Was Woodrow Wilson a War Criminal?

I got into a long, drawn out debate with C over whether or not Wilson’s entry into WWI was (legally, according to libertarian law) responsible for the rise of Hitler, and then WWII. If so, he’s a criminal. I said yes, C said no. C’s main argument is that even if Wilson caused WWII, people are not responsible for what they cause. Hitler’s parents “caused” Hitler, but are not (legally) responsible for his evil deeds. The Chinese invented gunpowder a while back, but are not responsible for gun deaths nowadays. I agreed with this, of course. My main attempt at a refutation is that there is a disanalogy: giving birth to a child, inventing guns or gunpowder, are not per se rights violations; heck, they are not rights violations at all. But, entry into a non-defensive war is indeed a rights violation, and, thus, Wilson is indeed guilty of a crime, at least according to libertarian law. If you are interested in the details of this convoluted debate, keep reading (from the bottom up, so as to follow the discussion). As for the timing, there are no limits. I don’t believe in explicit statutes of limitations. Yes, there are implicit, legitimate statutes of limitations, in that the further you go back into history, the harder it is to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt.


I see a disanalogy. the Chinese early invention of guns was not a per se rights violation. Wilson’s act was.

I don’t hold the 10 century Chinese guilty for a shooting in inner city Chicago, since there is no direct causal relationship between the two. I do hold Wilson guilty for WW2, even though he didn’t intend that, we can posit, arguendo, since there is a direct causal relationship.

now, consider Wilson’s action in 1917 and WW3, which will occur in the year 2525. to me, it is an open question as to whether we hold him guilty for that event: it all depends upon whether a historian can come up with an accurate causal relationship, which we can very much doubt.

this question is identical to the one regarding reparations. how far back do you go? For the Japanese in WW2, that’s easy; they can prove stuff was stolen from them in 1942. how about the blacks and slavery. a bit tougher, since it occurred longer ago. the burden of proof always rests with he who wants to overturn present property rights (possession is properly 9/10 of the law). but, if a black can prove his grandfather was a slave on plantation X, he is entitled to a part of that property, even now. the American Indians have a tougher row to hoe. it occurred even longer ago, and they didn’t have a written language. The Jews 2000 years ago. Even tougher once again, because longer ago, and time erases our knowledge. But, there was a written language. the point is, there is no time period, statute of limitations, for libertarians. there is only a “natural” statute of limitations: the further back in the past the harder it is to prove anything.

now get back to Wilson. the same thinking applies. the further forward in history, the harder it is to prove a direct connection. it is easy to demonstrate the causal connection between what Wilson did in 1917, and what occurred in 1941. it will be far more difficult to prove a causal connection between what Wilson did in 1917, and what will occur in 2525. If we can, then Wilson is responsible for WW3 also. if not, then not.

I fully agree with this statement of yours: “But with each step down the chain, it becomes harder to hold A responsible. One reason is: distance in time and space.” here’s where we part company. You say this: If Wilson “knew or should have known that there was a high risk” of his action in 1917 causing WW2, then he’s guilty of it, if not, not. I go along with you on this: if this is the proper criterion, then Wilson is innocent of WW2. He couldn’t have anticipated that. I stipulate this. But, I employ a different criterion: is there a clear causal connection. And, there is. So I hold Wilson guilty of WW2.

The problem I have with your criterion is that it resorts too heavily, way too heavily, on mens rea. Yes, this is important, but far more important are the facts. A shoots B intending to murder him. A is a murderer. Mens rea applies. C is cleaning his gun and shoots D by accident. No mens rea here. So, if you are logically consistent with your Wilson analysis, you would let C off scott free. He has no mens rea whatsoever. C didn’t even know of D’s existence. I in contrast, would impose a lesser penalty on C, but, still, a penalty. here are some readings on libertarian punishment theory:

Block, 1999, 2002-2003, 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b, 2006, 2009, 2016A, 2016B, 2017; Block, Barnett and Callahan, 2005; Gregory and Block, 2007; Olson, 1979; Rothbard, 1998, p. 88; Whitehead and Block, 2003

Block, Walter E. 1999. “Market Inalienability Once Again: Reply to Radin,” Thomas Jefferson Law Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall, pp. 37-88;;;

Block, Walter E. 2002-2003. “Berman on Blackmail: Taking Motives Fervently,” Florida State University Business Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 57-114;

Block, Walter E. 2003A. “Libertarianism vs. Objectivism; A Response to Peter Schwartz,” Reason Papers, Vol. 26, Summer, pp. 39-62;

Block, Walter E. 2003B. “The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism,” February 17;
(15th floor flagpole)

Block, Walter E. 2004a. Austrian Law and Economics: The Contributions of Adolf Reinach and Murray Rothbard, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter, pp. 69-85;

Block, Walter E. 2004b. “Reply to Frank van Dun’s ‘Natural Law and the Jurisprudence of Freedom,’” Journal of Libertarian Studies. Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, pp. 65-72.

Block, Walter E. 2006. “Radical Libertarianism: Applying Libertarian Principles to Dealing with the Unjust Government, Part II” Reason Papers, Vol. 28, Spring, pp. 85-109;;;; (death penalty justified, net taxpayer, ruling class analysis p. 87)

Block, Walter E. 2009. “Libertarian punishment theory: working for, and donating to, the state” Libertarian Papers, Vol. 1;

Block, Walter E. 2016A. “Does Rothbard contradict himself on punishment theory? No.” May 7;

Block, Walter E. 2016B. “Russian Roulette: Rejoinder to Robins.” Acta Economica et Turistica. Vol. 1, No. 2, May, pp. 197-205;

Block, Walter E. 2017. “Libertarian punishment theory and unjust enrichment.” Journal of Business Ethics;; DOI: 10.1007/s10551-017-3469-7;

Whitehead, Roy and Walter E. Block. 2003. “Taking the assets of the criminal to compensate victims of violence: a legal and philosophical approach,” Wayne State University Law School Journal of Law in Society Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall, pp.229-254; (death penalty justified)


Okay, now we’re getting somewhere in search of our limiting principle.

Actor A intentionally does a bad act because he wants a bad result. He gets the bad result he planned for: bad thing A.

Actor A intentionally does a bad act to get bad thing A, the result is bad thing A (which happens immediately) plus bad thing B (which happens a month later, as a result of bad thing A) and bad thing C (which happens a year later as the result of bad thing A) and bad thing D (which happens a century later).

So, at what point does Actor A stop being responsible and why? We can easily agree that Actor A is responsible for bad thing A: he wanted and sought and intended this result and surely people are responsible for the results they deliberately produce.

But with each step down the chain, it becomes harder to hold A responsible. One reason is: distance in time and space. The Chinese military engineers invented the first guns in China in 1000 AD or thereabouts, and the Chinese army perpetrated the first attack using guns shortly thereafter. You take the position that offensive use of weapons is a bad act. Starting with this premise, you characterize the Chinese military of 1000 AD as Actor A and their offensive use of weapons in China in 1000 AD as bad thing A. So far, I understand your position and it seems completely reasonable to me.

Now we get to Bad thing D: an American drug dealer shooting at a rival drug dealer during a drive by and accidentally killing a child in inner city New Orleans in 2018.

We agree that the Chinese are not responsible for Bad thing D. My reasoning is standard legal philosophy: when actor A does something that results in bad thing D, actor A is morally or legally responsible if he deliberately intended bad thing D, or if he knew or should have known that there was a high risk that his actions would produce Bad thing D. In practical terms, bad actors are usually not responsible for consequences of their actions that are “remote” in time and space from the original bad act. Applying these principles to the Chinese of 1000 AD, at the time they invented and deployed the first guns, there was no United States, let alone a United States with inner cities consumed by a drug war. The Chinese of 1000 AD couldn’t possibly have foreseen the situation that exists in the US in 1918, and they certainly didn’t desire it, and they shouldn’t be held responsible for it.

Looking at Woodrow Wilson and WWII, I use the same reasoning and reach the same result. Wilson wanted the allies to defeat Germany in WWI, but he didn’t intend for the allies to crush Germany economically during the post war era and when he entered the war, he didn’t have any way to know the British and French would be so vindictive. To the contrary, Wilson dreamed of a peaceful cooperative post war era and when the French and British leaders opted to crush Germany economically instead of being cooperative, he did his best to prevent this from happening. So I would say that Wilson did not want Germany to be crushed economically and, when he got the US into WWI, he couldn’t have foreseen that this would be the result. He certainly couldn’t have foreseen Hitler and the Holocaust which were a bizarre kink in history. Accordingly, I put Wilson in the same category as the 1000 AD Chinese. He may in fact be a bad actor because he got the US into WWI, but that doesn’t make him responsible for WWII.

You, on the other hand, exonerate the 1000 AD Chinese of inner city violence, but you are prepared to hold Wilson morally responsible for WWII.

Obviously you are applying a principle of responsibility that is different than the ones I am familiar with. Your limiting principle for moral responsibility is not the same as my limiting principle.

So, can you concisely state your limiting principle?


What I’m interested in, at this point, is how far the thread of moral responsibility/guilt extends?

the burden of proof rests with those who want to blame the bad guy.

I think this burden is met with Wilson and WW2. As for WW3, if a direct line can be made between him and this war of 2230, then, yes, he’s guilty of that too. but, this is exceedingly doubtful.

it is the same with the libertarian view of reparations. the further back in history you go, the harder it is to prove you are owed reparations.

I’ve written a bit about that:

Alston and Block, 2007; Block, 1993, 2001, 2002; Block and Yeatts, 1999-2000

Alston, Wilton D. and Walter E. Block. 2007. “Reparations, Once Again.” Human Rights Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, September, pp. 379-392;

Block, Walter E. 1993. “Malcolm X,” Fraser Forum, January, pp. 18-19;

Block, Walter E. 2001. “The Moral Dimensions of Poverty, Entitlements and Theft,” The Journal of Markets and Morality, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 83-93;;;; Search for “Walter Block” under “Authors” here:

Block, Walter E. 2002. “On Reparations to Blacks for Slavery,” Human Rights Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, July-September, pp. 53-73;;;
(David Horowitz, Randall Robinson)

Block, Walter E. and Guillermo Yeatts. 1999-2000. “The Economics and Ethics of Land Reform: A Critique of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s ‘Toward a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform,’” Journal of Natural Resources and Environmental Law, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 37-69;


Okay, now I’m starting to understand.

Where are the outer limits on responsibility located, and on what principle do we locate them?

(1) The US

Wilson was culpable in causing the US to enter WWI.

WWI resulted in WWII.

So, in your view, Wilson was culpable in causing WWII. What I’m interested in, at this point, is how far the thread of moral responsibility/guilt extends?

What if, in 2230, a chain of events which began with WWII causes WWIII? Is Wilson responsible for WWIII?

In other words, is it your view that anyone who performs a culpable act is culpable for all negative consequences ad infinitem no matter how remote? Or is there some outer limit on culpability? If so, what principle establishes the outer limit on culpability?

(2) China

The Chinese invented guns and hand grenades and flame throwers and cannons and land mines. Then the Chinese used these weapons for both offensive and defensive warfare.

Then European visitors saw that the Chinese were winning battles by use of these weapons and said, “That’s great, we need those weapons too!”

So the Chinese weapons were brought to Europe, copied, and improved upon.

Result: modern mass casualty warfare.

I am pretty sure that I can dig through the history books and find at least one case in which the Chinese used gunpowder weapons in an offensive capacity along about 1120 A.D. And I am pretty sure that you will respond that this, without more, is not enough to make the Chinese responsible for gun violence in US inner cities in 2018.

In this situation, we are in agreement. I would say that the people who are responsible for gun violence in US inner cities in 2018 are the people who are pulling the triggers. My explanation: I do not believe in collective responsibility or inherited guilt. So I absolve the Chinese of 1120 AD (and the modern Chinese) of responsibility for what happens in US inner cities in 2018.

You apparently do believe in collective responsibility and inherited guilt? Up to a point at least? Or maybe not?

Clarification, please.


Hitler’s parents caused a lot of deaths. Yet, they were entirely innocent. Why: Because giving birth is not a per se invasion, not a violation of the NAP

Those who invented guns caused a lot of deaths. Yet, they were entirely innocent. Why: Because inventing a gun is not a per se invasion, not a violation of the NAP

Wilson caused a lot of deaths. He is not at all innocent. Why: Because entering an offensive war (attacking a country that has not attacked you) IS not a per se invasion, IS a violation of the NAP

I wasn’t asking you to explain your moral judgments in your capacity as a Libertarian, I was asking you to explain your moral judgments in your capacity as a person.

To summarize the conversation thus far:

1. You stated that, in your opinion, the US is an evil imperialist war mongering country and the US is morally responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths including those that occurred during WWII.

Me: Why do you think that?

2. Your answer: Wilson and the US caused WWII by getting into WWI, which resulted in crushing Germany instead of a stalemate.

Me: As a practical matter, I think you may be correct that the US entering WWI produced the crushing of Germany instead of a stalemate, and crushing Germany caused WWII. But why does this mean the US is morally guilty? We can agree that just because the Chinese invented guns during the Song dynasty (circa 1000 AD), that doesn’t mean the Chinese are responsible for gun deaths resulting from drug dealer rivalries in US inner cities today. There’s some point at which the consequences are so remote from the original action that the original actor is no longer responsible. So what principle are you applying to make the US guilty of deaths during WWII but the Chinese not guilty of deaths in American inner cities?

3. Your answer: We just have to agree to disagree.

Me: We haven’t gotten as far as disagreeing, I’m still just trying to understand the process by which you are reaching your conclusions. What principles are you applying in order to decide when an actor is morally responsible for the consequences of his actions and when he isn’t?

4. Your answer: that’s outside the ken of libertarianism.

Then you criticize Wilson for getting us involved in WWI. But I still don’t have an explanation of the principle you apply in order to start with the premise, “The US should not have gotten involved in WWI” in order to reach the conclusion “Therefore the US is responsible for the deaths which occurred during WWII.”


moral guilt, morality, are outside the ken of libertarianism. we are only concerned with what the law should be, and what should happen to law violators.

Wilson is a criminal, since he sent US forces to fight in a war against countries that were not attacking us.


We only have to disagree if you are unable to answer my questions I am not trying to trip you with debater ju jitsu I am trying to understand the principles you apply in assigning moral responsibility

Woodrow Wilson obviously did not intend to cause WWII but I am inclined to agree that WWII was a result of his actions So is he morally guilty for an unintended consequence Or is he innocent because he had no way of knowing what would result from his behavior? I am genuinely trying to follow your thought processes here I gather you think he is morally guilty but what principle do you apply in order to reach that conclusion ?

Sent from my iPhone


I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this philosophical point.

let me try again. A murders B. Was A solely responsible for B’s death? No. there were other causal elements. If B’s parents hadn’t given birth to B, A wouldn’t have been able to murder B. So, A was not solely responsible for B’s death. But, A is a murderer.


Please explain how you get from a simple statement of fact (“America’s actions in 1918 were one of multiple causes of WII occurring in 1941 to 1945”) to “America is morally guilty for WWII” and then go even beyond that to “America is an imperialist warmonger.”

Causing something and being morally responsible for it are two different things.

Being one of multiple causes of something and being responsible for the entire something are two different things.

I expect you, as a a philosopher, to make these distinctions!

Furthermore, I know perfectly well that you are CAPABLE of making these distinctions. I have studied you closely and have come to the conclusion that you are neither mentally deficient nor mentally lazy.

So why are you trying to snow me with arguments which are inadequate on their face?

Is it possible that you confuse me with one of your undergraduates students? Hmpppfff.


11:53 am on November 9, 2018