Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
No, I’m not turning away from my faith in Jesus, which began when I reached the ripe old age of 36, back in early 2004. The religion that I’m losing is the American religion that might be called “We Won The War.”
This may be a troubling post for some of you. I’m pretty confident that I would have found it very troubling and offensive, myself, about five to ten years ago. I’d appreciate a critique of these thoughts.
So, back to “We Won The War.” I take this phrase from a 2018 book by Peter Hitchens called The Phoney Victory. I highly recommend it. Peter Hitchens is the younger brother of the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens. Like his brother, Peter was a Marxist in his youth, of the Trotskyite variety, but unlike his brother, Peter ultimately turned to conservatism and Christianity. He has an interesting story, told in more detail in another book, The Rage Against God.
Peter Hitchens writes about the British version of this religion or mythology, “We Won The War.” It comes complete with a Savior, Winston Churchill, and an antichrist, Adolph Hitler. Looking back, it seems that I was raised in this religion. Interestingly, for me, even the American version identified Churchill, rather than FDR, as the Savior. In my case, I was such a big fan of Churchill that I read and re-read his Memoirs of the Second World War, his book about WWI (The World Crisis), and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
Today, I’m inclined to view Churchill as a brilliant propagandist. This has led me to question many of the WWI and WWII narratives that Churchill promoted.
I think that the narrative starts with the idea of German guilt for WWI, which I now view as quite misplaced. The work of recent WWI historians like Michael Neiberg and Christopher Clark has been particularly significant for me on this issue. (Both have excellent lectures available on YouTube, if you’re interested.) My current view is that Russia is principally to blame for the expansion of the war, which otherwise would have been a localized Balkan conflict between Austria and Serbia. The Austrians mobilized first, against Serbia, and then the Russians mobilized against both Austria and Germany.
It may seem strange that Germany responded to Russian mobilization by attacking France, but this was strategically understandable, as Russia and France were allied against Germany. Technically, as far as anyone knew, the Russo-French alliance was defensive only, so France was not obligated to join in Russia’s war against Germany. But: (1) Germany had no way to know whether there was a secret agreement, and (2) in any event, it would have been very risky for France to allow Russia to face the Germans and Austrians alone, as a Russian defeat would leave France vulnerable.
So, in August 1914, the Germans launched a massive assault on France, hoping to drive France out of the war. The Germans succeeded with this strategy in 1870 and 1940, but not in 1914.
Britain’s entry into the war is also questionable. If I remember correctly, Niall Ferguson wrote a book (The Pity of War) placing blame for WWI on the British, for intervening unnecessarily. I don’t place the bulk of the blame on Britain, but I do agree that British involvement further expanded the conflict, and probably made it more difficult to settle. It also led to dubious British actions like the starvation blockade of Germany, an action generally considered to be something akin to a war crime at the time.
The US entry into the war was odd, though the Germans didn’t help themselves with the absurd Zimmerman Telegram. (The Zimmerman Telegram, for those not familiar with this particular historical tidbit, was a telegram from Germany to Mexico seeking an alliance against the US, and offering Mexico recovery of US territory in the southwest taken by the US in the 1840s.)
Wilson campaigned in 1916 on his success in keeping us out of the war, then plunged us into the war in 1917, and compounded the problem with his unrealistic ideas about the shape of a post-WWI Europe.
The Russians, of course, collapsed into an eventual Communist revolution, and lost huge territories in the east to Germany. Germany, though, was defeated in the west, in large part due to the pressure of the British starvation blockade, and also due to the US entry into the war. I think that there is some justice in the German claim that they were misled into a cease-fire based on some fairly mild terms (or rhetoric) offered by Wilson, while the actual Treaty of Versailles was more punitive than the Germans had some right to expect.
The worst part, though, was the collapse of the imperial system in eastern Europe, which had been pretty stable for about a century (aside from the catastrophe of WWI, of course). The victorious Western Allies declared the principle of the “self-determination of peoples,” and carved a variety of small, largely defenseless nations out of the former territories of the Austrian, Russian, and German empires. (Less from the Germans than the others, though it did include that Danzig corridor that so annoyed them later.)
Worse still, once the principle of “self-determination” was established, the Germans would naturally expect this to apply to them, as well. Austria sought to unite with Germany, an action that the Western Allies would not allow, and there were significant German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland. This set the stage for Hitler’s actions in the years preceding WWII.
Hitler is often portrayed as a madman. I don’t see any madness in his plan. It was ruthless. He accurately perceived a problem faced by the German nation: inadequate natural resources, especially farmland and oil. He targeted Ukraine and the Caucasus as the regions that could satisfy these requirements. Conveniently, these areas were ruled by the horrid Soviets, so Hitler might have expected relatively little objection from the West.
Not so, as it turned out, though the British and French were slow to react to Hitler’s initial moves. I think that the legitimate German grievances relating to the post-WWI borders of the newly-created Poland and Czechoslovakia explains much of this British and French reticence to act, through the Munich Conference in 1938.
The fate of Czechoslovakia is more complex than it is typically portrayed (though to his credit, Churchill does point out the connivance of Poland). After the agreed German annexation of the Sudetenland, both Poland and Hungary took chunks out of Czechoslovakia, and then Slovakia declared independence. Hitler then moved into the power vacuum in the rump Czech state, and ended up forming alliances with Slovakia and Hungary.
I have come to view the British guarantee to Poland, shortly in advance of the German invasion in 1939, as a bizarre action. Hitchens makes this point, at length, in The Phoney Victory. The British and French had no practical way to defend Poland, and it’s hard to see why they thought that it was very important. Poland had been partitioned between the Germans, Russians, and Austrians for about a century before WWI. Poland was in the path of Hitler’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union, which was hardly a secret after the publication of Mein Kampf.
So why was Britain — and especially Churchill — so keen to defend Poland? It drew them into a disastrous war, which resulted in British bankruptcy and the loss of the Empire. What was the point? To defend Stalin? Stalin, by the way, ended up as the major victor of WWII.
Many of Hitler’s outrages seem to have flowed from this British decision. The French joined the British, but my impression is that the British were leading the way. I don’t see any reason for Hitler to have invaded Denmark, or Norway, or the Low Countries, or France, absent the foolish guarantee to Poland and the Anglo-French declarations of war on Germany. (It appears that Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway to forestall British efforts to cut off Swedish iron shipments via Norway’s coastal waters, which led the British to commit an act of war by mining the territorial waters of then-neutral Norway.)
Hitchens reports something that I don’t recall reading or hearing before, about the American attitude toward Britain at the start of WWII. Apparently, we were quite annoyed at the British for having defaulted on their WWI debt. We agreed to supply Britain and France in their war with Hitler’s Germany, but demanded cash payment — and gold — right up until a de facto bankruptcy hearing for the British Empire before our Secretary of the Treasury. Confident that the British had paid us all that they could, we then adopted Lend-Lease and started supplying arms and war material to Germany’s enemies.
Gee, I wonder why Hitler ended up being annoyed at us?
Then there’s Japan’s war in China. Japan was bogged down in a land war in China for years, and we were making good money on the consequent trade, especially in oil. But for some reason, FDR decided that we couldn’t stand for Japan to rule part of China. You know, much the way that we were then ruling the Philippines. So FDR embargoed oil sales (and other exports) to Japan, an action that would cripple the Japanese war effort.
I don’t recall reading or hearing an analysis of the response that FDR’s administration expected from the Japanese. It should have been pretty obvious that the Japanese would need an alternative source of oil, conveniently available to them in the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya, which were virtually defenseless at the time. (The Dutch had been conquered by the Germans, and the British had their hands full fighting the Germans and the Italians.) A Japanese attack toward the East Indies, though, would open the Japanese flank to American forces in the Philippines, a risky move for the Japanese. So it seems, to me, that it should have been no surprise for the Japanese to conclude that the least-bad of their options was an attack on the US. This was provoked by FDR, in violation of the principle of free trade declared by FDR himself in the Atlantic Charter, just a few months earlier in August 1941.
Further, what was the uniting factor behind our eventual Axis opponents, Germany, Italy, and Japan? They were part of the Anti-Comintern Pact, an alliance specifically aimed at the tyrannical and potentially expansionist Soviet Union. Why would Britain — or the US — want to take the Soviet side in such a conflict?
I’ve rambled for quite a while here. This is all pretty complicated, I think, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the events leading to the two catastrophic wars of the 20th Century.
The story that we’re taught, though, is very simple. Hitler was a madman and a monster, launching wars of “aggression.” So was Mussolini, in a smaller and more contemptible way. Why, Mussolini had the temerity to conquer Ethiopia, outraging the British and the French. That’s right, the British and the French, who between them ruled just about all of the rest of Africa at the time. Let’s not forget Japan, portrayed as a Yellow Menace that was somehow going to be invading California soon, and which supposedly attacked us for absolutely no reason.
It is interesting to see people objecting to Putin’s potentially cutting off supplies of oil and gas to Europe, a tactic apparently considered perfectly fine when we did it to Japan in 1941.
They were evil, we were good. The brave British, especially, were good, led by the indomitable Savior Churchill. You know, the Churchill who imposed the starvation blockade on the Germans in WWI. The Churchill whose failed Dardanelles campaign aimed at the massive naval bombardment of the Turkish civilian population of Istanbul. The Churchill who illegally mined those Norwegian territorial waters, then expressed outrage at the German invasion that this triggered. The Churchill who presided over the deliberate terror-bombing of women and children in German cities.
I’m not claiming that the Axis were a bunch of great guys. They did terrible things. So did our side, which included Stalin’s Evil Empire. War is hell.
There’s no changing the past. We might be able to learn a lesson, and the lesson that I’ve come to learn is the wisdom of our Founders, who cautioned against involvement in foreign wars. They are costly in blood and treasure. We often have little understanding of the cultures and nations involved, but are inclined to want to force our ways on them. Perhaps worst of all, if we take sides and help one side win — the Soviets in WWII, for example — we might find out that they are just about as bad as the side that we opposed.
Moreover, the policy of “unconditional surrender” adopted in WWII eliminated three major checks on Soviet expansionism, placing the burden of the Cold War on us. In hindsight, this seems like a bad decision.
It is impossible to be certain of the outcome of various alternative choices. If Britain had not guaranteed Poland, what would have happened? If we had not supplied Britain and the Soviets, or had not embargoed Japan, what would have happened?
My impression is that the general answer is something like: Germany and Japan would have conquered the world, and would have come after us. Something like the premise of the Amazon series The Man in the High Tower.
I’ve come to doubt that this is true, and even to view it as a bit paranoid. There are precious few examples of successful conquest of this type. Most of the time, a conqueror becomes bogged down pacifying the territory it has occupied, and the occupation ends up being a drain on resources, not an addition. This was true of the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and Afghanistan. It was true of our own occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was true of Napoleon’s various conquests.
I’d be curious to hear from those of you who disagree with this. I used to disagree with my present view, quite strongly. Maybe some of you could address two issues:
- Part of the motivation for America’s 20th Century policy seems to be the promotion of “liberal democracy.” Do you even like this? The location of the most obvious success of this policy is Western Europe. Do you like the EU? Do you like its policies? Do you like its culture, its focus on the Rainbow agenda, its undermining of traditional faith and culture, its crusade against Climate Change, its bureaucratic Leftism?
- Part of the motivation for America’s 20th-century policy seems to be a sense of pride for being defenders of, well, something. The people that we like, it seems. The French, and the Jews, and the Ukrainians (at the moment). The Taiwanese. Some of the Afghans and Iraqis, perhaps.
My new view of things still troubles me a bit, as it makes me far less inclined to think favorably of our country. My old religion, “We Won The War,” was comforting in some ways. It made me feel good about myself, and about America. I just don’t buy it anymore.Published in