All around us things are falling apart. Collectively, Americans are experiencing national and imperial decline. Can America save itself? Is this country, as presently constituted, even worth saving?
For me, that last question is radical indeed. From my early years, I believed deeply in the idea of America. I knew this country wasn’t perfect, of course, not even close. Long before the 1619 Project, I was aware of the “original sin” of slavery and how central it was to our history. I also knew about the genocide of Native Americans. (As a teenager, my favorite movie — and so it remains — was Little Big Man, which pulled no punches when it came to the white man and his insatiably murderous greed.)
Nevertheless, America still promised much, or so I believed in the 1970s and 1980s. Life here was simply better, hands down, than in places like the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China. That’s why we had to “contain” communism — to keep themover there, so they could never invade our country and extinguish our lamp of liberty. And that’s why I joined America’s Cold War military, serving in the Air Force from the presidency of Ronald Reagan to that of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And believe me, it proved quite a ride. It taught this retired lieutenant colonel that the sky’s anything but the limit.
In the end, 20 years in the Air Force led me to turn away from empire, militarism, and nationalism. I found myself seeking instead some antidote to the mainstream media’s celebrations of American exceptionalism and the exaggerated version of victory culture that went with it (long after victory itself was in short supply). I started writingagainst the empire and its disastrous wars and found likeminded people at TomDispatch — former imperial operatives turned incisive critics like Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich, along with sharp-eyed journalist Nick Turse and, of course, the irreplaceable Tom Engelhardt, the founder of those “tomgrams” meant to alert America and the world to the dangerous folly of repeated U.S. global military interventions.
But this isn’t a plug for TomDispatch. It’s a plug for freeing your mind as much as possible from the thoroughly militarized matrix that pervades America. That matrix drives imperialism, waste, war, and global instability to the point where, in the context of the conflict in Ukraine, the risk of nuclear Armageddon could imaginably approach that of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As wars — proxy or otherwise — continue, America’s global network of 750-odd military bases never seems to decline. Despite upcoming cuts to domestic spending, just about no one in Washington imagines Pentagon budgets doing anything but growing, even soaring toward the trillion-dollar level, with militarized programs accounting for 62% of federal discretionary spending in 2023.
Indeed, an engorged Pentagon — its budget for 2024 is expected to rise to $886 billionin the bipartisan debt-ceiling deal reached by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — guarantees one thing: a speedier fall for the American empire. Chalmers Johnson predicted it; Andrew Bacevich analyzed it. The biggest reason is simple enough: incessant, repetitive, disastrous wars and costly preparations for more of the same have been sapping America’s physical and mental reserves, as past wars did the reserves of previous empires throughout history. (Think of the short-lived Napoleonic empire, for example.)
Known as “the arsenal of democracy” during World War II, America has now simply become an arsenal, with a military-industrial-congressional complex intent on forging and feeding wars rather than seeking to starve and stop them. The result: a precipitous decline in the country’s standing globally, while at home Americans pay a steep price of accelerating violence (2023 will easily set a record for mass shootings) and “carnage” (Donald Trump’s word) in a once proud but now much-bloodied“homeland.”
Lessons from History on Imperial Decline
I’m a historian, so please allow me to share a few basic lessons I’ve learned. When I taught World War I to cadets at the Air Force Academy, I would explain how the horrific costs of that war contributed to the collapse of four empires: Czarist Russia, the German Second Reich, the Ottoman empire, and the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburgs. Yet even the “winners,” like the French and British empires, were also weakened by the enormity of what was, above all, a brutal European civil war, even if it spilled over into Africa, Asia, and indeed the Americas.
And yet after that war ended in 1918, peace proved elusive indeed, despite the Treaty of Versailles, among other abortive agreements. There was too much unfinished business, too much belief in the power of militarism, especially in an emergent Third Reich in Germany and in Japan, which had embraced ruthless European military methods to create its own Asiatic sphere of dominance. Scores needed to be settled, so the Germans and Japanese believed, and military offensives were the way to do it.
As a result, civil war in Europe continued with World War II, even as Japan showed that Asiatic powers could similarly embrace and deploy the unwisdom of unchecked militarism and war. The result: 75 million dead and more empires shattered, including Mussolini’s “New Rome,” a “thousand-year” German Reich that barely lasted 12 of them before being utterly destroyed, and an Imperial Japan that was starved, burnt out, and finally nuked. China, devastated by war with Japan, also found itself ripped apart by internal struggles between nationalists and communists.
As with its prequel, even most of the “winners” of World War II emerged in a weakened state. In defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had lost 25 to 30 million people. Its response was to erect, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, an “Iron Curtain” behind which it could exploit the peoples of Eastern Europe in a militarized empire that ultimately collapsed due to its wars and its own internal divisions. Yet the USSR lasted longer than the post-war French and British empires. France, humiliated by its rapid capitulation to the Germans in 1940, fought to reclaim wealth and glory in “French” Indochina, only to be severely humbled at Dien Bien Phu. Great Britain, exhausted from its victory, quickly lost India, that “jewel” in its imperial crown, and then Egypt in the Suez debacle.
There was, in fact, only one country, one empire, that truly “won” World War II: the United States, which had been the least touched (Pearl Harbor aside) by war and all its horrors. That seemingly never-ending European civil war from 1914 to 1945, along with Japan’s immolation and China’s implosion, left the U.S. virtually unchallenged globally. America emerged from those wars as a superpower precisely because its government had astutely backed the winning side twice, tipping the scales in the process, while paying a relatively low price in blood and treasure compared to allies like the Soviet Union, France, and Britain.
History’s lesson for America’s leaders should have been all too clear: when you wage war long, especially when you devote significant parts of your resources — financial, material, and especially personal — to it, you wage it wrong. Not for nothing is war depicted in the Bible as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. France had lost its empire in World War II; it just took later military catastrophes in Algeria and Indochina to make it obvious. That was similarly true of Britain’s humiliations in India, Egypt, and elsewhere, while the Soviet Union, which had lost much of its imperial vigor in that war, would take decades of slow rot and overstretch in places like Afghanistan to implode.
Meanwhile, the United States hummed along, denying it was an empire at all, even as it adopted so many of the trappings of one. In fact, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington’s leaders would declare America the exceptional “superpower,” a new and far more enlightened Rome and “the indispensable nation” on planet Earth. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, its leaders would confidently launch what they termed a Global War on Terror and begin waging wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, as in the previous century they had in Vietnam. (No learning curve there, it seems.) In the process, its leaders imagined a country that would remain untouched by war’s ravages, which was we now know — or do we? — the height of imperial hubris and folly.
For whether you call it fascism, as with Nazi Germany, communism, as with Stalin’s Soviet Union, or democracy, as with the United States, empires built on dominance achieved through a powerful, expansionist military necessarily become ever more authoritarian, corrupt, and dysfunctional. Ultimately, they are fated to fail. No surprise there, since whatever else such empires may serve, they don’t serve their own people. Their operatives protect themselves at any cost, while attacking efforts at retrenchment or demilitarization as dangerously misguided, if not seditiously disloyal.
That’s why those like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Daniel Hale, who shined a light on the empire’s militarized crimes and corruption, found themselves imprisoned, forced into exile, or otherwise silenced. Even foreign journalists like Julian Assange can be caught up in the empire’s dragnet and imprisoned if they dare expose its war crimes. The empire knows how to strike back and will readily betray its own justice system (most notably in the case of Assange), including the hallowed principles of free speech and the press, to do so.
Perhaps he will eventually be freed, likely as not when the empire judges he’s approaching death’s door. His jailing and torture have already served their purpose. Journalists know that to expose America’s bloodied tools of empire brings only harsh punishment, not plush rewards. Best to look away or mince one’s words rather than risk prison — or worse.
Yet you can’t fully hide the reality that this country’s failed wars have added trillions of dollars to its national debt, even as military spending continues to explode in the most wasteful ways imaginable, while the social infrastructure crumbles.
Clinging Bitterly to Guns and Religion
Today, America clings ever more bitterly to guns and religion. If that phrase sounds familiar, it might be because Barack Obama used it in the 2008 presidential campaign to describe the reactionary conservatism of mostly rural voters in Pennsylvania. Disillusioned by politics, betrayed by their putative betters, those voters, claimed the then-presidential candidate, clung to their guns and religion for solace. I lived in rural Pennsylvania at the time and recall a response from a fellow resident who basically agreed with Obama, for what else was there left to cling to in an empire that had abandoned its own rural working-class citizens?
Something similar is true of America writ large today. As an imperial power, we cling bitterly to guns and religion. By “guns,” I mean all the weaponry America’s merchants of death sell to the Pentagon and across the world. Indeed, weaponry is perhaps this country’s most influential global export, devastatingly so. From 2018 to 2022, the U.S. alone accounted for 40% of global arms exports, a figure that’s only risen dramatically with military aid to Ukraine. And by “religion,” I mean a persistent belief in American exceptionalism (despite all evidence to the contrary), which increasingly draws sustenance from a militant Christianity that denies the very spirit of Christ and His teachings.
Yet history appears to confirm that empires, in their dying stages, do exactly that: they exalt violence, continue to pursue war, and insist on their own greatness until their fall can neither be denied nor reversed. It’s a tragic reality that the journalist Chris Hedges has written about with considerable urgency.
The problem suggests its own solution (not that any powerful figure in Washington is likely to pursue it). America must stop clinging bitterly to its guns — and here I don’t even mean the nearly 400 million weapons in private hands in this country, including all those AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. By “guns,” I mean all the militarized trappings of empire, including America’s vast structure of overseas military bases and its staggering commitments to weaponry of all sorts, including world-ending nuclearones. As for clinging bitterly to religion — and by “religion” I mean the belief in America’s own righteousness, regardless of the millions of people it’s killed globally from the Vietnam era to the present moment — that, too, would have to stop.
History’s lessons can be brutal. Empires rarely die well. After it became an empire, Rome never returned to being a republic and eventually fell to barbarian invasions. The collapse of Germany’s Second Reich bred a third one of greater virulence, even if it was of shorter duration. Only its utter defeat in 1945 finally convinced Germans that God didn’t march with their soldiers into battle.
What will it take to convince Americans to turn their backs on empire and war before it’s too late? When will we conclude that Christ wasn’t joking when He blessed the peacemakers rather than the warmongers?
As an iron curtain descends on a failing American imperial state, one thing we won’t be able to say is that we weren’t warned.
It began in August 1914, a war in Europe that was supposed to be over by Christmas of that year. But it exploded out of control, becoming the “Great War” or “The World War” or even “The War to End All Wars.” And when it finally ended on 11/11 in 1918, something like ten million troops were dead.
We know it as World War I or the First World War because we know what came after it: yet another calamitous world war, a sequel, one that was far worse than the original. And after that war finally ended in 1945, something like 75-80 million people were dead around the world, including 25 million in the Soviet Union, six million Jews in the Holocaust, and 250,000 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course, World War II also wasn’t the end of the killing. The so-called Iron Curtain descended in Europe, leading to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that almost ended with Armageddon in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That Cold War came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. celebrated its apparent victory, even calling briefly for “peace dividends” in the 1990s. It was not to be.
Thirty years after the (First) Cold War, we now hear of a “new Cold War.” We hear again that China and Russia are America’s enemies, a new “Axis of Evil,” notes Caitlin Johnstone. America is already engaged in a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Now America’s leaders are posturing over Taiwan and threatening war with China if the Chinese military makes aggressive moves against that country. (Of course, the Chinese consider Taiwan to be China, a “One China” policy the U.S. used to support.)
It does seem as if “my” Cold War, when I served in the U.S. military, may be remembered to history as the First Cold War, and that America has already begun a Second Cold War. And, just as World War II was far worse than World War I in casualties and destruction, Cold War II could conceivably be a LOT worse than Cold War I if we choose to continue to wage it.
Sequels, as a general rule, are usually worse, sometimes far worse, than the originals. We had better stop this nonsense of a new Cold War before we relearn this in the hardest way possible.
As I mentioned in a previous Bracing View, I was invited to participate in a forum to generate new ideas to tackle the military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Here are a few more thoughts in response to this stimulating collaboration:
When I was a college student in the early 1980s, and in Air Force ROTC, I wrote critically of the Reagan defense buildup. Caspar Weinberger, he of the “Cap the knife” handle for cost-cutting, became “Cap the ladle” as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, ladling money in huge amounts to the Pentagon. History is repeating itself again as the Biden administration prepares to ladle $813 billion (and more) to the Pentagon.
How do we stop this? Of course, we must recognize (as I’m sure we all do) what we’re up against. Both political parties are pro-military and, in the main, pro-war. Our economy is based on a militarized Keynesianism and our culture is increasingly militarized. Mainstream Democrats, seemingly forever afraid of being labeled “weak” on defense, are at pains to be more pro-military than the Republicans. Biden, in Poland, echoed the words of Obama and other past presidents, declaring the U.S. military to be “the finest fighting force” in history. Think about that boast. Think about how Biden added that the nation owes the troops big. This is a sign of a sick culture.
Ike gave his MIC speech in 1961, and for 61 years the MIC has been winning. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s, the MIC held its own; after 9/11, it went into warp speed and is accelerating. To cite Scotty from Star Trek: “And at Warp 10, we’re going nowhere mighty fast.”
We need a reformation of our institutions; we need a restoration of our democracy; we need a reaffirmation of the U.S. Constitution; we need to remember who we are, or perhaps who we want to be, as a people.
Do we really want to be the world’s largest dealer of arms? Do we really want to spend a trillion or more dollars, each and every year, on wars and weapons, more than the next dozen or so countries combined, most of which are allies of ours? (“Yes” is seemingly the answer here, for both Democrats and Republicans.) Is that really the best way to serve the American people? Humanity itself?
Consider plans to “invest” in “modernizing” America’s nuclear triad. (Notice the words used here by the MIC.) What does this really mean? To me, it means we plan on spending nearly $2 trillion over the next 30 years to replace an older suicide vest with a newer one, except this suicide vest will take out humanity itself, as well as most other life forms on our planet. To channel Greta Thunberg’s righteous anger, “How dare you!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVlRompc1yE
Or, as Ike said in 1953, “This is not a way of life at all … it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
We will need the broadest possible coalition to tackle this outrage against civilization and humanity. That’s why I applaud these efforts to tackle the MIC, even as I encourage all of us to enlist and recruit more people to join our ranks.
My father enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to do his bit for his family and his nation. He fought forest fires in Oregon and later became a firefighter after serving in the Army during World War II. That was the last formally declared war that America fought. It was arguably the last morally justifiable war this country has fought, waged by citizens who donned a uniform, not “warriors” who are told that the nation owes them big.
In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart, a true war hero, played a man who never fought in World War II, who stayed at home and helped ordinary people even as his younger brother Harry went off to war and earned the Medal of Honor. Yet the movie doesn’t celebrate Harry’s war heroism; it celebrates the nobility, decency, and humility of George Bailey.
How do we get back to that America? The America from before the MIC, that celebrated decency and kindness and humanitarianism?
Yes, I know. It’s just a Frank Capra movie, and America has never been a perfect shining city. All I’m saying is we need more of that spirit, and more of the righteous anger of Greta Thunberg, if we are to prevail.
Remember the days when America had to be attacked before it went to war? And when it did, it made formal Congressional declarations of the same?
In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor as well as elsewhere in the Pacific. In response to those attacks, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. Nazi Germany then declared war on the U.S., after which the U.S. responded in kind. Compared to the future wars of U.S. empire, Americans were generally united and had some understanding of what the war (World War II, of course) was about.
We haven’t had that kind of unity and clarity since 1945, which is certainly the biggest reason America has suffered so many setbacks and defeats in unpromising places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all three of those places, there really wasn’t a clear and compelling cause for war, hence there was no Congressional declaration of the same. Hmm … maybe that should have told us something?
In Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress followed on the heels of an “attack” that had never happened. In Iraq, the “evil dictator” didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction we accused him of having, nor had he played any role in the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had played a secondary role in providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, but it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Indeed, since 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists were Saudi, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden, it would have made much more sense to have declared war on Saudi Arabia and invade that country than to have invaded Afghanistan. Of course, it made no sense at all to have declared a general “war on terror,” and rather unsurprisingly, that 20-year-war has only succeeded in spreading terror further.
Now we turn to today’s situation between Russia and Ukraine. Frankly, I don’t see a border dispute between these two countries as constituting a major threat to U.S. national security. It’s certainly no reason for America to go to war. Yet the Biden Administration is taking a hard line with its economic sanctions, its weapons shipments, and its troop deployments to the region.
Somehow, America’s leaders seem to think that such actions will deter, or at least punish, Russia and its leader. But there’s another possibility, one equally as likely, that sanctions and weapons and troops will lead to escalation and a wider war, and for what reason? A Russian-Ukrainian border dispute? This dispute might resolve itself if the U.S. and NATO just had the sense and patience to mind its own business.
A rush to war made sense in 1941, when the U.S. faced powerful and implacable enemies that were focused on its destruction. It hasn’t made sense since then, nor does it make sense today.
I come from a family of veterans. My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II. My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star. Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery. Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.
Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people. They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution. Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.
Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did. But for what purpose, and to what end? We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged? If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.
Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty. This isn’t just my sentiment. As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.
A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore. Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.” From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I. Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war. The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”
The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker. In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up. Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat. There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.
Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war. When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.” For the Navy, service was about “adventure.” For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.” These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy. America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end. Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
Note: I wrote this article in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima. Nuclear weapons should be eliminated from the planet.
August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power? We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let’s use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008),World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
Here are two comments I made in response to previous comments on this article:
I think the comments once again show that no consensus is possible on whether the atomic bombs were decisive in ending the war sooner. Even well-informed people at the time disagreed.
Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground. That included blockade, firebombing, and invasions (Iwo Jima and Okinawa). A longer blockade and more Japanese would have starved. More firebombing, more dead Japanese. More invasions, more dead Japanese, and of course Allied troops as well. The Japanese were well indoctrinated to fall in battle like cherry blossoms in the service of the emperor, whom they viewed as a god.
How to get a Japanese leadership and people to surrender when they saw the very act as dishonorable to the warrior code of Bushido? How to persuade a military that was already committing suicide on a massive scale in Kamikaze attacks against Allied ships to capitulate and live on with the shame of defeat?
It’s clear from the evidence that Truman believed the atomic bomb would shock the “beast” of Japan (“beast” was Truman’s word, a description that Allied soldiers and other Asian peoples who suffered at the hands of Japan, e.g. the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, would have agreed with). It surely did shock them. Profoundly. Was it sufficient? Was it necessary?
Again, there is no alternate reality in which the atomic bomb wasn’t dropped, and thus no way of knowing whether in that other reality, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender on August 15th.
My reading of the evidence is that impressing the Soviets was a factor, but not THE factor, in the decision to use the bomb. Ending the war as quickly as possible was the driving factor. If the bomb had been ready in December 1944, it would have been used against Nazi Germany as the Battle of the Bulge raged. But the bomb wasn’t ready until July 1945, when the Germans had already surrendered.
Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fresh in the minds of everyone. Though the Japanese had extended peace-feelers, others in Japan were hardline and didn’t wish to surrender on any terms. Faced with a war that could last weeks or months longer, perhaps into 1946 if an invasion of the Japanese home islands had been necessary, the US leadership decided the bomb could be the shock that would force the Japanese to capitulate. And so it seemed, after the fact.
It’s a very complicated question that I’ve read a lot about, and written about as well. Many people at the time simply saw the bomb as a “bigger” bomb, not as something world-changing. Only a few people truly grasped the horror of atomic weapons.
I know this probably isn’t convincing, but again this is my reading of the evidence. Certainly, Nagasaki was completely unnecessary — it came far too quickly for the Japanese to process what had happened at Hiroshima.
It’s worth pausing this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, marked by Adolf Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender. The Allied victory was a triumph of coalition warfare, the “Big Three” represented by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, joined by so many other countries and peoples.
The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a disarmingly simple message to mark Germany’s total defeat and surrender:
“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”
It was a true “mission accomplished” moment — perhaps the last clear one America has had in any major war or conflict since then.
Eisenhower was a complex man who presented himself as a simple one. One thing he knew was how to lead, to bring people together, to keep hotheads like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General George Patton under control while maximizing their gifts. It’s difficult to imagine a better coalition commander than Ike.
I love this image of Ike from May 7, 1945 (Ike is seen here with his deputy commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder of the Royal Air Force):
Note the simplicity of Ike’s uniform (just three rows of ribbons, and no badges, devices, or other military gewgaws). The same can be said of Tedder’s uniform (a few ribbons, his wings, and that’s about it). Compare their uniforms to America’s current Chairman of the JCS, Mark Milley:
With all this self-congratulation and self-glorification, is it any wonder America’s generals found stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
VE Day represented enormous sacrifices by peoples around the world to defeat a murderous fascistic regime in Germany. Well should we remember it and learn from it.
News that the Army is moving to a new, retro, uniform modeled on World War II-era designs got my military friends buzzing. Not so much about the “new” (old) uniform, but all the badges, ribbons, tabs, and related baubles and doodads that adorn U.S. military uniforms today, a topic I’ve written about before at TomDispatch.com and here at BV.
First, the new uniform. World War II was the last “great” war America truly won, so it’s hardly surprising the Army is reaching back to the era of the “greatest generation” and the “band of brothers.” Why not tap nostalgia for that “good” war, when Americans banded together against the Nazis and the Japanese? It’s also consistent with Trump’s message about “Making America Great Again”; we can even substitute “the Army” for “America” and keep MAGA.
For Trump, this mythical “great” America seems to center on the 1950s, whereas for the Army it’s WWII and the 1940s. Still, these MAGA uniforms and hats seem to say the Army and America are currently not great, and that the path to greatness is a retrograde one, a return to the past. (That return apparently does not include a revival of the draft and America’s citizen-soldier tradition.)
But it was an image of Dwight D. Eisenhower that got my military friends buzzing. Ike led the invasion of D-Day and was the architect of victory in Europe as supreme allied commander, yet you’d never know it from his simple, almost unadorned, uniform. Consider the image below of Ike that accompanied the story in the New York Times:
As one of my military correspondents, a retired command sergeant major who fought in the infantry in Vietnam, wrote to me:
[Ike was] A man from a cow town in Kansas, Abilene, who was a lower rung grad at West Point and came back from WW I as a Major. Twenty years later as a LTC enters WW II and comes back a Five Star General, one of only about five ever made and he has two, count them, two tiny rows of ribbons, no hero badges, not even a bolo badge to show what a great marksman he is, no para wings, no ranger tab, no CIB/EIB and FIVE, COUNT THEM, FIVE STARS on his shoulders. He also ran for, won, and was a pretty damned good [Republican president] for eight years. The Generals we have had since, starting with Westy [William Westmoreland] were all losers although they all had badges, ribbons, medals, patches all over their sorry asses BUT no VK medals, no VVN medals, no Victory Medals from any damned place I can think of. Well, maybe Grenada or Panama, or a bar fight in Columbus, GA. Home of Ft Benning… Something to think about, eh?
All those “bells and whistles” on military uniforms today “are like Vanity License Plates for one’s car,” this same command sergeant major noted. Speaking of vanity, a retired colonel told me there’s a company “that’ll miniaturize your ‘rack’ so you can wear your ribbons on your lapel—all of them—when you separate [from the military]. LOOK AT ME: I’M A HERO!”
One thing is certain: We have a ribbon- and badge-chasing military. (General David Petraeus was the worst.) People literally want to wear their “achievements” on their sleeve — or blouse — or jacket, even after they leave the military. Military members chase these baubles. They “achieve.” But what about quieter achievements that you can’t wear? How about integrity, honesty, commitment, fairness? What about intelligence? Dedication to the craft of arms that doesn’t involve getting a fancy badge like jump wings from France?
The Army’s retro-chic uniforms won’t be of any value if we keep valuing the wrong things. A Boy Scout military that keeps chasing merit badges for the sake of promotion of self is a very bad thing, irrespective of uniform design.
Yet there’s another side to all this. As my colonel-friend put it:
Here’s the real cost of this ribbon chasing. There’s an enormous number of man-hours expended on writing and chasing the paperwork to award these doodads… At a time when the military is allegedly overtaxed and burned out, why are they wasting so much effort on this nonsense? Why are some units hiring editors to keep the decorations moving? In survey after survey, AF pilots cited decorations and other administrative nonsense, not deployments, as the reason they don’t want to stay in. But since generals groom and promote only those who think like them (having selected them when they were captains), nothing changes. “You have to take care of your people,” they say, and if you listen to E-9s [the senior enlisted] people are happiest when they get doodads.
As another close military friend put it: “And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of ribbons and badges today. A captain today will have as many ribbons as a circa-1944 two-star [general]. [In their new retro uniforms,] they’ll just look like extras in a war movie.”
In sum, a jury of my peers has come back with a verdict on the Army’s new retro uniform: Love the look, but can you please bring back as well the humble citizen-soldiers of Ike’s era, the ones who won wars without all the gratuitous self-promotion?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
About fifteen years ago, I wrote a short history of World War II for an encyclopedia on military history. I was supposed to be paid for it, but apparently the money ran out, though my article and the encyclopedia did appear in 2006. Having not been paid, I still own the rights to my article, so I’m posting it today, hoping it may serve as a brief introduction for a wider audience to a very complex subject. A short bibliography is included at the end.
Dr. William J. Astore
World War II (1939-1945): Calamitous global war that resulted in the death of sixty million people. The war’s onset and course cannot be understood without reference to World War I. While combat in the European theater of operations (ETO) lasted six years, in Asia and the Pacific combat lasted fourteen years, starting with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Unprecedented in scale, World War II witnessed deliberate and systematic killing of innocents. Especially horrific was Germany’s genocidal Endlösung (Final Solution), during which the Nazis attempted to murder all Jewish, Sinti, and Roma peoples, in what later became known as the Holocaust.
Rapid campaigns, such as Germany’s stunning seven-week Blitzkrieg (lightning war) against France, characterized the war’s early years. Ultimately, quick victories gave way to lengthy and punishing campaigns from mid-1942 to 1945. Early and rapid German and Japanese advances proved reversible, although at tremendous cost, as the Soviet Union and the United States geared their economies fully for war. The chief Axis powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) were ultimately defeated as much by their own strategic blunders and poorly coordinated efforts as by the weight of men and matériel fielded by the “Big Three” Allies (Soviet Union, United States, and Great Britain).
Militant fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and an expansionist military regime in Japan exploited inherent flaws in the Versailles settlement, together with economic and social turmoil made worse by the Great Depression. In Germany, Adolf Hitler dedicated himself to reversing what he termed the Diktat of Versailles through rearmament, remilitarization of the Rhineland, and territorial expansion ostensibly justified by national representation.
Concealing his megalomaniac intent within a cloak of reasoned rhetoric, Hitler persuaded Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier that his territorial demands could be appeased. But there was no appeasing Hitler, who sought to subjugate Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, re-establish an African empire, and ultimately settle accounts with the United States. For Hitler, only a ruthless rooting out of a worldwide “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy” would gain the Lebensraum (living space) a supposedly superior Aryan race needed to survive and thrive.
Less ambitious, if equally vainglorious, was Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Italian limitations forced Il Duce to follow Germany. Disparities in timing made the “Pact of Steel,” forged by these countries in 1936, fundamentally flawed. The Wehrmacht marched to war in 1939, four years before the Italian military was ready (it was still recovering from fighting in Ethiopia and Spain). Yet Mussolini persevered with schemes to dominate the Mediterranean.
Japan considered its war plans to be defensive and preemptive, although in their scope they nearly equaled Hitler’s expansionist ambitions. The Japanese perceived the alignment of the ABCD powers (America, Britain, China, and Dutch East Indies) as targeted directly against them. The ABCD powers, in contrast, saw themselves as deterring an increasingly bellicose and aggressive Japan. As the ABCD powers tightened the economic noose to compel Japan to withdraw from China, Japan concluded it had one of two alternatives: humiliating capitulation or honorable war. Each side saw itself as resisting the unreasonable demands of the other; neither side proved willing to compromise.
Nevertheless, Japan looked for more than a restoration of the status quo. Cloaked in the rhetoric of liberating Asia from Western imperialism, Japanese plans envisioned a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in which Japan would obtain autarky and Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos would be colonial subjects of the Japanese master race. In their racial component and genocidal logic, made manifest in the Rape of Nanking (1937), Japanese war plans resembled their Nazi equivalents.
European Theater of Operations (ETO), 1939-1941
1939-1941 witnessed astonishing successes by the Wehrmacht. With its eastern border secured by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. As French forces demonstrated feebly along Germany’s western border, Panzer spearheads supported by Luftwaffe dive-bombers sliced through Poland. Attacked from the east by Soviet forces on 17 September, the Poles had no choice but to surrender.
Turning west, Hitler then attacked and subdued Denmark and Norway in April 1940. By gaining Norway, Germany safeguarded its supply of iron ore from neutral Sweden and acquired ports for the Kriegsmarine and bases for the Luftwaffe to interdict shipping in the North Sea, Arctic, and North Atlantic. Throughout this period, Germany and France engaged in Sitzkrieg or Phony War.
Phony War gave way on 10 May 1940 to a massive German invasion of the Low Countries and France. A feint on the extreme right by Germany’s Army Group B in Belgium drew French and British forces forward, while the main German thrust cut through the hilly and forested Ardennes region between Dinant and Sedan. The German plan worked to perfection since the French strategy was to engage German forces as far as possible from France’s border. The Wehrmacht’s crossing of the Meuse River outpaced France’s ability to react. Their best divisions outflanked, the Franco-British army retreated to Dunkirk, where the Allies evacuated 335,000 men in Operation Dynamo. The fall of Paris fatally sapped France’s will to resist. The eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain oversaw France’s ignominious surrender, although the French preserved nominal control over their colonies and the rump state of Vichy.
Surprise, a flexible command structure that encouraged boldness and initiative, high morale and strong ideological commitment based on a shared racial and national identity (Volksgemeinschaft), and speed were key ingredients to the Wehrmacht’s success. Intoxicated by victory, the Wehrmacht’s rank-and-file looked on the Führer as the reincarnation of Friedrich Barbarossa. Higher-ranking officers who disagreed were bribed or otherwise silenced.
Hitler next turned to Britain, which under Winston Churchill refused to surrender. During the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe sought air superiority to facilitate a cross-channel invasion (Operation Sea Lion). This goal was beyond the Luftwaffe’s means, however, especially after Hitler redirected the bombing from airfields to London. By October the Luftwaffe had lost 1887 aircraft and 2662 pilots as opposed to RAF losses of 1023 aircraft and 537 pilots. Temporarily stymied, Hitler ordered plans drawn up for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s defeat, Hitler hoped, would compel Churchill to sue for peace.
Hitler’s victories stimulated Japan to conclude, on 27 September 1940, the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Japan also expanded its war against China while looking avariciously towards U.S., British, Dutch, and French possessions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile, Mussolini, envious of Hitler’s run of victories, invaded Greece in October. The resulting Italo-Greek conflict ran until April 1941 and exposed the Italian military’s lack of preparedness, unreliable equipment, and incompetent leadership. Italian blunders in North Africa also led in Libya to Britain’s first victory on land. The arrival of German reinforcements under General Erwin Rommel reversed the tide, however. Rommel’s Afrika Korps drove British and Dominion forces eastwards to Egypt even faster than the latter had driven Italian forces westwards. Yet Rommel lacked sufficient forces to press his advantage. Meanwhile, German paratroopers assaulted Crete in May 1941, incurring heavy losses before taking the island. Events in the Mediterranean and North Africa soon took a backseat to the titanic struggle brewing between Hitler and Stalin.
The Eastern Front, 1941
After rescuing the Italians in Greece and seizing the Balkans to secure his southern flank, Hitler turned to Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Deluded by his previous victories and a racial ideology that viewed Slavs as Untermenschen (sub-humans), Hitler predicted a Soviet collapse within three months. Previous Soviet incompetence in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40) seemed to support this prediction. The monumental struggle began when Germany and its allies, including Hungary, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland, together with volunteer units from all over Europe, invaded the USSR along a 1300-mile front on 22 June 1941. The resulting death struggle pit fascist and anti-Bolshevik Europe against Stalin’s Red Army. For Hitler the crusade against Bolshevism was a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation). Under the notorious Commissar Order, the Wehrmacht shot Red Army commissars (political officers) outright. Mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) rampaged behind the lines, murdering Jews and other racial and ethnic undesirables.
The first weeks of combat brought elation for the Germans. Nearly 170 Soviet divisions ceased to exist as the Germans encircled vast Soviet armies. Leningrad was surrounded and endured a 900-day siege. But by diverting forces towards the vast breadbasket of the Ukraine and the heavy manufacturing and coal of the Donets Basin, Hitler delayed the march on Moscow for 78 days. By December, sub-zero temperatures, snow, and fresh Soviet divisions halted exhausted German soldiers on the outskirts of Moscow. A Soviet counteroffensive (Operation Typhoon) threw Hitler’s legions back 200 miles, leading him to relieve two field marshals and 35 corps and division commanders. Hitler also dismissed the commander-in-chief of the army, Walter von Brauchitsch, and assumed command himself. His subsequent “stand fast” order saved the Wehrmacht the fate of Napoleon’s army of 1812, but this temporary respite came at the price of half a million casualties from sickness and frostbite.
A crucial Soviet accomplishment was the wholesale evacuation of its military-industrial complex. By November the Soviets disassembled 1500 industrial plants and 1300 military enterprises and shipped them east, along with ten million workers, to prepared sites along the Volga, in the Urals, and in western Siberia. Out of the range of the Luftwaffe, Soviet factories churned out an arsenal of increasingly effective weapons, including 50,000 T-34s, arguably the best tank of the war. Hitler now faced a two-front war of exhaustion, the same strategic dilemma that in World War I had led to the Second Reich’s demise.
Hitler arguably lost the war in December 1941, especially after declaring war on the United States on 11 December, which soon became the “arsenal of democracy” whose Lend-Lease policy shored up a reeling Red Army. Operation Barbarossa, moreover, highlighted a failure of intelligence of colossal proportions as the Wehrmacht fatally underestimated the reserves Stalin could call on. As Franz Halder, chief of the army general staff noted in his diary, “We reckoned with 200 [Soviet] divisions, but now [in August 1941] we have already identified 360.” As German forces plunged deeper into Soviet territory, they had to defend a wider frontage. A front of 1300 miles nearly doubled to 2500 miles. The vastness, harshness, and primitiveness of Mother Russia attenuated the force of the Panzer spearheads, giving Soviet forces space and time to recover from the initial blows of the German juggernaut. When the Red Army refused to die, Germany was at a loss at what to do next. Well might the Wehrmacht have heeded the words of the famed military strategist, Antoine Jomini: “Russia is a country which it is easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of.”
The Eastern Front, 1942-1945
Soviet strategy was to draw Germany into vast, equipment-draining confrontations. Germany, meanwhile, launched another Blitzkrieg, hoping to precipitate a Soviet collapse. Due to the previous year’s losses, the Wehrmacht in 1942 could attack along only a portion of the front. Hitler chose the southern half, seeking to secure the Volga River and oil fields in the Caucasus. Initial success soon became calamity when Hitler diverted forces to take Stalingrad.
The battle of Stalingrad lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 as the city’s blasted terrain negated German advantages in speed and operational art. As more German units were fed into the grinding street fighting, the Soviets prepared a counteroffensive (Operation Uranus) that targeted the weaker Hungarian, Italian, and Rumanian armies guarding the German flanks. Launched on 19 November, Uranus took the Germans completely by surprise. Encircled by 60 Red Army divisions, the 20 divisions of Germany’s Sixth Army lacked adequate strength to break out. The failure of Erich von Manstein’s relief force to reach Sixth Army condemned it to death. Although Hitler forbade it, the remnants of Sixth Army capitulated on 2 February 1943.
Stalingrad was a monumental moral victory for the Soviets and the first major land defeat for the Wehrmacht. After losing the equivalent of six months’ production at Stalingrad, Hitler belatedly placed the German economy on a wartime footing, but by then it was too late to close an ever-widening production gap. The Wehrmacht bounced back at Kharkov in March 1943, but it was to be their last significant victory. In July Hitler launched Operation Citadel at Kursk, which resulted in a colossal battle involving 1.5 million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Remaining on the defensive, the Red Army allowed the Wehrmacht to expend its offensive power in costly attacks. After fighting the Wehrmacht to a standstill, the Red Army drove it back to the Dnieper.
The dénouement was devastating for Germany. Preceded by a skilful deception campaign, Operation Bagration in Byelorussia in June 1944 led to the collapse of Germany’s Army Group Center. When Hitler ordered German forces to stand fast, 28 German divisions ceased to exist. By 1945, the Wehrmacht could only sacrifice itself in futile attempts to slow the Soviet steamroller. Soviet second-line forces used terror, rape, and wanton pillaging and destruction to avenge Nazi atrocities. Soviet forces had prevailed in the “Great Patriotic War” but at the staggering price of ten million soldiers killed, another 18 million wounded. Soviet civilian deaths exceeded 17 million. The Germans and their allies lost six million killed and another six million wounded. Hitler’s overweening ambition and fatal underestimation of Soviet resources and will led directly to Germany’s destruction.
The Anglo-American Alliance and the ETO, 1942-1945
In 1942 two-thirds of Americans wanted to defeat Japan first, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill agreed instead on a “Germany first” policy. Their decision reflected concerns that Germany might defeat the Soviet Union in 1942. That year U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall argued for a cross-channel assault, but the British preferred to bomb Germany, invade North Africa, and advance through Italy and the Balkans. This indirect approach reflected British memories of the Western Front in World War I and a desire to secure lines of communication in the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and ultimately to India. British ideas prevailed because of superior staff preparation and the reality that the Allies had to win the Battle of the Atlantic before assaulting Germany’s Atlantic Wall in France.
Operation Torch in November 1942 saw Anglo-American landings in North Africa, in part to assure Stalin that the United States and Britain remained committed to a second front. Superior numbers were telling as Allied forces drove their Axis counterparts towards Tunisia, although the U.S. setback at Kasserine Pass in February 1943 reflected the learning curve for mass citizen armies. Fortunately for the Allies, Hitler sent additional German units in a foolhardy attempt to hold the remaining territory. With the fall of Tunisia in May 1943 the Axis lost 250,000 troops.
The Allies next invaded Sicily in July but failed to prevent the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal across the Straits of Messina. Nevertheless, the Sicilian Campaign precipitated Mussolini’s fall from power and Italy’s unconditional surrender on 8 September. Forced to occupy Italy, Hitler also rushed 17 divisions to the Balkans and Greece to replace Italian occupation forces. Churchillian rhetoric of a “soft underbelly” in the Italian peninsula soon proved misleading. The Allied advance became a slogging match in terrain that favored German defenders. At Salerno in September, Allied amphibious landings were nearly thrown back into the sea. At Anzio in January 1944, an overly cautious advance forfeited surprise and allowed German forces time to recover. Allied forces finally entered Rome on 4 June 1944 but failed to reach the Po River valley in northern Italy until April 1945.
The Italian campaign became a sideshow as the Allies gathered forces for a concerted cross-channel thrust (Operation Overlord) in 1944. It came in a five-division assault on 6 June at Normandy. Despite heavy casualties at Omaha Beach, the Allies gained a strong foothold in France. Success was due to brilliant Allied deception (Operation Fortitude) in which the Allies convinced Hitler that the main attack was still to come at Pas de Calais and that they had 79 divisions in Britain (they had 52). Germany’s best chance was to drive the Allies into the sea on the first day, but Hitler refused to release reserves. Once ashore in force, and with artificial harbors (Mulberries), Allied numbers and air supremacy took hold. In 80 days the Allies moved two million men, half a million vehicles, and three million tons of equipment and supplies to France. Once the Allies broke out into open country, there was little to slow them except their own shortages of fuel and supplies. After destroying Germany’s Army Group B at Falaise, the Allies liberated Paris on 25 August. Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s attempt in September at vertical envelopment (Operation Market Garden) failed miserably, however, as paratroopers dropped into the midst of Panzer divisions. High hopes that the war might be over in 1944 faded as German resistance stiffened and Allied momentum weakened.
Hitler chose December 1944 to commit his strategic reserve in a high-stakes offensive near the Ardennes. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, initial Allied disorder and panic gave way to determined defense at St. Vith and Bastogne. Once the weather cleared, Allied airpower and armor administered the coup de grâce. The following year the Allies pursued a broad front offensive against Germany proper, with George S. Patton’s Third Army crossing the Rhine River at Remagen in March. Anglo-American forces met the Red Army on the Elbe River in April, with Soviet forces being awarded the honor of taking Berlin.
The second front in France was vital to Germany’s defeat. Yet even after D-Day German forces fighting the Red Army exceeded those in France by 210 percent. Indeed, 88 percent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties in World War II came on the Eastern Front. That the U.S. Army got by with just 90 combat divisions was testimony to the fact that the bulk of German and Japanese land forces were tied down fighting Soviet and Chinese armies, respectively. Helping the Allies to husband resources in the ETO was a synergistic Anglo-American alliance, manifested by joint staffs, sharing of intelligence, and (mostly) common goals.
The Air War in Europe
The air forces of all the major combatants, the USAAF and RAF excepted, primarily supported ground operations. U.S. and British air power theory, however, called for concerted strategic bombing campaigns against enemy industry and will. Thus these countries orchestrated a combined bomber offensive (CBO) as a surrogate second front in the air. While the USAAF attempted precision bombing in daylight, RAF Bomber Command employed area bombing by night. The CBO devastated Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), and Dresden (1945), but Germany’s will remained unbroken. The CBO succeeded, however, in breaking the back of the Luftwaffe during “Big Week” (February 1944) in a deadly battle of attrition. Eighty-one thousand Allied airmen died in the ETO, with the death rate in RAF Bomber Command alone reaching a mind-numbing 47.5 percent. Hard fought and hard-won, air supremacy proved vital to the success of Allied armies on D-Day and after.
Battle of the Atlantic
Nothing worried Churchill more than the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats (submarines). Surface raiders like the Bismarck or Graf Spree posed a challenge the Royal Navy both understood and embraced with relish. Combating U-boats, however, presented severe difficulties, including weeks of tedious escort duty in horrendous weather. Despite Allied convoys and fast merchantmen, U-boats sank an average of 450,000 tons of shipping each month from March 1941 to December 1942. In March 1943 the Allies lost 627,000 tons, which exceeded the rate of replacement.
Yet only two months later, the tide turned against Germany. Allied successes in reading the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma codes proved vital both in steering convoys away from U-boat “wolf packs” and in directing naval and air units to attack them. Decimetric radar and high-frequency directional finding helped the Allies detect U-boats; B-24 Liberators armed with depth charges closed a dangerous gap in air coverage; and escort groups (including carriers) made it perilous for U-boats to attack, especially in daylight. These elements combined in May 1943 to account for the loss of 41 U-boats, 23 of which were destroyed by air action. Faced with devastating losses of experienced crews, Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic. They never regained the initiative. Germany ultimately lost 510 U-boats while sinking 94 Allied warships and 1900 merchant ships. Because the Kriegsmarine pursued lofty ambitions of building a blue-water navy, however, Germany never could produce enough U-boats to cut Britain’s economic lifeline. Poor resource allocation and strategic mirror imaging ultimately doomed the Kriegsmarine to defeat.
The Rising Sun Ascendant, 1937-1942
By 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had 700,000 soldiers in China. In 1939 the IJA attempted to punish the Soviets for supplying China only to be defeated at the battle of Khalkin Gol. After this defeat, and spurred on by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), Japanese leaders increasingly looked southward, especially as British, Dutch, and French possessions became vulnerable when Germany ran rampant in the ETO. Bogged down in an expensive war with China, and facing economic blockade, Japan decided to seize outright the oil, rubber, tin, bauxite and extensive food resources of the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, and Southeast Asia.
After concluding a non-aggression pact with Stalin in April 1941, Japan viewed Britain’s Royal Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet as its chief obstacles. To destroy the latter, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by attacks on British and Dutch naval units and invasions of Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, and other island groups using quick-moving, light infantry. Employing islands as unsinkable aircraft carriers, the Japanese hoped to establish a strong defensive perimeter as a shield, with the IJN acting as a mobile strike force or javelin. When the Allies confronted this “shield and javelin” strategy, Japan hoped their losses would prove prohibitive, thereby encouraging them to seek an accommodation that would preserve Japan’s acquisitions.
Japan’s key strategic blunder was that of underestimating the will of the United States, partly due to faulty intelligence that mistakenly stressed American isolationism. Pearl Harbor became for Americans a “date that shall live in infamy,” which permitted neither negotiation nor compromise. Japanese leaders knew they could not compete with U.S. industry (U.S. industrial capacity was nine times that of Japan’s), but they failed to develop feasible plans for ending the war quickly.
Nevertheless, until April 1942 the Japanese enjoyed a string of successes. Pearl Harbor was followed by attacks against the Philippines, where the United States lost half its aircraft on the ground. British attempts to reinforce Singapore led to the sinking of the battlecruiser Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales. At the Battle of Java Sea in February 1942 the IJN destroyed the Dutch navy. For the Allies, disaster followed disaster. At minimal cost, Japan seized Hong Kong, Malaya, most of Burma, and Singapore. Singapore’s surrender on 15 February was psychologically catastrophic to the British since they had failed at what they believed they did best: mounting a staunch defense. From this shattering blow the British Empire never fully recovered. By May 1942 remnants of the U.S. Army at Bataan and Corregidor surrendered, and the Japanese were in New Guinea. To this point not one of the IJN’s eleven battleships, ten carriers, or cruisers had been sunk or even badly damaged.
Eclipse of the Rising Sun, 1942-1945
The IJN suffered its first setback in May 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea, where the USN stopped Japanese preparatory moves to invade Australia. The IJN next moved against Midway Island, hoping to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet and destroy it. The Japanese plan, however, was overcomplicated. It included coordination of eight separate forces and a diversionary assault on the Aleutians. Planned as a battleship fight by Admiral Isoroku Yamamato, the USN was forced instead to rely on carrier strike forces. Japanese indecision and American boldness, enhanced by effective code-breaking (known as MAGIC in the Pacific), led to the loss of four Japanese carriers. Midway was the major turning point in the Pacific theater. After this battle, the USN and IJN were equal in carrier strength, but the United States could build at a much faster rate. From 1942 to 1945 the USN launched 17 fleet carriers and 42 escort carriers, whereas the Japanese launched only four, two of which were sunk on their maiden voyage. Japan also lost its best admiral when U.S. code-breaking led, in April 1943, to the shooting down of Yamamoto’s plane.
The Japanese compounded defeat at Midway by failing to build an adequate merchant marine or to pursue anti-submarine warfare to defend what they had. Constituting less than two percent of USN manpower, American submariners accounted for 55 percent of Japanese losses at sea, virtually cutting off Japan’s supply of oil and reducing imports by 40 percent. By the end of 1944 U.S. submarines had sunk half of Japan’s merchant fleet and two-thirds of its tankers.
Much difficult fighting on land and sea remained. The United States adopted a Twin-Axis strategy designed to give the army and navy equal roles. While General Douglas MacArthur advanced through New Guinea in the southwest Pacific, neutralizing the major Japanese base at Rabaul to prepare for the invasion of the Philippines, Admiral Chester Nimitz island-hopped through the central Pacific. Guadalcanal (Operation Watchtower) in the Solomons turned into a bloody battle of attrition from August 1942 to February 1943 that ultimately favored U.S. forces. Tarawa in the Gilberts (Operation Galvanic) was the first test of the Fleet Marine Concept (FMC) that shortened the logistical tail of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. U.S. landings nearly proved disastrous, however, when Japanese defenders inflicted 42 percent casualties on the invading force. But the USN and Marines learned from their mistakes, and subsequent island operations had high yet sustainable casualty rates.
Battles such as Tarawa highlighted the astonishing viciousness and racism of both sides in the Pacific, with Americans depicting Japanese as “monkeys” or “rats” to be exterminated. Reinforcing the fight-to-the-death nature of warfare was the Japanese warrior code of Bushido that considered surrender as dishonorable. Jungle warfare on isolated islands left little room for maneuver or retreat and bred claustrophobia and desperate last stands. Ruthlessness extended to the U.S. air campaign against Japan that included the firebombing of major cities such as Tokyo, where firestorms killed at least 83,000 Japanese and consumed 270,000 dwellings.
The U.S. invasion of Saipan in June 1944 led to the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in which U.S. pilots shot down 243 of 373 attacking Japanese aircraft while losing only 29 aircraft. Most devastating to Japan was the irreplaceable loss of experienced pilots. To pierce American defenses, Japan employed suicide pilots or Kamikazes at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October and in subsequent battles. Leyte Gulf in the Philippines was a decisive if close-run victory for the USN, since the IJN missed a golden opportunity to crush Allied landing forces. Costly U.S. campaigns in 1945 led to the capture of Iwo Jima in March and Okinawa in June before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Together with Soviet entry into the war against Japan, these atomic attacks convinced the Japanese Emperor to surrender, with formal ceremonies being held on the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
Japan’s unconditional surrender highlighted what had been a fundamental, and ultimately fatal, schism between the IJA and IJN. Whereas the IJA had focused on the Asian continent to neutralize China and the Soviet Union, the IJN had identified the United States and Britain as its principal enemies. The IJA had been more influential in Japanese politics and dominated Imperial general headquarters. Interservice rivalry led to haphazard coordination and bureaucratic infighting that degraded the Japanese war effort. Like their nominal allies the Germans, Japan had essentially engaged in a two-front war of exhaustion against foes possessing superior resources. IJA gains in the China-Burma-India theater had not been sustainable, especially as British, Chinese, and Indian forces learned to counter Japanese infantry tactics under the determined tutelage of William Slim, Orde Wingate, and “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
Technology and Medicine
World War II is known as the “physicist’s war” due to the success of the U.S./British/Canadian Manhattan Project that developed atomic bombs, as well as the invention and use of radar. Germany was especially innovative, developing the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missile as “vengeance” weapons. While a remarkable technical achievement, the V-2 was ultimately a waste of precious resources. Its circular error probable (CEP) of 20 kilometers and small one-ton warhead made it little more than a deadly nuisance. Germany also developed the Me-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, but its late deployment in small numbers had little impact on the air war. Less spectacular, but more telling, was the Allied emphasis on fielding large numbers of proven weapons, such as Soviet T-34 and U.S. M-4 Sherman tanks; aircraft such as P-51 long-range escort fighters and Lancaster four-engine bombers; and Higgins boats for amphibious operations.
Penicillin and DDT, both developed by the Allies, were the leading medical developments. Penicillin saved the lives of untold tens of thousands of wounded Allied troops, and DDT vastly reduced casualties due to mosquito-borne diseases in the Pacific. The Germans developed nerve gas but decided against employing it, apparently because they (wrongly) believed the Allies also had it. Unlike the previous world war, chemical weapons were rarely used. Finally, Allied code-breaking efforts such as ULTRA saw the development of primitive computers.
Legacies of the War
World War II saw the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers. The resulting Cold War between them created a bi-polar world until the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. With the end of the myth of Western superiority came the decline of colonial empires and the independence of countries such as India (1947). The war also resulted in the division of Germany (reunited in 1989) and the occupation and democratization of Japan; the creation of the United Nations and the state of Israel; and the rise of leaders formed in the crucible of war, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. A vastly destructive war with tragic consequences, World War II nevertheless saw the demise of Hitler’s Third Reich, a regime based on mass slavery of “inferiors” and the categorical extermination of “undesirables” (Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped and mentally ill, etc.), as well as the overthrow of a Japanese regime that glorified militarism and justified slavery and racial discrimination on a massive scale.
Bartov, Omer. The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, New York, 1986.
Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War, 6 vols, New York, 1948-53.
Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945, New York, 1982.
Dear, I.C.B., ed. The Oxford Companion to World War II, New York, 1995.
Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York, 1986.
Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History, New York, 1989.
Glantz, David M. and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, Lawrence, KS, 1995.
Iriye, Akira. Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941-1945, Cambridge, MA, 1981.
Jones, R.V. The Wizard War: British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945, New York, 1978.
Keegan, John. The Second World War, New York, 1990.
Lukacs, John. The Last European War, September 1939/December 1941, New Haven, CT, 1976, 2000.
Miller, Edward. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945, Annapolis, MD, 1991.
Murray, Williamson and Allan R. Millett. A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War, Cambridge, MA, 2000.
Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945, New York, 1997.
Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won, New York, 1995.
Parker, R.A.C. Struggle for Survival: The History of the Second World War, New York, 1990.
Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan, New York, 1985.
Stoler, Mark A. Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Grand Alliance, and U.S. Strategy in World War II, Chapel Hill, NC, 2000.
Taylor, A.J.P. The Origins of the Second World War, New York, 1961.
Thorne, Christopher G. Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945, New York, 1978.
Van der Vat, Dan. The Atlantic Campaign: World War II’s Great Struggle at Sea, New York, 1988.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II, Cambridge, 1994.
Willmott, H.P. The Great Crusade: A New Complete History of the Second World War, New York, 1991.