The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won
“The Second World Wars may be the penultimate history of World War II.”
The Second World War. We all tend to think of the conflict that lasted from 1939 until 1945 as a singular event. It wasn’t according to historian and Classics scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson’s mammoth tome, The Second World Wars, goes into granular detail about how the conflict was a series of interrelated conflagrations that ultimately contributed to the greatest bloodletting in human history.
Hanson’s approach to this topic is somewhat novel. Divided into seven thematic sections, The Second World Wars looks at the role of airpower, naval armaments, infantry tactics, tanks and artillery, and the competency of the Allied and Axis generals who led the fight. Hanson also dissects the ideas that caused the war to break out in the first place. Hanson notes that, “Age-old border and national grievances sparked tensions.”
This is an ancient cause of conflict. Racial supremacist notions, whether the National Socialist Volk ideal, Mussolini’s fascist razza, or the Japanese code of emperor worship also contributed to the war. Hanson has few kind words for the prewar leaders of Great Britain and France, whose biases against the failed artist Hitler, the failed novelist Mussolini, and the failed essayist Joseph Stalin made them blind to the fact that all “proved nonetheless in nihilistic times to be astute political operatives far more gifted than most of their gentleman counterparts in the European democracies of the 1930s.”
That sense of nihilism touched every aspect of the Axis war plans. Hanson makes it clear that the German war machine was far from invincible. Indeed, during 1939–1940, the Wehrmacht relied on horse transportation, had tanks that were inferior to French and Soviet ones, and had an air force (Luftwaffe) that lacked heavy bombers and a navy that was nowhere near as strong as the British Royal Navy or even the peacetime American Navy.
The same held true for the Japanese, who were embarrassed by the Soviet Red Army in Mongolia in 1939 and were tied down throughout much of the war in a pointless quagmire against a weaker, but more numerous Chinese foe. The Royal Italian military, which sent its troops to Abyssinia, Albania, Greece, Egypt, and France, did so while lacking half the industrial capabilities of France, the UK, or the USA. Hanson posits it was democratic timidity and a desire to avoid another trench-based slaughter that led to the early gains of the Axis powers between 1939 and 1942.
The Second World Wars is an exhaustive study that makes it abundantly clear that there was no way for an Axis victory. The Allies had too much economic might, too many ships, too many tanks, and too many planes to be beaten. They just lacked the will early on. This changed in 1942. The USSR began turning back to Nazi onslaught after years of cynical and downright evil machinations by Stalin, a butcher who killed perhaps ten million of his own people between 1932 and 1938. The United States was woken from its semi-isolationist slumber because of the Pearl Harbor bombings in December 1941, and less than year later made itself the “arsenal of democracy” that produced more weapons of war than all three of the Axis militaries combined. As for the British Empire, with its army of loyal subjects from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and South Africa, fought alone against the Germans, Italians, and Japanese for over a year, and even despite the horror of the London Blitz, never folded.
The Second World Wars corrects a lot of popular nonsense about World War II. The biggest myth that is busted is the idea that the Soviets defeated the Nazi army alone. Yes, most casualties of the European Theater occurred on the Eastern Front, but the USSR only had one front to deal with until the very last weeks of the war.
The Anglo-American forces, on the other hand, fought the Germans and Italians in the air, on the sea, and in multiple theaters, including in North and East Africa, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean, and northern France. The US also poured millions of dollars into the Red Army machine, and one could make the case that without American-made trucks, tanks, rifles, and other items, the Red Army would have either collapsed or fought a prolonged stalemate with the Germans. Another myth is the idea of a “Europe First” strategy, which the Americans mouthed in public while giving the Navy, Marine Corps, and select Army divisions total control of offensive operations in the Pacific.
More than anything else, The Second World Wars serves as a tragic reminder of just how costly the “good war” was. Approximately 60 million people died in the conflict. The deadliest single day in the history of warfare occurred on March 10, 1945, when the US Army Air Corps firebombed Tokyo, killing as many as 100,000 people. As many as 80 percent of all those killed by the Axis were civilians. Worst of all, the bloodshed did not stop after 1945. While Stalin created a Communist empire in Eastern Europe, Mao’s Chinese Communist Party defeated their Nationalist rivals then killed somewhere between 40 and 70 million people. The 20th century was far from enlightened.
The Second World Wars may be the penultimate history of World War II.