“Unlike World War I, there has never been any doubt as to who caused, won and lost World War II.”
Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His background is ideal for an analysis of the Second World War. “Wars” are plural in the title because, as Hanson notes, it was fought in many different places, from Singapore to Finland, and in many different ways, on air, sea and land, with weapons ranging from side arms to atomic bombs. It was the first war which saw more civilians die than soldiers.
The book is divided topically, with chapters titled “Ideas,” “Air,” “Water,” “Earth,” “Fire,” and “People.” A complaint may be that the book is repetitive, but different aspects are looked at from different angles. The War was fought on the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, with combatants from every continent except Antarctica. It was fought on the land, the sea and in the air, and Hanson reviews all facets. The facts he assembles are sobering: From a world population of about two billion, five hundred million people were displaced, perhaps a hundred million mobilized, and sixty million died, two thirds of whom were civilians. Seven million Jews were killed. “No other deliberate mass killings in history, before or since, whether systematic, loosely organized or spontaneous, have approached the magnitude of the Holocaust – not the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian ‘killing fields,’ or the Rwandan tribal bloodletting.”
His details are encyclopedic. In 1939, the U.S. spent one percent of GDP on defense. By 1944, forty percent of GDP was going to defense. During the war years, the U.S. produced forty billion rounds of small-arms ammunition and one billion rounds of artillery shells. In 1939, 9.5 million square feet of industrial plant space was devoted to aircraft production. By 1944, that had grown to 165 million square feet. Britain, despite being bombed, having been defeated in most every major battle during the first two years of the War and having mobilized 3.5 million men, added more ships to its fleet during the war than the entire naval production of the three major Axis powers. The Allies were more efficient manufacturers; The thousandth B-29 to roll off the production line required half the man hours as the four hundredth. With his eye for detail, we learn that in 1942, the Eastern Front was costing the Third Reich a hundred thousand dead each month. “In that year alone, the Germans lost 5,500 tanks, eight thousand guns, and a quarter million vehicles.” About three hundred thousand planes were destroyed or badly damaged during the War.
As a classicist, Victor Davis Hanson puts the War into historical perspective: The Normandy invasion, for example, was the largest amphibious assault since Xerxes’ Persians landed in Greece in 480BC. He writes about the epic tank battle at Kursk (just northeast of Ukraine) in July 1943. While the Soviets suffered three times the number of casualties and seven to ten times the number of tank losses, Germany’s victory cost them 200,000 casualties and the loss of 500 tanks. He suggests a comparison to Pyrrhus’s lament at Asculum in 279BC, when his invasion forces took heavy losses in defeating Roman defenders, writing that Generals Walter Model and Erich von Manstein “might have sighed, ‘if we prove victorious in one more such battle with the Russians, we shall be utterly ruined.’”
Hanson tells of the lengths democracies had to go in dealing with their totalitarian partner, the Soviet Union: “Roosevelt, for example, unlike Churchill, was determined to suppress the truth of the spring 1940 massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest.” It took the Russians seventy years – until 2010 – to admit to their culpability in that slaughter.
The lesson of the book is that Mr. Hanson believes the War was preventable. It should have been self-evident, he notes, that the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain were bigger, richer and stronger, and with soldiers and sailors better fed and equipped than the Fascist powers of Germany, Japan and Italy – that Germany and Japan embarked on an impossible-to-win quest, in invading Eastern Europe and in attacking the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. There should have been “no need for such a bloody laboratory, if not for prior British appeasement, American isolationism and Russian collaboration.”
This is a book to savor, to read slowly, to keep as a reference – as reminder that the strength of democracies is paramount to keeping the peace in a world where bad men seek power and dominance. FDR once, allegedly, said to his wife, when it was suggested in the early ‘30s he become a benevolent dictator, “There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator.”
The lesson for us today is that, like it or not, responsibility for global accord falls on the United States. There is no other country or entity – not Europe, Russia, China or the UN – that can ensure world peace.
This article was first published on Thought of the Day.