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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The Fifty Years War 1.

Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Peoples Republic of China threatened the survival of millennia of human progress.  They had to be fought to the death.  Otherwise darkness would spread over the Earth.  It would be easy to characterize this as the Children of Darkness versus the Children of Light.  Life isn’t like that.  Instead, squalid moral compromises imposed themselves in this titanic struggle.  So, from 1939 to 1989, we embraced the lesser tyrannies in order to defeat the greater tyrannies.  The United States allied itself with the British Empire and Stalinist Russia to defeat Hitler’s Germany.  Then the United States allied itself with Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Saudi Arabia, post-Nasserite Egypt, Asian dictatorships (Taiwan, South Korea, South Vietnam), Shavian Iran, then Saddam Hussein against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a great many African dictatorships.

We got our hands dirty in the process.  Very dirty.  We tolerated the atrocities of inhumane regimes allied to our cause.  We ourselves–and not just the soldiers we sent to do our bidding–committed atrocities.  We advanced the interests of the private corporations that we used as instruments and proxies.  We slighted the humanitarian organizations that expressed an important strand of American idealism.

And we won.  Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union as created by Joseph Stalin, and Communist China as created by Mao Zedong have all been laid in the dust.  We won, but not we alone.  We had allies, notably Britain and its Commonwealth of Nations, and the Western European countries that created the European Union, and Japan.

Squalid moral compromises didn’t always have squalid outcomes.  One great story of the second half of the Twentieth Century has been the expansion of democracy.  Places where democracy failed in the Thirties and Forties (Italy, Austria, Germany, France) have become solidly democratic political systems.  One-time dictatorships (Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Baltic states, Japan) have become democratic societies.  Formal colonial empires have been dismantled, allowing many societies to make a mess of things on the own and for the advantage of their own elites, rather than by and for Western elites.  The idea of Democracy has expanded.  Women have the vote and a greater chance at participation in most Western societies.  “Democracy” has come to mean government action to promote material welfare and opportunity in many countries.

Still, the “Fifty Years’ War” had its costs.  Not all of them were numbered in economic terms or human lives.  The war cost us in social and psychological terms.  Chief among them seems to be the entrenching of a war mind-set.  This appears in the overblown hostility to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the fear of radical Islam.  Loathsome as these are, neither poses an existential threat.

What have we done, what will we do with our victory?  That is, “What do we offer?”  NOT the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” declared by Winston Churchill.  Rather we want to offer honest work at decent pay; family homes; the right to your opinion, even if it is nutty or you don’t care to say; equal treatment under the law; and a tolerance for diversity.

What we aspire to offer everyone isn’t what we do offer to everyone yet.  Still, it’s better than wearing a suicide vest into a steamy rural market or writing malware in a freezing tenement.

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.

Hitler’s War

Adolf Hitler created the Second World War.  He didn’t just start the war, he repeatedly took the initiative to expand it and to point it in new directions.  For this reason it is best labeled “Hitler’s War.”

The war really began in late-August 1939 when Hitler made a deal with Russia to divide Eastern Europe.  This led to the rapid conquest of Poland (Sept. 1939).  In late 1939 Hitler decided on war in the West at the first opportunity.  In April and May 1940 German forces over-ran Denmark and Norway.  In May and June 1940 they over-ran Holland, Belgium and France, driving the British army off the Continent.  Hitler was master of Europe!  Except that the British had now concluded that Mr. Hitler was not a very nice person at all.  (See: Charles I, Louis XIV, Napoleon I, Kaiser Wilhelm II.)  The British fought on, defeating Germany’s planned invasion by winning control of the air over the English Channel in the Battle of Britain.  The Germans then turned to starving out the British through submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic.  This, too, failed.

Hitler’s victory forced other countries to make choices they didn’t want to make.

Italy declared war just as France fell, then found itself at war with Britain in the Mediterranean.  The German conquests in Europe created a vacuum of power in the Far East.  Japan sought to exploit this to establish its own supremacy.  Germany’s defeat of France and the weak position of Britain terrified the Americans, who began to supply military assistance to the British (Lend-Lease) and to take a strong line against Japan.

Hitler widened the war in1941.  He responded to a local challenge by conquering Yugoslavia and Greece in Spring 1941.  In June 1941 he launched a huge surprise attack on his Russian ally, capturing millions of prisoners and conquering huge swaths of territory.  Alarmed that the war would end without their having any claim on territory, the Japanese attacked.  The air raid on Pearl Harbor was followed by the conquest of the Philippines, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies.  Soon after Pearl Harbor Hitler declared war on the United States.  Also in 1941 Hitler ordered the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem”: this would involve the murder of millions through mass shootings in Russia and the construction of death camps in Poland.

The further course of the war is best summed up in the term “ocean barriers and land bridges.”  American forces had to cross vast oceans to reach their German and Japanese enemies.  An armada of ships had to be constructed and control of the seas won.  Worse still, the Americans and the British divided their resources between the European war, which mattered, and the Pacific war, which did not.  In contrast, Germany and Russia had no water barriers between them; they were in continuous contact from Summer 1941 to Spring 1945.  Neither side could break off, so the great majority of German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front, while the British and the Americans made less of a contribution to the defeat of Hitler.  Until Summer 1944 the bombing of Germany destroyed cities without harming the German war effort.

The war rushed to an end from Summer 1944 to Summer 1945.  The Americans and the British invaded France (June 1944) just as the Russians unleashed a gigantic attack on the Eastern Front.  Hitler’s empire crumbled, while the Americans banjoed the Japanese in a remarkable war fought across trackless ocean and trackless island jungle.

War had ruined virtually the whole world, and had revealed that people were capable of anything (Auschwitz and Hiroshima).  There would be no easy peace.