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The Second World War in Context of History & Modern Warfare

17 Jun

The period in history which enabled the years of death and destruction known as the second of the “World Wars,” or, World War II, was systemic of a global civilization advancing towards a modern society where the myriad political, geographical, ethnic, and economic tensions of its more powerful countries became manifest in imperialistic conflict. Niall Ferguson in The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West offers that three factors “explain the extreme violence” of this period: “… ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline.”[1] The aggressors of the 1930s and 1940s – Germany and Japan, and Italy to a lesser extent, were caught in the “perfect storm” created by the desire for new territories paired with the necessity for essential resources they each lacked.

The Second World War was far worse in scale, scope, and device than the Great War. Technological progression since the 1919 Armistice changed the killing fields of trench warfare and gas attacks to carrier warfare in the Pacific and long-range bombing campaigns in Europe. The last fateful stop in this technological progression of World War II-era modern warfare culminated in the one-step destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is from this dramatic post-war period that the world’s new superpowers induced self-caution knowing the potential for total annihilation by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s invention.[2] Clearly, as Gerhard Weinberg states in his closing of A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, the greatest lesson-learned from the Second World War is the potential for our own total destruction: “The great conflagration stood as a warning for us all.”[3]

David M. Kennedy in Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, notes the change in attitude across post-war America, and what had then become referred to as the “good war” – the last good war fought by conventional armies with conventional weapons in a war of attrition; one void from the threat of nuclear weapons and holocaust. Kennedy notes the effect the war had on the economy in post-war America: the subsequent rise of the middle class; the baby boom; groundwork for the civil rights movement and a new focus on women in society. He maintains this perspective in his interpretation of the war: “Small wonder that Americans chose to think of it as the good war. It was a war that had brought them as far as the imagination could reach …” [4] Norman Davies in No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 adroitly points out that “Good does not seem to be quite the right adjective when one bears in mind the unprecedented killing and suffering of innocents that took place on all sides.”[5] The interpretations of the Second World War, which historians place in context with other wars that preceded and followed, include value judgments, justifiability, and moral trepidation. In recent popular history, the Second World War is referred to as a “good war” when compared to the Korean War or Vietnam War; the perspective changing from one of weaponry to justifiability – irrespective of an American victory. Davies notes in No Simple Victory that the Cold War which kept the US and Soviet Union at arms-length has had a deleterious effect on the history of World War II itself:

For fifty years the two superpowers that emerged in 1945 pursued their separate visions of the war as an integral part of their rivalry. Then, in the 1990s, after the USA was left as the sole superpower, a new, and more Americocentric view of the Second World War appeared. Stephen Ambrose became the historian of the hour, and Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List became the war films of the decade.[6]

The role of the Soviet Union’s accomplishment on the Eastern Front and its overall importance to Allied victory has been relegated to second-class status in American popular history due to past Cold War attitudes – a product of political and cultural bias. This obvious bias has had a detrimental effect to the recording of this history for decades. Granted, Stalin was not the moral equivalent of FDR or Churchill; Ferguson notes in The War of the World: “To win the Second World War, the western powers had allied themselves with a despot who was every bit as brutal a tyrant as Hitler.”[7] The historical records should not however downplay the contributions of the Soviets to the Grand Alliance. Davies adds: “All one can say is that someday, somehow, the present fact of American supremacy will be challenged, and with it the American interpretation of history.” [8] Weinberg in A World at Arms stays away from any controversy of historical perspective – remaining steadfast and opting to write of the history itself.

Weinberg notes in a bit of historical irony, “The future of warfare it there was one, lay not on the traditional battlefield but in cities held hostage by weapons of mass destruction that the war had spurred American science to create.”[9] This is one of the legacies borne of the Second World War – a nuclear line in the sand not to be crossed. All of the historians quoted in this paper agree, and share the same closing thought, that the planet and mankind would not survive another “world war” – that it would be the last. Davies, Ferguson, Kennedy, and Weinberg further concur that the single most important, yet devastating, thing that came out of the Second World War was the creation and use of the atomic bomb. Interestingly, the beginning of this “brave new world” was brought about by Henry Stimson and General Leslie Groves with little thought or fanfare, as Kennedy notes in Freedom from Fear: “To a degree that later generations would find remarkable, the advent of the nuclear age was heralded by little fanfare and even less formal deliberation.”[10]

As Davies points out in No Simple Victory, the era served another turning point in the technological innovation of warfare – the world’s first electronic computer named Colossus; the product of the British masterminds at Ultra and the Buckinghamshire village of Bletchley Park helped the Allies immeasurably in North Africa, the Atlantic, and on both fronts of Europe.[11] Ferguson notes in The War of the World that thanks to the British intelligence at Bletchley Park, “… the Allies were consistently one step ahead of the Germans …”[12] Weinberg in A World at Arms goes into depth on the critical successes in the Allied use of intelligence and code-breaking efforts; noting that the neglect of signals intelligence by MacArthur’s headquarters was a serious error in the fighting on Leyte in the Philippines (this too, added to his legacy).[13] For the first time in the history of modern warfare, the extensive use of electronic computers, though primitive by today’s standards, and signal technology is used to dramatic effect.

Of common importance and agreement among the historians quoted in this paper is the subject of wartime production in America. The Second World War was won through economic means of production – the ability to bring aircraft, armor, and weaponry quickly to a theater of war is evident throughout the literature. Weinberg in A World at Arms alludes to this economic capacity by America and its positive effects in a post-war America: “The effort to create and arm huge military forces as speedily as possible changed the country in ways that remained after the new plants and training centers had served their original purpose.”[14] For the first time in the history of modern warfare, World War II showcased the necessity of a vibrant industrial and manufacturing base on the home front. Kennedy highlights incredible economic statistics which skewed in America’s favor before the war: America out-produced Germany, Japan, and Italy in key economic sectors prior to her 1941 entry into the war. Although still mired in the Depression, the US output of steel and coal dwarfed that of Germany in 1938 – with the latter doubled by the US.[15] In the United States, American auto manufacturers produced 4.8 million cars in 1937; while during that same period Germany produced just 331,000; and, Japan just 26,000.[16] It is in these same Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler factories that were producing vehicles in America prior to 1942 now shifted their focus and turned over production-lines to tanks, armored vehicles, and aircraft.

The interpretations of the Second World War by these four historians are all quite diverse yet serve as important contributions to the literature and essential reading for those seeking a comprehensive view of the war, from different perspectives. Weinberg’s A World at Arms stands as the most comprehensive and unbiased single-volume work on the subject. The author does a great job of delivering the history contextually and straight-forward. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear tells the history of the American people at war; delivered in a narrative format as opposed to the “textbook” style similar to that of Weinberg. Davies’ No Simple Victory is an apt name for his interpretation of the Second World War. The author raises many questions and writes about the history itself – rather than providing facts and timelines in the more standard “textbook format.” Davies’ book is a refreshing read; of which helps to keep the history of this war in its proper context. Ferguson’s The War of the World was by far the most dramatic of the four books – dramatic yet unbiased. His reference to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is an interesting, if not obvious, analogy to the Second World War. I chose these four titles because I thought they all offered the most diverse and comprehensive works on the Second World War in context. All are brilliantly written works of academic history.

 

Bibliography

Davies, Norman. No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Page references are to the 2008 edition.

Ferguson, Naill. The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Page references are to the 2007 edition.

Kennedy, David. M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page references are to the 2005 edition.


[1] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) xli

[2] Weinberg, Gerhard L., A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 920.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David M Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 856-857.

[5] Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2007) 487.

[6] Ibid., 478

[7] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) 594.

[8] Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2007) 487.

[9] David M Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 856.

[10] Ibid., 839.

[11] Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2007) 39.

[12] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) 523.

[13] Weinberg, Gerhard L., A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 554.

[14] Ibid., 494.

[15] David M Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 616-617.

[16] Ibid., 617.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in The Eastern Front

 

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