Saturday, January 5, 2019

Book Review: The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson

This book was a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. The premise offers an original context for understanding the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Not much else in this large book was new. 

Although he is a nationally renowned conservative commentator and college professor, I did not know of Victor Davis Hanson before this. I was surfing YouTube watching something else historical and the automatic offerings along the right showed “The Second World Wars.” The title was interesting. So, I watched it. The presentation was from Book TV (view here).  
  The lecture was delivered at the National Review Institute. In fact, Hanson has delivered nearly the same talk several times. The presentations are excellent summaries of his 600+ page book.  But the book can be considered and evaluated more carefully.
The Second World Wars:
How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won 

by Victor Davis Hanson (Basic Books, 2017).

The premise is compelling. During the 1930s and into the 1940s, several different wars were fought by a dozen different belligerents. It was not until the summer of 1941 that the three Allied superpowers aligned against the three fascist aggressors. Note, of course, that among the Allies was the USSR, which had joined with Germany in attacking Poland, as well as carrying out a different war against Finland. The USSR also rolled over the three very small Baltic states. At the same time up to 1939 the USSR had engaged in border skirmishes with Japanese occupation forces in Manchuria and Mongolia. The conclusion of those hostilities put Russia and Japan into a neutral situation in the Pacific. That allowed US Lend-Lease materials to flow into the USSR on Russian flagged freighters that were not intercepted or harassed by the Japanese Imperial fleet–even though those supplies would be used by the USSR against Germany, which was nominally allied with Japan. 

Even more persuasive is Hanson’s accounting of industrial capacity. With clear 20-20 hindsight, Hanson demonstrates conclusively that the Axis lacked the ability to win. Hanson is not alone in that assessment. Dwight D. Eisenhower earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in military industrial management. The numbers were real. As long as the Allies maintained the will to fight, victory was assured. It was only a matter of time.

And cost. Hanson adds up the human toll. Unlike most other wars, the nominal winners suffered more than the obvious losers. About 80% of the casualties were not Axis citizens. And while not unique, it remains remarkable that only fraction of the 60 to 80 million dead were military combatants. 

All of that is worth remembering.

Most of the book consists of re-arrangements of known facts. In two of his lectures, Hanson says that his editor at Basic Books challenged him to come up with something new in a field that already offered 7,000 titles. Hanson organizes World War II into Ideas, Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and People before concluding with “Ends: Why and What Did the Allies Win?” With retrospective clairvoyance Hanson questions and perhaps disproves several articles of dogma asserted by military historians. Among those is the doctrine of air power. We do not live in the air. We live on land. And the only purpose of superiority in air power is to enable the conflict on land. The same is true of sea power. That said, the fact remains that without those, the Axis could not prosecute its land wars. The Axis had about a dozen aircraft carriers while the Allies floated ten times that number. The same applies to aircraft, the Axis lacking four-engine bombers and flocks of fighters to support them. On the ground, the Allies rolled out thousands of tanks and other artillery. We could because the United States of America alone far surpassed the industrial capacity of the Axis. In fact, says Hanson, the USA could have defeated Germany, Japan, Italy, the UK and the USSR combined. Unfortunately, he never identifies why. Hanson never refers to capitalism, free enterprise, or rights. As a conservative, Prof. Victor Davis Hanson is a traditionalist, not a libertarian. He fails to connect the material prosperity of a society with the right of the individual to the pursuit of their own happiness. 

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