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Crackpot History

Tehran, Iran, November 1943. President Roosevelt with Secretary Stalin (left) and British Prime Minister Churchill

For the military historian, World War II is notable for how poorly it is understood. This is spite of a large volume of writing. Too often writers compose an explanation of events which neatly fits the outcome. For earlier periods, where documentation is scanty or lacking entirely, this is necessary. For World War II, where this is not the case, it is pretty discouraging how often authors get it so badly wrong. As a mathematician turned military historian, I don't care how well argued or presented a thesis is; if it's wrong, I give it an F.

This one is kinda weird.

David M. Kennedy apparently teaches history at Stanford and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his book Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945. So I suppose that we have to take him seriously.

In the D-Day Anniversary Special issue of TIME, Kennedy argues that a wily President Roosevelt never intended to open a Second Front in 1942 or 1943 but played the Russians along so that they would do America's fighting for them. "Roosevelt delayed D-Day for so long", he writes, "not to punish the Russians but to protect Americans – and to lay the groundwork for the US's postwar leadership".

This is nonsense. No one was more eager to fight Germany than the President. He fully intended to launch a Second Front in 1942. "I have been disturbed by American and British naval objections to operations in the European Theatre prior to 1943", the President wrote, "I regard it as essential that active operations be conducted in 1942. I fully realize the difficulties in relation to the landing of armed forces under fire." (Matloff and Snell, p. 221)

When it became clear that the Channel operation (Sledgehammer) was a non-starter, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff considered diverting all resources to the Pacific, or concentrating on the proposed operation in 1943 (Roundup). Roosevelt insisted that something be done and threw his support behind the invasion of Northwest Africa (Torch). Later he championed Roundup, which was also cancelled in favour of operations in the Mediterranean theatre. 

"Time", writes Kennedy, "was unarguably the US's most valuable ally in World War II." This is completely untrue. Most historians point to jet aircraft, schnorkel and Walther submarines, V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets as proof that time was not unarguably on the Allied side. At the time, Roosevelt also had to consider the possibility that Germany could develop an Atomic bomb. Special radiation decontamination teams accompanied the troops on D-Day in case the Germans employed what we now call "dirty bombs". Roosevelt was very concerned that a prolonged war might gradually lose public support, as indeed began to happen in 1945.

Many historians today believe that Roundupwas feasible and might well have ended the war many months earlier, with fewer casualties. One has written a whole book on the subject. No one knows of course but it remains one the of the great "what-ifs".

Kennedy's version of events matches the ultimate course of the war but fails to account for the known facts and therefore is crackpot history.



Matloff, M. and Snell, E. M., Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare 1941-1942,Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1952