Summing up the war debate

Spencer Warren asked me the other day to give my own perspective on the big World War II debate. I’ve just read through the entire thread, trying to get an overview. The main participants have vast knowledge of particular issues of which I know nothing other than what I’ve read here. So the points I am about make are based only on my reading of the arguments as they are presented in this debate. Also, since the previous thread has reached its maximum size, I’m writing this in a new entry.

We can understand clearly where Mr. Warren, Alan Levine, and Gerald M. are coming from. In their view, all other considerations were secondary to defeating Hitler. Mr. Warren is ruthlessly realistic, even seemingly justifying or excusing Churchill’s betrayal of the Poles as a tragic necessity of war. But from Mr. Piatak’s point of view, that perceived necessity led Roosevelt and Churchill, as it now leads Mr. Warren, Mr. Levine, and Gerald M., into automatically justifying any accommodation to Stalin.

As for Mr. Piatak, does he oppose those accommodations to Stalin because he believes that Hitler could have been defeated without them, or does he oppose them period, feeling that accommodations to Stalin could not be justified for any reason, even for the purpose of defeating Hitler?

The answer to that question is not clear. In a few instances, Mr. Piatak does seem to suggest that Roosevelt and Churchill were needlessly solicitous of Stalin, since it was Stalin who reasonably feared that the U.S. and Britain would make a separate peace with Hitler, and he says that Roosevelt could have used that fear on Stalin’s part to manipulate Stalin, but Roosevelt didn’t do so, which suggests that Roosevelt was unnecessarily solicitous and accommodating to Stalin. Meanwhile (says Mr. Piatak), the Allies’ fears that Stalin would make a separate peace were not grounded in reality. Mr. Piatak says there was no chance of a Stalin-Hitler separate peace; Spencer and Mr. Levine says there was.

I cannot resolve this factual controversy.

On another factual question, when Mr. Piatak charges that Roosevelt was unnecessarily helping Stalin, which he says shows Roosevelt’s predisposition to ally with Stalin not out of necessity but because he wanted to, Spencer Warren comes back and says, no, Roosevelt was helping Stalin because the help was essential to winning the war, whether to get Stalin the supplies to stop Hitler, or to demonstrate to him that we could be counted on despite the delay of the Normandy invasion.

On Yalta, Mr. Warren says that there was nothing Roosevelt and Churchill could have done to save Poland. It was out of their hands. What is Mr. Piatak’s answer to this? For example, suppose that Roosevelt and Churchill, believing that Stalin would violate the Yalta agreement, did not make the Yalta agreement. Would that have saved Poland? Or is Mr. Piatak perhaps saying that by February 1945 Britain and the U.S. should have broken their alliance with the USSR and waged war against it to save Europe from Communism?

But Yalta is also a powerful point for Mr. Piatak’s side: if (as all the participants in the discussion seem to agree) Roosevelt and Churchill knew that Stalin could not be trusted on the Yalta agreement, what was point of their making the agreement with him? Why give him legitimacy? Also, by the time of Yalta, wasn’t Hitler finished anyway? But there’s a good answer to this question: the Japanese war. Roosevelt had to keep Stalin on our side in the event his help was needed against Japan. So once again the Warren position asserts itself, and there seems to be no end to the accommodations the U.S. and Britain had to make to Stalin in order to win the war.

But Mr. Piatak says the fact that Roosevelt envisioned the USSR as one of the four policemen for the world after the war showed that he wasn’t just helping Stalin in order to win the war, but that he positively favored Stalin. However, I would reply that even if Mr. Piatak is correct on that point, and therefore FDR is greatly to be blamed for legitimizing and empowering the USSR in the afterwar settlements, that would not disprove the point that during the war Roosevelt had to help Stalin in order to win the war.

Also, I don’t agree with Spencer’s defense of Roosevelt’s support for the founding of the UN. I think the UN was bad and terrible in its very conception; I oppose everything about the UN. We could have created smaller ad hoc international alliances for particular purposes, instead of creating a body that had pretensions to world government from its very inception.

Finally, to return to questions I asked before, does Mr. Piatak ever acknowledge that the help to the Soviets was necessary for winning the war? Is Mr. Piatak saying that Hitler could have been defeated without cozying up to Stalin? Or is he saying that defeating Hitler did indeed require cozying up to Stalin, and therefore defeating Hitler wasn’t worth it? What is Mr. Piatak’s bottom line?

- end of initial entry -

M. Jose writes:

In terms of the recent discussion between Warren, Piatak, et al. over whether or not the concessions and assistance given to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill and the outcome of the Second World War vis a vis the USSR was defensible given the information available at the time, it is worth noting that (arguably) part of the reason why we needed Stalin so badly toward the end of the war (obviously, there are no conceivable circumstances whereby we would not have needed the USSR’s help at the beginning) was because of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender and the determination completely to crush Germany and Japan. This seems to me to be a major issue, but I have not seen anyone bring it up in this discussion.

According to Paul Gottfried, the Allies rejected pleas to help a German resistance movement and even helped the Nazis to scuttle it, because such an uprising would have made it harder to justify smashing Germany (as opposed to negotiating a surrender):

Among his less attractive achievements was having actually discouraged the uprising against the Nazi government in July 1944 and similar initiatives before, because if they had succeeded, the Allies would not have been able to smash the Germans as thoroughly as they had wanted to. Recent scholarship by German historian Gerd Uberschar and the British writer Brian Martin suggest that Churchill had a hand not only in blackening the German resistance, which he did in a speech before Parliament on August 2, 1944, but also in contributing to the deaths of resistance leaders. The success of an anti-Nazi coup would have damaged Churchill’s war aims, which included, beside the utter devastation of a defeated Germany, cashing in on the good will of Soviet Russia. Churchill went so far in his efforts to keep anti-Nazi German patriots, including moderate leftist like Julius Leber, from prevailing against Hitler that he leaked information about their identities and whereabouts to the Gestapo, with the help of the BBC and the Chief of Political Warfare John W. Wheeler-Bennett.

Similarly, one could question whether the need to keep Stalin in reserve in case we invaded Japan (which turned out to be unnecessary due to the A-bomb, but which was part of the reason for many of the concessions at Yalta) would have existed if we had been willing to negotiate the terms of their surrender.

LA replies:

My strictures against anti-Roosevelt and anti-Churchill demonology have apparently made no impression on Mr. Jose. The charges against Churchill that he approvingly quotes are disgusting and unbelievable. They are of the same species as the charge that Roosevelt was aware that the Pearl Harbor attack was coming and covered it up—a charge that, no matter how many times it is discredited, keeps returning, as it satisfies something in the souls of the anti-war right. For the anti-war right true believers, it’s not enough to say that Churchill and Roosevelt were mistaken, benighted, catastrophically wrong-headed, dishonest and tricky, appeasers and facilitators of Communism. No, they have to be monsters, murderers of good men, total devils. Indeed, the way things are going in the anti-war right, the next thing we will hear is that Churchill was a secret Jew who murdered gentile boys and used their blood in Passover matzo. Or maybe that charge has already been made and I just haven’t heard it yet.

LA continues:

I wonder if there’s any anti-war garbage which, on hearing it, Mr. Jose would not instantly believe it and send it to me. Does he have any internal checks? Did he think this gargage would be welcomed and treated respectfully at VFR?

And I notice that the Paul Gottfried passage that Mr. Jose quotes does not even say that this garbage has been established, only that it has been “suggested.” Oh, great. M. Jose hears that it’s been “suggested” (suggested!) that Churchill arranged for the murder of good Germans in order to prolong the war, and he thinks this is good enough to believe and send to VFR.

And shame on Paul Gottfried too, for passing along this disgusting “suggestion” to his readerss as though it were an established part of the historical record. It’s both sad and funny how one moment Mr. Gottfried bemoans the paleocon tendency to demonize enemies which he says has resulted in the marginalization of paleocons, and in the next moment he resumes the same demonization.

David B. writes:

I have followed the Great WWII Debate at VFR. I happen to have read and studied WWII history since childhood. I read most of the Hitler biographies and other books about the Third Reich. During the 1970s, I read about Stalin and his generals, as well as books about Stalin in general. In recent years, I have read a lot on the 8th Air Force bombing campaign.

Yes, it was necessary to send the Soviet Union as much aid as possible. Most authorities agree that over 80 percent of German casualties were on the Eastern front. Would Stalin have made a separate peace with Hitler? He would have if it was in his interest to do so. Some people (the pro-Soviet apologists) think the Soviet Union was neutral before June 22, 1941. In fact, Stalin sent material to Hitler, which only stopped with the German invasion. This is in addition to invading eastern Poland, attacking Finland, and the Baltic states. No, the Soviet Union was not an innocent bystander before Hitler attacked.

We know of Hitler’s evil acts, but aside from that he can only be described as bizarre. Hitler’s intelligence agencies told him in 1941 that the United States had four- engine bombers that could bomb Germany, as well as unlimited industrial potential. Hitler refused to accept it, as he had a certain willful stupidity about him. This undermines Buchanan’s theory. We entered WWII because Japan attacked us. Then, Hitler declared war on the Unites States when he did not really have to.

Finally, by the time of the Yalta conference, the Soviet Union had overrun Poland and Eastern Europe. They were not going to leave no matter what agreements were signed.

Tom Piatak writes:

I do not have a “bottom line” in that I do not have a grand theory as to how World War II should have been waged. What I do believe is that, in Norman Davies’s phrase, World War II was “no simple victory,” because the obvious good of liberating Western Europe from Nazi rule was accompanied by the displacement of one totalitarian dictatorship by another in Central and Eastern Europe. I also agree with Evelyn Waugh that by allying itself with Stalin, Britain was “led blundering into dishonour,” a dishonor illustrated by such episodes as the lies and force the British used to return anti-Communists to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to be massacred, the betrayal of a staunch Polish ally to Stalin, and the lies Churchill told on Stalin’s behalf. Such episodes are inevitable when a country genuinely allies itself with the likes of Stalin, as men like Waugh recognized at the time.

I also believe that Roosevelt and Churchill paid insufficient attention during the war to the likely balance of power in Europe after the war. Once Nazi Germany was at war with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Germany’s defeat was very likely, and became all but inevitable well before the war ended, but the Allies remained focused almost entirely on securing Germany’s defeat, whereas Stalin had clear ideas about how he wanted to position the Soviet Union after the war.

Roosevelt, by contrast, told his military aide Admiral Leahy that “I do not think we need to worry about any possibility of Russian domination,” and proceeded not to worry about it. Instead, he had a naive confidence in his ability to influence Stalin, writing Churchill that “I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department.” FDR also believed that “The only reason we stand so well with the Russians is that up to date we have kept our promises.” Unfortunately for the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe, the policy of exchanging good American promises for worthless Soviet ones ultimately encouraged the “Russian domination” that FDR professed not to worry about.

Mr. Levine wonders how Yalta gave Stalin moral cover when Stalin ended up breaking the promises he made there. Yalta gave Stalin moral cover because the Allies at Yalta issued a statement describing what the Soviets were doing in Eastern and Central Europe as “liberation.” By March 1945 we knew that the Soviets were imprisoning and deporting members of the Polish Home Army who had been our allies. Yet the Allies still withdrew diplomatic recognition from the Polish government in exile and recognized as the legitimate government of Poland the Communist government Stalin had installed as part of what we agreed was his “liberation” of Poland. Incredibly, as late as November 1945, when the war was over and there was no need—if ever there was—to encourage Stalin to fight Hitler, Churchill was still praising Stalin as “this truly great man, the father of his nation,” an encomium that was reprinted in Pravda.

And Yalta also had disastrous consequences in Asia. Mr. Levine is correct that Stalin needed no great encouragement to seize his share of the spoils from a weakened Japan in August 1945. Part of what he seized was Manchuria, the Soviet control of which was instrumental in the Communist victory in China, which brought to power Mao Tse-Tung, who ended up murdering tens of millions of Chinese. The Soviets also seized North Korea, which languishes to this day as a Stalinist hellhole. With a record like this, I think it is legitimate to wonder if the West might have done better, and to question the judgments made by the men who led us.

LA replies:

I had thought (I may be mistaken) that Mr. Piatak had entered this debate as a supporter of Patrick Buchanan’s position that Britain and America should not have fought Hitler at all. Now he repeats criticisms of Roosevelt and Churchill that have mostly been mainstream for a long time. So it’s still not clear to me where he’s coming from. Does he agree with Buchanan? Does he think that Britain and the U.S. should not have allied with Stalin, period, given the evils that came from that alliance? Or does he only regret that they were too complaisant toward Stalin, not that they allied with him?

Scott in PA writes:

I just finished Buchanan’s book and I now have a different view of Churchill. I think it’s enough to say that Churchill was “mistaken, benighted, catastrophically wrong-headed, dishonest and tricky, [and an appeaser and facilitator] of Communism.” That’s bad enough, but it does not make me a “Churchill hater.” The man had his brilliant traits, but sound judgment in statecraft was not one of them. The final 70 pages of the book is a merciless and relentless critique of Churchill, and Buchanan does an excellent job of marshaling an impressive array of contemporary and historiographic opinion.

I don’t think Britain or the U.S. should have allied with Stalin. The Soviet Union was the greater evil, the greater threat. That was known before the war and it was made obvious after the war. The Allies’ help may not have even been necessary: the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad on February 2, 1943. That battle is considered a turning point in the war and occurred a full 16 months before the Normandy invasion.

Buchanan does not offer any “alternate histories” or “what ifs.” That is not really the job of the historian, but the reader can make a reasoned speculation. With Britain and the U.S. out, I think Hitler would have slogged on against the Soviet Union. To do so, he would have needed to draw on his army on the Western front. He would have lost millions. If he prevailed, it would not have been for long, but probably long enough to liquidate the Soviet Communists. He then would have faced uprisings from Russian nationalists and perhaps latter-day Tsarist movements. Any notion that a Germany that just lost millions of men could hold on to a vast territory of seething nationalists is implausible. Britain and the U.S. would have been incomparably stronger.

Alan Levine writes:

Have some points to add about Tom Piatak, and others’ comments.

I was a bit surprised to see Mr. Auster and Mr. Piatak both suggesting, following Waugh, that Churchill and Roosevelt “allied” themselves with Stalin. That seems to me to romanticize what happened (in a way favorable to the Soviets!). After all, what actually occurred was that the Nazis attacked the Soviets, who had been their partners, and drove them into uneasy alliance with the powers already opposed to Germany. We were stuck with them, and they were stuck with us. In a sense, that actually justifies strenuous criticism of people who romanticized this out of recognition and, like Roosevelt, were exaggeratedly optimistic of where this would lead to.

I would also like to make clear that I am by no means as favorable to the wartime conduct of the Western allies as I may perhaps have inadvertently sounded in countering what seems to me to Mr. Piatak’s very exaggerated attacks on Churchill and FDR. Actually, I would agree with Norman Davies comment about “no simple victory.” That is hardly a new idea. As Chester Wilmot put it neatly in 1952, the result of World War II was to drive the frontier of totalitarianism from the Rhine to the Elbe. That of course was much better than having it reach the Atlantic, much less the whole world.

I thought Mr. Piatak was particularly unfair to Churchill, who was quite clearly worried about the Soviets. After all, despite some wildly optimistic public statements—forced on him, as I have pointed out, by practical circumstances of the time, he did try several things designed to improve the Western position by (1) bringing Turkey into the war (2) attempting to reach Vienna and Budapest from the south in 1944 (3) By urging the Americans to get Eisenhower to drive as far to the east as possible in 1945 and hold onto the areas captured for bargaining purpose (4) the successful anti-Communist intervention in Greece in 1944. I could probably multiply the instances, but those are clear enough.

I might also remind everyone that if people had listened to Churchill in 1918 and the 1930s neither the Communists nor the Nazis would have been around to cause trouble.

As for Roosevelt, it is quite clear that he was grossly overoptimistic. (I also agree with Mr. Auster about the folly of the UN.) I would merely deny that he went over the line and “betrayed Poland” and that sort of thing. I am mystified by the argument that the Declaration on Liberated Europe was a cover for Soviet actions. It is also the case that even he, as Spencer Warren has alluded to, took some precautions in case he was wrong; and, during late 1944 and 1945, came to realize that he HAD been wrong.

I also do not consider all the Western actions or judgments justifiable even in the wartime context. It was wrong to think that we had to invade Japan and even if we had had to do so a Soviet attack on the Asian mainland would have been of little help since by that time American air and sea power would have cut Japan off from the mainland. In this case, Roosevelt was the victim of bad military advice. As for unconditional surrender, I do not think that it was exactly the world’s most imaginative political warfare stance. But it has never been clear to me, however, what would have been a better position. That we should have been more forthcoming to the German resistance I wouldn’t doubt. The usual line, however, that unconditional surrender made the Axis fight harder seems to me to be contradicted by the contemporary evidence. Rather, the Germans, Japanese and Italians regarded it as hot air, and did not take it seriously, always assuming that in the last resort they could make some sort of deal. I also doubt the possibility of a German-Soviet separate peace, but this is the sort of thing Churchill and FDR had to take seriously, and which Stalin was careful to deploy against them.

Spencer Warren writes:

You may think, with reason, the U.N. was a bad idea, but the point is that it was a very popular idea among the U.S. public by late in the war. The President had to work with public opinion to reach his highest goal of ensuring active U.S. involvement in the postwar world, and averting the isolationist disaster that followed World War I. The disaster of 1919 naturally weighed heavily on the minds of policymakers in 1944-45.

The comment of Scott in PA is so ignorant as not to require comment, as it has been refuted in the many earlier comments. Buchanan is not a historian but a propagandist and dogmatist who quotes or cites what is convenient to his dogma. Scott would be well-advised to read widely in the work of professional, fair-minded historians like, for example, Professor Gerhard Weinberg’s The World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, and other works in his footnotes.

Finally, it is quite unfortunate that many people are interested only in pushing their dogma, not in an open-minded discussion. For example, Mr. Piatak’s latest anti-FDR quotes are fair points. But why doesn’t he analyze them with the points I made about FDR’s briefing for the congressmen when he told them he understood Poland’s plight but at that point there was little he could do, plus his secrecy about the atomic bomb project. Much of history is gray matter, not black and white, as the rather ignorant Buchanan tries to paint it all the time, whatever the subject.

Spencer Warren also sent the following last night on the subject of a separate peace:

The Spectre of a Separate Peace in the East: Russo-German ‘Peace Feelers’, 1942-44 Author(s): H. W. Koch Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 10, No. 3, (Jul., 1975), pp. 531-549

I just purchased this online but under the terms cannot send it to you.

Here is the point:

“In the volume British Foreign Policy in the Second World War of the official History of the Second World War, published in 1962, Sir Llewellyn Woodward informs us that in 1943 the British Foreign Office received rumours of Russo-German peace conversations and that Molotov stated when questioned about them that the Soviet Government had received no such approaches from the Germans. Strictly speaking, Molotov was telling the truth. Rumours in August of the same year emanating from Stockholm were regarded by the British Foreign Office as an attempt by the Germans to cause trouble between the British and the Russians […]

“Yet as far as Russo-German peace feelers, or rather the attempts to establish them, are concerned, there exists old as well as hitherto unpublished evidence which would suggest that such attempts were made in earnest. While Molotov, as recorded by Sir Llewellyn Wood- ward, was quite correct in stating in 1943 that the Soviet Government had received no German approaches this assurance said nothing about what may have been genuine Russian approaches to Germany in 1943 as well as in 1944. The approaches of 1943 first became public knowledge in 1950.”

The remainder of the article examines these other approaches and concludes “such evidence as exists suggests the possibility of a separate peace in the east.”

It would have been as easy for Mr. Piatak to find this article as I did online—from a scholarly, professional historical journal. Yet he just baldly dismisses this issue. Here is another point where he is wrong on the facts.

Mr. Warren also writes:

Gerhard L. Weinberg is one of the most respected historians of the Second World War. In his Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders, Cambridge, 2005, p. 108), he states that Stalin was attempting to secure a separate peace with Nazi Germany, according to another scholarly article, British Intelligence and the July Bomb Plot of 1944: A Reappraisal, by P.R.J. Winter, in the journal War In History 2006; 13; 468, footnote 11, which I found online. (But I cannot provide the link. Readers would have to use Google with the article title and author.)

The context in the footnote is that Winter writes that one reason the British refused contacts with anti-Nazi resistance figures was “a real fear that any sign of British support for anti-Hitler elements within the Third Reich might be misconstrued by Britain’s Soviet allies.” Winter then quotes Weinberg.

Again, Mr. Piatak could have found this as easily online as I have.

Mr. Warren continues:

Sorry, Mr. Piatak as I recall wrote the Allies weren’t concerned about Russia making a separate peace, not that there weren’t any negotiations. But my quotes still stand, especially the first one from Britain’s official history.

(Note: the below is a revised version of a comment by Mr. Jose that was posted earlier.)

M. Jose writes:

I am sorry if I suggested that the claims by Paul Gottfried were “established history.” I will admit that I do not reject them out of hand as you do, but I did not intend to suggest that I was certain of their correctness. (I guess in my head I was thinking that by saying “according to Paul Gottfried” I was indicating that I was not whole heartedly agreeing with the statement). I will say that I did assume that if there was an element of truth to the story, there were likely mitigating facts so that Churchill was not simply doing evil while laughing maniacally.*

I will also admit that I portrayed Paul Gottfried as more certain of the statements than he was, and I will also agree that Gottfried, after making the initial statement that these things were “suggested,” then talks about them in such a way as to suggest that he wholeheartedly endorses the suggestion.

I think this is a case of my letting my mouth get ahead of my head. I will admit that when someone comes up with a heterodox perspective on an issue that I have not studied a lot (Churchill and the WWII German Resistance being such a topic), I have a tendency to post about it and become fascinated with it before I think it entirely through (in particular, before I weigh all of the arguments against it).

While I do believe that the demand for unconditional surrender and a general apathy toward the Germans probably did prevent the Allies from taking advantage of German resistance movements and did serve to help Stalin’s interests, the charge that Churchill maliciously sold out German resistance members or any suggestion that he wanted the USSR to take land in Eastern Europe was inappropriate.

* I could see Churchill giving the name of a resistance leader to the Nazis if he feared that the person was not intending to end the war or the Third Reich, but was simply going to install himself in Hitler’s place, and did not want to risk the possibility of the war continuing, but with a more balanced and competent leader at the helm.

Put another way, to the extent that Churchill’s feelings toward Germany caused such problems, they would be due more to an inability to trust Germans enough to take advantage of such a situation rather than simple malice, and due to a “better the devil you know” attitude toward anyone who might have attempted to oust Hitler. Even a desire to smash Germany totally would be more nuanced in this way rather than a simple vendetta.

LA replies:

I appreciate M. Jose’s manful forthright admission of his mistake.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 02, 2008 10:30 PM | Send

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