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.

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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.