Hidden History.

            Robert Harris is the author of a series of historical-fiction thrillers. 

            Munich (2017).  The 1938 conference between German dictator Adolf Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, French prime minister Edouard Daladier, and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain marked the high point of Appeasement.  While both Hitler and Chamberlain believed in what they were doing, other people on both sides had their doubts.  Some of these people, British anti-appeasers and German anti-Nazis, tried to undermine their own leaders.  Could knowledge of German plots to topple Hitler be communicated to the British?  Could British anti-appeasers use this knowledge to shift Chamberlain toward a harder line?  Would a harder line by the British provide an excuse to overthrow Hitler before he could set fire to the whole world? 

            Enigma (1995).  One secret of the Second World War was British victory in breaking the code system, called “Enigma,” used by the German military for all radio communications.  This allowed the British to read all enemy radio traffic, but with occasional, nerve-racking interruptions.  A second, less well-preserved, secret of the Second World War was the Russian massacre in 1940 of thousands of captured Polish army officers.  The mass graves were discovered by the German invaders in 1943.[1]  Harris supposes that an Anglo-Polish cryptographer discovers the truth.  Revealing it could wreck the Russo-British alliance. 

            V2 (2020).  As the Second World War turned decisively against Germany, Hitler unleashed “vengeance weapons” created by advanced science.  First, the V-1 “flying bombs,” then the V-2 ballistic missiles began to rain down on allied cities.  Is there any way—technological or human—to halt the attacks?  The question racks both an Allied intelligence officer and a German scientist tormented by his own deal with the Devil. 

            Fatherland (1992).  Long after Nazi victory in the “last European war,” a German homicide detective discovers the Holocaust.  Here Harris is thinking-through the implications of a German victory: a “united” Europe is dominated by Germany; the Soviet Union has been thrust back away from Europe; American “appeasers” (Joseph P. Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh) now head the government of the United States; and the Holocaust has been kept so completely secret that thought about the Jews never enter anyone’s noggin.  Now, on the eve of a Hitler-Kennedy summit meeting, the truth starts to leak.   

            Harris is fascinated by the hidden parts of historical events.  Knowledge of the German resistance to Hitler only came out after the war and then in dribbles; the Nazis meant for the Holocaust to remain hidden from history and all but one copy of the minutes from the Wannsee Conference were destroyed; at Nuremberg, the Katyn Wood massacre was blamed on the Germans; and the Enigma story remained secret until 1974.[2]  In dramatizing these events, Harris restates a basic lesson of history. It didn’t have to be this way.  People create History by the decisions they make and the actions they take. 

            He also leaves the reader wondering “What else is still hidden?” 

[1] For another fictional take on the Katyn Wood discovery, see Philip Kerr, A Man without Breath (2013). 

[2] See Peter Hoffmann, The German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945 (1977); F.W. Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret (1974); Allen Paul, Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin’s Polish Massacre  (1991)..   

The Asian Century 9.

            Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, both China and Japan fended off Western imperialism in their different ways.  Then Japan abruptly shifted course to imitate some aspects of Western states in order to preserve both its political independence and cultural identity.  China lagged behind on making this necessary shift.  Ultimately, a modernizing political movement, the Kuomintang (KMT, called the Nationalists by Americans) gained a rough control over China. 

The results of historical events so briefly described proved harrowing for many millions of people.  A semi-Westernized Japan pursued empire in China and Southeast Asia, then was smashed to bits in the Second World War.  The Chinese Communists triumphed in the civil war with the Nationalists that followed the Second World War in Asia. 

Communism’s victory in China wrong-footed wartime American plans for the postwar order in East Asia.  Americans leaders (or at least Franklin D. Roosevelt) had envisioned Nationalist China as a new great power that would co-operate with Americans efforts to build a peaceful and prosperous Asia.  Instead, the Peoples’ Republic of China aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  The Korea War and the wars in Indochina followed.  Only in the 1970s did the hostility begin to decline.  Since the late 1970s, China has vigorously remodeled its economy into the second largest in the world and, more recently, sought a leading role in international affairs. 

In these efforts, many things have been bent to serve the nation’s interests.  One of those things has been History.  One aspect of China’s historical revisionism has been China’s role in the struggle against Japan.  Once upon a time, if they knew what was good for them, Chinese historians played down the role of the corrupt and incompetent Nationalist government while playing up the role of the Communists.  Now, if they know what is good for them, Chinese historians have begun to argue for the importance of China’s resistance to Japan not only for China, but for the whole world.  By resisting Japanese aggression from 1931’s Manchurian Incident to full-scale war from 1937 onward, China bought time for the Western countries to gather their wits and then their military resources.  From 1941 onward, China figured as the chief battlefield and military opponent of Japan.[1]  From this point of view, the American combined arms offensive across the Pacific and the British counter-attack in Burma were side-shows. 

In its struggle against Japan, China received little help from Western countries.  After the war, China received little for the eventual victory over Japan.  Now, suggest the Chinese historians, it is time for that bill to be paid by according China the leading role in Asia.[2] 

Probably they are taking their cue from Western historians who examined the roots of European appeasement policies in the 1930s.  Those historians have argued that not moral rot, but strategic and economic realities hampered Britain and France from making an early stand against Hitler.  They needed time to rearm or they would be defeated.  Germany’s re-militarization of the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland were all necessary sacrifices in this delaying action.[3]  The difference is that Western historians have no policy agenda. 

[1] For background, see: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2019/07/17/the-asian-century-5-17-july-2019/ 

[2] Rana Mitter, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020), reviewed by Howard French, WSJ, 14 October 2020. 

[3] For a counter-attack on this view, see Tim Bouverie, Appeasement (2019). 

The Asian Century 5 17 July 2019.

In Asian history, China had always ranked vastly higher than did the little surrounding states like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.  Then, in the middle 19th Century, Japan began a partial Westernization much sooner than did China.  By the end of the 19th Century Japan was waging imperialist war against first China, and then Russia, while gobbling up the Korean peninsula and Taiwan.  Eventually, in 1911, the old Imperial regime governing Chin collapsed, giving birth only to chaos and warlords.  Japan sought to exploit the Western preoccupation with Europe during the First World War, but Western diplomacy during and after the war dashed many hopes.  Thereafter, the Japanese government saw the Western powers—Britain, the United States, France, and Holland—as the chief stumbling-blocks to the expansion of Japan’s role in Asia.

At the same time, Japan had built its prosperity upon exports of simple, low-cost manufactured goods.  (This strategy is no different from the strategy initially pursued by post-Mao China.)  Then came the Great Depression (1928-1939), which led to a collapse of international trade.  Japan lost export markets, so it also lost the means to import vital resources.

Faced with national starvation, in 1931, Japan seized the natural resource-rich Chinese province of Manchuria.  This act of aggression earned Japan international scorn.  However, “scorn” doesn’t solve many problems.  In 1937, Japan returned to its ambitions of the First World War: to dominate China.  Japan invaded China.[1]  Seeming to recognize their unfavorable population ratios, the Japanese commanders indulged in barbaric conduct in hopes of cowing their enemies: the 1937 Nanjing Massacre prefigured the later conduct of Japanese troops.

Japanese leaders seem to have expected a relatively easy victory.  For one thing, European affairs had reached a crisis, with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy on the rampage in Central Europe and the Mediterranean.  Britain and France had the means to fight one major war at a time (against Germany or Italy, or Japan), but not two (against Germany and Japan), let alone three (Germany, Italy, Japan).  For another thing, the United States had been pursuing an “isolationist” policy in the mid-Thirties.  Who would defend the existing order in the Far East if the United States would not?  Good question.  One with no clear answer until the end of 1941.

The anticipated easy victory in China for Japan remained just out of reach for the next eight years.  The better trained, better equipped, and better led Japanese troops inflicted defeat after defeat on the Chinese.  Yet, the Chinese government managed to avoid defeat, even as the government’s armies lost battle after battle.  In large part, avoiding defeat meant falling back from the coast to a geographically hard-to-approach position in the interior.  While this kept Chiang’s KMT government in nominal control, in reality the Japanese controlled virtually the entire coastline, the great cities, and the coastal plains on which most Chinese lived.  Thus, one question not much explored by Western historians is why and how the ordinary Chinese kept going in the midst of a brutal war.

In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States, and the British and Dutch empires.  A “War Without Mercy, on a Merciless Foe” followed.[2]  Thereafter, the Chinese theater played a small role in the global struggle we call the Second World War.  Rightly committed to a “Europe first” strategy, the United States and Britain waged war in the Far East on a shoe-string.  First, Marines and Army troops hung on, then won, on Guadalcanal after the US Navy ran away.[3]

Faced with war on trackless oceans and trackless jungles, the United States sought to maximize the Chinese war effort in order to divert Japanese troops from the real center of decision in the Pacific—the barrier of islands that barred the advance of American power from Hawaii to the Home Islands.  American military advisors, American supplies, and American airpower all sought to bolster the Chinese war effort.[4]  Unable to accept defeat or even stalemate, the Japanese government committed troops to China.  In the end, the Chinese front soaked up 800,000 Japanese troops.[5]  To no avail.

Chiang Kai-shek—called “Peanut” by the sour, acute American military advisor Joseph Stillwell–understood little to nothing of the global struggle.  To him, all that mattered was the struggle for mastery in China.  He saw a three-sided struggle raging between his own Nationalist government, the Japanese invaders, and the Chinese Communists.  Forced to choose his domestic allies, Chiang Kai-shek opted for the landlords and bankers, instead of for the peasantry.

All sides waged the Second World War in China with great brutality toward the civilian population.  All sides relied upon political repression.  The Japanese and the KMT tied in a race to the bottom.  The Americans decided the fate of the Japanese Empire, but Chiang’s “party”—the Kuomintang, KMT, Gearwheels—lost traction with the peasant majority and many others.

Recognizing the problems of the KMT in 1945-1947, the United States Government sent off emissaries to the Red Emperor, Mao Zedong, in Yenan Province.  These men—honestly—over-estimated the democratic intentions of the Communist, although they seem to have rightly evaluated the real strength of the Communists.  The KMT lacked support where it counted in a civil war and were going to lose.  The Communists were going to win and the United States should adapt to that reality.  The United States did not adjust to that reality.  In 1949, the Communists won the prolonged Chinese Civil War.  Many KMT survivors fled to Taiwan/Formosa.

Even the disturbing Communist victory didn’t have to start a downward spiral in Chinese-American relations.  Many informed Americans regarded Chiang Kai-shek as the man “who lost China.”  Many of the same people expected that the two countries would “let the dust settle,” then pick up relations.  But, in June 1950, the Korean War began.  The United States fought China in Korea, and reinforced both Taiwan and French Indo-China.  The Cold War became a part of East Asian affairs.  Later, the United States fought North Vietnam and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.  Not until the 1970s were China and the United States able to begin a normalization of their relationship.

The lesson?  The Second World War in China, rather than the Korean War or the wars in Vietnam, offered the first basis for the injunction “never fight a land war in Asia.”[6]  But to whom does that lesson apply?

[1] Rana Mitter, The Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (2018).

[2] John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1987).  Astonishing.

[3] In 1941-1942, Australians referred to the war in the Pacific as “the War of the Two Yellow Races”—the Americans and the Japanese.

[4] See: Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Stillwell’s Mission to China (1953); Stillwell’s Command Problems (1956); and Time Runs Out in CBI (1959).  Or see Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell and the Experience in China (1971), for a highly-readable “popular version” of same.

[5] Japan lost 36,000 men in the Guadalcanal Campaign.

[6] See the classic expression of this truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esM457OXvuw

My Weekly Reader 25 October 2018.

When the Second World War broke out, Americans—isolationists or not—expected a re-run of the First World War: a long pounding match.  Then the German army smashed into France in Spring and Summer 1940.  France surrendered and replaced the decrepit Third Republic with the collaborationist Vichy regime.  The French Empire in West Africa–nominally under the control of France, but vulnerable to German seizure–stretched westward into the Atlantic.  Brazil lay within flying distance of Dakar. Suddenly, Latin American affairs seemed of more than the usual importance in Washington.[1]

North Americans viewed South America as more than just a potential beach head for German invaders.  The continent held vast natural resources that might feed the Nazi war-machine.[2]  On its Caribbean shore, the continent abutted the shipping routes to the Panama Canal.  Moreover, the colonial heritage from Spain and Portugal–rather than American imperialism–made South America a politically tumultuous place.  Elites continually struggled with populists for control of the governments, and the armies of the continent did not always favor the “forces of order.”  To make matters worse, in the view of Washington, the region had received hordes of German and Italian emigres in the previous hundred years.  In the age of the “Fifth Column” suspicions ran hot.

As a result, South America became a battleground between the Axis and the Anglo-American Allies.  For their part, Germany and Italy hoped to restrict the flow of natural resources toward the United States and to enhance the influence of their emigrant brothers.  For their part, the Americans sought to build a Trans-Atlantic air ferry route to fly bombers and transports from Miami through Brazil to West Africa; they sought to monopolize purchases of raw materials, whose price spiked during the war and continued into the post-war reconstruction period; and they sought to squelch pro-Axis sentiment.[3]  Propaganda played a large role for both sides, although—like most propaganda—the effort availed them but little.

The Latin American countries were eager to profit from all this interest, yet they were not eager to be drawn into the war itself.[4]  Nevertheless, the turning of the tide led some Latin American countries to join the fight.  Brazil sent 25,000 soldiers to fight in Italy and Mexico allowed a small number of its air force pilots to serve against Japan.  In contrast, Juan Peron’s Argentina refused to engage in the war against the Axis until the very last moment.  Peron’s regime illustrates a number of the key themes.  He had served as military attache in Mussolini’s Italy; Argentina had received many German and Italian immigrants; and Argentina profited enormously from the spike in raw materials prices during and after the war.  Perhaps as a result, Argentina became the favored rat-hole for Nazi war criminals on the run, including Eichmann.

[1] Mary Jo McConahay, The Tango War: The Struggle for Hearts, Minds, and Riches In Latin America During World War II (2018).

[2] Henry Ford had established a rubber plantation in Brazil to insure the raw material for car tires.  He wanted to be free of dependence on the British Empire’s Malayan rubber during an era of bitter Anglo-American economic competition that was strategically forgotten during the Second World War.  On this fascinating episode, see Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (2009).

[3] This could go to what now look like shameful lengths.  Amends have scarcely been made to the Americans of Japanese ancestry who were evacuated from the West Coast, but who now remembers the Peruvian-Japanese?

[4] Rather like Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Turkey.

Man of Steel II.

As with Adolf Hitler (and everyone else), the question is whether Joseph Stalin’s mature self already existed in his younger self, waiting to emerge when the time was right, or did some conjuncture of experiences turn him down a particular path?[1]  His most recent biographer, Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, seems to find for the former.[2]

Between the death of Lenin in 1924 and 1929, Stalin had mastered the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  More than Lenin or any other Bolshevik, Stalin revolutionized Russia.  The fundamental problem facing Bolshevism lay in the vast peasant population.  In a country theoretically committed to the “dictatorship of the proletariat, there existed virtually no proletariat.  For their part, the peasants were deeply committed to their own private property and traditional, inefficient methods.  They were uninterested in industrial labor or city life.  Yet they controlled the food supply (and thus the survival of city people).  Moreover, agriculture had long provided Russia’s main export and source of foreign exchange.  The solution to Bolshevism’s problem lay in “collectivizing” millions of small farms into gigantic state farms (kolkhoz), tractoring the land to free up millions of peasants to become industrial workers, cream-off a surplus of agricultural goods for sale abroad, purchase Western machinery, and build a huge industrial base.  All this had to be done at high speed in a series of bureaucratic Five Year Plans.

The human costs of this transformation stagger the mind.  Peasants resisted both collectivization and the huge food “surplus” defined by Moscow planners by burning their crops and slaughtering their animals.  Stalin’s minions—often young idealists—both fomented strife within villages and slaughtered opponents.  Millions died in famines[3] that many believe to have been deliberately engineered and others believe to have been unintended in origin, but then responded to with cruel indifference.

While this agonizing social and economic revolution drove ahead, Stalin launched a purge of the people on the “commanding heights” of the Soviet Union.  He first slaughtered his fellow “Old Bolsheviks,” who now filled government and party offices, and the men with guns (the armed forces and the security services) who might actually evict him from power.  Then this limited purge spread outward into every aspect of Soviet society.  Ethnic minorities were hammered, but so were all sorts of ethnic Russians. Perhaps 800,000 died and millions were imprisoned in the Gulag.

Deeply suspicious of opponents within the Soviet Union, Stalin also distrusted the capitalist states.  He saw the Anglo-French policy of appeasement as turning German aggression eastward against the Soviet Union.  In August 1939, the Soviets and the Nazis struck a deal to partition Poland and the Baltic countries.  This alliance might well be regarded as adroit “realpolitik.”  Remarkably though, Stalin came to believe that he could trust Hitler.  Birds of a feather?  As a result, he ignored both the effects of German victories in Western Europe in 1940 and abundant evidence that the Germans intended to attack his country in Summer 1941.  He was, apparently, psychologically shattered by the revelation of his own self-deception.

[1] “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg, Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous, And kill him in the shell.”—Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 1.

[2] Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (New York: Penguin, 2018).

[3] Most famously, 3.5 million in Ukraine, but also another 1.5 million in the North Caucasus and Kazakhstan.

Soldiers Become Governors.

Modern war is about destroying the enemy’s army and seizing control of his territory.  Even when it can be achieved, victory still brings problems.  If Army officers wanted to be civilian bureaucrats they wouldn’t have gone into the military.  Yet civilian bureaucrats lack the means to effectively govern conquered territory.  Both civilians and soldiers agree to ignore this reality in what one scholar labels the “denial syndrome.”  Unfortunately, scholars have a lot of evidence with which to work in sorting out good practice from bad.[1]  People can’t help but compare the successful occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War with the disastrous aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  What went right with the earlier occupations?  What went wrong with the later occupation?

After victory in the Second World War, the American military occupied huge territories of the defeated enemies.  Those countries acknowledged that they were beaten and that the war was ended.  The military had created immense global logistical systems that enabled it to move supplies to the conquered areas.  It had very large military forces available to support and enforce American military government.  The desire to avoid any renewed military danger from Germany or Japan inclined Generals Lucius Clay (Germany) and Douglas MacArthur (Japan) to sort out the conquered people, not just to punish them.  The suddenly developing Cold War with the Soviet Union motivated Americans (and the Germans especially) to not want a break-down of civil affairs.

Very different conditions prevailed in Iraq.  The war plan assigned far too few soldiers to occupation duty, then American forces were further drawn down.  Very quickly, the George W. Bush administration transferred authority in Iraq to what proved to be an inadequate Civilian Provisional Authority.  Iraqis did not acknowledge that they were beaten and that war had ended.  Instead, Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish conflicts broke out into the open.  Shi’ites looked to neighboring Iran for support, while Iran sought to undermine the American and Sunni positions.  While Germans had feared the Soviet Union, many Sunni embraced the insurgency that quickly became associated with the radical Islamists of Al Qaeda.

One—depressing—“lesson of History” might be that people fail to learn from History.  The George W. Bush administration failed to study the “good occupations” of Germany and Japan.  The Obama administration continued the same chaotic occupation policies launched by the Bush administration.  One reason for this failure may lie in the clash between any “lessons” History teaches and what people want to believe.  Lost in the adulation of the occupations of Germany and Japan is the reality that Americans raised in an environment of inter-war isolationism were only constrained to embark on internationalism by harsh necessity.

Also lost in recent accounts is the reality that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  By focusing tightly on the brief periods of military administration, then jumping ahead to the long-term outcomes, it is easy to attribute change to military government.  This analysis falls short of a real explanation.  On the one hand, civilian governments by the defeated peoples took decades to create democratic political cultures.  They wanted to avoid repeating the errors of the past.  On the other hand, Germany became a democracy because the victors in the Second World War partitioned the country, then parked 20,000 tanks on top of the place for almost half a century.

[1] Susan L. Carruthers, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (2016); Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017).  In a typically American solipsism, the authors ignore the contemporaneous British experience with the government of conquered territories.

My Weekly Reader 21 March 2017.

During the Twenties, the Soviet-controlled Communist International (Comintern) adopted a policy called “class against class.”  The Communist Parties of Europe and America excoriated democratic Socialists and bourgeois liberal parties as “social fascists” with which there could be no co-operation.  Then Hitler came to power in Germany.  The Comintern soon espoused creation of “Popular Front” alliances to save democracy.   This change of course often aroused deep suspicion among more-than-once-burned Socialists and anti-Marxist bourgeois liberals.  “Progressive” western intellectuals were a different matter.   They rallied in droves to the idea of a “Popular Front.”

The Soviet intelligence services trolled these waters, recruiting agents and agents-of-influence.  Ernest Hemingway counted among those wiggling in the net.[1]  Like many other people, Hemingway became convinced that only the Soviet Union and the foreign communist parties in its service really opposed a Nazi take-over of Europe.  Hemingway joined a Communist front organization, the League of American Writers.  In 1936 he made the first of several trips to Spain to report on the Republican resistance to the right-wing military coup that had won the support of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

On these reporting and material-gathering trips, Hemingway came to know Alexander Orlov, the Soviet secret intelligence service (NKVD) chief in Spain.   Orlov marked Hemingway for possible recruitment by the NKVD.  After the publication of “A Farewell to Arms” (1940), set in the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway began preparing for a trip to China to report on another preface to the Second World War.  Jacob Golos (1889-1943), a Soviet intelligence officer operating in the United States, recruited Hemingway.[2]  On that trip and afterward, Hemingway somehow always managed to miss connections with his assigned NKVD contacts.

American intelligence suffered a similarly un-productive relationship with the writer.  During the Second World War he filed reports with the F.B.I. on suspicious doings in Cuba, while rigging out his fishing boat as a sub-chaser.   During the Liberation of France, he crossed the line from war correspondent to combatant.   Less than a year later, the struggle against “fascism” ended with the complete victory of the “Grand Alliance.”  Most of the heavy lifting in that struggle had been done by the Red Army; the rest had been done by Western social fascists and bourgeois liberals.  This unpopular front died soon after victory.

Then the onset of the Cold War led to a hunt for Soviet agents in America.  Hemingway feared that his own sterile contacts would lead to his public disgrace, if not something worse.  He became paranoid about the F.B.I.  All the same, although a “premature anti-fascist,” Hemingway proved a laggard at dropping Communism even as its crimes became ever more obvious.   This reluctance is all the more remarkable because so many post-war events laid bare the realities Hemingway had chosen to ignore.  In 1948, Elizabeth Bentley, the lover of Jacob Golos and herself a Soviet agent, made spectacular revelations about Soviet espionage against the United States during the Second World War.  In 1953, Alexander Orlov, the senior NKVD officer he had met in Spain, published The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes.  In 1956 the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising caused many of the remaining Western Communist intellectuals to flee the party.   Nevertheless, Hemingway celebrated the initial victory of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba.  A great writer, Hemingway was sometimes a fool.

[1] Nicholas Reynolds, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 (2017).  Reviewed by Harvey Klehr, WSJ, 14 March 2017, p. A15.

[2] Golos had been handling the cell centered on Julius Rosenberg.

Pearl Harbor.

In the mid-19th Century, Japan responded to Western pressure by adopting some Western methods in order to preserve the rest of its society. China responded to Western pressure by going into a defensive crouch. Japan grew strong, while China grew weak. Eventually, Japan began to aspire to push out the “Gaijin” from Asia and to dominate China. The United States (and the other Western countries—Britain, France, Holland) did not want to be pushed out. So, that was a problem. In 1937 Japan invaded China. In 1939 the Second World War broke out in Europe (Germany and Italy versus France and Britain). Germany conquered Poland, France, Belgium, and Holland. Britain was left alone fighting Germany and Italy. Seeing Britain as vulnerable, Japan began to press on the British, French, and Dutch in the Far East. Fearing that a German defeat of Britain would put America next on Hitler’s To-Do list, the Americans aided Britain in both Europe and in the Far East. Economic sanctions were clamped on Japan. The American Pacific Fleet moved to its forward base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. American troops and planes were rushed to the Philippines, then an American possession. Then, on 21 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Everyone assumed that the Russians would soon be defeated. Britain would surrender. The war would end. The Japanese decided that they had to attack NOW if they weren’t to be left out of the winners. On 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the Americans in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and the British in Malaya.

Why were the Americans surprised at Pearl Harbor?

Was war with Japan likely? American-Japanese relations had been deteriorating since 1937 as the US supported China, and then Britain and Holland against Japan. In December 1937 Japanese planes had bombed a US gunboat on a Chinese river. In late 1940 the US had halted export of aircraft parts to Japan. In July 1941 the US halted exports of oil to Japan. In August 1941 the US warned Japan that it would “take steps” if Japan attacked a neighboring territory. In November 1941 a poll showed that 52 percent of Americans expected war with Japan soon.

If war came, how would it begin? In 1904 Japan began its war with Russia by a surprise naval attack on the Russian Far East fleet in its harbor. In 1940 British torpedo bombers flying from an air-craft carrier had launched a surprise attack on the Italian fleet in its harbor at Taranto.

If war came, where would it begin? The Americans believed that Japan lacked the resources to attack to two widely separated areas at the same time. They believed that the build-up of American forces in the Philippines posed an immediate danger to a Japanese attack on Malaya and Indonesia. Therefore, the Americans expected any attack to hit the Philippines.

In Spring 1941 the Japanese Navy began preparing a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This mean planning, but it also meant training. In November 1941 all six aircraft carriers of the Japanese fleet left their ports in the Home Islands and moved north to the remote Kurile Islands.

It was very difficult for an American to spy in Japan. Japan was at war with China, so security was tight. The physical differences between the Japanese and Gaijin made it impossible to just blend in with any crowd. Not many Japanese were willing to betray their country by spying for a foreign country. Unless American diplomats went and looked at Japanese naval bases, they wouldn’t see that the air craft carriers were missing. Even if they did, then they couldn’t know where they had gone. North, South, East, West?

The Japanese attack force sailed on 26 November 1941. Most of their course ran through the North Pacific above the normal most-direct-route shipping lanes between the West Coast of America and the Far East.

Radar has just been invented. Only one set operated in Hawaii and then for only part of the day. When an operator reported planes approaching from the north, it was assumed that these were American planes due to arrive from the US en route to the Philippines at that time.

The attack began at 7:00 AM on Sunday, 7 December 1941. Many officers and sailors had been ashore drinking the night before.

Fifth Column.

War is a nasty business, based on what I’ve read over a lifetime. Civil war is worse still. It can pit parent against child, sibling against sibling.[1] It fuels suspicion of one’s fellow-citizens. In Summer 1936, civil war broke out in Spain. Although often seen as a prologue to the Second World, the Spanish Civil War was a primitive affair. Not a lot of tanks, or aircraft, or trucks. Marching up toward Madrid, the Nationalist (rebel) commander Emilio Mola divided his troops into four columns to better live off the barren land. He told the foreign correspondents accompanying his army that he had a “fifth column” of sympathizers inside the city which would support his troops. The phrase “fifth column” quickly passed into the common lingo of the era.[2]

In 1938, Austrian Nazis supported the German take-over of Austria. Sudeten Germans around the frontiers of Czechoslovakia agitated for a German taker-over, obviously at the behest of Berlin. Poles-of-German-ancestry demanded free dome from alleged “persecution.”

In Spring 1940, the Nazis unleashed their “Blitzkrieg” on Western Europe. Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and—astonishingly—France collapsed. The idea that a powerful state like France could be beaten in weeks boggled the mind. “Collaborationist” regimes, or at least individual “collaborators,” sprang up in many places. The reactionary French Vichy government and the puppet-state in Norway headed by Vidkun Quisling offered prime examples. It soon became an article of faith in Britain and the United States that pro-Nazi “fifth columnists” had undermined their own society in the conquered countries.

Both in Britain and in the United States a hunt for “fifth columnists” soon began. In Britain, the new prime minister quickly put a stop to the left’s demands for prosecution of “the Guilty Men” who had supported appeasement.[3] Only a handful of obvious candidates were detained (Oswald Mosely, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, for example).

It proved to be very different in the United States. There an increasingly bitter debate began over American policy toward involvement in the global conflict. Lynne Olson has argued that the Roosevelt Administration engaged in a campaign of vilification against the leading exponents of “isolationism.”[4] The most notable target was Charles Lindbergh. The “Lone Eagle,” once America’s most admired person, suffered repeated, vitriolic attacks in the press and by FDR’s surrogates. (Interior Secretary Harold Ickes looks worse than he once did.)

Subsequently, after Pearl Harbor, the federal government criminalized Japanese ancestry on the grounds that such people were inherently disloyal.[5] Shrugging off that incident, Americans then launched themselves on an anti-Communist witch-hunt in the later Forties and in the Fifties. As Arthur Schlesinger the Lesser wrote in 1949: “the special Soviet advantage—the warhead—lies in the fifth column; and the fifth column is based on the local Communist parties.” The down-side of this appeared in “black-listing” (See: “Trumbo”) and “McCarthyism.” Much ignored is the reality of Soviet penetration of the US government.

So, the fear of disloyal Americans is nothing new. Most often, it’s been misplaced. That will not stop the idiots and hysterics.

[1] See how political correctness has watered down my prose?

[2] Ernest Hemingway wrote a play called “The Fifth Column.” On Mola, who knew something about civil war, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emilio_Mola

[3] It was hard to argue with a guy who had vocally opposed appeasement when he draws a veil over the past.

[4] Lynne Olsen, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (New York, Random House, 2013).

[5] EffaBeeEye Director J. Edgar Hoover, seems to have thought the charges a crock. He headed American counter-intelligence. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans


Usedom is an island of the shore of Germany in the Baltic. Peenemunde is a little town on Usedom. In 1936 the Luftwaffe bought a big chunk of the island to use as a weapons development and testing facility; in 1937 the German Army took over most of the site for the same purpose; and by the end of 1938 the Germans were engaged in rocket development projects at Peenemunde.[1] The V-1 and V-2 long-range weapons and the “Waterfall” air-defense systems were meant to be war-winning devices. Britain’s “Operation Crossbow” attacked these efforts.

By June 1943 a combination of Polish resistance reports and aerial photographic interpretation had persuaded the British that the Germans were conducting important rocket development at Peenemunde. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an attack.

The attack faced formidable difficulties. For one thing, the British intended to destroy the knowledge base of the program. That is, they meant to kill scientists, engineers, and technicians. Destroying the material base—machine shops, assembled rockets—formed a distinctly secondary object. Therefore, the bombing would be done from 8,000 feet, instead of the customary 19,000 feet. For another thing, the power of German air defenses had long since forced the Royal Air Force (RAF) to bomb at night. The RAF had developed radio guidance beams (Gee) to direct the bombers, but Peenemunde fell beyond the range. Therefore, the precision bombing require to destroy the German base would have to be done by moonlight. This meant that German night-fighters would have favorable conditions. Recognizing the dangers, the RAF committed all of Bomber Command to the attack. To improve the chances of the bombers, the RAF planned to launch a simultaneous mock diversionary attack on Berlin by “Pathfinder” units and fighter attacks on German airfields.

The attack—“Operation Hydra”–stepped off on the night of 17-18 August 1943. The 596 RAF bombers dropped 1,800 tons of bombs on a geographically limited area. Navigational, target-marking, and human errors cropped up. They killed 2 German scientists and 730 others, most of whom were Polish slave-laborers. (The RAF lost 40 planes and 215 aircrew killed.)

The attack did a lot of damage to the material base (machine shops, rocket components), but not a lot of damage to the intellectual base. However, the Germans could not afford to risk a second attack that might succeed. By the end of August 1943, the Germans began evacuating the Peenemunde operations to more secure locations. This delayed the German weapons programs by six to eight weeks.[2] V-1—“flying bomb” attacks on Britain began on 13 June 1944. V-2 rocket attacks began in September 1944. So, perhaps the V-1s might have begun flying in mid-April 1944 and the V-2s in July 1944.

How should we think about this historical event?

First, the British had a short time period in which to act. They had to stave-off some catastrophic event for a couple of years at the outside. After that, Germany would be defeated by other means. They did not have to resolve the problem of a long-term threat.

Second, in a short time-frame, attacking the intellectual base can work because it will take a while to get the successors up to speed. An educated nation, can fill holes eventually.

Third, attacking the physical weapons infrastructure didn’t do much good because it was viewed as secondary. Making it primary wouldn’t have changed much.

Fourth, the movie “Operation Crossbow” (1965) has Sophia Loren. Jus sayin’.

[1] Thereafter, all the guards made it difficult to for ordinary Germans to vacation on the “Sunny Isle,” sylph around in the nude as part of that weird German cult of the sun thing.

[2] Nevertheless, the Germans continued to test rockets at Peenemunde until February 1945.