Saturday, January 9, 2010

Eisenhower and the War

I just finished Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe, and enjoyed it more than I expected. Somewhat contrary to this reputation among intellectuals, he was a very bright individual, but he also worked hard at presenting an appearance that smoothed over differences, and was reassuring to ordinary people. Nothing scary, a big grin.

What surprised me:

1. Repeated suggestions that the Brits were very hesitant to put so much reliance on an invasion of Normandy. They had tried before, at Dieppe (with Churchill pushing for it, partly to assuage Stalin), and it was a fiasco. They had more memories than the Americans did of the trenches of World War I. Partly because of those memories, and partly because of ideas he had even before WW I, Churchill favoured putting more emphasis on some kind of invasion of Europe from the Mediterranean. Also there was the old issue of "keeping Russia out" of the Balkans and the Med, which had transformed into "keeping the Soviets out." In a way it didn't matter if it was through Turkey/Greece (Gallipolli), Yugoslavia, Italy, or what. This didn't mean abandoning the Normandy endeavour, but it did mean that as soon as there seemed to be some hope in Italy, Churchill seemed to go back on some of the agreements about Normandy and say: let's keep troops and tanks in Italy. Ike and his boss Marshall were absolutely convinced that their best chance lay with turning all of Britain into a huge military base/staging area, so that massive numbers of troops and supplies could be deployed over a period of months or years. To try to supply a comparable force via the Atlantic and the Med (fighting over mountain ranges to get to the German homeland) would be a nightmare--and it would be far easier for Germany than for the U.S. and Britain to fight in southern Europe. Interesting stuff, and there were obviously real debates--the command was so integrated that some Brits took the "Ike" position, and some Yanks probably took the "Churchill" position.

2. This raises, at least tangentially, the question whether Ike was too soft on the Soviets, or too determined to keep them as allies, or too unwilling to seize opportunities to prevent them from benefitting from the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Marshall/Ike view was presumably that the Soviets had performed an extraordinary service in grinding down the Germans and their allies on the Eastern front, and they were likely to come in handy fighting Japan. (The atomic bombs, I guess, made any Soviet contribution in the Pacific rather incidental). This in turn raises the question of Yalta: Churchill himself, as I recall, sketched on a napkin what the Soviets would get, and he never really questioned any of those deals; was he actually somewhat less gung ho about giving Stalin what he wanted than Roosevelt was?

3. Strategic bombing. The only debate Ike really goes into is that the strategic bombing generals wanted to keep control of their bombers, and go on long distance missions far into France and Germany. Ike wanted to use them to destroy German communication lines close to the beaches in France, so as to support Overlord. Eventually there was agreement that the closer they were to Overlord, the more sense it made to focus on Normandy. I borrowed the David Irving book on "the Generals" from the library (before Irving became a famous Holocaust denier). He says the strategic bombing guys were convinced that the main goal was destroying the German air force; they were unfortunately finding that more difficult than they had expected, and they had to keep working on that by means of long distance bombing runs. Some of the "Ike" people said the German air force wouldn't really be destroyed until there were dogfights associated with Overlord--this drove the strategic guys nuts. They responded that bombing railroads wouldn't really work either--the Germans would find a way to supply their troops in France, etc. My understanding is that the Germans were woefully lacking in both supply and air support from D-Day onward.

Bigger question: did none of these folks admit, even to themselves, that they were deliberately destroying entire German cities not for reasons directly related to tactical gains in war, but for the truly strategic purpose of terrorizing the surviving civilians in enemy territory, and convincing them not only to abandon the bad regimes we were destroying, but to love liberal democracy? Did the thought that they were doing this not really emerge until they escalated the bombing, which may have been more in 1945 than in 1944? Did they really escalate primarily because they could, and then they realized the result it was having, and came up with the strategic rationale? In any case, I think it is clear now that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a continuation of strategic bombing, not a radical departure, even though Ike presents it in the latter light.

4. The U.S. mounted this huge, unprecedented operation; forged a true integrated alliance, including an integrated command, with the Brits, Canadians, Poles and French, and then, to a great extent, went home. Surely only the U.S. could and would have done all this, and even the U.S. is unlikely to do it again. It's funny, but understandable, that they alternate between some kind of isolationism, and some kind of belief that they have the fire power to shape the entire world.

5. It's a cliche, but it still interests me: what did Hitler and Tojo think about the United States? How could they have imagined that they could win a world war against this new superpower?

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