. The truth is that isolationism was much more a Republican plank than a Democratic one in the years between the two world wars.

  • Joel Wolfe Link

    Hey I just wanted to remind you that the left Glenn is talking about goes back more towards the 1800s when the left was in charge of unionizing when it was a true progressive community.

  • james seigfreid Link

    The left has always been the left, whether it was in 1942, or 1982, or 2002, or the present. I don’t see the point of parsing politics or ideals. They stand for their own ideals, and there is no compromising with those who would rule us. Witness Ted Kennedy, who proclaims Iraq to be another Vietnam, and urges us to get out now. Class, can anyone answer the question “What went wrong in Vietnam”? The liberal left forced American forces out of Vietnam, suspended funding for the South Vietnamese, who were fighting communist agression,and left them to die, which they did in great numbers, after a year of valiant struggle without the support of the U.S. any longer. I remember those years. I was there. I look back and it makes me sick. This is the face of the left; Appease evil-cower-don’t make a stand or Evil might get mad and have a fit. RETREAT!!
    America is EVIL!
    We are witnessing the most important metamorphes of a country in history, with the introduction of freedom into a place that has never known it, the Middle East. This is an historic moment, and I hope you are explaining it to your kids. George W. Bush was right, whether you agree with anything else he says or not; the yearning for freedom burns in the heart of every single human soul. We are witness to that right now. When Edward Kennedy opens his fat drunken mouth, I wish I could be there to put Mary Jo Kopechne’s shoe in it. He is espousing the same failed policies that became Vietnam, and somehow or another, brags about it being right, when history has shown him to be tragically wrong. Well, I guess he’ll drive off that bridge again when he comes to it.

  • hilzoy Link

    Dave — I don’t know how you’re using ‘the left’, or for that matter how Instapundit is. If you’re using it to refer to the fringe left — and would also use ‘the right’ to refer only to the fringe right, say the militia movement and James Dobson — then perhaps you have a point. But if ‘the left’ includes the mainstream of the Democratic party, then I have a hard time seeing how, for instance, FDR failed to stand up for democracy. As Jack says above, the Republicans were far more isolationist than the Democrats until Vietnam. As recently as a few years ago, we went into Kossovo over the objections of the Republicans.

    Also, since Instapundit has no comments, I guess I’ll just say here how amusing I found this comment: “It’s just that the right has done a better job of muzzling and marginalizing its idiots, while the Left has embraced them.” — in view of the unmuzzled nature of, say, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and people like them. I had never heard of Ward Churchill before today. Now that I have, I have no trouble saying that he’s an idiot. I don’t want to muzzle him, because I have this odd attachment to the First Amendment, but marginalizing is fine by me. Rush Limbaugh is every bit as hateful, and much more widely known, and yet he hasn’t been marginalized yet.

  • praktike Link

    C’mon Dave. I’m going to have to take that reasonable label off.

  • Gotta agree with hilzoy and prak. Ya blew this one big time fella. Even the hate-FDRers tend to give him the anti-Democrat label only for Yalta.

    IIRC he had some sort of role in both Washington and the Democratic party for a decade or so prededing and managed to get Lend-Lease through.

    You’ve got a very very constrained notion of Left — basically fellow travellers, some American-style Fabians, and a fairly limited portion of the union movement, if I’m not mistaken.

  • Jim Rockford Link

    Depends on the Left and depends on the time, I’d guess.

    To step sideways, I’d argue that the Right overall has muzzled it’s idiots or pushed them aside more effectively than the Left. Pat Buchanon led the modern day Kultur Kampf; and Dan Quayle tried to campaign against a TV character, back in the 90’s. Reps saw what that got them (a moderate Democratic President when the crazies scared the middle class) and acted accordingly.

    Thus the face of the Republican Party is “moderates” like Bush, Rice, McCain, Powell, Guiliani, and Arnold. All these folks are very conservative of course, but maintain a very carefully constructed moderate image. Pat Robertson and James Dobson got private thanks, but Bush notably will not push the DMA which means it’s dead (likely to everyone but the crazies relief).

    There unquestionably WAS a huge amount of pacifism in the American Left after WWI, and a refusal to get involved in “Europe’s War” which was seen as two corrupt systems. No doubt the Communist Left followed orders as well, but you can’t discount the Pacifism in reaction to the ungodly slaughter of WWI.

    This sort of went away after Pearl Harbor and the issue was forced, but Korea’s stalemate and the attrition warfare of Vietnam brought back the memories and images of the trenches. Most of the left today can’t believe that military force solves anything, when of course it does.

    Hitler, Mussolin, Tojo, Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam, and a host of others weren’t stopped by speeches, non violent resistance, international campaigns, or the principled actions of the international community. These all have their place, particularly in democracies or near-democracies with independent power centers and persuadable elites (South Africa, the Phillipines, the US Civil Rights movement) but are ineffective against murderous terror regimes.

    Just as the Right had to learn the limits of military power, the Left must still yet learn the limits of civil disobediance and protests. This is the heart of the pacifist rejection of military action, and the net result is the tolerance of evil. Sudan won’t stop the killing in Darfur until the regime is removed. That will take men with guns and bombs and planes.

  • wayne Link

    I agree that the reason WWII was “the Good War” is not because it was a war to make the world safe for democracy, but was a war to make the world safe for the gulag. Had Hitler not attacked the USSR all the divisions, ham-stringing and ankle-biting we’ve seen in every other war would have been just as prevalent. The true genius of the Communists was their monopoly on the avant-garde intellectual party line. This was the greatest evil Orwell tried to illustrate in 1984, where the party line changes in mid-speech just as it did on the editorial pages of the Daily Worker, the New Republic, the Nation, etc.

  • I think the distinction here is that I don’t consider FDR “the Left” although I recognize that many of his contemporaries did. I’d consider him center-Left and there’s no doubt that the center-Left has supported the defense of democracy including by the use of force.

    But there’s no doubt at all that Norman Thomas represented the Left and for a long, long time. And the historic record is pretty clear that that Left did not support democracy. They retained a pacifist stance until socialism was attacked. Am I mis-interpreting the historic record?

    My key point is that between the isolationist Right and the pacifist Left there has been a Center that has been willing to defend democracy with whatever tools came to hand including aid, diplomacy, and including the use of force.

    I’m ready to concede defeat on this if someone can give me counter-examples but I haven’t seen any so far.

  • Katherine Link

    “The left” is just about useless as a subject for discussion, because it is used to describe a group that varies in size from 45% (or so) to 1% (or so) of the U.S. population. For that reason, blanket criticism of “the left” are unbelievably useful for tarring 45% of the population with the sins of a tiny fringe. Sometimes this happens inadvertantly, when one author misappropriates another’s author’s criticism of the 1% and applies it to the 45% (or 30%, or 20%, or whatever). Other times it happens deliberately.

    When someone uses the term to make a blanket criticism of “The Left” rather than using it in a neutral way as a shorthand, I can’t tell whether they’re arguing in bad faith or simply being imprecise and exposing themselves to misappropriation by people arguing in bad faith. But in either case, their credibility drops a notch in my eyes.

  • Katherine Link

    (one good tip: if someone capitalizes “the Left” and not “the right”, or vice versa, and comments on one about five times as much as the other, take everything they say about either side with a shaker of salt. Check out Reynolds’ archives for proof.)

  • rosignol Link

    I think the record here is clear: the Left wasn’t supporting democracy, it was supporting socialism.

    Since when was the Soviet Union socialist? Those WW2-era boneheads were supporting Communism, specifically Stalinism, not socialism.

    In my book, that makes them more objectionable, not less.

  • Katherine, you might want to take a closer look around my site. I try to be quite careful about capitalization of the sort you’re talking about and a quick search showed me that I’ve been pretty even-handed in my criticisms of the Right and the Left. Actually, I rarely even mention “the Left” except when criticizing “the Right” at the same time.

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