Air University Review , July-August 1980
Dr. Theodore Ropp
NO PROFESSIONAL military college presents the study of history for fun. From time to time it is useful to "glance . . . at the past" before asking the present about a future in which to decide about global war. In a discussion of strategic dimensions of global war today "global" means "general" and "coalition," just as it did from December 1941 to May 1942, when the forcibly United Nations finally agreed on their goals, strategic plans, staffs, commands, and forces. Their past also had been made by past leaders, followers, and the media, whose records are interpreted by the historians.
The coalition members of 1914 were repeatedly confronted with technological and military surprise as increasingly desperate demands for men, supplies, and more and better weapons and fronts grew by accretion. Japan became a distant coordinate ally. Italy wanted specific spoils, which further complicated Anglo-French-Russian relations in the Near East. The Americans entered with high potential, ideals, and zeal, and a combat-ready navy was thrown into convoy operations for which nobody was prepared and with orders to "cooperate." The army won its battle to fight as a separate force in its own sector. After Italy was nearly knocked out at Caporetto in 1917, a Supreme War Council was established but did little planning. A Supreme Allied Commander for France was appointed in April 1918, only after the Germans had almost driven a wedge between the French and British armies. During the "peace process," the Americans sacrificed some ideals for the League of Nations they then rejected. The French traded some territory for new Anglo-American guarantees that went down at the same time. Russia's former allies used armed force to help keep her revolution out of Central Europe. Japan was contained by treaty; China was protected by the United States, Britain, and France. Italy left the alliance, Russia went through new crises, and a militant Germany rearmed itself.
In spite of Anglo-American fears of another European war, the Grand Alliance slowly reformed. There were some specific agreements about strategy and tacit understandings about political goals. The failing League should be reformed. Since territorial losses had only made some nations more aggressive, a real effort would have to be made to make them peace loving by making them more democratic. New weapons should be more carefully assessed, particularly if they promised more mobility. The military lessons of the war, as seen by the British tank expert]. F. C. Fuller, were that "the business of industrialized war demanded . . . (1) political authority; (2) economic self-sufficiency; (3) national discipline; and (4) machine weapons." It also demanded peacetime preparations, which rather accurately reflected the Allies' resources and senses of urgency. An exposed and frightened France bought mechanized trenches, stockpiles, and mobile forces to provide the time to wait for British mobile forces and American supplies. From Italy and Japan, Britain shifted back to Flanders and adopted conscription and a crash air defense program. The Americans turned to planning for weapons production, rationing, transport, propaganda, and other requirements for global war. Their machine weapons were prototypes, except for the submarines, battleships, and carriers required to check Japan. If she could not be checked in China by economic measures short of war, then China became a primary American responsibility.
During the Gathering Storm, a reviving Grand Alliance saw Germany as the most likely primary aggressor and enemy for both geopolitical and military reasons. National and alliance decision-making machinery was better; leaders were more experienced. The Anglo-American debates on conscription, rationing, labor and press controls, finance, and weapons research and development now turned to the problems of scale and efficiency. But defensive coalitions must expect some political, military, and technological surprises. Coping with these, while not abandoning its basic plans, was to test the coalition's planners. In spite of great improvements in mobile weaponry, global shifts would be as time-consuming politically and militarily as Marlborough's shift from the Rhine to the Danube in 1704.
The surprises began with the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland. East European allies could now be helped only through the Mediterranean, though Hitler did not play his Balkan card until after the fall of France. Reviving France was complicated by Italy's entrance into the war, by a general who called himself France, and by a legal government which controlled the fleet and colonies. An attack on parts of that fleet, a Free French failure at Dakar, West Africa, and the seizure of Syria did not simplify things. The fall of France did simplify American support, which now had to flow through Britain. Coalition staffing was easier in a largely Anglophone alliance, including a weaker Britain less likely to take public umbrage at American anticolonialism. The Americans adopted conscription, a two-ocean navy, and a hemisphere defense plan. Destroyers were traded for British bases, heavy bomber production shared, naval patrols and air routes extended, Philippine defenses strengthened, and economic pressure put on Japan. Although this pressure encouraged Japan to consider the naval and amphibious attacks that were to set new models for such operations, Hitler's attack on Russia only confirmed the Allies' basic strategy. New surprises at Moscow, Pearl Harbor, in Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic opened the most desperate months of the war without, in the end, distorting Allied strategy. Hitler's declaration of war on the United States dampened "Japan first" ideas. And China's increased isolation confirmed the U.S. Navy's bias toward a direct attack on Japan when forces became available.
The Allied plans of April 1942 called for a war of attrition against Germany by blockade, bombardment, subversion, and limited offensives. Japan was to be contained by air and sea power, local ground forces, Chinese manpower, and Russia's Siberian divisions. The Arcadia (Washington) Conference (December 1941:January 1942) called for a return to Europe as early as 1943 and established the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Unified commands were set up for the major areas. The combined chiefs were responsible for the European-Mediterranean-Atlantic area; the British for the Middle East-Indian Ocean; the Americans for the Pacific; China, an even more distant coordinate ally, for China. Another coordinate ally, Russia, agreed to the "more majestic" Joint United Nations Declaration of January 1942, which replaced the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, written when the United States was still neutral. Russia would "preserve human rights and justice . . . as a matter of course." For planning, "It was sufficient," Winston Churchill later wrote, "that we should know their general sweep and timing . . . and that they [the Russians] should know ours."
One revision of the 1942 plan was made that same year. With the Germans striking deeper into Russia and Russia clamoring for a Second Front, the British wanted to seize French North Africa to help their Eighth Army. When the American joint chiefs suggested that they turn to a Japan-first strategy, Roosevelt ordered them to agree to the North African venture, which was launched once it seemed clear that the Russians would hold. It was an excellent coalition decision. It gave the coalition practice in the delicate arts of dealing with a defeated and a coordinate ally, shaking the shakiest enemy, and conducting a combined amphibious and land campaign against a small, trapped German army.
So the Allies surmounted these crises without really disruptive quarrels or laying the blame for coalition disasters. The longest and safest investigation was that of Pearl Harbor, an American interservice affair. Common danger had firmed the Allies' plans and resolve, except on how to rescue a China that could only hoard its own forces.
One of the coalition's major assumptions was that the nationalistic and democratic ideals of the great revolutions were still alive, that technology was expanding military possibilities, and that general wars were still tending to become global, thus increasing the complexities and possibilities of coalition planning. And we know now that the politically crucial points at which the battered defenders coalesced enough to complete a strategic plan, and at which victory came within sight were more clearly separated than in the two other coalition wars with which the participants were familiar; that first period came after the Arcadia Conference, the second after the Yalta Conference of February 1945.
Though the great offensive, as the Americans had warned, had to be put off until 1944, there were still critical decisions to be made. Why was it though that such a plan did not incur new political "debts"?
Many of the coalition's later decisions turned on meeting what Eisenhower later called the European invasion's preconditions:
 that our Air Force would be . . . overwhelming; . . .  that the German air forces would be virtually swept from the skies and our air bombers could practically isolate the attack area; . .  that the U-boat would be so . . . countered that our convoys could count on . . . a safe Atlantic crossing;  that our supporting naval vessels would . . . batter down local defenses and  that specialized landing craft could . . . [pour ashore]  a great army through an initial breach.
He did not list, though he may have expected decisions from difficult subordinates, the timing of strategic and tactical air operations, the latter's targeting, the timing and targeting of supporting Mediterranean operations, and, once a lodgment had been made, the timing and targeting of break out by whom and pursuit to where. The lists of decisions for other theaters are just as long. Eisenhower further claimed that:
Nothing is more difficult in war than to adhere to a single strategic plan. Unforeseen and glittering promise. . . and unexpected difficulty or risk . . . present constant temptation to desert the chosen line of action . . . . Realization of the plan was far removed from its making. . . . But the war in Europe was finally won because . . . --in spite of delay, difficulty, pressure, and profitable preliminary operations in the Mediterranean which themselves offered a temptation to forsake the original concept-the President, General Marshall, and many others never wavered from . . . launching a full-out invasion of Europe across the English Channel at the earliest practicable moment.
History also proves that historians are always right after the fact. And as that great General Omar Bradley has remarked, it is more fun to be right after a war of maneuver with real decisions, battles, heroes and villains, heart and mind shakers than after one of attrition. The Napoleonic and Second World Wars support more second-guessers than the First. What most of the lists of mistakes and lost opportunities suggest is that strategic choice was not much easier in a global war than in a European war between world powers.
ONE of the best lists is still Hanson Baldwin's Great Mistakes if the War (1950). It begins with our lack of "peace aims." We had "only the vaguest kind of idea, expressed in the vaguest kind of general principles . . . of the kind of postwar world we wanted." This "Basic Fallacy" led to the others: "Unconditional Surrender, Loss of Eastern Europe, Loss of Central Europe, MacArthur and the Philippines--Origins of Service Jealousies, Appeasement in Asia, The Atomic Bomb--The Penalty of Expediency." But the Basic Fallacy may have reflected the interwar idea that Wilson had been too rigid about national lines in an Eastern Europe which the Allies did not control and in his fight for the League of Nations. Franklin D. Roosevelt's charm and political ego did get his United Nations and about all of the industrial areas of the world which even a technologically dominant United States might have hoped to revive and reeducate. The "illusion," aided by "wartime propaganda," was that our culminating victory was complete and global.
Why was the World War II coalition a success, at least by World War I standards?
- The original plan, based on the military principles of mass and concentration against the coalition's major military and political enemy, was sound.
- Its leaders had a good grasp of geopolitical and military realities.
- There was a better grasp of technological possibilities and of the need for unified staffs and commands--political, economic, and military--than in the First War, partly because of that experience.
- The Western Allies' political goals combined democracy and nationalism with the hope that national and ideological interests could be compromised in a postwar United Nations.
- The goals represented a consensus that had grown out of the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions, one with partisans throughout the world.
- They were lucky. The aggressors were even worse at coalition than at interservice cooperation.
- The coalition carried through its own plans with a mixture of charismatic leadership and political and military tact, which we may lack in our currently overstructured and aging grand alliances.
How our alliances will deal with fanatics, after a generation of major, minor, and mininational and social revolutions, is another current question. Time has decreased and complexity increased with the range and power of weapons and communications. No coalition may be able to balance the national interests involved in using nuclear weapons, whether the aggression is indirect and local or direct and total. Both coalitions' leaders have made a show of dispersing the decision-making process, while trying to keep absolute weapons in their own hands. Therefore, rights and responsibilities are no better balanced internationally than in many national polities. Suffice it to say that all historical argument is by analogy, and that there are vast technological, political, and military differences between the coalitions of 1942 and 1980.
Durham, North Carolina
Theodore Ropp(A.B., Oberlin; M.A., Ph.D., Harvard) is professor of history at Duke University now serving as visiting professor at the University of Singapore and the University of New South Wales until September. Dr. Ropp has also taught at Harvard and at the Naval War College and Army War College. He is author of War in the Modern World (1959), coauthor of Historical Background of the World Today (1947), and has contributed to Makers of Modern Strategy (1943). Dr. Ropp has written previously for the Review.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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