Policies of Vengeance in the Postwar Period

by Tianxing Cao, Evan Gong and Alexandra von Minden

On February 11, IES was delighted to welcome senior fellow Zachary Shore (Professor of History at the Naval Postgraduate School). In his lecture, entitled “From Vengeance to Virtue: The Problem of Postwar Germany,” Shore explored the context and reasoning surrounding the U.S. treatment of its perceived enemies during and after World War II.

Shore began by examining the origin of the United States’ response in 1942 to intern Japanese-Americans, namely Executive Order 9066. He also probed the passionate minority of government officials who engineered a concerted and fear-mongering campaign for retribution towards Japanese-Americans, despite the fact that few Japanese-Americans posed a threat and a majority of Americans disapproved of internment. Importantly, Shore noted that the side opposed to internment lacked a coherent message and strategy to combat the side in favor. Ultimately, Shore argued, Executive Order 9066 was brought about by vengeance and was significant because it had lasting political implications and set dangerous precedents.

Shore then turned his attention towards another policy of vengeance, namely, the extreme punishment of Germany and ordinary Germans under Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s plan. The Morgenthau Plan proposed reverting Germany back to an agricultural state by liquidating its entire industrial capacity and other industries pertaining to war. He pointed out that, like EO 9066, the Morgenthau Plan came under serious consideration of implementation despite not having the support of a majority of decision-makers. Though the Morgenthau Plan came close to becoming enacted, the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and opposition by his predecessor, Harry S. Truman was ultimately the nail in its coffin.

The case studies Shore picked for his book give us a flavor of what he calls “misplaced vengeance” – not only because the policies were merely supported by a small number of individuals but, most importantly, because the policies targeted innocent civilians and children. He emphasized that War Secretary Stimson’s efforts to blunt the worst effects of the Morgenthau Plan and what he assessed as attempts of hindering President Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic bombs on Japan, were never sufficiently recognized or appreciated by historians. During an engaging Q&A with the audience of 20 guests, Shore explained from his unique perspective as a historian why he chose to select his cases quite narrowly from the post-war period. Speaking to the question of which advice he would give policymakers to prevent short-sighted acts of retribution or vengeance in the future, he emphasized the importance of political organization as well as the active involvement of the public at early stages of the policymaking process.