Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth and final installment in a series of excerpts adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book The Second World Wars. It appears here with permission.
Throughout history, conflict had always broken out between enemies when the appearance of deterrence — the material and spiritual likelihood of using greater military power successfully against an aggressive enemy — vanished. From Carthage to the Confederacy, weaker bellicose states could convince themselves of the impossible because their fantasies were not checked earlier by cold reality. A stronger appearance of power, and of the willingness to employ it, might have stopped more conflicts before they began. Put another way, deterrence in the famous formulation of the 17th-century British statesman George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, meant that “men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.”
Only after the disastrous battles of Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815) did Napoleon finally concede that his armies had never been a match for the combined strength of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and England. Had all those states combined in a firm coalition a decade earlier, Napoleon might well have been deterred. Churchill without much exaggeration said of Hitler’s military agenda, “up till 1934 at least, German rearmament could have been prevented without the loss of a single life. It was not time that was lacking.”
By any fair measure, Germany in 1939 — in terms of the number and quality of planes, armor, manpower reserves, and industrial output — was not stronger than the combined French and British militaries — or at least not so strong as to be able to defeat and occupy both powers. The later German–Italian–Japanese axis was far less impressive than the alliance that would soon emerge of Great Britain, America, and Russia — having only little over a third of the three Allies’ combined populations, not to speak of their productive capacity. After all, the United States by war’s end in 1945 would achieve a wartime gross national product nearly greater than that of all of the other Allied and Axis powers combined. In sum, 60 million dead, 20th-century totalitarian ideologies, the singular evil of Adolf Hitler, the appearance of V-2 rockets, the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Holocaust, napalm, kamikazes, and the slaughter of millions in Russia and China seemed to redefine World War II as unlike any conflict of the past — even as predictable humans with unchanging characteristics, fighting amid age-old geography and weather patterns, continued to follow the ancient canons of war and replayed roles well known from the ages.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.