My Weekly Reader 14 June 2021.

            “We had won” Winston Churchill later wrote of American entry into full belligerency after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  A “long and hard road” still had to be travelled to victory.  By August 1942, the Japanese had conquered the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and Burma, and were on the frontiers of India.  By the same point, German armies were advancing on Stalingrad in Russia and on Alexandria in Egypt. 

            The war in the Mediterranean linked the two greater Theaters of Operations.  Gibraltar controlled the western entrance to the sea, while also serving as a key naval base protecting Atlantic Ocean convoys.  Suez controlled the eastern entrance, while also anchoring the British position in the Middle East.  In 1942, the Germans and Italians mounted a deadly threat to Suez from the Italian colony of Libya.  The Afrika Korps joined with the Italian army to advance deep into Egypt.  In one sense, holding onto the British position in the Middle East came down to a question of merchant shipping.  The Italian army in North Africa and the Afrika Korps had to be supplied by the short sea route from Sicily to the Libyan port of Benghazi.  The British in the Middle East had to be supplied by the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.  Under these unequal circumstances, the British fought hard to disrupt the Axis supply line. 

            In this effort, the little island of Malta played an over-sized role.  Located at the choke point between the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean, it also stood astride the Sicily-Libya supply route.  Initially judging Malta to be indefensible in modern war, the Royal Navy had largely withdrawn to the Egyptian port of Alexandria at the outbreak of war.  However, the war in North Africa made it essential to hold Malta as a base for submarine attacks on the Italian supply line.  Holding Malta meant running convoys through Italian and German air and naval attacks without much British air cover. 

            In 1940 and 1941, the Royal Navy generally got the better of the Italian “Regia Marina.”[1]  The situation changed dramatically in 1942.  In December 1941, Italian frogmen disabled two British battleships in Alexandria Harbor.  The Japanese assault required the dispatch of other ships to the Indian Ocean.  The German “Luftwaffe” also began to play a larger role.  Britain lost naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.  Three convoys in March and June 1942 suffered heavy losses or were turned back entirely.[2]  Yet Malta had to be held.  Courage and skill would have to make good the deficiency in ships. 

            In August 1942, the British sent off a do-or-die convoy code-named “Pedestal.”[3]  Running eastward past Gibraltar under heavy escort, the convoy came under sustained naval and air attack.  Three days of pure Hell followed. The British lost a carrier, two light cruisers, a destroyer, and nine merchant ships to bombs and torpedoes.  Yet the essential supplies—including a tanker full of fuel oil for submarines and aviation gasoline—got through.  Malta not only hung-on, attacks on the Axis supply line revived. 

            By the end of 1942, the tide of battle had turned against the Axis.  Tobruk, Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad are well-remembered milestones.  So, too, should be “Pedestal.” 


[1] Look up the Battle of Cape Matapan and the attack on the Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto. 

[2] A fictionalized and propagandistic account of the experience of one British cruiser, HMS “Artemis,” on one of these convoys is given by C.S. Forester, The Ship (1943).  Fine stuff. 

[3] Max Hastings, Operation Pedestal (2021), reviewed by Jonathan W. Jordan, WSJ, 12-13 June 2021. 

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). 

My Weekly Reader 8 February 2019.

Although Henry Lee III (1756-1818) was connected to a host of great landowners and political leaders of the Virginia Tidewater, read a great deal as a young man, and attended Princeton, he seems to have been about half horse: Lee loved to ride and was a superb horseman.[1]  Naturally, he joined the cavalry of the Continental Army in 1776.  In April 1778, Lee gained command of “Lee’s Legion,” a mixed force of infantry and cavalry employed in harassing British lines of communication and supply in New Jersey and New York.  He won several small-scale victories.  In September 1778, Lee ambushed and annihilated a smaller force of Hessians at the Battle of Edgar’s Lane; in August 1779 he commanded a successful raid on a British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

When the British shifted their main effort to the Carolinas in 1780, Lee’s Legion rode south.  Here Lee had much greater scope for the cut-and-thrust type of war to which he was so well suited.  The British offensive began well, with the capture of Charleston, South Carolina (and a large force of American forces ordered to hold an indefensible position) in May 1780, and then a crushing defeat of the American army at Camden in August 1780.  The British now hoped to raise a large force of American volunteers from among the Loyalists who had been terrorized into submission for the past two years.  A march by British troops through the Carolinas would show their command of the region.  Large numbers of Loyalists began to be recruited in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Along the way, small forts would guard lines of supply and provide rallying-points for Loyalists.  In February 1781, Lee’s Legion greatly discouraged the Loyalists with a surprise attack on Loyalist militia in North Carolina.[2]  In March 1781, the British won a costly victory over a larger American army at Guilford Court House.  The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, then divided his army.  He led most of them toward Wilmington, North Carolina in search of supplies.  The rest, mostly Loyalist troops, he left in South Carolina under the command of Lord Rawdon.

Rather than follow Cornwallis north, the Americans began to re-conquer South Carolina.  Lee’s Legion played an important part in this campaign.  Although Rawdon won a victory at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781, he soon found his lines of supply under heavy attack by Lee and by partisans under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.  In May 1781 a series of smaller British posts fell to Lee and the others.  Only Ninety-Six, stubbornly defended by Loyalist troops during May and June, defied the Patriot forces.  Rawdon had little choice to fall back to Camden, and then toward the coast.  In September 1781, Lee’s Legion fought with the rest of the American army at Eutaw Springs, where it suffered another defeat at the hands of a smaller British force.  But then news came of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

Lee had a fitful postwar political career as a devoted Federalist.  (He’s the one who described Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”)  In contrast, the management of his business affairs failed to command from him the same attention as had his military operations.  He went bankrupt, spent a year in debtors prison, and wandered the Caribbean for a time before returning to die in Virginia.

His son, Robert Edward Lee, commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

[1] There is a new biography by Ryan Cole, Light-Horse Harry Lee (2019).

[2] Commonly known as the “Pyle Massacre.”

My Weekly Reader 6 February 2019.

When the War of the American Revolution began, the rebellious colonies had no real army with which to fight it.  The colonists had long relied up militias made up of part-time soldiers.  For the most part, these militias had been dedicated to local defense against Indian attacks.  The militia units from the frontiers had more experience than did the militias from the eastern territories.  They all lacked training, discipline, equipment, and—often—competent officers.

Still, a bunch of them had “seen the elephant” up close.  George Washington had a couple of experiences in the back-country, then had a memorable experience with General Edward Braddock’s catastrophic attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.  Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) had been a teamster—no very exalted position–on that expedition.[1]  Morgan differed greatly from Washington.  He was a poor-boy immigrant from New Jersey to the Shenandoah Valley.  He arrived with nothing but muscle-power, but there was great need of that on the 18th Century frontier.  He began to accumulate property: first a team of horses, then a farm, and later slaves.  Braddock’s expedition offered him his first taste of war.  It left him unimpressed with British military leadership and also deeply bitter toward British rule after he was severely flogged for smacking one of his officers.  Soon, Morgan became an officer in the Virginia militia and experienced at war with the Indians.

Morgan led a company of Virginia riflemen on Benedict Arnold’s expedition through the wilds of Maine to capture Quebec.[2]  The effort failed and many American soldiers were captured, Morgan among them.  He spent a year in British captivity before being paroled.  Upon his release in early 1777, George Washington promoted Morgan to colonel in the Continental Army and told him to raise a regiment of frontier riflemen.  Morgan led the regiment in the campaign that ended with the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (1777).  He and his men passed from this triumph to disaster in the Philadelphia campaign and wintered in Valley Forge (1777-1778).  In 1779, fed up with Congress and ts mismanagement of the army, Morgan stormed off in a huff to retirement.

Then Horatio Gates, who had commanded at Saratoga, took charge in the South.  Morgan initially declined the offer of a command.  When Gates led the army to disaster at Camden (1780), however, Morgan returned to service.  The new commander, Nathaniel Greene, put Morgan in command of a small unit.  His mission was to avoid a battle while harassing the British lines of communication.  In January 1781, Morgan disobeyed the order to avoid battle by setting a trap for a British light force under Banastre Tarleton.  The two forces collided at a pasture called the Cowpens in South Carolina on 17 January 1781.  Morgan’s adept handling of his militia led to a brilliant, small-scale victory.  The American victory had a disproportionate effect because Tarleton’s force—virtually annihilated in the fight—included much of the British light infantry.  This hampered Lord Cornwallis going forward in the Southern campaign.  It also set a pattern for a campaign of attrition that would end at Yorktown.

Plagued with ills, Morgan left the army soon after Cowpens.

[1] Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (1961) is still the best biography.

[2] See Kenneth Roberts, Arundel (1936).

My Weekly Reader 18 December 2018.

Today New England is a great place to go to college: stone walls, church graveyards full of famous men (and the occasional famous woman—repressive gender roles having been what they were), the leaves turning, “Whitey” and “Billy” Bulger of lore, the smart-mouth waitresses at “Legal Seafood,” Boston and Cambridge, with the Red-Line trains crossing from one to the other on a snowy night.  Then, in the 18th Century, New England was a hard place to make a living; the stone walls came from rocks dug out of fields with poor soil, churches reined-in human pleasure, people often died in the first few years after birth, the leaves turned because Fall came early and brutal winters followed close behind, Boston merchants would trade in anything (slaves, lumber, cod, rum) to make money and Boston fish-wives had famously sharp tongues, thugs had their uses for the better sort, and Cambridge’s college—Harvard–trained sour-puss Calvinist ministers.

No wonder then that many New Englanders were hard-bitten, judgmental, fond of pulling a cork, and avid for a better chance.  In a chiefly agricultural society, a better chance meant farmland, especially if they got to log-off and sell the timber first.  New England’s settlements spread along the coast and inland in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  Then westward toward New York, “down east” into Maine, and northwest from New Hampshire into the “New Hampshire Grants” (which would become Vermont).

Pioneers advancing into ground until recently commanded by the Native American allies of the hated French, the settlers of Vermont despised all authority that was not earned.  Before the Revolution, they resisted the colonial governments of both New Hampshire and New York.  The “Green Mountain Boys” began as the “militia” of those settlers who held land titles from Connecticut or New Hampshire rather than from New York.  They chose leaders like the ruffians Seth Warner and Ethan Allen.[1]

Came the Revolution.  Britain remained in control of Canada and might attack southward along a line that ran from Montreal as far as New York City.  Fort Ticonderoga—built by the French–commanded the invasion route along Lake Champlain.  Connecticut’s governor commissioned Ethan Allen to seize the fort from its British garrison.  Allen recruited 140 men after his own liking and headed toward “Fort Ti.”  He soon encountered Benedict Arnold and 70 men sent by Massachusetts on the same purpose.  Suppressing their mutual dislike in the interest of the common cause, the two men led their troops in storming the fort on 10 May 1775.[2]

Americans both despised the Catholic French Canadians and imagined that they wished to become “Americans.”[3]  Allen proposed an invasion, but the command went to another.  He free-lanced a coup to seize Montreal and spent three years in a British prison.  As a result of his imprisonment, Allen missed the Saratoga campaign (1777) in which Seth Warner played a notable role at the head of the “Boys” originally led by Allen.  Surrounded and cut off, British General John Burgoyne surrendered his army.   Saratoga was one of many decisive moments in the struggle for American independence.

In 1789, Allen died; in 1791, the “Grants” became the state of Vermont.

[1] Christopher S. Wren, Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom (2018).

[2] Later, the artillery captured at the fort provided the siege guns that drove the British out of Boston.

[3] It didn’t end there.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMEViYvojtY

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.

My Weekly Reader 21 October 2018.

There is a long-lasting illusion that Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union (“The Big Three”) had all emerged victorious from the Second World War.  A further myth holds that the war forged a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.  Neither of these myths is true.  First, Britain was defeated—heroically—in the Second World War: it was bankrupt, exhausted, and dominated by popular aspirations for a better life and dreams of lost grandeur.  Second, the British imagined that they could maintain international influence by mentoring the “immature” Americans in the ways of the world.  In reality, American leaders do not value Britain much except as a lever with which to move other parts of the world.

The decade following the Second World War should have made these realities clear to British leaders.  Britain abandoned the key parts of its Empire (the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, its advantageous position in China) because it lacked either the will or the power to hold them against rising nationalism; Britain received much American economic aid, while refusing to join the construction of “Europe.”  The United States dominated the conflict with Communism, both in Europe and in Asia.

Yet the British resisted recognizing reality.  They bristled when Dean Acheson said that Britain “had lost an empire, but not yet found a role.”  Britain held fast to one key claim to continued great power status: nuclear weapons.  Yet the independent nuclear deterrent formed another myth.  Britain could scarcely afford to develop weapons or delivery systems that could penetrate Soviet air-defenses, let alone in sufficient numbers to create an effective deterrent.  The coldly logical response would have been to unilaterally disarm in this one area, plow the money saved into conventional weapons that would have increased Britain’s real power, and merge Britain’s destiny with the movement toward European unity.  This they would not do.

C.P. Snow, a novelist with both experience in academic science and government, and a hard-headed approach to the world, played a role in this debate.  In Corridors of Power[1] he looked back at the critical mid-Fifties.

Snow tells the story of Roger Quaife, a youngish Conservative politician who seeks power both to be something and to do something.  The something he wants to be is a cabinet minister at an early age.  The something he wants to do is to end the British pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent and to ease Cold War tensions.  The botched Suez Expedition (1956) provides a particularly sensitive context.  Britain colluded with France and Israel to fake-up a war that “threatened” the Suez Canal in order to justify an intervention in Egypt.  The Americans then dragged on the reins.  In the aftermath, British politics became bitterly divided, “more even than after Munich.”  Quaife first maneuvers for a key ministerial position.  This makes him enemies among those who resent his rapid rise and methods.  His private life—he is married to a beautiful member of the aristocracy, but has a mistress—renders him especially vulnerable to his enemies.  His campaign against the British nuclear program seems to be shoving Britain yet further down-hill.  In the end, he is forced out of office and out of the public eye.  His former wife remarks that “It must be awful to have a brilliant future behind you.”  She might be speaking of Britain itself.  Not all war books are about wars that actually got fought.

[1] C.P. Snow, Corridors of Power (1964).

My Weekly Reader 18 October 2018.

Being born-out-of-wedlock was a major social disgrace for many centuries.  It is not so today[1] and it was not so in 11th Century Europe.  Duke Robert “the Devil,” duke of Normandy fathered a child with the presumably winsome Herleve, a tanner’s daughter.[2]

Their son, William “the Bastard,” claimed the title of Duke of Normandy after his father’s death during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  He made good that claim by a combination of favorable circumstances and his own remarkable abilities.  Chief among them were ability as an organizer and as a soldier, and a practical ruthlessness.  These qualities struck fear among those who opposed him or who might think about opposing him.  The latter group included his own vassals.  William also possessed a sincere Christian faith, marked by his generous donations to the foundation of churches and abbeys in his territory.[3]  This won him the support of the Church.

Early success at one difficult task encouraged him to raise his sights.  England lost the last of the ruling dynasty of kings (1066).  William set out to seize the crown for himself.  His chief rival for the crown, Harold Godwinson, faced multiple enemies.  Harald “Hardrada,” a Norwegian challenger, had added Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig, to his allies.  Godwinson had won the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, but Stigand was under a cloud with Rome.  As a result, William’s army fought under a papal banner as well as that of Duke William.  William descended up the shores of southern England just after Harold Godwinson had defeated the Norwegian invaders in the north of England.  William’s army defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066.

William’s victory began the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.  It took another twenty years before William had an unchallenged grip on the monarchy.  The English were not easily subdued in spite of the death of their own king at Hastings.  William’s followers[4] replaced most to the old aristocracy (called “thegns”).  William distributed revenue-producing lands seized from the English aristocrats to these followers.  However, he extracted a price: his version of feudalism gave the kings of England a tight grip on his vassals.  His unusually centralized form of government made both England and Normandy the best-governed territories in Europe.

Then his power as King of England increased his power as Duke of Normandy.  Later his successors would increase their power within France to the point where they could try to seize the crown of France as William had seized the crown of England.

William the Conqueror’s victories in England ended what is called the Anglo-Saxon period of English history.  It opened the period called Anglo-Norman.  It also began the long process by which England rose from a soggy little place of no consequence on the edge of Europe to be one of the five “Great Powers” that guided the destiny of Europe—and then of the world—from the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

[1] See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-17/almost-half-of-u-s-births-happen-outside-marriage-signaling-cultural-shift

[2] See the classic book by David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1964).

[3] Admittedly, he also plundered other such institutions, but this appears to have happened when those institutions supported one of his rivals.  As a result, church leaders were prone to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[4] He had recruited additional warriors from all over northwestern Europe to bulk-up his own Norman forces.