WWII’s winners and losers

Books | A moral appraisal of the 20th century’s greatest conflict
by Victor Davis Hanson
Posted 9/08/18, 01:09 pm

If you read only one new book on the greatest conflict of the last century, Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars—plural—should be it. It made our 2017 Books of the Year short list in the History category because Hanson’s expertise about both ancient Greece and modern war allowed him present a comprehensive look at wars against Germany and Japan on land, at sea, and in the air that were largely distinct.

Hanson brilliantly shows that once the wars became global, Germany and Japan had nothing to look forward to except utter destruction. He also shows how all the technical innovations—saturation bombing, rockets, aircraft carriers, massive tank envelopments—didn’t change fundamentals of barbarity or geography.

In the following excerpt, courtesy of Basic Books, Hanson reviews how the wars ended and notes that Germany and Japan had “gambled that they had more to gain than to lose in an otherwise unwise aggressive war. … The ensuing conflict could only end when the aggressors were beaten in every respect, occupied, and humiliated.” —Marvin Olasky

At home, the Allied wartime propaganda of fighting for the freedom of the individual was a chit that had to be redeemed, if only superficially, when hostilities ended. The ensuing movements for civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities, and for greater equality for women, began not just from vast changes in the wartime social and commercial fabric of America—among them a growing economy—but also from the arguments that a victorious American democracy had advanced in justifying its cause.

The war led to a new American engagement abroad. The United States spearheaded NATO and its lesser Pacific imitations, and began to intervene routinely around the world to shore up anticommunist and sometimes authoritarian regimes, as if engagement in the 1950s would not repeat the mistakes of what followed from the isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s. If stopping the Axis had saved the world, so too halting Stalinist communism was seen as crucial to rebuilding it. American isolationism of the prewar era was a victim of victory. So too was chronic worry about the resurgence of economic depression. Much of the world after 1945 lay in ruins. All the old industrial powers of France, Germany, Japan, and Russia had been bombed, looted, or occupied. The new economic Tigers of the twenty-first century—China, South Korea, and Taiwan—did not yet exist. America’s only major competitor, Great Britain, turned inward, nationalizing much of its economy at home and dismantling its presence abroad. In such a commercial and security void, the United States for two decades after the war supplied the world with food, material and industrial goods, capital, and new products, and thus grew economically as never before. From 1945 to 1970, the United States usually ran a surplus balance of payments, but almost never after that.

If stopping the Axis had saved the world, so too halting Stalinist communism was seen as crucial to rebuilding it.

The claims of the high-minded success of World War II were often juxtaposed to the complexity of the Cold War. The hardships of a Depression-era and war-fighting generation often were forgotten or underappreciated amid the postwar affluence and leisure of its progeny, an incongruity of outlooks labeled a “Generation Gap” in the decades following the war. To a more-affluent generation, that America had once fought the good fight seemed to suggest that it somehow could and should have waged the perfect fight in World War II.

In the end, Americans, who could not settle on much else, agreed that in World War II its greatest generation of leaders—Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Stimson, Omar Bradley, George Patton, Chester Nimitz, Douglas MacArthur, and others—saved the country and perhaps civilization as well from the Axis, and created democracy in the political systems of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the countries that had once set the world on fire.

GREAT BRITAIN’S GREATEST CONTRIBUTIONS to the Allied effort were moral as well as material. Without its successful solitary resistance against Germany and Italy from June 25, 1940, until June 22, 1941, the war would have either been lost or not waged at all. Alone of all six belligerents, it fought the war from its very beginning in September 1939 to its final end in September 1945. That said, the various blitzes and German rocket attacks that hit the homeland killed over fifty thousand British subjects as the earlier violence of the trenches had not. The United States bore the greater financial and material cost in the struggle against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yet in key areas—cryptography, radar, antisubmarine tactics, strategic bombing, and grand strategy—Britain’s earlier experience in the war saved the Americans thousands of lives. Winston Churchill’s refusal to deal with Hitler—when the Third Reich ruled Europe, allied itself with the Soviet Union, and was not at war with America—kept resistance to Nazism alive. Great Britain’s defiance would eventually turn Hitler eastward to commit the greatest blunder of the war.

For a variety of reasons, wartime British industry, which had so often outproduced both German and Japanese munitions, in the postwar era gradually lagged behind both rebuilt economies, not always out of necessity but also due to poor economic policy. Countries of the old Axis found advantages in restarting their postwar economies ex nihilo. Britain was stuck with the consequences of victory.1

During the 1944 and 1945 Allied summits, American diplomats, especially in the case of Roosevelt during the Yalta Conference, occasionally played Churchill off against Stalin to tweak the British. American generals resented being treated in condescending fashion by British political and military leaders, as if they were playing Roman centurions to their British would-be Athenian-robed philosophers.2

The State Department felt that astute British worries about Stalin’s plans for Eastern Europe were mostly nineteenth-century Great Game melodramas. Roosevelt, for example, unlike Churchill, was determined to suppress the truth of the spring 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, worried that Polish-Americans might draw the incorrect conclusions about the wartime alliance with the USSR. He also assumed that there was a moral equivalence between British imperialism and Soviet communism, and perhaps even thought that the former was by design exploitive but the latter was an idealism gone wrong. The British ethos after the war was perhaps best summed up (oddly in the midst of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) by the British ambassador to the United States, Sir David Ormsby-Gore: “In the end it may well be that Britain will be honored by the historians more for the way she deposed of an empire than for the way in which she acquired it.”3

Britain’s earlier experience in the war saved the Americans thousands of lives.

American postwar military and economic aid, while generous to both friends and former enemies, focused as much on the defeated in Europe and Asia as on the exhausted British ally. The postwar appraisal of Stalin’s aggression lagged behind in the United States and needed Winston Churchill’s landmark 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, to begin to see the realities of the ideological struggles ahead. Perhaps not until the United States inherited the British responsibilities of a global watchdog in the late 1940s did America fully appreciate Britain’s paradoxes as a former global power between keeping order and promoting justice.4

Soon the Americans, with the zealotry of converts, pushed Cold War containment far more vigorously than the less materially equipped British. World War I had ended the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. World War II finished Britain’s and birthed new Soviet and American successors. For all its worries of preserving imperial majesty, Britain nonetheless fought World War II to destroy Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese militarists rather than to attempt to accommodate fascism with its own imperial agendas.

In terms of combined air, naval, land, and industrial power, the smallest of the three major Allies proved stronger than any of the Axis powers. If Britain lost its global role in the postwar years, this was as much due to social changes as to the consequences of blood and treasure lost in World War II.

THE SOVIET UNION WAS BOTH the biggest loser and the greatest winner of the war. It suffered the most dead—somewhere near twenty-seven million lives—of any Axis or Allied power. Much of its land and many cities from occupied Poland to the Volga were ruined, even as the Soviet Union reached its apex after the war, with acquisitions in the Baltic states, in southern Finland, and its vast new protectorate in Eastern Europe.

Millions of postwar Russians were without basic housing and secure food supplies. Soviet industry remained warped by wartime exigencies. The Great Patriotic War saved the reputation of Stalinism for another generation, but with catastrophic consequences for the millions who survived the war and were forced to live under it. As a result of the Cold War and the odious nature of Stalinism, the Soviet war effort was often not given full credit in the anticommunist West for its near-virtuoso destruction of the German army. But on balance, the wartime alliance also tended to downplay the fact that the horrific waste of Russian manpower was often due to the savagery of Stalin’s leadership or the incompetence in 1941 of his generals.

The war, then, left both the Russians and the world at large confused by the Soviet Union’s record of both heroism and duplicity. Stalin had once been both Hitler’s greatest asset and his worst enemy, the salvation of the West during war and its existential enemy in peace. No other country lost so many of its own to Germany or killed so many Germans. No nation’s army fought so ineptly and so brilliantly, and sacrificed millions of its own to kill millions of Germans.

Stalin had once been both Hitler’s greatest asset and his worst enemy, the salvation of the West during war and its existential enemy in peace.

In the postwar world, the country that had produced Katyusha rockets and the T-34 tanks that bested the Wehrmacht’s Tigers and Panthers could never create anything for its own consumers approaching the craftsmanship or quality of a Mercedes-Benz or BMW automobile, much less millions of quality GE refrigerators and ranges. The Allies had won the war in part because the industrial might of the Soviet Union equipped a vast army of millions with thousands of simple, durable, and superb tanks, artillery, and rockets. After the war, these munitions flooded Cold War battlegrounds from Korea to Budapest and ensured that they were as much a bane to the West as they had once been a boon.

The human paradoxes were even greater. Russia helped to save the Allied cause by its great sacrifices. Yet the Allied war effort to defeat Germany saved communism. The Soviet cities of Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad—unlike Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Copenhagen, and Paris—were never taken by the Germans, but they suffered more death and destruction in their survival than all of those in the West had in their capture. All of these incongruities logically followed from the most profound irony: the war against fascism was won only with the help of the greatest totalitarian power of all. After 1945, attempting to reason with Stalin to allow national self-determination and autonomy made about as much sense as trying to convince Hitler to stop at the Anschluss or with Czechoslovakia.

WITH THE ATLANTIC CHARTER, the rationale of the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials, and the promise of a United Nations, the Allies had created exalted moral expectations. Yet keeping to the highest moral ground in World War II had proved impossible for at least two reasons— aside from the inclusion of the totalitarian Soviet Union on the Allied side—that have complicated most moral appraisals of the war for the last eight decades.

First, the demand for unconditional surrender—a historically rare objective of most wars—required a level of violence unforeseen in the modern era, given the zeal, resources, and combined population of over 200 million in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Area, incendiary, and atomic bombing largely killed civilians. Indeed, far more German and Japanese noncombatants died than their British or American civilian counterparts. The logical argument that a belligerent’s civilian casualties were tied to the savagery of its own military resonated only during the war.

Later, self-critical, affluent, and leisured citizens of the democracies asked why their fathers had killed more German and Japanese civilians than the latter had killed noncombatant British and Americans. A new postmodern idea of “proportionality” arose in the West (but certainly not in China and Russia), suggesting that in war the defender should seek to pay back aggressors with no more lethal force than was originally used against it. The classical idea that invaders are only permanently stopped by military defeat, occupation, humiliation, and a forced change in their politics appeared Roman and at odds with the evolving ethical professions of the West. The old unapologetic classical defenses of disproportionality— “they started it; we finished it” or “we killed more of them, to save more of us and ours” or “they will never try that again”—seemed vacuous to generations that had not survived a torpedoed Liberty ship in the icy Atlantic, parachuted out from a flaming B-17 over Schweinfurt, seen the ovens at Buchenwald, or fought at Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa. Stranger still, in discussions of Allied bombing, few note that the losing Axis powers inflicted 80 percent of the fatalities of World War II—the vast majority of them unarmed civilians.

Keeping to the highest moral ground in World War II had proved impossible for at least two reasons … that have complicated most moral appraisals of the war for the last eight decades.

Second, the postwar Allies became captive of their own self-professed idealism. Britain fought as an imperial power that sought to liberate Nazi-occupied nations and give them free elections, a liberality it had not yet extended to its own restless colonies from India to Africa. The United States went to war to extinguish fascist racism and brutality unleashed against those not considered members of the various Axis master races. Yet, the US military itself was a semi-apartheid force, in which blacks could not serve as equals to their white fellow citizens—a reflection of the segregation that plagued much of contemporary America in the 1940s, most prominently in the Old South.

The Anglo-Americans did not present well the more nuanced argument that they were evolving democratic societies, whose natural postwar trajectories would lead to greater self-determination abroad and political equality at home. Such subtleties are difficult to articulate at any time and perhaps impossible in the middle of existential wars. But the resulting reticence to deal with these issues set up the victors as easy targets of national liberationist invective in the decades that followed 1945 and have still fueled constant revisionism about the moral foundations of World War II.

THE PROPER MORAL APPRAISAL of World War II is not as nuanced as we sometimes are led to believe. Aggressive fascist powers began hostilities with unprovoked assaults during peace as the logical consequence of their own ideologies; the only common bond that held together the diverse Allies was that almost all had been surprise attacked at some point by Axis powers. As a general rule, during the war the Axis were far more likely to commit genocide and institutionalized savagery and brutality than the Allies. All other things being equal, third parties by 1943 had preferred to be liberated by the Allies than to continue to be occupied by the Axis. The attacked Allies responded with terrible retribution masked in liberationist idealism, aimed at destroying, not defeating, fascism, without much worry what the likely consequences of their disparate alliance would mean for the postwar world. For the victors, the way the war was fought and ended was not perfect, but just good enough, given the alternative world of a horrifying Axis victory.

World War II was novel in its industrial barbarity and unprecedented lethal consequences, but it was also a traditional Western conflict in that it broke out when the Allies in the late 1930s and early 1940s lost a sense of the power of deterrence. The Axis then gambled that they had more to gain than to lose in an otherwise unwise aggressive war, and that they could defeat or intimidate into submission their stronger enemies before they could unite, rearm, and mobilize. The ensuing conflict could only end when the aggressors were beaten in every respect, occupied, and humiliated—and they were in fact so defeated due to brilliant Allied leadership, wise industrial policy, technological ingenuity, and the morale of righteously aggrieved peoples.

Peace of a sort returned, as it always had in the West, when the fog of death cleared.

Peace of a sort returned, as it always had in the West, when the fog of death cleared. Deterrence, a balance of power, and alliances more or less kept the global postwar calm in a way that supranational bodies tragically could not. As General George Patton publicly lamented during the last days of the war in Europe in his desire to keep the US military well equipped, “nobody can prevent another war. There will be wars as long as our great-great-grandchildren live. The only thing we can do is to produce a longer peace phase between wars.”5

The tragedy of World War II—a preventable conflict—was that sixty million people had perished to confirm that the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were far stronger than the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy after all—a fact that should have been self-evident and in no need of such a bloody laboratory, if not for prior British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration.

From The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won by Victor Davis Hanson. Copyright © 2017. Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


1. Eden, Eden Memoirs: The Reckoning, 11. Appeasement of the 1930s: Weinberg, World at Arms, 22–39; Thornton, Wages of Appeasement, 78–88. Overy, Origins of the Second World War, 2–3. On Versailles: Blainey, Causes of War, 15–16, 262–263; Steiner, Triumph of the Dark, 345. On the reactions to appeasement and dogged Allied determination that World War II would end differently from World War I, see Weinberg, Visions of Victory, 149–150, 178–180. Cf. also, O’Connor, Diplomacy for Victory, passim.

2. Cf. Fuller, Second World War, 18–27.

3. A.J. Liebling, “Paris Postscript,” The New Yorker Book of War Pieces, 49 (August 3/10, 1940). Aeschylus quote (fragment no. 394 in Sommerstein, ed., Aeschylus Fragments, 328–329) preserved in Stobaeus, Anthology 3.27.2.

4. See August 22, 1939, in International Military Tribunal, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. 3, 582. Halifax: A. Roberts, Holy Fox, 406–408. Eden’s anecdote: Eden, Eden Memoirs: The Reckoning, 37. Hitler’s assurance: Baynes, ed., Speeches of Adolf Hitler, Vol. II, 1181.

5. Weinberg, World at Arms, 6–20; cf. 536–586. Cf. Taylor, Origins of the Second World War, 19–22; Kagan, Origins of War, 285–297.

Victor Davis Hanson
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