Beauty of Gray

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

WWII: Triumph or Botch Job? Part II

Part I is the post immediately preceding this one.

The next interesting argument that Fuller makes is that the building of the Maginot line was actually France’s best strategy. Their population was considerably smaller than Germany’s, so they started out with a smaller army—about half the potential size of Germany’s. Yet they had a long border with Germany that they needed to defend. The obvious answer to this problem—a smaller force needing to defend against a larger force—is fortification. Which is just what the French did.

As everyone knows, the French did not extend the Maginot line to cover the border with Belgium, and they have been mocked for this ever since. But it’s not like the French weren’t aware of this weakness. Their problem was that, if the had extended the Maginot line to the sea, then their entire army would have been stuck manning the fortifications, with almost no mobile reserve for reinforcement or counterattack. And no defensive line, no matter how good, can succeed against a determined attack. Breaching the Maginot line might have cost the Germans a lot of casualties, but they could have done it. And if the whole French army was on that line, once it was breached the French would have lost.

So the French left a portion of their border undefended to allow for a strategic reserve. Given that decision, the obvious choice to leave unfortified was the border with Belgium. So Fuller approves of the French strategy. Instead, he faults their tactics. While they had plenty of tanks, they dispersed them throughout their forces, still stuck thinking of them as support vehicles for infantry units rather than as a service arm in their own right. The Germans, in contrast, massed their armor for attack. With no massed French armor to oppose these units, they were able to easily sweep aside French resistance and rive into the interior of the country, confusing and demoralizing the allied forces and winning the battle in short order.

Moving on, Fuller considers the allied response to Germany to be fundamentally flawed in many ways. First, and most importantly, they become too obsessed with Germany, painting her as an absolute evil that must be opposed by any means available. This had two pernicious effects. First, it led to giving Russia too much aid during the war, helping her achieve the postwar position of strength. Fuller thought Russia should have been left more or less to her own devices, with the US and UK providing just enough aid to keep her from losing. Even worse, in the closing stages of the war the US ended up directly aiding Russian interests all across the board after the Yalta conference, in such ways as dropping support for the anti-Bolshevik Mihailovich and shifting it to Tito. Basically, as Fuller presents it, Roosevelt could not have assisted the Soviet Union anymore if he had been a Bolshevik plant. Everything Stalin wanted, Stalin got.

Second, the absolutist rhetoric towards Germany foreclosed any possibility of utilizing the “internal” front against them, with aiding and assisting potential resistance movements inside Germany. Instead, the push was for total war against them, a demand for absolute surrender. This attitude, together with the brutal bombing of civilian targets, stiffened the German resolve and undercut any resistance to Hitler. (Even without Western support or encouragement, there was still a high-reaching conspiracy to assassinate Hitler late in the war.)

Furthermore, the destruction of Germany through the bombing also ruined the country and left no counterweight to the USSR in central Europe. The US ended up having to rebuild much of the damage we had caused after the war, propping Germany back up to help oppose the Soviets. But Fuller believes that the Nazis could have been toppled from power more quickly and easily if the Allies had shown more restraint in the conduct of the war and its aims. (He makes essentially the same argument in the Pacific war, claiming that the Japanese had put out some feelers about a negotiated peace but were rebuffed, with the US intent on an unconditional surrender. Which, in the end, kept the Emperor anyway which was the main sticking point between the US demands and the Japanese proposals.)

On a final note, Fuller heaps great scorn on Eisenhower for his conduct of the final offensive against Germany. Instead of pushing on at great speed to occupy the German countryside and secure the best possible conditions vis a vis the Soviet Union after the German surrender, Eisenhower dawdled away his opportunity, halting on the Elbe and abandoning Berlin and Prague to the Red Army. Adding insult to injury, Poland, which had been the original cause of Britain’s entrance to the war, was also thrown to the Soviets, with a Communist puppet government recognized by the Western powers with the slightest of protests.

So, what does it all matter? First, I think it’s an interesting and challenging viewpoint, much different from the conventional history. While I disagree on some details, he keeps prominent in his discussion the fundamental truth that the success of a war is not measured by military victories in the field, but by the nature of the peace that is won. Eisenhower had some good military reasons to slow his advance, but by so doing he was putting military considerations above political ones, which gets it exactly backwards. War is politics by other means, and if your conduct of the war is not achieving your political aims, then regardless of the success of your arms, the war is not successful.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:16 PM

Tuesday, July 09, 2002
Triumph of the greatest generation, or colossal botch job? Part I

A while back I mentioned that I had just finished JFC Fuller’s history of modern warfare, and that I found his analysis of WWII in particular interesting. It’s a contrarian sort of view, very different from the triumphalist US interpretation you usually see, so I thought it was worth blogging. (I waited a bit since this didn't seem like good 4th of July posting material.) I don’t completely agree with his points, but for now will limit myself to presenting his arguments.

To put the work in context, Fuller was writing in the late 70’s, with the Cold War still in full swing and, if anything, the West looking like it might be losing. His analysis is certainly conditioned by that environment.

Fuller starts with a few basic principles. The first, most basic one, is that the point of war is to win the peace. That is, the point of fighting is not to achieve military victory, but to achieve the bet possible position at the end of the war. This is simply a restatement of Clausewitz’s maxim that war is politics by other means. In the broadest sense, Fuller thinks the US (and other western powers) have lost sight of this fact, and in their conduct of WWI and WWII let the means (military action) take precedence over the ends (winning a valuable peace.)

Fuller looks at the Cold War situation and sees that half the continent is dominated by a totalitarian power, with the West forced to remain on war footing to prevent it’s own conquest, and concludes that the US and Britain, while the defeated Germany militarily, did not “win the peace.” The post-war peace was just as bad as the pre-war situation, if not worse. The threat of the Nazis and simply been replaced by the threat of the Soviet Union.

So could the US and the UK have conducted the war in a better way, to secure a more favorable peace? Fuller thinks so. In fact, he think the UK and US war policy was made up of one bungle after another—that they couldn’t have conducted the war any worse than they did.

The problems start with the behavior of the allies towards Germany immediately following WWI—lending them money to restore their economy with one hand while maintaining punitive sanctions with the other, managing to both rebuild Germany’s economic power while keeping the population hostile towards France and England. That’s a pretty typical critique. Where Fuller starts to get interesting is in his analysis of the immediate pre-war period.

He starts with several facts. First, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany oppressive and murderous regimes. That they were both enemies of the Western powers (France, UK, US.) Second, Hitler’s stated national policy (in both Mein Kampf and his speeches) was one of eastern expansion: to gain lebensraum in Poland and the Ukraine. Given these two facts, Fuller concludes that the best policy would have been for the western powers to stay out of the way. Hitler wanted to expand east, which would naturally bring him into conflict with Stalin. At the time, France was still considered to be a military power on par with Germany, rather than an easily conquered paper tiger, so Hitler would not have picked a fight with France and England.

Fuller’s preferred strategy in this case would have been the same strategy that England had pursued for centuries—to stay out of continental conflicts except to maintain the balance of power. Let the other countries fight it out, then intervene on the side of the weaker party once that becomes clear, to contain the stronger power and maintain their own hegemony.

Translated into WWII terms, Fuller is not a critic of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Rather, he thinks it didn’t go far enough. Instead, France and England pursued exactly the worst middle course. They didn’t oppose Hitler early, when it might have done some good. Having failed that, they should have let the Germans conquer Poland and then let them go to war with Russia, rather than choosing to go to war over Poland. No national interest was served there, and it was precisely the wrong time to begin a war with Germany. She was at her strongest, and going to war then also delayed the onset of the inevitable Soviet-German war.

If the Allies had let Germany conquer Poland, they could have continued to wait on the sidelines while Russia and Germany fought, until one gained the upper hand. They could then have intervened on the losing side, brining the stronger power to heel while at the same time assuring their dominance over their exhausted military partner.

Well, this is much longer than I thought it would be, so I’ll save the rest of this for another installment. In part II, you’ll learn why the Maginot Line was an excellent strategy on France’s part, and how Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower flubbed the conduct of the war against Germany.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:24 PM

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