Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Whose War?

An argument has been raging in the comments to my post from last night about British and American roles in World War II.

David S. took the lead, with Cato seconding him. According to David S.,

…the fact is, in the strictest sense, it wasn’t our war. We could have, in reality, just let Europe and the UK fall to the dogs. We almost did, in fact, until Pearl Harbor. And if we had handled Pearl Harbor like we’ve handled 9/11 (that is, poorly), engagement would not have been inevitable.

Of course Britain took a hit from the war. It took a huge hit, a massive hit, far greater than the US — who actually benefited in the end in every possible sense. But that only makes sense, since they were the country being attacked, not us. Terrible comparison ahead: It would be like saying that Kuwait did more for the Gulf War than the US, because they took a greater hit economically and militarily. Of course they did; they were our ally, and we helped them out. What do you expect?

Now, I’m a well-known Anglophile, so anything I say is suspect. But I am an American, and I agree with David S. It wasn’t our war, at least not until December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States.

The evacuation from DunkirkBut this argument avoids the main point of my post: in an important sense, it wasn’t really Britain’s war, either. Especially after Dunkirk, when Britain lay exposed and vulnerable, it was not in the British national interest to continue the conflict. Only the Royal Air Force and the English Channel stood between Britain and the full might of the Wehrmacht.

All the back-and-forth about whether the Dominion troops or the British troops won the major battles — or whether the bleedin’ Poms were a treacherous bunch of no-goods — avoids the question of why the British, the Dominions, and all their colonial subjects were in the war in the first place.
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The British national interest did not require it. Treaty obligations with Poland didn’t have to be honored in 1939 any more than the pact with the Czechs had been observed in 1938. Some rationale could have been cooked up by the cynical wallahs in Whitehall that would have justified selling out the Poles, the French, and anyone else. The Frogs got themselves into this mess; let them get themselves out.

It was well known that Hitler respected the British, and had no desire to go to war with them. Despite the fact that the Anglo-Saxons had allowed the race to become tainted with the base blood of the Celts, Hitler still considered the British to be honorary Germans, worthy of taking their place alongside the Herrenvolk.

After Dunkirk, and after the Battle of Britain, the Germans still hoped for a negotiated deal with the British, one that would leave the Empire and the Royal Navy intact, as long as the Nazis were allowed a free hand on the Continent and in the East.

So why didn’t the British take the deal? It was a pretty good one, and the cynical calculations of statecraft should have compelled them to grab it.

But they didn’t. Opinion among the British wasn’t unanimous, and there were strong factions that pushed for reaching an accommodation with the Germans. Yet Churchill decided to continue the war, even without the help of the United States.

Long after the war, when the archives were opened and all the Cabinet minutes were revealed, it became clear that Churchill knew what the future of Britain was likely to be: bankruptcy, loss of the Empire, and reduced circumstances for the foreseeable future. He turned out to be right on all counts.

So why did they do it?

When you read about the private conversations that took place at the time — not the public pronouncements, and not the justifications cooked up after the fact — it’s clear that the senior statesman and decision-makers of Britain decided to continue the fight because it was the right thing to do. Not that it was in the interests of Britain, not because it would serve them well electorally or that they or their friends would make a profit out of it, but simply because it was the right thing to do. Any other course was unthinkable.

And that’s why the British deserve to be cut some slack, no matter how many times the treacherous bastards sold someone down the river or failed to keep a promise. They could have ducked the war with the Nazis, but they didn’t.

Nations don’t have permanent friends; they only have permanent interests. But that’s not an absolute rule, and the leaders of nations don’t always follow it.

The United States behaved the same way before we entered the war. Roosevelt helped the British out behind the scenes, bucking a strong segment of public opinion (not to mention the Congress), not because it was in America’s interest, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. The commercial advantages of the deal with Britain don’t explain everything that Roosevelt did.

When a nation enters a war for reasons other than its national interest, the results can be catastrophic. It’s still arguable that the United States should have avoided fighting in either of the World Wars. And it’s also arguable that Britain would have been well-advised to cut a deal with Hitler.

Was it really a good idea for the leaders of Britain to do as they did? In another two or three centuries, historians may be able to give a cold-eyed answer to the question.

But it will probably be written in Arabic or Chinese.


ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ said...

"...It’s still arguable that the United States should have avoided fighting in either of the World Wars. And it’s also arguable that Britain would have been well-advised to cut a deal with Hitler."

These arguments are not persuasive. The national interests of both Britain and the US more or less coincided in that any power threatening hegemony on the continent of Europe clearly threatened the vital interests of both English speaking nations. FDR, for all his failings was aware of this as was Churchill. Nations that fail to defend their vital national interests do not survive. The "right thing to do" will invariably be overly costly in terms of blood and treasure e.g. "building democracy" in Iraq after the real objective of removing the threat of Saddam was accomplished.

Baron Bodissey said...

leonidas --

You could be right about the interests of the U.S. But the British were allowing their national wealth and their empire to be destroyed, and they knew it. The course they took did not preserve their hegemony; it ended it.

Or, more accurately, they passed it on to the United States. They knew what they were doing; perhaps, seeing that the Empire could not be saved, they calculated the interests of the English-speaking people, rather than those of Britain alone.

It's not quite altruism, but it's more than self-interest.

El Jefe Maximo said...

My apologies for being behind the curve on your argument...and I'll get back to this when I can. But my short take on this is that WW II was our war...had to be our war, and that odds were good it would be our war from the moment France went under.

Had Hitler had the good sense to not invade Russia...or at least delay that for awhile, his war with Britain might well have petered-out. He could then have taken a couple of provinces off France and had at Russia later. Thank God he was clueless.

Now WW I...was not our war, and I'd argue we were foolish to have gotten into that one.

Baron Bodissey said...

Mustard --

Too right about Sweden. I have some dirt about them and the Soviets during the cold war that I hope to be posting on indue course.

Vicktorya said...

color me simplistic, but this is the only part that rings true to me, in any war:

" ... it’s clear that the senior statesman and decision-makers of [XYZ country] decided to continue the fight because it was the right thing to do. Not that it was in the interests of XYZ, not because it would serve them well electorally or that they or their friends would make a profit out of it, but simply because it was the right thing to do. Any other course was unthinkable."

This is not hyperbole, Americana, Anglophileness or anything else less than, but, simply, there are (obvious to me, and thank god, to Statesmen,) when, The Right Thing To Do, is unavoidable imperative.

Tin Foil Hat Guy -- great to read your post, and as well, "I marvel at how anyone can literally have their lives handed back to them at the expense of someone elses' lives and treasure and then find fault in their rescuer for not coming soon enough rather than not at all. How can you bitch about what your own life cost you versus what your life cost your friends??? ... Amazing..."

And, I do not decry my own ability to 'not even care' if gratitude is not forthcoming. One does 'what is right' because, simply, it is so. That can never be based upon something that isn't at the core of what is true, what is real, what is eternal, in mankind -- beyond any national borders or ideologies. Sometimes you just know, and DO IT, because 'saving' and 'helping' is obviously right and necessary.

If the fireman steps on someone scrambling to get out of the burning building in the smokey dark, and breaks their hand, in efforts to save the screaming baby -- do we sue him because he didn't come sooner, or didn't step more carefully?

Yes, amazing in ingratitude demonstrated,
and amazing in the continuing ability for men to do what is right,
regardless of outcome,
the intention is true.
in any war, declared or not, or any peacetime situation, action is called for.

Asger Trier Engberg said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the moral argument.

But there might be another aspect to the discussion. I have reflected a bit on the "lets drink beer and eat meat" discussion. My personal feeling was a kind of kindship - I could really see myself sitting in that bar, or joining that barbecue.

This kind of amazed me, because honestly, I know very little about Texas or England. And then all of a sudden, the things people do in places so far away seem quite natural.

There is a spirit that is somehow common - and it beats me why it is like that.

The way I feel when someone threatens someone i know - I rush out to help, and fight their fights. Otherwise you would be bad friend.

So perhaps this is also a part of the reason why we are not backing down in the fight in Afganistan and Irak.

Someone threatened a friend of ours, and we try to help out.

And basically because, otherwise there would no possibility to have those beers at that barbecue, with our friends.

Clovis Sangrail said...

I've read some interesting opinions and some real rubbish in the comments above. But to chime in a little with David S., I think it was both Britain and America's war for the simple reason that if they'd stood back and allowed fascism to take over Europe, they would not have been Britain and the US any more.

Oh, the shells would have been there, rather like those substantial things you find on the seashore. But, just like them, the stench of decay would soon have become overpowering. In the long run, the smell of dead fish goes. The smell of decaying fundamental principles is eliminated only by the demise of the civilization in question.

ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ said...

"...The course they took did not preserve their hegemony; it ended it."

The British have never enjoyed a hegemonic position on the European Continent. Their historic role has been as a balancer by opposing any power threatening European hegemony. For that reason they have alternated their support between Germany and France. Their empire was becoming an economic liability by the beginning of the 20th century and the dominions were reduced to the chief role of supplying cannon fodder. The technological revolution of 20th century warfare reduced the efficacy of massive military formations and so the dominions could be granted "commonwealth" status. In the words of Professor Hans Morgenthau: "Nation states do not have friends. They only share identities of interest. Any foreign policy based on morality to the ignorance of national interest is doomed to failure." The glaring example of such a suicidal policy during the 20th century is that of Woodrow Wilson whose insistence at Varsailles on the "14 points" assured that WW I was only the first act of the the tragic carnage of WW II.

Baron Bodissey said...

David S. --

I simply cannot believe that anyone but the moonbats would think that it was possible that Britain and the Nazis could have had a lasting peace.

Then you haven't read in depth the internal disputes within Britain's leadership, or the discussions within Hitler's inner circle. Hitler had allways thought that the Germans and the British (as a mostly Germanic race) should rule the world side-by-side, with the Germans taking care of the French, the Jews, the Slavs, etc., while Britain tackled all the fuzzy-wuzzies in hot foreign climes. Hitler could never understand why the Brits didn't see his point.

Within the British leadership there were people who thought that Britain had no business worrying about the Jews or allying with Communists, and that Hitler had a point, even if he was an intemperate chap in some of his methods.

If this faction had gained the upper hand, it would have found an eager ear in Hitler. Any nasty confrontation between Britain and Germany could have been postponed for a decade or more while the Germans destroyed the Soviets and occupied their Lebensraum in the East.

No, it could have happened that way, if the British had been as cynical and ruthless as the Germans. The denouement could have been postponed, and the final outcome -- who knows? It would have depended on the U.S. and Japan and lots of other factors that are hard to follow down the parallel timelines into an alternate universe.

James Higham said...

A limey weighs in ... the Russkies said they did it all, the Brits say if they hadn't held the fort, the Yanks would have nothing to come over and win any more. The Yanks say they were the key to victory. If you modify the Russkies a little and replace 'it all' with 'most of it', you'd have it about right. This is why we were called ALLIES. Friends - even if you did take our women.

Yorkshireminer said...

While agreeing with you Baron that morally America did not have to enter the war, from a pure strategical point of view it made dam good sense for America to help Britain. If we had lost in 1940 and we had been occupied the consequences for America would have been catastrophic. The productive power of the British Economy would have been placed in the hands of Hitler plus all of the middle east with its oil wells and most of our colonies in Africa with there supply of raw materials. America at that time was well blessed it was basically self sufficient only about 2% of its Gross National product came from external trade. One wonders if America would have tolerated the Germans marching into the Belgium Congo taking over its Copper Cobalt and Uranium mines, or marching into South Africa to take over its Gold mines. These actions would have certainly been construed as hostile to Americas safety. America might have entered the war earlier than they did to forestall a Nazi Germany making use of all these newly acquired assets. Britain was America's first line of defence in exactly the way Israel is Europe's first line of defence now. It seems that most of our politician here in Europe still don't realise it yet. Luckily both of our countries had leaders who realised this. Churchill on entering the cabinet as first Lord of the Admiralty kept up a very lively correspondence with Roosevelt keeping him very well informed about what was going on, and Roosevelt knew what to expect if Hitler won, as he had a phycological profile of of Hitler commissioned right at the beginning of the war. Yes there were offers of peace were made during the fall of Dunkirk made through Mussolini Churchill rejected them at a full cabinet meeting the cabinet cheered him. He wrote later “There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation I should have been hurled out of Office.” I think here we have a man who was following not leading his country. His character his common decency, and moral fearlessness, made him reject the offer but it is obvious from what he said that he would have been hurled from office if he had done otherwise. He epitomised the way the country felt. I believe when it comes down to the nitty gritty these moral values define what we are fighting for, and without these we are lost. We will have to rediscover these values and be just as ruthless and purposeful in carrying out our aims as we were in the second world war, if we are to win the war against islam.

Papa Ray said...

As Emerson said: "The only way to have a friend is to be one."

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

A British blog the other day referred to the idea that controlling the 'center of gravity' of Europe between Russia and Germany meant control of Europe still today, historically a concern presaging a potential loss of the British Empire. The British 'rich man didn't want to go through the eye of this needle' and built alliances to create a 'balance of power' to keep a rational Germany from going there. When the Kaiser decided the 'right thing to do' was to put down Serbian anarchism, this started the clock on WWI. Calculations related to excessive fondness for the Empire and superiority over the Germans set in train the diminishment of European civilization.

Baron Bodissey said...


My contention is that Germany, at least for a time, would have been willing to allow Britain to maintain her empire (provided she could keep the Japanese from wresting it completely from her). This was not a geopolitical calculation on Hitler's part, it was a romantic and racial issue; the Anglo-Saxons were worthy partners, almost as good as the Volk. Hitler really did believe that before the War.

In the long run, who knows what would have happened? But, given the reality of what they were facing at the end of 1940, a cold and cynical calculation by the British should have at least made them consider the possibility.

As several commenters have mentioned, they didn't do it because it would have been morally wrong, and that the leaders would have been rejected by the electorate (assuming that Britain lasted long enough to have more elections) if they did.

That was the point I was trying to make, or at least trying to gesture towards. There is such as thing as a national character, and it does not always lead to the calculation of national interest. Sometimes a country just collectively decides to do what it considers right, and take the consequences.

If we Americans ever face as dire a peril as the British did in June of 1940, we'll find out if we have any moral fiber of our own.

Clovis Sangrail said...

To second what the Baron says: the point I was trying to make earlier is that you go against the national character at your peril. Too big a compromise with that character is so against the national interest that it outwighs almost any material consideration.

Panday said...


I'm not sure why you think it wasn't Britain's conflict, either. Hitler attacked in July of 1940, just a month after Dunkirk. Churchill saw that he faced two options: fight, or cut a deal. The latter would have led to Britain's certain subjugation either through a quick Operation Sea Lion or through a graudual diminishing.

Proximity to Nazi Europe made it Britain's conflict.