THE COALITION THAT FOUGHT the Second World War was probably the most successful in history. Even taking into account the dissensions and difficulties of working together, on which undue stress has been placed by the memoir-writers, the coalition achieved its ends, and did so with an economy of effort that defies ready comparison. It is, however, in the nature of coalitions to be uneasy. Nations go to war for different reasons, against different enemies, they have different national backgrounds and attitudes, and all of these become particularly apparent at two times: when coalitions near defeat, and when they near victory.
The primary aim of a state, by definition, is its own self-preservation. Though a parent may sacrifice himself for his child, or a friend for his comrades, the nature of the political entity does not lead it to this kind of self-abnegation. As Palmerston once said in a moment of unwonted candor, “Britain has no eternal friends or eternal enemies, Britain has only eternal interests.” As a coalition nears defeat, the interests of the individual members assume paramount importance. The breakdown is invariably accompanied by recrimination and charges that the other partners failed to fulfill their obligations. Thus in 1940, when the strain of the war became too great for the Belgian government to sustain it, Belgium signed an armistice. Her allies accused her of gross betrayal. Less than a month later, the French were negotiating their armistice in their turn, they and the British each feeling let down by the other. The chief aim of the French government was that the French state should survive, not that France should sacrifice herself for Great Britain. Looking back, one can say the French politicians made the wrong choice, but that is the luxury of hindsight by those who were not faced with the agonizing necessity of decision.
Ironically, victorious coalitions tend to break up in the same kind of distrust and divergence as do defeated ones. Military victory is the sine qua non of survival, but it is not an end in itself; it is but the means to some larger political end, defined and perceived by the state and its leaders. Each state will have different ultimate aims, arising out of a variety of factors—historical, geographical, and ideological. As the military crisis is faced and surmounted, the differing political ends become more apparent, and the coalition, the more successful it waxes militarily, becomes shakier politically. As the potential postwar situation is partially predetermined by who takes what where, and what it costs him to take it, the political problems become increasingly acute, and few wartime coalitions long survive the war. In 1814, the about-to-be-victorious Allies signed a twenty-year alliance against France. A year later, half of them were threatening to go to war with the other half, and both sides were courting French support. In 1914-18, the Western Allies promised Russia things that they had spent a century denying her, just to keep her in the war. Yet by 1918 they were mounting massive military interventions in Russia, while Britain and the United States were refusing to ally with France. World War II, both in spite of and because of the aims for which it was fought, went the same way.
The major determinants of the course of action pursued by any given state depend upon the historical circumstances of the state, its situation at successive points in the conflict, the strength and predilections of its leaders, and their war aims, either announced or assumed. As a means of understanding why World War II went the way it did, and why so many of the postwar decisions were taken almost by default, it is worthwhile examining the three major allies on these points.
Nations are molded by their geography and by their history. Time, and its expression through historical development, is a fourth dimension for the individual and the group. In Great Britain, the most important event of recent history was World War I, and her strategy and her attitudes in World War II were extensively conditioned by the experience of the First World War. This was true at all levels of command and leadership. During the third battle of Cassino, as the New Zealanders were fighting through the ruins of the town, General Alexander asked if one more push would win; the corps commander, General Freyberg, replied with one evocative word: “Passchendaele.” There was no British soldier alive who, faced with recollections of the horror of Flanders in World War I, would continue a run-down assault, and Alexander accordingly called off his battle.
This experience was a national, not an individual one, and it is possible to trace it throughout the British handling of the Second World War. Compared to the continental powers, Britain had always been weak in manpower, but strong in geography. She had traditionally fought her wars at sea, and used the profits therefrom to subsidize continental allies against her enemies. William of Orange had started the fashion by taking over England not because he loved the British constitution, but because he wanted British gold to fight his lifelong enemy, Louis XIV. The pattern he set had been followed for two and a half centuries. It was British money that raised coalition after coalition against Napoleon, and eventually brought him down. The British always made their military contribution too—Marlborough in the Low Countries, Wellington in the Peninsula—but they usually kept it secondary; they lacked the manpower to do more than that.
In World War I, this policy had gone awry. Germany proved so strong that she nearly defeated both Russia and France, and the British found themselves dragged increasingly into a large-scale land commitment in Flanders and northern France. It ended up nearly ruining her, and in World War II a major concern of her leaders was that they did not have the manpower that the United States or Russia had. Much had been made of the British preference for a peripheral strategy, nibbling around the edges as it were, but once France went out and Mussolini came in, Great Britain, as we have already seen, had little choice.
By the middle years of the war, Britain was relatively weak in men and resources, given the massive strength of Russia, and the even more massive potential of the United States. She made up for this by mobilizing far more fully than the United States did, and by being much more sophisticated militarily than the Russian war machine ever became. Through 1942 and 1943, Britain dominated the wartime coalition through her seniority, her experience, and her expertise. Unfortunately for her, her relative strength declined as the war went on. In 1944 and 1945, as Russia survived and turned the corner to victory, and as the full power of the United States was mobilized, Britain and British interests became less important to the conduct of the war. The ultimate effect of this was to go far toward robbing Britain of the fruits of victory that she paid such a high price to win.
Both Britain’s past and present were magnificently summed up in Winston Churchill. It is little disservice to Roosevelt, and certainly none to Stalin, to say that Churchill was probably the one indispensable leader among the Allied Powers. The product of a classical education and an already long career in public life and affairs, he was pre-eminently the right man at the right time. His leadership and oratory rallied Britain when there was precious little else for her to rally behind, and through the early years of the war he dominated the Allies as no one else could have done. Stalin remained a Russian rather than a world figure, and Roosevelt the leader of a neutral or at best still very junior partner. As the war went on, however, Churchill found himself outpaced by the growing strength of his allies. If he did not perceive the “Red menace” as fully and as early as he later said he did, he nevertheless found himself increasingly frustrated, through 1944 and into 1945, by the Russian and the American insistence on their own policies. Ultimately, just as the war was ending, his leadership was repudiated by his own war-weary people; even the British could not sustain indefinitely the heroic heights to which he aspired.
His war aims and those of his country were fairly straightforward: to put down Germany, to restore a balance of power in which the British were conveniently on the top of the heap, and to preserve the British Empire and Commonwealth, in which Churchill was a fervent believer. Doing that would also preserve the moral and ethical systems which Churchill saw negated in Nazi Germany and Hitlerism and which he devoutly believed were embodied in Britain and her empire. He was, perhaps, the product of an old world of politics and diplomacy, but he represented the best of that old world.
The United States too was conditioned by its immediate past history, and by its experience in the Great War. That experience, however, was far different from Britain’s. The Americans had arrived late and faced a German Army that was on its last legs. Though experience of combat in World War I was one of the keys to command in World War II, American soldiers had fought in numbers only when the war had opened up again in 1918. None of them had the soul-destroying, bone-wearying years in the trenches of the British or the French. Europeans tend to stereotype Americans as big, brash, ebullient, outspoken, and energetic. As with most stereotypes, there is some truth in it, and many Americans saw themselves the same way. In 1918, American divisions were twice the size of British or French ones, and General Pershing fondly remarked of his 1st Division that it was “the best damned division in any army in the world!” He was quite possibly right, but if so, it was because no American unit suffered the more than 3,000-percent casualties that some British regiments had in the course of the war. To many Americans then, even to professional military men with experience of European warfare, the way to fight the war was to get to Europe and beat up the Germans, and then as quickly as possible get on and finish off the Japanese who, after all, were the ones to attack the United States. With a quite different historical experience of World War I from that of the British, Americans developed a quite different view of how World War II ought to be fought.
That divergence of view was compounded by their diametrically opposite situations as the years went on. British strength peaked in the middle years of the war, while the Americans were just beginning to get organized. The long grace period from 1939 to the end of 1941 gave the United States time to gear up its industry, and the demands first of Cash and Carry and then of Lend-Lease provided a shot in the arm to American business, but it takes a long time to design a successful tank or airplane, or build a battleship, and the new materials of war were just beginning to come on the line by the time of Pearl Harbor. The United States armed forces were weak in 1942, and given their worldwide demands, were operating on a shoestring even in 1943.
In the long run, the American economy had much more disposable fat than did the British or Russian or German, however, and as American production finally hit its stride, the United States became a veritable cornucopia of the resources for war. American fighting men had a wealth of equipment and impedimenta that astounded the British, as the British themselves astounded some of the east European refugees, such as the Polish troops who fought in the 8th Army.
So great indeed was the strength of the United States that the country never was completely mobilized for war. Industry was neither as fully controlled nor directed as in Britain, labor was not regulated to the extent it was in other countries, and individual freedoms were much less restricted in America than elsewhere. It is quite probable that had the war lasted another year or so government control would have gone further, but in the event it proved unnecessary. At full production, the American economy could produce and equip huge armed forces, its own as well as those of much of the rest of the world, and still generate some surplus for home consumption.
Nor did American military power ever reach full strength. Ironically, in one of the richest and most populous countries of the world, the actual burden of combat was borne by a relatively small percentage, not just of the population, but even of the armed forces. In 1941, the U. S. Army estimated that global war would require it to produce a total of 213 combat divisions. The army never came near it. The demands of navy, air force, support services, and domestic war industry prevented the ground forces from mobilizing more than ninety-one divisions in the course of the war. Germany mobilized 300, Russia about 400, and even Japan produced more than the United States did. On the United States’ side, the hard business of doing the real fighting in the war was done by a surprisingly small number of men.
With all this, the Americans still, toward the end of the war, surpassed the waning strength of Great Britain, and usurped her dominance of the western alliance. As late as mid-1944, there were more British troops than American fighting in Europe, but by the end of that year, it was the Americans, and American views of what the end of the war should bring, that were taking over.
There has been a great deal of argument over American leadership and war aims, and one of the earliest commentators on them, the Australian writer Chester Wilmot, set the stage by charging that American naivete and shortsightedness gave away the victory. Wilmot in The Struggle for Europe accused the Americans of being babes in the wilderness, and of allowing Stalin and the Russians to carry off all the prizes of the war. The argument does not seem wholly tenable a generation later; much of what Wilmot said the Americans gave away now looks like things that the Russians had already taken anyway, and because of the dictates of strategic geography could hardly have been prevented from taking.
Even setting all that aside, two things told against American handling of the political aims of the later part of the war. One was the fact that Franklin Roosevelt was pre-eminently a domestic politician; in spite of his favoring the Allies before the United States became a belligerent, in spite of his growing interventionism, he still thought largely in American terms, and appeared somewhat simplistic in his view of world affairs. He believed imperialism was undesirable and therefore was not disposed to spend any effort on recreating the British Empire. He may have been right, but he also believed the Russians at bottom were not much different from the Americans, and that they could be dealt with. His background was such that he had little in common with Joseph Stalin.
The second fact was that as the United States assumed increasing leadership, Roosevelt was a dying man. He had for many years waged an exhausting and courageous battle against polio, but by 1944 his illness and the incredibly heavy burden of office were perceptibly wearing him out. In few other states of the world would a political leader in his condition have continued to function as actively as Roosevelt did, and he compounded the difficulty by confiding very little in his potential successor after 1944, Vice-President Harry S Truman.
One of Roosevelt’s problems was that of producing credible, acceptable war aims. The United States was not in acute danger of invasion—though after Pearl Harbor it thought it was. The enemy was distant, and until Pearl Harbor most Americans had a hard time believing that the Japanese, or even the Germans, were a real threat to them. After December 7, most Americans wanted to jump in with both feet and beat up the Japanese, and then go on to the Germans. As noted earlier, the government had already decided that Germany should be defeated first, and then Japan. Though this was not a major problem, it was certainly a minor complication to American strategy. For overall war aims, however, Americans, dealing with a distant war, were forced to generalize what they wanted to achieve. It was not enough to defeat Germany and Japan militarily, they must be destroyed so they could never again unleash the kind of evil they and their war represented. The Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter became universalized goals. Given the imperfections of humanity, they may even be called mythologized goals, and to the extent that they were incapable of achievement, by military means or any other, Americans were to be disappointed in their war aims. Not because they did not win—they unarguably won—but because their aims were not wholly realizable.
Especially for an ally of Stalinist Russia.
Unlike the Americans, insulated with a large ocean to either side of them, the Russians are a people often invaded. One of the dominant themes of Russian history is fear: the fear of the outsider, the invader, the conqueror—or the would-be conqueror, for though many have tried, few have succeeded. The Tartars did from the east, and the Vikings from the north, but in modern times a whole series of westerners has failed to overwhelm Russia. Charles the Great of Sweden, Napoleon, Wilhelmine Germany, assorted Poles, all have come to grief in the vastness of the Russian plain. All they left in Russia were their bones, their military reputations, and a deep residue of distrust for the West among the Russian people and leaders.
When to this historical relationship is added the ideological problems of communism, and its outcast status among the nations of the world, the basis of Russian fear becomes readily obvious. No matter that every challenge from the West had ultimately resulted in a westward extension of Russian territory and influence; such extensions were achieved only at the cost of untold suffering and misery, and over the centuries the Russians developed a love-hate relation with western Europe, wanting the material and political advantages enjoyed by the West, fearing western power and aggressiveness.
As a country of immense potential, much of it still latent in the 1940’s, Russia’s role in the war fluctuated wildly. She did her best to avoid it as long as she could. When finally invaded, she came within a few miles or a few days of total disaster. Until the end of 1942, it looked as though she might still succumb. While the danger was pressing, the Russians were comfortable allies, grateful for the help the Western Powers could or would accord them. From 1943 on, as Russia’s situation improved, her demands increased. She claimed, truthfully enough, that she was bearing the brunt of the fighting. Without a great navy, she discounted British efforts at sea; without a strategic air force, she paid little account to the western Allied air offensive. The Russians chose to count as meaningful only what they had most of, soldiers on the ground fighting the Germans. More difficult allies as they were more successful, the Russians fought the war on their own terms; they paid an immense price for their victory, but in the end they got most of what they wanted.
At least part of that was the result of the fact that Joseph Stalin was unhampered by the limitations that beset Churchill or Roosevelt. There was no domestic opposition in Russia; it had all been liquidated in the purges before the war. Stalin was not only a ruthless, crafty leader—they all were, in their ways—he was also able to set his own goals and follow them or abandon them as the needs of the moment dictated. He knew what he wanted, and as the war progressed, Russia was in a position to achieve his aims.
Those were, in their simplest sense, to gain as great a buffer zone as possible between Russia and her potential enemies. He wanted to ruin both Germany and Japan as possible rivals; happily the United States was going to ruin Japan, and Russia, if she played her cards right, would reap the benefits while doing little of the work. She could concentrate her efforts on Germany, and on creating a Russian-controlled ring of satellites, Communist-run, in central Europe. An age-old problem of any state is to find a defensible frontier. Russia is relatively defensible from the Neimen, better from the Oder, and in fantastic shape if her frontier is on the Elbe. This view, too, is oversimplistic, but that is part of its attraction. Stalin’s war aims were not generalized or universalized; he was fighting for the security and power of Russia; “freedom from fear” did not mean quite the same thing to him as it did to Roosevelt.
These three states essentially decided the shape of the postwar world. The only other claimants for great-power status were China and France, and both were allowed into the councils of the Allies purely on sufferance. Chiang Kai-shek lacked the world view or world status of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin; for most of the latter part of the war China was a poor relation kept alive by Allied help and goodwill. To say that is to underestimate her contribution to the war effort in tying up the bulk of the Japanese Army, but by the accidents of geography and strategy that is the way the war developed.
The other great-power aspirant, France, was kept afloat less by Charles de Gaulle than by Churchill’s backing of him. De Gaulle was the prickliest of allies, Roosevelt thoroughly disliked and distrusted him and did his best to cut him off, and even his champion, Churchill, once grumbled that the heaviest cross he had to bear was the Cross of Lorraine. The French had a contribution to make, both as an occupied people and as a military force working from North Africa, but their whole position was an immensely complicated one, and only after a series of Byzantine convolutions did they reappear as an almost-great power.
Throughout the war the Allied leaders met at a series of conferences and meetings, sometimes all three of them, sometimes only two, occasionally with their foreign ministers and representatives of the top leadership. In the early stages of American participation in the war, these meetings were mostly concerned with organization and strategic planning; as the war proceeded, the leaders turned their attention increasingly to postwar matters.
In late December of 1941, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor, a British-American meeting convened in Washington. This was known as the Arcadia Conference. The Anglo-Americans reaffirmed the decision taken at Placentia Bay to defeat Germany first. They decided on air bombardment of Germany through 1942, and the clearing of the North African coast if at all possible. They set up the Combined Chiefs of Staff, consisting of the British Imperial General Staff, headed by General Sir Alan Brooke, and the American organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed by General George C. Marshall. They also agreed to invade continental Europe in 1943, though even at this first conference, the British preference for peripheral operations came into conflict with the American desire to invade Fortress Europe at the first possible moment.
This American desire for what the British considered a premature invasion led to a second conference in April. General Marshall and President Roosevelt’s personal advisor, Harry Hopkins, went to London; there the Allies agreed to a large buildup of American forces in Britain as a preliminary to the invasion, at that point to be code-named Operation Bolero-Roundup. Even while agreeing to the operation, however, the British stressed their desire to go elsewhere, and this Bolero Conference eventually led to the later decision to invade French North Africa in the fall of 1942.
The next major Allied meeting came at Casablanca in January of 1943. By that time North Africa was all but liberated, but several new problems had arisen. Chief among them was what to do about the French, and much of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering at Casablanca was a jockeying for position between Churchill’s protégé, de Gaulle, and Roosevelt’s candidate, General Giraud. The latter, last seen leading his army into Holland in May of 1940, had been imprisoned by the Germans, had escaped, emerged as a potential alternative to Vichy France, and then been picked up by the Americans. Roosevelt’s dislike of de Gaulle stemmed largely from the Frenchman’s imperiousness. Giraud, who had the attraction of not being well known to Roosevelt, proved in the event even more imperious, and even further divorced from the reality of war and politics as they were in 1943. After a short reappearance in the limelight, he was discreetly shunted into the background and eventually upstaged by de Gaulle, and dropped by the Americans.
Roosevelt and Churchill also agreed to name an American to the Supreme Command in the Mediterranean theater, and the nod went to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a fast-rising regular soldier who had no battle experience, but who proved to be a wonderworker at resolving problems among what George Bernard Shaw called “two countries separated by the bond of a common language.” They further decided on the invasion of Sicily, as a continuation of operations in the Mediterranean. Finally, in a subsequently hotly debated political move, Roosevelt broached the idea of “unconditional surrender”—the enemy powers were not to be allowed to surrender on terms, but must, to end the war, throw themselves completely on the mercy of the Allies. There had been discussion of this among the Americans, and Roosevelt had mentioned it to Churchill, though the two had not agreed upon it formally. Roosevelt therefore sprung it on a press conference, and the somewhat surprised Churchill quickly backed it.
The idea has aroused considerable argument, because some writers maintain it lengthened the war. Cutting the ground from under domestic opposition to Hitler, Mussolini, and their regimes, it is possible that unconditional surrender encouraged the Axis to fight on to the bitter end. In part, the announcement was a response to particular pressures of the moment. Churchill and Roosevelt had been accused of making back-room deals with some of the Vichy French leaders, and in the immediate political sense, their enunciation of unconditional surrender policies was designed to show the western peoples that their leaders were super-clean. In a larger sense, however, the idea was inherent in the Rooseveltian and Churchillian view of the war. If it was indeed a struggle between good and evil, then evil must be completely expunged, and good could not taint itself by treating with evil. It could not even deal with those fellow-travelers of evil who had themselves become partially infected by association. From that viewpoint unconditional surrender was but the logically inescapable conclusion to the Allies’ idealized war aims. Clausewitz said war is an extension of politics. The Allied leaders took war beyond politics and made it a crusade.
From the heights of Casablanca the planners returned to the more mundane levels of strategic discussion. In May of 1943, there was a Trident Conference in Washington. The British and Americans agreed to go from Sicily to Italy, a British desire, and set a firm date for the cross-Channel invasion, May 1, 1944, an American desire. As the price for Italy, the British agreed that the forces buildup would henceforth be concentrated not in the Mediterranean but in England. This put the British in a dilemma; with one hand they gained a decision to continue in the Mediterranean; with the other they gave away the resources that would have given point to that decision. The whole Mediterranean adventure was henceforth to be dogged by this unresolved conflict.
In August, the Allies met at Quebec City in the Quadrant Conference. They reaffirmed their intention to invade across the Channel, in spite of a Churchillian rear-guard action in support of the Mediterranean. At the insistence of the Americans, the British also conceded an upgrading of the Pacific offensives against Japan and a greater allocation of resources to that area.
Roosevelt and Churchill finally met with Stalin for the first time at Tehran in November. There was a wide-ranging discussion of military matters, in which Stalin laid great emphasis on what Russia was accomplishing, and asked repeatedly about the invasion of France. Roosevelt responded by stressing how much the Americans were committing both to the Pacific and to the cross-Channel scheme. Churchill was the widest-ranging of the three, and while stressing that Britain too looked forward to the invasion, he continued to explore Mediterranean and Balkan possibilities. Not only had he the most imaginative view of the three, he was also the most strategically opportunistic. Their ultimate agreement was on the invasion of France and a Russian offensive timed to support it by distracting the Germans.
They also began, hesitantly, to look toward the postwar world. It was agreed there should be some form of supra-national organization, but its outline was still dim. Roosevelt proposed that it should contain a subgroup of “Four Policemen”: Britain, the United States, Russia, and China. Stalin thought China would not make the grade and that the idea would not be too welcome to the rest of the world anyway. He was more definite about what Russia wanted—a major sphere of influence in central Europe, and some way to keep Germany down in the future. This boded ill for the future of the former central European states, but Churchill seemed at this time no more than mildly concerned over that, and Roosevelt was not concerned at all. Everything was too far in the future to worry yet, certainly too far off to upset the solidarity of the alliance.
Ironically, by the time the Big Three met again, at Yalta in February of 1945, and finally at Potsdam in the ruins of Germany in July of that year, it was too late to worry about the future. The Western Powers, represented at Yalta by Churchill and a dying Roosevelt and at Potsdam by their replacements, Clement Attlee and Harry Truman, saw Europe already rearranged in Stalinist terms. All the talk in the world was not going to move Russian troops out of Poland by then. Throughout the whole war, it was always either too early or too late for political deals and decisions. It was as if the ghost of Bismarck had risen from the past to echo, “The great decisions of our times will not be decided by speeches…they will be decided by Blood and Iron.” It was still the time of blood and iron.