Cataclysm: Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars

(Photo: United States Marine Corps)
Hanson’s background as a classicist and historian of the ancient world enables him to place World War II in a broader historical context.

I have always found Victor Davis Hanson to be one of the most insightful historians of warfare, whether he was specifically discussing ancient wars, as he did in The Western Way of War (1989) and A War Like No Other (2005), or addressing the broader question of Western civilization and war, as he did in Carnage and Culture (2001). In addition, he is a master of clear prose. His books are a pleasure to read.

Nonetheless, I was a little apprehensive when asked to review The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won (Basic, 720 pp., $40). I wondered whether perhaps this was a bridge too far, the case of a gifted historian’s addressing a topic beyond his acknowledged area of expertise (the Greeks and Romans). I had seen this before. Some years ago, I was invited to review a book on the American Civil War by the marvelous military historian John Keegan. To my great sorrow, this book by a man I greatly admired was dreadful. It pained me to write a negative review. In addition, I thought that the organization of the book — chapters focused on large issues rather than presenting a chronological narrative — might result in a disjointed account of the great struggle.

I needn’t have worried. The Second World Wars is an outstanding work of historical interpretation. It is not an operational history of the war: Hanson does not provide extended accounts of military campaigns. It focuses instead on the decisions about why, how, and where to fight the war, the diverse methods of warfare employed by the belligerents, and how the investments and strategies of each side led to victory or defeat.

Hanson observes that this great cataclysm of the 20th century began as a traditional series of border conflicts among European powers, the manifestations of an old story: better-prepared aggressive states’ launching surprise attacks against weaker neighbors. He writes that by the end of 1940, this familiar form of European fighting had achieved a “Caesarian or Napoleonic” scale, but within a year, these smaller conflicts had unexpectedly coalesced into a cataclysm for which the aggressors — the “Axis” of Germany, Italy, and Japan — were strategically and materially unprepared. “Advances in Western technology and industrialization, when married with both totalitarian zealotry and fully mobilized democratic states, also ensured that the expanded war would become lethal in a way never before seen.”

The title of the book reflects Hanson’s observations that this war was fought to an unprecedented degree in diverse geographic locales (Europe, Africa, South Asia, China, and the expanses of the Pacific Ocean) based on premises that seemed unrelated, and that it was fought in so many diverse and unfamiliar ways — not only on land and at sea but in the air and below the surface — while mobilizing the manpower and industrial might of modern states.

Hanson points to three events — Axis blunders all — that transformed the traditional European border wars of 1939–40 into the global conflict that we now call World War II or the Second World War: Germany’s invasion of its erstwhile partner, the Soviet Union, in June 1941; Japan’s attack on the United States in December 1941; and the subsequent decision of both Germany and Italy to declare war on the United States.

These unforeseen developments added the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan to the lethal mix, transforming heretofore regional conflicts into “a continuous and now interconnected global war.” Hanson notes that when it invaded Poland in 1939, Germany had no plan for defeating potential enemies beyond Poland’s borders, the very ones that would crush it six years later. Germany lacked the population, the industrial capacity, and the military means — especially sea power and long-range air power — to strike its enemies.

Hanson notes that not even Napoleon “declared war in succession on so many great powers without any idea how to destroy their ability to make war, or, worse yet, in delusion that tactical victories would depress stronger enemies into submission.” In rolling what the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg once called the “iron dice,” Germany ignored Clausewitz’s warning that “no one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

Hanson’s background as a classicist and historian of the ancient world enables him to place World War II in a broader historical context, one stressing war’s “eternal elements.” These include such factors as the balance of power, deterrence, surprise, and preemption; victory achieved by defeating, humiliating, and occupying one’s enemy; the ability of one side or the other to learn rapidly from its mistakes; and the importance of geography.

The organization of The Second World Wars, which I originally believed might be problematic, proved to be effective. Hanson examines in turn the causes of the war; the evolution of alliances; industrial power and economic resources; air power, sea power, land power; political and military leadership; and the outcome of the war.

Hanson attributes the Allied victory to a number of factors. First, the Allies were superior in terms of men and matériel. The United States in particular produced aircraft, ships, and other weapons of war in quantities that the Axis powers could never hope to match. Long-range air power enabled the Allies to strike at the industrial heart of Germany almost from the beginning and to subject Japan to nearly continuous bombardment beginning in 1944. The leverage of the Allies’ sea power enabled them to execute expeditionary operations that, in Europe, forced the Germans to commit manpower to peripheral theaters and, in the Pacific, mounted a relentless drive toward the Japanese home islands. The air and sea power of the United States and Great Britain operated in conjunction with the Soviet Red Army, which inflicted massive casualties on the Wehrmacht.

Of course, despite their material advantage, the Allies were not preordained to win. To do so, they had to marshal the necessary resources and employ them according to an executable strategy. This required statesmen and generals of high caliber. For the most part, the Allies found such men. They also learned from their mistakes.

On the other hand, the Axis powers made multiple errors, many of them fatal. Hanson argues that the greatest of these was Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union, exposing Germany to a two-front war. This error was exacerbated by his decision to reduce the size of the army in order to deal with manpower shortages in German industry, and by a shift in resource priority from the army to the navy and air force.

The decision also represented an intelligence failure of the highest order. Hitler severely underestimated the strength and resiliency of the Red Army. In addition, both Hitler and the Wehrmacht made the mistake of confusing an operational concept — blitzkrieg — with a strategic concept. Blitzkrieg worked against unprepared enemies — the Poles, the French, and the Red Army at the beginning — but failed in the long run in Russia, as the Soviets adapted and as Hitler’s bad strategic decisions trumped the Wehrmacht’s skill in operations.

Another factor favoring the Allies was that although the countries that fought the Axis were at odds ideologically — the Soviet Union on one hand and the United States and Great Britain on the other — they operated in concert, albeit not perfectly. The Axis, although composed of countries with similar ideologies, failed to cooperate or coordinate their efforts. Thus the Allies were free to deal with the three Axis powers separately.

The Axis powers believed that their martial excellence and will would prevail over the material strength of their decadent enemies. There is no question that the operational excellence of the Wehrmacht was unmatched and that the Japanese military code made the Japanese soldier a fearsome opponent. But Hanson notes that while, by 1943, a U.S. Marine was as skilled a killer as his Japanese counterpart, the Axis powers could never match the productive output of the Allies. The overwhelming nature of this output can be illustrated by the example of the war in the Pacific.

The Axis powers believed that their martial excellence and will would prevail over the material strength of their decadent enemies.

War Plan Orange, the U.S. outline of how to fight the Japanese, proposed two general plans that would culminate in the eventual assault on the Japanese home islands: either an advance originating in the South Pacific and progressing via the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and the Philippines, or a drive through the Central Pacific from the Gilberts, the Marshalls, and the Marianas. Although the United States supported the Allied strategy of “Europe First,” it was still able to allocate sufficient resources to advance on both of these axes — advancing against Japan, while conducting military operations in the Mediterranean and preparing for the invasion of Europe as well as supporting both Great Britain and the Soviet Union with matériel.

It is sometimes difficult to fathom the magnitude of World War II. It killed over 60 million people, meaning that about 27,000 people on average died each day. The victors suffered five to seven times more dead than did the defeated, mostly as a result of death inflicted on the Russians and Chinese. It was the first major war in which more civilians than soldiers died.

Hanson makes it clear that what Winston Churchill said of the First World War was even more true of the Second: “The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. . . . When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.” In World War II, torture was added to the list. The title of Hanson’s fine book on the Peloponnesian War, A War Like No Other, is appropriate for World War II.

It is impossible to do justice to such a magnificent book in a short review. Given the vast quantities of ink expended on accounts of this great conflict, one would think that there was not much more left to say. Hanson proves that this belief is wrong. His fresh examination of World War II cements his reputation as a military historian of the first order.


A Classic War of Modern Violence

What We Can Learn from World War II

Why the Great War was Avoidable

– Mackubin Thomas Owens, the dean of academics at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and the editor of Orbis, is the author of U.S. Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil–Military Bargain. This essay originally appeared in the November 13, 2017, issue of National Review.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


The Latest