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America’s undeserved preventive war guilt

December 2, 2011

Max Boot recently penned an opinion piece which argued the time had come for a preventive war against Iran. There are all sorts of contentious aspects of the piece, but the misuse of historical analogy is particularly egregious. Matt Fay at Hegemonic Obsessions has already done a splendid job of dissecting the fallacy of comparing Iran to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany in terms of potential threat to the United States, but the objection I’ll address here is much more specific:

In retrospect, weakness in the face of aggression is almost impossible to understand — or forgive. Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s?


In short, Western policymakers have implicitly made the same assumption today that their predecessors made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1990s: that an immediate war, even one fought on favorable terms, is to be feared more than a looming cataclysm that is likely to occur at some indefinite point in the not-too-distant future. That was the right decision to make with Stalin’s Russia; it was tragically wrongheaded with Hitler’s Germany and the Taliban/Al Qaeda.

After the failure to stop Hitler and Bin Laden, among others, Westerners were said to have suffered a “failure of imagination.”

The notion that a preventive war, particularly a preventive war led by the Americans and Western Europeans, could have truly eased the Second World War is a dangerous fantasy, albeit a remarkably persistent one. While there were obvious errors in the judgment of statesmen leading up to the outbreak of the war, a preventive war could well have failed, and spectacularly so.

By the time Hitler came to power, the most likely combination for a preventive war would be France and Poland in the early 1930s. However, it’s certainly not clear that these countries could have quickly and decisively defeated Germany’s military forces, or that they could have occupied and de-militarized the country, which would have been necessary to prevent a simple repetition of the errors of Versailles. It’s not exactly clear why Poland would have wanted to join in such an endeavor, since unlike France, Poland was only a bit more than a decade into its reincarnation as a country and had the Soviet Union, which had more recently invaded it, to worry about. Indeed, a Franco-Polish war would only have hastened the coming of a German-Russian agreement to deal with their mutual buffer state problem, yet it hardly would have provided the military power necessarily to inflict a crushing defeat on Germany.

The claim that Germany was a bulwark of anti-Communism was a very convincing claim to many peoples, which is why many traditional conservatives in Europe went right along with it. The Soviet Union and the “Bolshevist hordes” seemed an extremely pressing threat, particularly for Eastern Europeans and for Americans, among whose many “isolationists” were actually the most uncompromising opponents of the Soviet Union (to the degree that some did indeed admire Hitler and his Germany). Keeping together an anti-German coalition sufficiently strong enough to inflict a permanent defeat of the country would have quickly run aground on these anti-Soviet shoals.

There is an assertion that a preventive war over  Munich was an option, but it is one that would have likely ended in utter failure. Soviet intervention against Germany was far from certain, and of questionable military effectiveness given the recent purges – it also likely would have been met with Polish opposition. As for the other side, French military capabilities, while formidable, were not suited to an offensive war, while Britain was militarily unprepared for projecting power into the continent. Indeed, Britain used the time it bought with Munich to increase the pace of its own rearmament.

It also bears remembering that the leaders of the Soviet Union maintained a strong belief in the inevitability of exhausting wars between the capitalist powers, and Stalin would likely have made a separate peace with Germany if he saw fit, particularly if he felt the Western states were unable or unwilling to put up a fair share of the military burden. Indeed, he repeated this threat multiple times during World War II, even though Germany had violated a non-aggression pact in a blatantly expansionist bid for conquest.

The likely result of an inconclusive war launched for the sake of Czechoslovakia in 1938 would likely have been the rise of anti-war parties. Indeed, much of the ill will Germany accumulated among Western publics after Munich was due to the obvious examples of Hitler’s perfidy and malign intent. We should not project this backward into time. The result of a failed and inconclusive preventive war against Germany would almost certainly have been opposed to continuing the war, let alone accelerating it to the level of total war ultimately necessary for defeating Germany. Public will for war could not simply appear ex nihilo, particularly in the parliamentary democracies of the West. In the worst case scenario, pro-German politicians might have come into power.

After the German-Russian rapprochement, of course, any preventive war waged by any combination of Western power would have resulted in even more humiliating defeat. The elimination of Hitler required a massive and revitalized Soviet army that took years to create. This, not the American entry into the theater, deserves the greater credit for the decision on the European battlefield. A war by France, Britain, and even the United States would have been an utter disaster until Hitler’s great error on June 22 1941.

I want to make clear that American intervention in Europe could have in no way credibly checked German aggression. The US military during the 1930s was in a sorry state and had much more to worry about from Japan, which was an easier threat to mobilize against than Germany anyway due to the large numbers of Germanophile, Sinophile, and anti-Japanese political constituencies within the United States. Against the German military of the late 1930s, what little troops America could bring to bear would not have fared well on the battlefield, certainly not enough to shorten or lessen the cost of the war overall. Indeed, a deliberate intervention in Europe actually would have seriously compromised Congressional support for conscription and economic mobilization necessary to forge the Arsenal of Democracy in the first place. Particularly if the intervention had occurred before November 1940, the likely result would be  massive victories for the isolationists. We could also note that such a war would have likely resulted in diversion of resources from the Pacific, leading to further Japanese gains there.

Ultimately, delaying the war served American interests. I have mentioned this in a past post, but it is worth repeating because some of the lessons apply today. Firstly, the problem of mobilizing the US economic resources and political willpower for total war became a moot issue when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. A voluntary intervention would not have brought about broad-based support for intervening in a European war in the United States, just as a voluntary war would have done little to mobilize public support for total war in France and Britain. While the US might have improved its fortunes in the Pacific War through an earlier entry there rather than ineffectually angering Japan with sanctions, an earlier entry would not have helped much in Europe, a conflict for which the US Army was fundamentally unprepared at the time.

That Japan opted to wait until Germany and the Soviet Union were at odds to launch Pearl Harbor was particularly fortuitous for the US, because it meant that the Soviet Union’s massive armies were available to do the bulk of the fighting. Norman Davies calculated that the number of “man months” expended in the Western fronts (and the German invasion of Poland) – from 1939-1945 – totaled 37.5 million, which is a composite of both sides. Compare this to 406 million man months for the Eastern Front, 1941-1945, and you get a sense of just how much harder the war would have been without Soviet participation. Not only would the USSR’s massive reserves of troops been unavailable, but without them tying down German forces, many of those Eastern Front-bound units would have been available to fight against American, British and French troops. Nor is there any likelihood that Western war against Germany would have prompted the Soviets to join in, since Stalin increased his trade with Hitler during his expansion of the war on the Western front, and most of the evidence of a Soviet plan to violate the pact is a misinterpretation of Soviet doctrine to respond to a potential German invasion.

Indeed, the exhaustion of any rival Western European rival, the relative weakening of the Soviet Union compared to its potential strength had the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact held, and the elimination of Germany as a potential European hegemon all served US interests and left the US more powerful than it ever had been before. A war launched before 1939 would have likely resulted in Western frustration and the undermining of pro-war politicians, and a war with earlier American participation after that point would have likely  resulted not just in defeat on the continent, but in the preservation of a hideous coalition of German, Soviet, and Japanese power which would have had a decent run at expelling Western European and American power and influence from most of Eurasia.

None of this is to say that there could not have been improvements in rearmament and military doctrine – there absolutely could have. But on the big questions of whether or not to launch war against Germany, the case for preventive war is incredibly weak. Time and geography were indeed on America’s side and waging a war of attrition actually served to the Western advantage. Nor could any Western military effort have been quick or decisive enough to prevent Nazi genocide against its own population and those of its occupied territories. In essence, the strategic case for preventive war in Europe is shaky at best and disastrous at worst, its moral benefits were beyond realization, and the political feasibility of Western democracies to wage and sustain the war is so low that the likely outcome would have been a massive victory for isolationists, anti-war parties and German sympathizers.

I enjoy counterfactual scenarios as much as the next person, but they must not be exercises in wish-fulfillment. The assertion of the strategic wisdom of a preventive war, particularly an American-led one, reveals more about our still-distorted understanding of WWII than it does about wise courses for today’s policy.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 6:05 pm

    Agree on the main point. One question I’d raise has to do with your statement that earlier U.S. entry into the war would likely have resulted in the continuation of the Nazi-Soviet alliance. Hitler had been intent on expansion to the east for a long time, and it seems probable that he would have invaded the USSR at some point, even if the U.S. had entered the war earlier. We’re in the realm of counterfactuals, of course…

    • Charles permalink
      December 4, 2011 8:39 pm

      In the land of counterfactuals, I think the implication here is that the Nazi-Soviet alliance would have continued long enough to see the Western Allies defeated, which would have left Nazi Germany and the USSR open to bicker about how they were going to carve up what was left – whether this resulted in a full-scale Nazi invasion of the USSR as we saw, or a slightly weaker Nazi Germany hedge it’s bets and decide to maintain the alliance, isn’t necessarily the issue; the defeated Western Allied effort is the main issue, due to the idea of the pre-emptive/preventative war.

      To be honest, the idea of a pre-emptive war does sound quite silly, unless you have a force which is suitably stocked, armed, trained and large enough to do so. But then how often in history does this happen?


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