The recent unpleasantness in eastern Ukraine recalls a nagging truth: Wars always bring unintended consequences, and Americans have seen plenty of them, firsthand.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won reelection on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out Of War!”
But Wilson wanted war, and, five months later, he got it.
In October 1940, late in the presidential campaign, Franklin Roosevelt promised “again and again and again” that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
But Roosevelt wanted war, and fourteen months later, he got it.
The results were as grim as they were unintended. Over a hundred thousand Americans died in Wilson’s war, and another 600,000 died from the epidemic of influenza that the surviving troops brought back from Europe to every corner of America. World War II killed over 400,000 Americans (only the War Between the States had more).
Moreover, the onerous terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles opened the door to a Communist Russia and a National Socialist Germany. In like fashion, the deals reached by FDR and Truman during World War II at Yalta, Teheran, and Potsdam handed over 100 million Christians in Eastern Europe to Stalin for 45 years.
War’s Catholic Cheerleaders
Many Americans, even Catholics, are not aware that the Church played an important – even decisive – role in the run-up to both of these wars.
In 1916, Wilson pretended to oppose entering the European war because Americans oppose it – Catholics included. After all Irish-Americans loathed the notion of being dragged into England’s war, when England had persecuted their forbears for centuries (and still was). German-Americans weren’t excited about fighting against their extended families, either.
Hopeful of ending the “Great War” early, Pope Benedict XV asked James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, to keep the U.S. out of it.
Catholic opposition might indeed have turned the tide – but Gibbons was obsessed with the fear that Catholics would be called “unpatriotic” if they condemned Wilson’s war fever and refused to serve. After all, he knew all too well the depth of anti-Catholicism among America’s Protestant elites.
So Gibbons wholeheartedly supported Wilson’s bellicose designs. His biographer Allen Will recounts that, “Once Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, he [Gibbons] called on ‘every American citizen to do his duty to uphold the hands of the president and the legislative department in the solemn obligation that confronts us. The primary duty of a citizen is loyalty to his country.’”
“Under the leadership of Gibbons,” Will continues, “the Catholics of the United States were the first religious body to pledge their full and active support to the government.” And On July 23, 1917, Gibbon told recruits for the immense army that was then forming: “be Americans always. Remember that you owe all to America, and be prepared, if your country demands it, to give all in return.”
And Catholics did indeed serve. “Secretary [of War] Newton Baker later estimated the number of Catholics in the military and naval service at approximately 1/3 of the total, although Catholics formed about 1/6 of the population,” Will reports.
Fast forward 25 years. As World War II exploded on the continent, American Catholics, like the rest of their countrymen, opposed U.S. involvement – an attitude so strong that Roosevelt pretended publicly to share it.
Meanwhile, many among the Catholic hierarchy backed Roosevelt’s war fervor.
Bishop Joseph Hurley of Saint Augustine brazenly defended the powerful alliance of the Catholic bishops with the Democrats that Gibbons had forged. In July 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor, Hurley announced that the bishops would support U.S. entry into the war –in spite of widespread public opposition.
“As for the people,” Hurley said, “they have neither the experience nor access to the facts to decide whether we go to war.”
So much for “democracy.”
No More Imprimaturs
“Why Aren’t All Those Liberated Christians Grateful”?
George W. Bush (Undated, possibly apocryphal)
In recent years, the Catholic Church has been decidedly less sanguine about war.
On March 25th, 2003, on the eve of George Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Edwin O’Brien, Archbishop for the U.S. Military Services, wrote a public letter to Catholic chaplains addressing the participation of Catholics in the invasion:
Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.
The archbishop continued, carefully:
Long after the hostilities cease the debate likely will continue as to the moral justification for the armed force recently initiated by the United States and its allies. It is to be hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public….
Pope Saint John Paul II adamantly opposed the war, and sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former Papal Nuncio in the U.S., to meet with Bush personally. On March 6, 2003, Laghi told Bush that his proposed war in Iraq would be a “disaster.”
Bush rebuffed him.
“You might start, and you don’t know how to end it,” Cardinal Laghi told CNN after the meeting. “It will be a war that will destroy human life.”
Abp. O’Brien undoubtedly conferred with Laghi before he published his letter three weeks later – so he did not endorse the war. Rather, amidst “complexity” and “confidentiality,” he could only “presume” Bush’s integrity, “hoping” that he was telling the truth.
The caveat? He also hoped “that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public.”
Well, now they have. And as a result, domestically, Bush’s war destroyed the conservative movement and fractured the GOP. Abroad, it virtually annihilated Christianity in the Middle East. And yet, the former president has remained curiously silent in public about the plight of his fellow Christians.
This is all the more perplexing because Bush would never have been elected without massive support from Evangelical Christians. When war broke out, many hoped that it would bring on Armageddon and the Second Coming, allowing them joyously to reign with Christ for a thousand years.
The unintended consequence? Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been driven into exile, persecution, even death.
Two years ago, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Archbishop O’Brien’s successor in the Military Ordinariate, daintily told C.A.N. News that “Yes, you can say in a certain sense that the invasion of Iraq did provoke this tremendous diminution of the Christian population in Iraq.”
Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, was less ambiguous. Last week he condemned the foul fruits of Western intervention in the Middle East:
Intervention by the West in the region did not solve the problems of those countries, but on the contrary, produced more chaos and conflict. Honestly, 1,400 years of Islam could not uproot us from our land and our churches, while the policies of the West have scattered us and distributed us all around the world.
Cardinal Gibbons’ “presumed” the integrity of Woodrow Wilson. Bishop Hurley presumed the integrity of Franklin Roosevelt. And Archbishop O’Brien presumed the integrity of George W. Bush.
Yes, with more diligence, these leaders might have foreseen the unintended consequences – the rise of Nazism and Communism, the loss of Eastern Europe, and the eradication of Christianity in the Middle East.
But we must question their judgment, not their intentions. After all, what sane person of integrity could have possibly desired such disasters?
As the world waits to see what the United States will do regarding the recent unpleasantness in the Ukraine, we should keep in mind the iron Law of Unintended Consequences.
“History will vindicate us,” trumpeted a confident Tony Blair, standing at Bush’s side in 2003.
Well, “history” didn’t.
And in that light, those who support U.S. intervention in Ukraine today might want to reconsider.
After all, history might not vindicate them, either.