Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, by Paul Johnson, New York: Harper & Row, 1983, 832 pp., $27.95.
"What had gone wrong with humanity? Why had the promise of the nineteenth century been dashed? Why had the twentieth century turned into an age of horror or, as some would say, evil?" In Modern Times, an account of world history from the end of World War I to 1982, Paul Johnson seeks to answer these questions. A good deal of the answer provided by Johnson, a well-known and historically versed British journalist, is right on the mark. He identifies as "the century's most radical vice" what he terms "social engineering"—the attempt to use political power to effect widespread social change. "The great human scourge" of the time, he says, is "the professional politician." As the agent of the atrocities and miseries that have characterized these decades, Johnson everywhere, correctly, sees the state.
Even before Johnson's period begins, during the Great War of 1914–18, the awful devastation that states are capable of inflicting had become evident. Johnson follows other historians in identifying this war as the watershed of the century, but he informs his account, as is seldom done, with an understanding of the nature of governments:
The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless.…the war demonstrated both the impressive speed with which the modern state could expand itself and the inexhaustible appetite which it thereupon developed both for the destruction of its enemies and for the exercise of despotic power over its own citizens.
Innumerable illustrations of this point follow in another 700 pages or so as Johnson looks at the Western democracies, the Far East, the decolonized peoples, and above all Germany and Russia. Predictably, and properly, the Nazis and Communists come in for the greatest obloquy. Much of Johnson's recounting of modern history is very good, although much of it will probably be too familiar to be enjoyed by anyone who has read even a dozen books on the subject. And at crucial points the author's philosophical framework, pitting "moral absolutism" against "moral relativism," creates problems of which he appears to be unaware.
Johnson's treatment of the Bolsheviks' coming to power in Russia illustrates some of the merits and flaws of the book. In general his analysis is fine, although many readers, at this late date, will not need to be reminded in such detail of the crimes of the Soviet leaders. He points out the central role of the war in bringing Lenin and his associates to power (exemplifying a rule Johnson posits: "War breeds revolution"). The evaluation of Trotsky as "the most ferocious of the Bolsheviks" is refreshing and welcome. The author makes an important point in emphasizing the sheer economic ignorance of these revolutionary Marxists and the colossal suffering it caused.
Unfortunately, Johnson sometimes seems to think it necessary to blacken the names of communism and its leaders even more than the record quite amply warrants. He says the Soviets originated the modern practice of genocide: there is no entry in the index for Armenians. He claims that "modern theoretical anti-Semitism was a derivative of Marxism"—which is absurd—and that Marx took his concept of "alienation" from the German Volk (racist-nationalist) movement, when in fact he took it from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. On a less theoretical level, in referring to Soviet peace-feelers to Hitler during the war, he concludes, "No doubt Stalin hoped to resurrect his 1925 strategy, pull out of the war, and re-enter later." The source cited here is Joachim C. Fest's Hitler. But when we turn to that book we find that Fest, instead, says: "To this day it has remained unclear how serious Moscow's intentions were." Really, there is no need to exaggerate the case against Stalin.
Johnson's discussion of the Great Depression, on the other hand, is excellent and out of the ordinary. Drawing heavily on the analysis of the Austrian School of economics, especially America's Great Depression by Murray Rothbard, Johnson ascribes the collapse to the political leaders who tried to bring prosperity through credit expansion. The dissection of the policies of Herbert Hoover could not be better; Hoover was an interventionist and "corporatist," a believer in "the notion that the state, business, the unions, and other Big Brothers should work together in gentle, but persistent and continuous manipulation to make life better." Roosevelt's policies were an intensification of Hoover's and just as ineffective. It took the war to cure the Depression.
When we come to international politics in the 1930s, Johnson's approach is a fairly conventional one. He shows little appreciation of the influence exerted by Anglo-French global imperialism on the designs of the "wolf-states," which, believing empires to be critically important to their economies, wanted to build their own. And there are crucial questions that Johnson fails to raise. For instance, he notes that the British, faced with the growth of German power, considered "making friends with Japan" but dropped the idea "because of implacable American hostility"; but Roosevelt's total embargo on trade with Japan in the summer of 1941 "brought the matter to a head." To what degree, then, must Washington share responsibility with Tokyo for the outbreak of the war? Johnson does not pose the question. Nor does he ask whether timely revisions of the Versailles Treaty conceded to democratic Germany would have made less likely the coming to power of Hitler, who proceeded to revise the treaty drastically on his own.
It is when we arrive at the period of World War II that Johnson's moral schema, mentioned earlier, becomes troublesome. He begins the book speaking of a great cultural change, from the 1920s on, when the belief began to circulate "for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value." Einstein (through widespread misunderstanding of his theory of relativity), Freud, and the Marxists, says Johnson, undermined "the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty towards a settled and objectively true moral code, which was the center of nineteenth century European civilization." (Oddly, there is no mention of the role of cultural anthropology in subverting the idea of universally valid mores.) Elsewhere Johnson speaks of "the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of personal accountability to an absolute moral code," and he frequently, almost ritualistically, invokes a dichotomy between absolute and relative standards of morality.
Since the key terms are nowhere defined, it is not at all clear what is being asserted here. Is it that when eras or individuals adhere to an "absolutist," Judaeo-Christian, morality we will not find atrocities frequently committed? But that is contradicted by many well-known actions of believers in that morality, including the Crusaders who took Jerusalem in 1099, the witch-hunters of early modern times, the monks of the Spanish Inquisition, the Duke of Alba in the Netherlands, and the perpetrators of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day. In the 17th century, the Thirty Years' War, fought largely between Protestants and Catholics, resulted in the death of perhaps a quarter of Germany's population.
Johnson himself, in Ireland: A Concise History from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day (1980), provides another example. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell, the great Puritan general, landed in Ireland with 20,000 men and the goal of subduing the country and abolishing the hated Catholic Mass. He arrived there, Johnson reports, "in a mood of religious exaltation. Before embarking at Bristol he told his troops they were Israelites about to enter Canaan and extirpate its idolatrous inhabitants." At Drogheda and Wexford, the defending garrisons, as well as "many inhabitants," were simply put to the sword. Ireland was conquered and the English parliament, in 1652, passed an Act for the Settling of Ireland. According to Johnson, the Act provided that up to about 100,000 of the Irish were to be hanged. All the rest were to be driven from their homes and land—although, as Johnson adds, "parliament would assign lands elsewhere to some of these groups in due course." When the famous early statistician William Petty completed his land survey of Ireland in 1654, he found that, of a population in 1641 of close to 1.5 million, 616,000 had died and 100,000 had been transported to the New World, some as slaves. Johnson does not dispute these figures.
Johnson is correct in implying, in Modern Times, that European moral standards had changed for the better by the 19th century. The reasons would be difficult to demonstrate, but it seems highly likely that the spread of the Enlightenment and the rise of liberalism with its doctrine of individual rights were more responsible than the "absolutism" of Judaeo-Christian morality, which, after all, had been around for many centuries. By the 20th century, belief in individual rights had dimmed, and the way was cleared for the Moloch state.
Among other difficulties, Johnson's distinction between relative and absolute morality is not very helpful in explaining what occurred in the world in the 1930s and '40s. During the Spanish Civil War, as Johnson concedes, killings behind the lines by the forces of Franco, the devout Catholic, rivaled those committed by the mainly skeptical and atheist Loyalists: after his victory, Franco had "some tens of thousands" shot, while "scores of thousands…died in prison or exile." It is hard to see how Freud or Marx (let alone Einstein) could be blamed for this bloodbath.
Johnson is commendably harsh on the British terror-bombing of German cities, especially the destruction of Dresden. "We see here the corruptive policy of moral relativism at work.…[The bombing was justified by] the old utilitarian theory of morals, as opposed to natural law theory which rules that the direct destruction of war-waging capacity was the only legitimate manner of conducting combat." But when it comes to the atom bombings of 1945, there is no condemnation, but rather approval, and in these startling terms: "The evidence does not suggest that the surrender could have been obtained without the A-bombs being used.…The use of nuclear weapons thus saved Japanese, as well as Allied, lives."
This is, however, historically inaccurate. Instead of massacring so many Japanese civilians, the American leaders could have modified their "crazy" demand for unconditional surrender, including the prospect of trial and execution of the emperor, as Assistant Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew and others suggested they do at the time. (Finally, of course, the Japanese were permitted to keep the emperor and the dynasty.) Even admitting Johnson's historical case, what is he doing here except using a purely utilitarian argument—about the net saving of human lives—to justify the mass killing of civilians?
Nonetheless, as Johnson advances through the 1960s and '70s, many of his judgments are infused with a high moral sensibility. He is not one of those calloused to the horror of other great crimes by the Nazis' mass murder of Jews and others and the Soviets' Gulag. Johnson says of the killings that accompanied the seizure of power by Suharto, the present leader of Indonesia and an American ally: "It was one of the great systematic slaughters of the twentieth century, the age of slaughter. The toll may have been as high as one million, though the consensus of authorities puts it in the region of 200,000 or 250,000." His treatment of the brutal racist regime of South Africa, and of the great Middle Eastern social engineer, the shah (another American ally), is excellent.
Regarding the United States, however, Johnson tends to get testier and more typically right-wing as he goes on. He holds the military-industrial complex to be largely "mythic" and puts imperial presidency in ironic quotes. Richard Nixon is said to have been the victim of a left-wing media plot to undo the results of the 1972 election. "Watergate hysteria" is supposed to have caused his downfall: other presidents have done as bad and worse. Of course they have. But the fact remains that Nixon was an unindicted coconspirator in a felony case involving obstruction of justice. What happens here to Johnson's righteous insistence on standards of "absolute morality"?
On Vietnam, Johnson is simply astonishing. It isn't that he doesn't succeed in explaining what the United States was doing there at all—no one else has, either. But he complains that the US air war was too restricted, that Lyndon Johnson was "paralysed by moral restraint." Since Americans—and, evidently, well-known British journalists—simply have no idea of what the American air war involved, let us pause a moment to consider. Johnson thought the British terror-bombing of Dresden was an atrocity; This is how the historian Stephen Ambrose, in his Rise to Globalism, describes the continuing bombing of Vietnam:
The statistics boggled the mind. First the headlines proclaimed that America had dropped more bombs on tiny Vietnam than in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. By 1967 it was more bombs than in the European theater. Then more than in the whole of World War II. Finally, by 1970, more bombs had been dropped on Vietnam than on all targets in the whole of human history.
One could take issue with the author's judgment on a number of other issues. As for factual errors, there are some, perhaps inevitably, but they are negligible among so many thousands of facts. The occasional contradictions are more disturbing. The philosophizing in Modern Times is, as I have tried to show, badly flawed. But this high-spirited and provocative work has the merit of placing the state right where it belongs: at the very center of the great tragedies of our century.
Ralph Raico is an associate professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo and senior editor of Inquiry magazine.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Agent of Evil".