The Great Victor Davis Hanson Takes On World War II

Victor Davis Hanson is a conservative icon, well known and respected; a prolific author of twenty-plus books and current occupant of a chair of historical, military, and agrarian classical studies; a Ph.D. from Stanford; and the founder of classical studies at California State University,  Fresno.  Now he occupies a chair at the Hoover Foundation of Stanford University. 

I first came to know him reading The Western Way of War (1989), which explained the reason for the lethality and effectiveness of Western armies throughout history.  This past year, he wrote one of his best books: The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books, 2017).

Hanson titled the book for the fact that there were at least two major wars going on in World War II, and it is a mistake to think of the Axis Powers and the European and Pacific wars as a one big theater of war.

Hanson also sets up the thesis that the Axis Powers succeeded initially only because of the hesitance and even fecklessness of the Allies during the late thirties, when the Nazis and the Bushido Empire expanded without resistance to take regional control and acquire influence, and even more while the major Allied powers pretended not to see the threat or, in some cases, refused to do anything to stop the aggression.

For the French, English, and Americans, the problem was a collective memory of the carnage of WWI and the commitment to pacifism, or at least weak responses to evil and aggression that resulted.

When the Allies committed to unconditional surrender, the game was over.

The unique and enlightening thing about Hanson's book is his focus on two things: resolve, political and societal, and then the national resources and industrial capabilities of the belligerents, key to a successful war effort.  Startling realities include odd things like the German Army that committed to Operation Barbarossa in the East being dependent on horses and surprisingly ragtag.  The blue-water German navy was no match for the Brits or the American navy.  Germany had limited access to petroleum and had to convert coal to fuel oils until the Romanian fields were annexed, but then those fields were inadequate.  Japan was always fuel-starved.  The Allies went to war on an ocean of Texas oil. 

As for tech, Germany had the V1 and then later the V2 and many superior weapons, but they had no ability to make them mean something.  Germany and Japan just didn't have the industrial capacity and resources to match American power and competence in warfare – supplies, manpower, firepower.  

In the Pacific, the Japanese had no ability to replace fleet carriers or a declining number of pilots and planes, even though the Zero was a good plane and Japan started with a group of good fleet carriers.  German Monster tanks were lethal but in limited numbers.  The net effect was that the Russian T-34 and even the inferior American Sherman tanks were effective because of numbers combined with other factors such as air support and mobility. 

The Germans had no ability to invade England or reach out from their initial base without a navy or any long-range bombers like what the allies had, like the British Lancaster and the American B17, 24, 25, and 26 – particularly the 17.  The mighty B-29 was a difference-maker in the last stages of the Pacific war.   British defenses in the battle of Britain were better not just because of Spitfires, but also because of superior British radar.  The Hellcat and Corsair were a match for the Zero when they came on line.

American production of small and large carriers for the Pacific was astounding and emblematic of the ability of the American output on all sorts of things – guns, artillery, vehicles, tanks, planes, ships, transports, cargo, and fuel-carriers for land and water.  As the war went on, American industry continued high-volume production of essentials with modifications that improved quality, effecting a telling change in force effectiveness in categories such as submarines or various carriers.  Likewise with the output of bombers and fighters, such as the P-51 Mustang – fifteen thousand-plus were made, the last version with wing tanks for bomber escorts to the German heartland that were demoralizing to the Germans.

American capability in ground forces and support armaments and gunnery along with air superiority were decisive.  The American forces just kept coming in the Pacific, overwhelming by numbers and firepower the Japanese fortress islands.  In the Pacific, the U.S. Navy, Marines, pilots, and planes supported by good logistics and naval firepower dealt with even the fanatical Japanese resistance.  Bombing runs of hundreds of big bombers hit the island targets and the Japanese homeland.  Hundreds of bombers in the skies were what the Japanese looked up at in the closing days, before the atomic bombs.

Hanson points out the unique and horrifying number of deaths of non-combatants killed by the Axis powers despite losing the war.  The Axis powers were able initially to take adjacent powerless or weak nations, were able to target and destroy civilian populations, along with on the ground pogrom and genocidal projects.

I agree with the Hanson argument that World War II was not a single conflict, but several, ranging the expanse of the globe, each varying with the arrival and departure of advanced technologies, sophisticated ideologies, national armies, and legendary statesmen.

A concerning last thing one must consider is that WWII was a break in time, when the failure of deterrence during the late '30s resulted in an out-of-control aggressive nationalistic statist movement of the Nazis, Japanese, and Italian fascists to get out ahead of more civilized elements. The price to be paid was the destruction of civility and a massive loss of innocent lives.

Hanson reasonably says Germany in 1939 "was not stronger than the combined French and British militaries – or at least not so strong as to be able to defeat and occupy both powers."  The Japanese were a regional factor and had been to attack and annex part of China, but they still were not really that capable – certainly not as capable as a fully alert and motivated United States.  However, the fecklessness of both the Brits and the French and the inactivity and lack of concern by the United States clearly encouraged the adventurous Nazi and Bushido belligerents.

Hanson as a historian appreciates the reality of moral indecision.  His book could not be timelier, since we are facing fanatical enemies who in two examples are close to nuclear capability, and nuclear capability may be possible for these intractable enemies even in a black market or in the role of surrogate for another more established nuclear power like Pakistan.  Why the Western world – which was aware of the classical lessons and geography of war, and was still suffering from the immediate trauma of the First World War – chose to tear itself apart in 1939 is a story not so much of accidents, miscalculations, and overreactions (although there were plenty of those, to be sure) as of the carefully considered decision to ignore, appease, or collaborate with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany by nations that had the resources and knowledge, but not yet the willpower to do otherwise.

Tens of millions of innocents died at the hands of the Nazi, Bushido, and Italian fascist war machines because action was not taken to stop the evil forces eventually unleashed to bring on WWII.  Hanson asserts and espouses a moral clarity too often lacking in political and foreign policy salons that are infected with Marxist and Progressive magical thinking dangerous to civilized nations.

I will leave it to the reader to guess how America would or would not act to protect the safety of the country and its citizens.  Churchill proved that men do make a difference in history.  What is playing out now because of aggressive socialism and bellicose Islam could end badly if mistakes leading up to WWII are repeated.  Hanson's book gives us a vivid reminder – the book is a heavyweight, and you will benefit from hefting it.  I avoided the lift with a Kindle.