A word from Victor Davis Hanson

Basic Books has just published Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars. Matthew Continetti celebrated it in a column here; it is certainly one of the most notable books of the year. Dr. Hanson has graciously accepted our invitation to preview the book for Power Line readers. He writes:

The Second World Wars is not a chronological narrative of the conflict, but is organized by themes—e.g., “earth,” “fire,” “air,” “water,” etc.—that analyze the choices each belligerent made on land and on the seas and in the air—in terms of technological, industrial, human,, and strategic and tactical considerations. The Allies made far more logical decisions in how they developed and produced weapons (durability and reliability rather than emphases on craftsmanship), developed greater cooperation, produced more effective propaganda, and far more imaginatively organized their industries than did the Axis powers.

World War II is a story of paradoxes and anomalies. And yet the conflict was also classical and predictable: age-old ideas, such as the role of fear and honor, the balance of power, appeasement, preemptive attack, total war, and unconditional surrender, governed the prewar and strategic decision-making of the two sides.

We sometimes forget that the 60-65 million who perished in the Second World War—ca. 27,000 a day—were mostly civilians and in large part citizens of Allied countries, and thus in some sense the war was a story of German and Japanese soldiers butchering noncombatants in the Soviet Union, Asia, and in particular Eastern Europe and China.

I use the plural, Second World Wars, to remind that Germany’s initial 9 or so border wars from September 1939 through May 1941 were, with the exception of the Blitz, all successful; and yet as brief, episodic, and one-sided victories they were still not yet universally seen as an inclusive “Second World War.” The same tendency was true of Japan’s aggressions in China and Southeast Asia prior to Pearl Harbor.

The year 1941 changed all that. These previous border wars were now assimilated into a global notion of a World War—as the former “Great War” of 1914-18 was likewise rebranded as World War I. Yet even then, the sheer scope of World War II’s theaters, the novelty of deadly new technologies, the diversity of fighting above and below the seas, and on land and in the air—from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, and the English Channel to the Volga River, and from the Indian Ocean to the Aleutians, and Wake Island to Manchuria—made it difficult to comprehend such diverse fighting as a united whole. After all, what did Bulgarians have in common as Axis with the Japanese fighting in China, or how was the experience of those in a U-boat off Miami remotely kindred with American bomber crews at 25,000 feet?

But even more importantly, why did the demonstrably weaker belligerents Germany, Italy, and Japan start a conflict against the far more powerful Allied powers of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States? In some sense, they certainly did not until the pivotal year 1941.

But three fatal decisions that year—the German invasion of Russia, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the declaration of war on the United States by Italy and Germany—recalibrated the war in a way the Axis were not likely to win, unless they destroyed the industrial base and population centers of three powers whose aggregate resources now dwarfed those of the Axis alliance.

For a fleeting moment in late 1942—the fall of Tobruk, the German inroads into the Caucasus, and the Japanese landing on Gaudacanal—the Axis seemed as if they might win tactically before the strategic advantages of the Allies made ultimate victory impossible. Such hopes were soon dashed at Stalingrad, El Alamein, and in a series of land and naval fights off Guadalcanal. Allied soldiers quickly learned to fight as savagely as the Japanese and Germans, but the latter peoples were never able to produce goods and services as effectively as the Allies.

The reality was dawning on the victory-drunk Axis that they had foolishly started a global war without the ability to harm significantly the homeland of their new opponents—the industrial base of the U.S., Russia across the Urals, or the population and industry of Britain after 1941. No Axis power ever built in quantity a four-engine heavy bomber; only Japan of the Axis built aircraft carriers, and all three lacked the ability to transport, supply, and protect armies at great distances.

The Allied demand for unconditional surrender (formalized at Casablanca in January 1943) resulted in three more years of fighting, given that the far more powerful allies sought not to defeat enemy armies, but to destroy the very ability of their opponents to make war—always a difficult task in any conflict.

The tragedy of World War II was that a horrific war was apparently needed to prove what otherwise should have been easily demonstrable to all concerned: by the decisive year 1942 the Allies had infinitely better economies, larger populations, and better leaders than did the Axis. Yet the reality of deterrence had been lost between 1939 and 1941 due to British appeasement of the mid-1930s, American isolationism, and active Soviet collusion with Germany. Throughout history, when deterrence is lost, once preventable wars often ensue to reestablish recognition of which states are the stronger and the weaker powers.

The Allies were not perfect either in their strategic war-planning or their ethical agendas, but in comparison to the alternative world of the Axis, they were certainly good—and we owe them great gratitude for extinguishing nightmarish agendas and passing on to us at least the chance to create something far better.

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