September 24, 2003


In Nearly All of Our Wars We've Made Serious Mistakes (Thomas Fleming. 9/24/03, History News Network)

The current cacophony over President Bush's supposed miscalculation about the difficulty of pacifying Iraq is badly in need of some historical perspective. The commentators and candidates can't seem to recall any war before Vietnam. If we look a little farther back -- and even a lot farther back -- we will find that many American leaders, including the founding fathers, went to war on assumptions that soon proved painfully wrong. [...]

Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter World War I is perhaps the most egregious example of presidential miscalculation. Wilson, brainwashed by British and French propaganda (as were most members of Congress and the nation's leading newspapers) assumed there was no need to send any soldiers to France. He thought American participation in the war would be naval and financial. The chief of staff of the U.S. Army put a memorandum in his files to this effect, a month after Congress declared war. A few days later, British and French military missions arrived in Washington. "We want men, men, men!" one French general said. They revealed for the first time the Germans were close to winning the war. The French army had mutinied and only two divisions were reliable. The British were almost as demoralized by their massive casualties in the battle of the Somme. By the time the war ended, there were two million American soldiers in France. In five months of ferocious fighting, they won victory at the cost of 50,300 dead and 198,000 wounded.

America's entry into World War II began with a grievous miscalculation by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Desperate to get the United States into the war before Hitler's armies conquered Russia and turned on an isolated England, FDR decided a "back door" approach was his only option, since the Germans declined to give him an incident that would justify a declaration of war. He would lure Japan into an attack by cutting off their oil supplies, and use it as a pretext to declare war on both Germany and Japan, who had a treaty of alliance. The calculation was based on the racist assumption that the Japanese were inept pilots and mediocre sailors, because their eyesight was bad and they were not terribly bright. They could be contained by a modest defensive force of American ships and planes, letting us throw most of our military might into the European war. Pearl Harbor and the clockwork air and sea assault on the Philippines exploded this assumption. Tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors died in the Japanese trans-Pacific rampage. Only hairbreadth victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway rescued Australia and Hawaii from Japanese occupation. An anecdote sums up this dolorous tale. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited FDR in the White House on the afternoon of Pearl Harbor. Knox later recalled, "He was white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt."

If you've not read Mr. Fleming's splendid book, The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War Within World War II, you don't know as much as you think you do about WWII.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2003 12:59 PM

"In Nearly All of Our Wars We've Made Serious Mistakes"

And so? I suspect that every nation that ever fought a war would say that serious mistakes were made, whether victor or loser.

One might also take a different tack, and ask, Which ones did we not make serious mistakes in? Which wars are not included in "nearly all"? Shay's Rebellion, perchance?

Posted by: Henry IX at September 24, 2003 2:43 PM

So, FDR desperately taunted the Japanese in order to prevent a German victory over the USSR?

Prescient of him, wasn't it, since at the time the USSR and Germany were allies?

Do you believe effect succeeds cause, Orrin, or not?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 24, 2003 3:17 PM

No, I believe June precedes December and FDR was an idiot. Hitler could never have conquered and maintained control of the USSR.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 3:23 PM

Had the German Army killed Stalin (who remained in Moscow), the war in the East would have gone quite differently. But the insanity of the Nazis would have probably forced a similar conclusion, eventually.

If the Japanese had destroyed the Pearl support facilities (oil tanks, maintenance docks, etc.)with a second attack, the US would have had to retreat from the Pacific because the carriers would have been too vulnerable without that support. Again, the conclusion of the war would have been similar, but the first 2 years would have been quite different. Maybe Fleming makes that point in his book - I don't know.

And let's not forget that Hitler declared war on the US first. While probably a minor point in the bigger picture, it is by no means certain that the necessary moral clarity to recognize the Nazis for what they were and to defeat them unconditionally would have been there without it.

Hindsight a great luxury (when looking at war history), but it tends to puff us up a little, don't you think? And isn't that the point of the post?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 24, 2003 4:01 PM


Yes, Russia might have won the war outright without needing us to save them. It was only once Stalin butted out that their army started winning and had you ghad a populace liberated from Bolshevism and fighting for a worthwhile regime they would presumably have fought even better.

Fleming makes the point that Hitler's official declaration came only after a speech by FDR in which he effectively declared Germany to be our enemy by way of its alliance with Japan, a not unreasonable point on FDR's part.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 4:21 PM

I don't agree that FDR "lured" Japan into an attack with the oil embargo. We had a series of escalating sanctions on Japan that began after they invaded China. I see it one more attempt to avoid war, if anything. Sure, maybe FDR thought the Japanese might launch an attack, but that's not the same thing.

OJ, Germany could well have conquered the USSR, and nearly did. If they had invaded a few months earlier as planned, instead of pulling Benito's bacon out of the fire, they might well have captured Moscow and all the other major Soviet cities before the winter came in. They would have controlled everything West of the Urals, which was the bulk of the population and industrial base.

Also, they were welcomed as liberators by Ukranians and others. If they hadn't started slaughtering "untermenschen" they would have had a lot of popular support. Even as it was, they had several units of volunteer Russian troops, IIRC.

There are many other "ifs" that could easily have tilted things there way.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 24, 2003 4:51 PM

Make that "their way" at the end.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 24, 2003 4:52 PM


The problem is that things like the senseless butchery of Ukranians who might have supported Germany was no accident, but intrinsic to the Nazi ideology. If they hadn't believed in untermensch, they probably wouldn't have invaded in the first place.

On the other hand, you're quite right about the fact that economic sanctions against Japan started much earlier than the oil sanction imposed by FDR. It's also clear that Japan was intent on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere long before the oil sanctions. The invasion of China was part of that strategy. Given our emerging interests in the Pacific conflict was almost inevitable. FDR may have speeded up the timing but he hardly "caused" the Pacific War.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 24, 2003 5:03 PM

This guy Fleming is a fruitcake.

Germans were killing Americans in November 1941. Why would Japanese killing Americans in December 1941 be a better trigger for a war against Germany than that.

Not to mention that Roosevelt's moves in the Pacific began when Germany and the USSR were allies.

It's a very reasonable suppostion that the Germany Army could have been in Moscow, instead of 40 miles out, by October 1941 if it had started in May instead of June. Or if it had decided to go for Moscow as the most important target.

It is not quite so good a supposition that occupying Moscow would have ended the war with a German victory, but it might have.

But that is not the way it worked out, and the Russians had defeated the Germans as of September, though neither side realized it at the time.

Orrin's various posts about the conflict have the time sequences all mixed up. The Russians won before they got any aid from the West, apart from the not inconsiderable forces held down by the UK.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 24, 2003 5:59 PM


And how would the rather limited number of Nazis have managed to occupy and control an Empire of developed nations spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific? It seems likely that had they even tried the anti-Nazi plotters would have had a far easier time staging their assassination/coup.


Because of race. Even after Germany declared war no one wanted to fight them except FDR. We wanted to kill Japs.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 6:32 PM


Your timeline is very close, except that August was the worst month for the Red Army. October and November were the crucial months. But an invasion starting in March or April would have probably been decisive, with some sort of Russian withdrawal, as in WWI. And it is good to remember that Merchant Marines were being killed long before Dec. 7.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 24, 2003 7:00 PM

OJ, the Germans did a pretty thorough job of occupying Western Europe for years. I'm sure that at the time the combined populations of France, Belgium, Holland, etc. etc. exceeded the population of Germany.

I'm not claiming they would have made it all the way to the Pacific, but they wouldn't have had to: Japan would have taken the far Eastern USSR, and the Russians, caught between the Germans at the Urals and the Japanese in the far East, might well have sued for peace, Vichy-style.

Annoying Old Guy: true, I'm picking and choosing "ifs" to make my point. Obviously, if Hitler had been more rational, he wouldn't have gotten into power and led his country into a losing war. Same for Saddam. I think it's a variation of the syndrome that often wrecks successful entrepreneurs: the same characteristics that enable them to build a company from scratch often cause them to fail when the company gets larger.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 24, 2003 9:17 PM

And they couldn't take all of France, they depended on collaborators. Now add all of Russia to wherever. You've also got the Japanese at that point spread pretty thin. Okay. Suppose they managed all this. Realistically what thrreat is the Axis to us at that point?

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 9:22 PM


With the benefit of hindsight, maybe not much.

Maybe. But at the time, Ithe risk of inaction appeared far, far greater. Particularly since Nazi Germany's apparent economic revival from the Depression gave it the appearance of an up and coming economic powerhouse.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 24, 2003 9:31 PM

They could have done it the same way the British ran their empire. Or the Mongols.

The list of small peoples who dominated big ones is long. See Rwanda.

But 2003 is not 1939 or 1941. In the late '30s, the choices on offer were not infinite.

On one hand, you had defeatists like Lindbergh who wanted a disarmed US that would cooperate with whatever the Germans managed to do. And you had FDR. And in the middle as lot of people who thought they'd put off making a choice.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 24, 2003 9:38 PM


It's not hindsight. Conservatives opposed the war.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 9:38 PM


You keep saying that ignorant crap about Lindbergh as if you thought repeating it would make it true.

You also insist that the USSR was undefeatable by the US but somehow it was ready to fall like a ripe melon to the Nazis?

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 9:42 PM

Is there any instance in history of an Imperial power maintaining an empire for any period of time over peoples of a comparable cultural and technological accomplishment? Delaware could make Rwanda a colony but could it control Pennsylvania?

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 10:15 PM


Depends what you mean by a "period of time" and "comparable", but what about Rome over Egypt and Greece, Britain over the dominions, Russia over Ukraine and the Baltics, Russia/Germany over Poland, Spain over the Netherlands, Austria over Hungary, Japan over Korea, the Ottomans over Arabia and the North over the South (19th century).

Posted by: Peter B at September 25, 2003 6:36 AM


It is hindsight. The conservatives opposed the war before the results were known.

We can have no idea what results would have obtained had the US followed that course of action.

Which means your assertions can't be tested, against the alternatives.

That, I believe, is a pretty good example of hindsight.

Harry's position is is function of time. At the beginning of Barbarossa, Stalin had depleted, politicized, and terrorized the officer corps. By the end of the war, the Russian army was an entirely different animal. The Russian army we would have had to contend with was the one at the end of the war, not the one at the beginning.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 25, 2003 7:26 AM

Then what's foresight if not accurately predicting the course of events? If you have to wait until results are known then there's no such thing is there? Is this some kind of Darwinian deal?

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 7:45 AM


Egypt's culture and political-economic system were inferior. Greece wasn't a nation yet, just cities, right? Britain mostly conquered aboriginal peoples and it created India out of Greece-like satrapies. As soon as any of the colonists decided they wanted an independent state they got one.

The Soviets only held Eastern Europe for forty years before it all came apart. The North didn't even manage to administer the South for a generation.

The notion that either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia with their in-built population constraints and unworkable political systems could have conquered and held all of Europe and then had enough resources left over to be a serious threat to the US, Canada, Australia, Britain, etc., just seems deeply dubious to me. Picture Red Dawn...

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 8:43 AM

Jeff's point about Germany's appearance as an emerging economic power in a post depression world hits the nail on the head. The New Dealers believed it was possible for National Socialist Germany as well as Stalin's USSR to overtake the US economically and, if allowed, militarily.

In retrospect and obvious to many non-New Dealers, the Soviet and Nazi models were seen as monstrous failures in waiting. FDR and his "brain trusters" were naive enough to see possibilities in those same models. The New Deal has much in common with what has come to be called "fascism".

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 9:11 AM


Precisely. People unable to admit that their own milder version of statism was a complete failure were, not surprisingly, blind to the impossibility of other more rigorous statisms working. Harry actually still has this blindness amazingly.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 9:21 AM


Sadly, we are still paying for their stupidity.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 9:24 AM

Certainly the US with its army of 140,000 in 1939 was not a match for anyone and would have lost even to Italy.

The US with its military of 13 million in 1945 would have lost to the USSR's 20 million or thereabouts. (The ratio was closer to 1:2, since a lot of the US power would have been unavailable for a war in Europe.)

When Roosevelt announced the US would build 50,000 warplanes, Lindbergh -- the expert on aviation -- dismissed it as "hysterical chatter."

Four years later, the total of aircraft produced had surpassed 100,000.

A disarmed US would have done whatever the Germans wanted it to do. Get out of Brazil? OK, 'Dolph, we're gone. Trade concessions in the Mideast? All yours, Hermann.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 25, 2003 3:56 PM


So now you've got the Nazis running all of South America and Western Asia too? What about Africa? When you're done what's the ratio of German soldiers to captives?

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 4:50 PM

The 140,000 man army was more than a match for Canada or Mexico. As we had no plans to intervene in Europe or Asia in 1939, we had no need for a large army. Unlike the European powers, we have never maintained a large army in peacetime. The Atlantic was always worth 100 divisions.

As for Stalin’s 20 million men (no where near that actually), I’m reminded of Hilaire Belloc’s little rhyme:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Substitute “A-bomb” for “Maxim gun.”

Given that Germany was a land power and had almost no navy, how was Hitler going to force us out of Brazil or anywhere else in this hemisphere? Had he secured the oil fields in the Caucasus he wouldn’t have had much need for the Middle East. More to the point, Germany simply was no threat to us; though once we’d mobilized, we were a threat to them.

Posted by: George at September 25, 2003 5:15 PM

Actually, George, we didn't have any bombs. Orrin has never contested this.

The one we dropped on Nagasaki was the last one, and we didn't get another until sometime around October/November.

While we were dropping our one piddly lil bomb somewhere in Russia --- where a comet equivalent to a million Hiroshima bombs had hit in 1908 without anybody noticing -- Zhukov would have been wading at Biarritz and Patton would have been in a cage.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 26, 2003 4:00 PM

We could have dropped the Hiroshima bomb on Moscow during a Politburo meeting and ended the Soviet phenomenon, or the Nagasaki bomb, or the ones we had later. Meanwhile, as far as I know, you're the only one who thinks that communist fighting forces were superior to ours and no one thinks they'd have fougfht as well in a war of imperial aggression as they did to defend the Motherland. They could easily have been cleaned out of Eastern Europe, particularly if Churchill and Ike had been allowed to accept a German surrender and Patton allowed to get to Berlin first. Then we could have integrated the German forces into our attack on the Soviets. Only FDR and the fellow travelers of the New Deal insisted on unconditional surrender, a disaster for all concerned.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 4:23 PM

What about the 200,000 (300,000; 400,000 - put the number of your choice in here) Russian soldiers machine-gunned by P-51s? The Russians had nothing in the air to match us. Large armies and tank divisions make nice targets. And, A-bomb or no, we could have bombed all Russian cities with impunity. They probably couldn't even have hit London, and certainly not without terrible losses. Don't be overawed by the T-34. We could have dealt with it, too. And I suspect Patton would have eaten Zhukov's privates for breakfast, if necessary. But I will grant that the US Army would have had to learn more ferocity to fight the Red Army.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 26, 2003 4:25 PM

If we had followed OJ's advice, there wouldn't be an Israeli-Palistinian problem to deal with.

All the European Jews would be dead.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 26, 2003 8:14 PM

Instead there are additional millions of Soviet dead, 60 million dead Chinese, 2 million Vietnamese, 40% of Cambodia, 100,000 Amnericans, etc., etc., etc., other than racism there's no reason to look approvingly on that trade off.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 8:38 PM

Jim, you really never heard anybody but me say the Red Army was superior?

It had just beaten 90% of the German Army. The western Allies had had difficulty in beating the other tenth and managed to lose two big battles doing it, something the Red Army hadn't had to put up with 1943.

Orrin can fantasize all he wants about Russian soldiers turning their rifles on the commissars -- they'd done something similar in 1917 -- but I know of no evidence at all to back him up.

The Siberians were not the sort to make much distinction if the other side had wristwatches, and our guys had plenty.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 26, 2003 9:07 PM


That was when fighting a defensive war to defeat the Nazis. No one who isn't a leftover Bolshevik would think that after seeing us liberate France, Germany, Eastern Europe, etc., that the average Russian would have fought to preserve the regime.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 9:10 PM


The operative word is "Army", even conceding that your argument may be correct. Q: How many Russian soldiers would have lived once they crossed the Rhine? A: Only those who found big enough rocks to hide under.

And what would Stalin have done with MacArthur and the Marines pouring into Siberia from the East?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 26, 2003 10:52 PM