Editor’s Note: The following is the third in a series of excerpts adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book The Second World Wars. It appears here with permission.
Over 2,400 years ago, the historian Thucydides had emphasized the military advantages of sea powers, particularly their ability to control commerce and move troops. Not much had changed since antiquity, as the oceans likewise mattered a great deal to the six major belligerents in World War II. Three great powers were invaded during the war: Germany, Italy, and Russia. Three were not: America, Britain, and Japan. All the former were on the European landmass, the latter were either islands or distant and bounded by two vast oceans. Amphibious operations originating on the high seas were a far more difficult matter than crossing borders, or in the case of Italy, crossing from Sicily onto the mainland. The protection afforded Great Britain and the United States by surrounding seas meant that containing the German threat was never the existential challenge for them that it always was for the Western Europeans. The generals of the French may have always appeared cranky to the Anglo-Americans, but then, neither Britain nor America had a common border with Germany. The only way for Germany to strike Britain was to invade and occupy the French and Belgian coasts, as reflected both in the German Septemberprogramm of 1914 and in Hitler’s obsessions with the Atlantic ports between 1940 and 1945. Since the 15th century, European countries that faced the Atlantic had natural advantages over those whose chief home ports were confined to the North, Baltic, and Mediterranean Seas.
Japan’s various strategic choices in 1941 were predicated a great deal on traditional geographical considerations. Japan could further reinforce its decade-long presence in China, or in June 1941 join Hitler by attacking the Soviet Union from the east, or absorb more orphaned colonial territory in Asia and the Pacific, or allow the Imperial Navy to begin new wars against the United States and Britain because it was an island sea power with few immediate worries about ground invasions or enemy amphibious landings. Left unspoken was the fact that in almost all these geographical scenarios, an often xenophobic and resource-hungry Japan had few friends. It had alienated the Western powers during the 1930s, invaded China in 1937, fought the Soviets in 1939, and been aggressive toward India; it was disliked and distrusted in the Pacific and unable to partner effectively with its own Axis allies.
Any eastward expansion of 20th century Japan into the Pacific depended also on the status of its western geography. If either Russia or China were to be hostile — and both usually were — by definition Japan would be faced with an uninviting two-front war. In World War II, the bulk of Japanese ground forces — over 600,000 at any given time — was fighting in China, where over a half-million Japanese soldiers eventually perished. Japan was willing to risk a two-front war after its nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in April 1941, given that the Chinese front was mostly stalemated, but it never envisioned the possibility that Pearl Harbor would lead to a three-theater conflict in which Japan would be fighting China, the United States, and finally the Russians. Because pulling out of the Chinese morass was deemed unacceptable by the government of General and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and given that the Imperial Japanese Army had already fared poorly against the Russians from 1932 to 1939 along the Mongolian border, Japan felt its best choice of aggression was a surprise “preemptory” naval air attack on the geographically distant Americans, who allegedly might soon have attacked Japan or would eventually have strangled its importation of key resources. General Tojo told the Japanese war cabinet that he had thought of all the alternatives “until it makes my head ache, but the conclusion always is that war is unavoidable.”
By 1939, Germany had entered its third European war within 70 years, following World War I (1914–1918) and, before that, the Franco–Prussian War (1870–1871). Conflicts throughout history become serial when an enemy is not utterly defeated and is not forced to submit to the political conditions of the victor, whether in the two Peloponnesian or three Punic Wars, or the later Hundred Years’ and Seven Years’ Wars. Such was the case with the preludes to World War II, when many of the major familiar nations of the European world were again at war. Germany was once more the aggressor. That fact also helped spawn the familiar idea of “World War II” and its alternative designation, the “Second World War.” Yet this time around, both sides tacitly agreed that there would not be a World War III — either Germany would finally achieve its near century-long dream of European dominance or cease to exist as a National Socialist state and military power. Yet the Allies understood history far better: In any existential war, only the side that has the ability to destroy the homeland of the other wins.
Conflicts throughout history become serial when an enemy is not utterly defeated and is not forced to submit to the political conditions of the victor.
The war, also like many conflicts of the past, was certainly chronologically inexact, with two official denouements known in the Anglosphere as V-E and V-J Day. The war, like many, was also ill-defined, especially for a country such as Bulgaria, to take one minor example, which had no common interests or communications with its nominal Pacific ally Japan. Likewise, the Greeks were indifferent to the war against fascism in China, and in the same way the Soviet Union cared little whether Italy had invaded France.
Often border disputes on the periphery of Germany, ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and political grievances and national ambitions set off regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together as World War II, at least in Britain and the United States. Most sides had hopes of allying their parochial causes to larger ideological crusades. But far more important, they just wanted to join the right side of strong allies that might be likely winners and divvy up spoils. General Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain was emblematic of such opportunism that transcended ideological affinities. During 1939–1941, Franco — despite horrendous recent losses in the Spanish Civil War and despite Hitler’s occasional rebuffs — considered possible entrance into the war on the Axis side. Franco assumed that the Allies would likely be defeated and there might be colonial spoils in North Africa allotted to Spain. He often boasted that Spain might unilaterally take Gibraltar or enlist hundreds of thousands of warriors to the Axis cause. But between 1943 and 1944, Spain increasingly began to reassert its neutrality, in recognition that the Axis powers would now likely lose the war and their war-won territories — and prior allegiance might earn an Allied invasion and with it a change of government. By late 1944, Fascist Spain was no longer exporting tungsten to Germany and was instead reinvented as sympathetic to British and American democracy and eager to become an anticommunist ally after the war.
At any given time, any given people — the Finns in 1939, the Italians, Russians, and Chinese in 1940, the Americans in summer 1941 — found it difficult to define the world war that had really been triggered by the German invasion of Poland. After the war began in 1939, America imposed a boycott on the Soviet Union over its surprise invasion of Finland, only soon to reverse course and provide arms to the once-blacklisted Russians to defeat the once-noble victim, Finland. Both Britain and Germany had long courted Italy and the Soviet Union as allies and vice versa. Japan occupied Vichy-held Indochina, although both Japan and Vichy France were nominal allies of Germany. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin signed pacts or came to formal and informal agreements of nonaggression with all the major belligerents at one time or another.
What qualifies a conflict as a world war? Despite its title, World War I had never really been truly global. Africa was largely left out of it, save for small, regional battles in the interior and the hundreds of thousands of Africans who joined colonial armies in Europe and the Middle East. Outside of the Middle East and Turkey, mainland Asia was also mostly immune from the carnage. There was little frequent surface fighting on the high seas, apart from the waters around Europe and Britain, and in the Mediterranean. Air power was in its infancy. Neither North American nor Australian territory was attacked. The Arctic saw little combat. In fact, until 1941 there had never been a global war. Even the bloodiest wars of the past were theater conflicts. The so-called Persian Wars (490–479 BC) were really only about the annexation of Ionia and the Greek mainland as the western-most provinces of the Persian Empire. Alexander the Great fought a Greek, Asian, and North African war (335–323 BC), yet left the western Mediterranean alone. Carthage versus Rome was mostly a Mediterranean affair that drew in only local North African tribesmen, southern Europeans, and the vestiges of Macedonian power in Greece (264–146 BC). The Crusades were essentially one-dimensional campaigns across the eastern Mediterranean to the Middle East. The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) or the destructive American Civil War (1861–1865) never became global.
In general, the idea of world wars has been absent in history. Even the few intercontinental conflicts that took place were not necessarily any more destructive than more-frequent border conflicts. World War II changed all that.
Rome’s legions and galleys from the first and second centuries BC had been deployed in Africa, Western Europe, Asia, and throughout the Mediterranean. But they did not fight all at once and not much elsewhere. Although Winston Churchill described the Seven Years’ War (1754/1756–1763) as “the first world war,” it was not, given that China and Japan were not involved, and most peoples in India, Asia, South America, and Africa were only tangentially affected. Napoleon’s twelve years of warring (1803–1815) perhaps came closest to becoming a worldwide conflict among dozens of enemies. Its subsidiary and affiliated conflicts spread beyond Europe and Russia to some major fighting in North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and North America. Perhaps 5 million perished in the two decades of the Napoleonic Wars. But in general, the idea of world wars has been absent in history. Even the few intercontinental conflicts that took place were not necessarily any more destructive than more-frequent border conflicts. World War II changed all that.
Only in retrospect did historians and veterans begin to equate the various wars around the world between 1939 (or perhaps as early as 1931–1937 in the case of Japan) and 1945 as part of a thematic conflict. And yet not everywhere. The French who were defeated in June 1940 never warmed to the idea of a World War II that they had bowed out of for four years. The Soviets — who believed that they alone had defeated Nazi Germany, which was the only real focus of their war — saw the “Great Patriotic War” as theirs alone. But then in the past, the tsars likewise had used the same self-referential nomenclature for their “patriotic” wars against Napoleon of France and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Such reformulations and rebranding happen frequently throughout history. The “Peloponnesian War,” for example, was an invention largely of Thucydides in the late fifth century BC. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the Athenian veteran and ex-admiral saw in hindsight that lots of successive wars and interludes — the Archidamian War, the Peace of Nicias, the Sicilian War, the Decelean War, and the Ionian War — were all fought between 431 and 404 BC as a single, if episodic, conflict. The decade-long Persian Wars and the century-long Punic Wars likewise came to be known in such comprehensive fashion only after the final battles in the defeat of Persia and Carthage, respectively. In that sense, some have seen World War II as properly part of a continual transatlantic-versus-German “Thirty Years’ War” that broke out in 1914, quieted down in 1918, then went through Thucydidean cycles of calm and tension before being renewed in 1939 and ended, it seems, for good in 1945. Confusion characterized preludes to war during the 1930s. Initially the democracies had naively assumed that even non-democratic European nations such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy might at least share a common age-old Western religion, pedigree, and history and thus be familiar, somewhat rational, and have no desire to repeat the appalling bloodletting of the Somme and Verdun in 1916. Given the tragedy of World War I, Hitler’s Germany surely would appreciate the need for negotiation and concessions and thus agree to iron out differences through diplomacy, without again resorting to suicidal violence. Such patience and naiveté only eroded classical deterrence and encouraged further Nazi aggrandizement.
Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives. Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions. It took a world war to educate them all.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.