Friday, March 30, 2018

Hoover and WWII

I am no WWII expert, by any stretch.  I have a friend who is, who teaches history at a college, designed an intricate WWII table game and has played the others in tournament for decades, and just spent two days at the New Orleans museum.  I note this last bit because I could not spend two focused days at any museum, not even one devoted to what a wonderful guy I have always been. I can see doing a morning and a following afternoon, but not two opening-to-closing days.  I can see getting a membership and coming back often. But you have to really love something to pound it in like that. Perhaps I only say that because I usually go to small, obscure museums that can't put the bang into the displays that a larger, national one can.  But I spent an afternoon at the WWI museum in Kansas City and thought my brain was full and could take no more.

I am not in his league.  Among amateur historians in America, WWII is by far the most popular branch of study, with the War Between The States a distant second. WWI and the Revolution don't come close.  This applies to alt-history and gaming as well as serious study. There are a lot of eyes on this information, and a lot of discussion. Nonetheless, I do know a bit, and as a discussion of Roosevelt started up in the comments under The Other David Wyman, I thought I would give it some air and weigh in myself, not comprehensively, but provocatively. I don't in the least advocate this is what we should have done, but interesting to consider in light of any "Did Roosevelt get it mostly right?" discussion.  I think Pat Buchanan does argue for something like this, but I haven't read it.


Hoover originally did not believe we would need to go to war, and that Churchill and others were unnecessarily provocative so that Western Europe would get dragged in. His vision was that Hitler and Stalin should slug it out without us. It would have perhaps been possible to make reassurances so that he did keep his focus in the East. I don't dismiss this as impossible. There was a lot more Lebensraum in Russia than there was in the Netherlands. After they had destroyed each other, an untouched Western Europe could have imposed its will on both. If that seems irresponsible and cruel of us WRT the Jews, it pays to remember that things could hardly have turned out worse than they eventually did, and the Final Solution might not have been enacted if there were no West threatening Germany. One can even imagine a scenario in which America and NW Europe focused on rescue of Jews, which Hitler was only too happy to be rid of, in any direction. I call that less than 50% likely, but not impossible.

Several things make this whole train of speculation unlikely to have happened, or to have worked. First, if Japan had still attacked under this scenario, the war of some sort with Germany would have been impossible to avoid. However, that attack is not a given, certainly not in a situation where even England and France are not formally at war with the Axis. Pearl Harbor was calculated to discourage us from even thinking of entering the war, because we clearly were thinking of it.

Secondly, it might indeed be irresponsible to abandon the Jews that fully. Though again, how much worse do we think things would have been. Absent the natural "but we have to do something" feelings, would doing nothing have totaled more than six million Jews plus whatever the Soviets added? In this imagined alternative, we don't have to rescue or protect them all in order to get a better outcome.  I do notice it would also involve abandoning the Poles and the Czechs right from the start. Worse outcome for them? We set the precedent when we intervened in WWI that we were not entirely indifferent to Europe's, especially England's, wars. (Tangentially, if the Spanish Flu did in fact originate in Kansas, spread to Europe by American troops with devastating effect, one wonders how much good we accomplished.)

Thirdly, there is still the problem of oceans, and especially the North Atlantic. Both Germany and Russia needed freedom to move ships that runs right through seas that the UK, Scandinavia, and France had a lot of say in. Staying out of war may have been impossible for them, and thus less possible for us, trying to supply them.

Fourth, we have no assurance how "letting them slug it out" would actually play out.  That we can imagine something as very likely does not mean it is likely. Germany and Japan slugging it out with Russia and China does not suggest stability to me.


Christopher B said...

Since I kinda started it, I'll weigh in a little more, specifically on your question.

"Did Roosevelt get it mostly right?"

It might be surprising in light of my prior comment but I'd say yes. My objection was primarily to the formulation that "FDR won the war". It's hard to think that the Civil War would have had the same outcome absent Lincoln or R.E. Lee, or the Revolution minus Washington. My contention is that FDR didn't have that kind of 'but, for' influence. If he had died in April 1939 the course of the following six years wouldn't have been broadly different. There certainly would have been differences of details but it seems to me that the cake, if not yet fully baked, had been mixed and spent sometime in the oven by that point. You bring up one of my favorite objections to counterfactuals in that the other actors in WWII (Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, et al) all had their own active agendas and were not merely reacting to whether or not the US was a belligerent. We'd already gotten involved in one European war, one that we probably could have stayed out of more easily than WWII, and we probably would have been prodded into fighting the next one in a similar way, even without the attack on Pearl Harbor.

charlie said...

Roosevelt seems to have foreseen that the USA would get dragged in eventually--my untutored hunch is that FDR was right. It would have been tough for the USA to maintain neutrality in the long run, even absent Pearl Harbor.

Churchill was happy to mortgage every asset of the Empire to prevent Hitler from dominating the continent. I think it was John Lukacs who made that point--or Paul Johnson.

I'm with Christopher B, above--the cake was already mostly baked. One wild card was the sudden collapse of France which few (besides Hitler) truly expected. I read a book about this--probably it was _To lose a battle_ by Alistair Horne. It wasn't Marc Bloch's book.

Another wild card, also before the entry of the USA, was the Nazi invation of the Soviet Union. That is where the true counterfactuals lie, for me. It the Nazi invasion of the Soviet union had been postponed longer, or if Stalin had been deposed after the war began (say, before the German 6th army's encirclement at Stalingrad), or a Nazi-Soviet armistice agreed to in 1943, or if the the Nazis had not treated most SOviet peoples as untermenschen. What would have been different then? I don't know.

What if the Nazis took Moscow? But then, it didn't much help Napoleon. Russian defensive depth is formidible. "Russia's infinite, you fools!"

I am reminded of the quip that someone made decades in response to AJP Taylor's book. Essentially, "Adolf Hitler was not simply another politician." Hitler's demands seem to have been limitless, and those demands conjured a limitless opposition.

My two cents.

Charles W. Abbott

David Foster said...

"the sudden collapse of France which few (besides Hitler) truly expected"

I wrote about this disaster and its causes here:

Sam L. said...

Charlie said, "What if the Nazis took Moscow? But then, it didn't much help Napoleon. Russian defensive depth is formidible. "Russia's infinite, you fools!"
And the winter is a killer. Did in Napoleon. Did in the German army. Had the Russians just fallen back and led the Germans on, the Germans would not have been able to do anything but die there, further to the east.

C. S. P. Schofield said...

Pearl Harbor was a serious miscalculation on the part of the Japanese...and on our part too. The Japanese had a long military tradition of semi-surprise attacks followed by negotiation for a portion of the captured territory. They were told by some of their own people that that wasn't going to fly, but chose to ignore them. We knew we were putting Japan in a position where they HAD to attack us, but we expected the attack to be in the Philippines...or somewhere comparably far away. Not at Pearl. Roosevelt's administration were typically Racist for Progressive Liberals, and didn't think the Japanese COULD reach that far. The Military was, if anything, even more dismissive. At least some of the post Pearl outrage seems to me to have been fueled by some stuffed shirts not wanting the Unwashed to take too close a look at the decision tree that got them where they were.

Dan Kurt said...

re: Nazis invade Soviet Union

If one wants to discover an alternative analysis of the invasion read this book: Hitler's Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted: R.H.S. Stolfi:

Stolfi is dead but I had a few telephone conversations with him more than a decade ago as I was so impressed with his book I tracked him down through his publisher. In the conversations Stolfi explained to me that Hitler also screwed up the invasion of France early on by calling a 48 hour halt at one point. I had not heard of it before. Had Hitler not done so the French and British defeat would have happened even faster. At any rate, don't miss Hitler's Panzers East.

Dan Kurt

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In the runup to America's entrance into the war, when we were shipping supplies to the Allies, the British and US Navy were also stubborn about switching codes in the North Atlantic, believing it would just be too much trouble and inconvenience when they weren't absolutely sure the code had been broken by the Germans. This despite the surprising number of ships sunk. Darn, those Germans are just sooo lucky, y'know?