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Post World War(s) II: Were the Asian and European Wars Unrelated?
Created by John Eipper on 06/25/19 4:21 AM

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World War(s) II: Were the Asian and European Wars Unrelated? (Sasha Pack, USA, 06/25/19 4:21 am)

I have enjoyed Cameron Sawyer's informative essays on World War II, and especially the German-Soviet aspect. I have learned from and generally agree with his informed interpretations, though I'd like to introduce a somewhat different perspective on a few matters.

First, the assertion that the Pacific and European theaters were unrelated. This might be an exaggeration. According to US military planners in 1940, a Pacific war must be subordinated to the European war, since the defeat of Japan was not possible without the defeat of Hitler. This was mainly due to (1) the concern that in the event of the Third Reich conquering all of Europe the US fleet would be too compromised defending the Atlantic to make significant progress in the Pacific; and (2) British assistance would be needed to defeat Japan in Asia. This created a bit of a political problem for Roosevelt, since American public opinion generally regarded Japan, not Germany, as the chief enemy, especially after Pearl Harbor. But this problem was somewhat resolved by Hitler, who preemptively declared war on the US four days after PH, 11 December 1941, even though he was not obligated to do so by the terms of the Tripartite Pact. (Incidentally, this was the same day the Zhukov's counteroffensive on the Kalinin front elicited the first mass German surrenders of the war.) Hitler's declaration of war on the US did have a certain logic, as it enabled him to respond more aggressively to American participation in the Battle of the Atlantic, which had been intensifying since the summer. The moment seemed especially propitious for Hitler given that the US was now tied up on a second front.

Which brings me to another point: the idea that the prime US contribution was industrial rather than military. It turns out to be very difficult to separate these two concepts. US industrial power was useless without the ability to get all those jeeps to Russia. The projection of naval power in the Atlantic was therefore significant, including the war on the U-Boats that were interdicting huge amounts of shipping to Britain and the USSR. Of course, even at the height of their reign of terror, the U-Boats were not sinking enough Allied shipping to be decisive. But then again, nothing in World War II was decisive, enabling us to discuss it endlessly. The ultimate success against the U-Boats by the middle of 1943 still has to be counted as a significant US military contribution.

America made other military contributions to the defeat of the Third Reich. The most obvious is the bombing raids. These were not conducted with the goal of breaking German morale--only Stalin seems to have thought they could have this effect. The West had learned from the Spanish Civil War and the London Blitz not to put much stock in that outcome. The goal was to break German industry--not so much by hitting factories, as it turned out, but by destroying working-class neighborhoods where the factory workers lived (another reason it is difficult to separate the military from the industrial, and the Air Force through this rational calculation drifted into war-crimes territory). Absenteeism was up to 20-25% in major munitions factories by mid-1944, somewhat higher, incidentally, than the absenteeism in US factories due to strike activity. Of course, the Germans continued to produce, but they had to produce more fighters to defend their airspace from the raids, meaning they could produce fewer of the bombers that had been devastating Western Russia. There is no doubt that an impartial judge would call many elements of the Combined Bombing Offensive war crimes--Curtis Lemay, who led similar operations over Japan, said so out loud--but it is nonetheless telling that starting in early 1945 Germans who were able flocked westward, hoping to wind up under British or American occupation rather than being overrun by the Red Army.

The above is based on my notes from secondary sources; I am currently traveling and away from my library, so I'd be pleased to hear corrections. I also would add some more speculative thoughts. The Anglo-American amphibious landings in North Africa may have been more significant than they first appear. They awakened a true anti-fascist coalition in France and elsewhere, encompassing socialists, liberals, conservatives, as well as Communists, giving hope that Hitler could be defeated by someone other the USSR. Facing a stark choice between Hitler or Stalin, I suspect many in continental Europe and even Britain would have fought on in support of German overlordship, especially in the West where most non-Jewish subjects were not treated as subhuman. Good thing that the democratic ascendancy gave an alternative. I believe US policy early on was in fact to defeat Hitler, not to contain the USSR in Europe. The initial American strategy was to amass overwhelming firepower in the UK and then go straight for the jugular of Berlin. The indirect approach came at Churchill's behest, as he feared that British counterweight to growing Soviet influence in SE Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean could be lost.

Another counterfactual speculation is the proposition that had the Americans not fought Japan, the Allies might not have won in Europe. Had the Japanese successfully exploited anti-colonial sentiment in India and the Middle East, turning these regions to the Axis sphere, a Soviet effort would have been far more complicated. On the other hand, the Axis powers were so preternaturally inept at sustaining good will in the territories they occupied that this scenario seems far-fetched. On another note, I would be interested to know the extent to which the American Marines' practice with amphibious landings in the Pacific conditioned the success of the D-Day landings.

American military participation in World War II provided an alternative that made WWII into something more than the Nazi-Communist struggle of the Eastern front. The historian Charles Maier divides the war into four related struggles: the struggle for mastery of Europe; the Nazi-Soviet ideological war; the war for the future of China; and the world of civil wars over the future character of nations. US military intervention was important to all of these, though with the third it failed in its ultimate objective, and with the fourth there were many lost opportunities. Had the US supported Ho Chi Minh in 1945 over the objections of Charles De Gaulle, Vietnam could have been a bulwark against Communist expansion rather than the tragic morass it became. So observes the historian Robert Dallek.

Finally, I don't see how the proposition that the Soviet's biggest contribution was manpower has been contradicted. They were the ones, after all, who endured the largest attack ever staged. A country with a smaller population could not have survived the surprise German onslaught (surprise to Stalin, anyway) for any length of time, let alone the six months or so that it took for the Soviet army to get its act together and for the grave strategic hubris of the Axis to become apparent. That said, there is no doubt that the Soviets did not ultimately defeat the Germans on manpower alone, but possessed first-class weaponry and military skill.

As for explaining the mystery of Soviet soldiers' morale, here is a bit of idle speculation: drugs? It is well documented that the Germans were making massive orders of high-concentration methamphetamine tablets for the Wehrmacht. I've never used meth myself, but I can tell you that two cups of coffee do wonders for my morale each morning. If the Soviets were on par militarily with the Germans in so many other respects, what is known about Soviet pharmaceuticals?

JE comments:  Who needs sleep (or food) when there's Pervitin?  Did the Russians have an equivalent?

Sasha Pack brings several important reflections to this conversation.  First of all, I never before saw the "logic" of Hitler's declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbor.  To my mind, adding another continental power (after Russia) to your enemy list was nothing short of insanity, but the US was indeed focused on Japan, giving the Germans an opportunity. 

As Sasha urges, we should also see North Africa more than a "sideshow":  it was a significant moral and ideological boost to the Western Allies, who no longer had to see the war as a choice between Hitler and Stalin.

Fascinating post, Sasha.  Are you in France at present?  Anything WAISworthy to report on national politics?

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  • US Air Base in Natal, Brazil (David Fleischer, Brazil 06/27/19 3:54 AM)
    Regarding the conflict against the Germans in North Africa, the US built a huge air base in Natal, Brazil

    that was used to ferry material and supplies in transport planes across Africa to India and Burma.

    The Americans loaded up some bombers with extra gasoline and were able to fly non-stop to

    North Africa, bomb the Germans and fly back to Natal without refueling. Natal is the the most eastern

    point of Brazil into the South Atlantic Ocean.

    JE comments:  The outgoing bombers must have been flying extremely overloaded.  There's a small club of airports that have become largely obsolete due to increased flight range.  To Natal we could add the two "biggies"--Gander in Newfoundland and Shannon in Ireland (first-ever duty-free!).   We could add a couple of Pacific islands to this list.

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