Aiding the Enemy of My Enemy

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Alexander Boot recently described D-Day as splendid, glorious, heroic, sacrificial — and terribly wrong, based in part on Viktor Suvorov‘s contention that the Soviet Union was planning a massive invasion of Europe.

Of course, building up an army to invade German-occupied Europe looks an awful lot like building up an army to defend against a likely German invasion.

Boot contends that the Soviets were planning on attacking the Germans before the Germans attacked them — which, again, sounds perfectly plausible — until the Finns delivered an unsettling reality check. The Red Army may have been big, but it wasn’t any good — not yet.

Just as important was the fact that the Germans did not have to fight a long and bloody war on the Western Front. No one expected them to take out the French in one month. The French certainly didn’t expect it. The British didn’t. Neither did the Germans. It’s not hard to imagine the Soviets waiting for the French and British to bleed the Germans dry before stepping in — and then demanding that the British somehow reopen a second front.

Looking back at how the war played out — with the Soviets defeating the Nazis, conquering Eastern Europe for themselves, and then becoming our Cold War enemy — it’s hard to see why we were so quick to offer them so much aid.

Part of our motivation came from the fact that our leadership was surprisingly pro-Communist. Many of our top men — Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Harry Hopkins — were literally Soviet agents.

Just as important though was everyone’s recent memory of how Russia performed in the last war — it collapsed — in light of how unstoppable the modern German military seemed.

So, early in the war, when the Nazis look strong, and the Soviets look weak, it makes sense for the US (and Britain) to offer aid and open up a second front, to keep the Soviets in the war.  Ideally, the other Allies then let the Nazis and Soviets bleed each other dry.

That’s not what happened, of course, and the US had to find a way to get onto the continent and get to Germany before the Soviets rolled through and seized everything.  Was invading Normandy the way to do that?

Europe Topography Map

If you look at a topographical map of Europe, it does not have a soft underbelly. You can immediately see how a Reich might extend from northern France, through Germany, to the Urals.

Europe Under Nazi Domination

(It also looks like there should be a Hungarian Empire and a Padanian nation.)

In 1942, Churchill called Italy the soft underbelly of the axis, not because the mountainous terrain would be easy to invade, but because Italy would be comparatively easy to knock out of the war, and this would grant the Allies control of the Mediterranean. It was also supposed to tie down German forces.

It’s not clear at all to me how the Allies were supposed to land and approach Berlin without a heroic effort. Of course, it’s not at all clear why FDR called for unconditional surrender and why we cut off the option of a separate peace.


  1. Magus Janus says:

    “It’s not at all clear why FDR called for unconditional surrender and why we cut off the option of a separate peace.”

    Yes, it is, and you answered it yourself. Most of the decision makers were Commies, Progressives, or Universalists. Total victory is the only possibility.

    A Realpolitik foreign policy would have concluded a separate peace with Germany And Japan as soon as possible, given what US/UK interests might be — withdrawal to pre-war boundaries, some payment for aggression, etc.

    However, by eliminating both countries totally you create a power vaccuum that has to be filled, in Europe by US and USSR, in Asia by US and USSR (and later Chinese communists).

    The war ended with “free” Europe destroyed and totally dependent on the US (as Suez was to show), and the Eastern half under Communist dictatorship.

    Frankly, the “right” move for long-term liberty would likely have been to outright ally with Germany against the Soviet Union from the get-go. Failing that, neutrality.

  2. Your analysis of how Allied decision making was based on prior performance of the various nations involved seems very sound to me. One of the biggest things to remember is the level of uncertainty involved in the decisions made by world leaders, then as now. Of course, as you and Magus point out, a healthy dose of Communist infiltration and sympathy certainly helped grease the skids.

    Of course, the proper realpolitik thing for Hitler to do would have been to declare war on Imperial Japan the day after Pearl Harbor :-)

  3. James James says:

    On Suez, the US vs Britain & France were on different sides. Calling Europe “dependent” on the US because of Suez is a strange choice of word. Perhaps you mean “dependency”.

  4. Isegoria says:

    Recognizing the uncertainty is key.

    I can remember reading Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, in which he describes how his extended family assumed the war in Lebanon would only last a few weeks before dying back down, so they’d vacation in France for the month. With artillery shells exploding in the distance, he read, in the basement, a journalist’s account of the lead-in to World War II — and it wasn’t clear that war was coming. Only in retrospect was it inevitable.

    War games typically do a good job of modeling chance and randomness in war, but they often make the mistake of correctly statting up all the forces, and modern players know how various weapons systems worked out — battleships no longer ruled the waves, strategic bombing didn’t live up to expectations, etc.

    The US Naval Academy actually did a wonderful job of teaching officers how to learn to learn to fight in the years between the wars, by varying the strengths and weaknesses of untested forces from game to game.

  5. Rollory says:

    “Of course, building up an army to invade German-occupied Europe looks an awful lot like building up an army to defend against a likely German invasion.”

    It actually doesn’t. If you build a military for defense you build the Line Maginot or the Korean DMZ. If you build an army for offense you build the Wehrmacht.

    Part of why the Germans were so incredibly successful in Russia at first was because the Soviet military formations they were hitting were not in any sense deployed for defense and were completely unprepared to handle the necessity of defensive action.

  6. L. C. Rees says:

    The origin of unconditional surrender in WWII is clear:

    General S. B. BUCKNER,

    Confederate Army.

    SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

    I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

    U.S. GRANT,

    Brigadier-General, Commanding.

    The myth if not the reality of unconditional surrender became conventional American wisdom on the right. The GOP leadership pushed unconditional surrender in WWI as their alternative to Wilson’s miscellaneous Points.

    Said Sen Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA) in October 1918:

    The Republican party stands for unconditional surrender and complete victory, just as Grant stood. My own belief is that the American people mean to have an unconditional surrender. They mean to have a dictated, not a negotiated peace.

    The juxtaposition of the northern GOP’s legacy of total victory with the Confederate legacy of the waffling Virginian, proud son of the Rebellion (born 1856) who claimed he would “forever recall standing for a moment at Robert E. Lee’s side and looking up into his face”, was lost on no American at the time. This same legacy influenced the largely GOP U.S. Army high command in France. John J. Pershing (who’s late wife was daughter of Senator Francis E. Warren (R-WY)) even advocated unconditional German surrender in public. Pershing had been allowed wide latitude in battlefield management by Wilson since Wilson didn’t want to repeat what was perceived to be Lincoln’s mistake during the Civil War: micromanaging his generals. Pershing went too far here and his indiscretion resulted in a stiff pull on the Wilsonian choke chain.

    FDR’s input into the surrender terms in his role as Assistant Secretary for the Navy to handle the technical details of surrendering the German Navy in 1918 was similarly unconditional. He, despite his father James Roosevelt’s role as James Buchanan’s private secretary during Buchanan’s service as minister to Great Britain during the Pierce administration and subsequent affiliation with the Democratic party, was subject to Northern influences. FDR, like Wilson, Lodge, and Pershing, were refighting the last war of 1861-1865.

    Germany’s escape from the mildness of Versailles convinced many Americans that the GOP position of 1918 was correct and FDR was only too happy to shore up the Democratic party’s long-standing reputation for weakness on defense by shifting right and endorsing the GOP’s traditional position. Mentally, FDR, like Stimson, Truman (who remarked the refugees in Germany reminded him of his Grandma’s stories about being a refugee in Civil War Missouri) and foreigners like Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, or Mussolini, were not fighting WWII: they were refighting WWI. And the Germans evidently were less offended by having their cities leveled, their population misplaced, and their territory partitioned than the war guilt clause in the Versailles treaty.

    The policy of 1945 was anticipated by the might have been policy of 1865. Mused Ulysses S. Grant in 1878 while traveling through China:

    Looking back over the whole policy of reconstruction, it seems to me that the wisest thing would have been to have continued for some time the military rule. Sensible Southern men see now that there was no government so frugal, so just, and fair as what they had under our generals. That would have enabled the Southern people to pull themselves together and repair material losses. As to depriving them, even for a time, of suffrage, that was our right as a conqueror, and it was a mild penalty for the stupendous crime of treason. Military rule would have been just to all, to the negro who wanted freedom, the white man who wanted protection, the Northern man who wanted Union. As State after State showed a willingness to come into the Union, not on their own terms but upon ours, I would have admitted them. This would have made universal suffrage unnecessary, and I think a mistake was made about suffrage. It was unjust to the negro to throw upon him the responsibilities of citizenship, and expect him to be on even terms with his white neighbor. It was unjust to the North. In giving the South negro suffrage, we have given the old slave-holders forty votes in the electoral college. They keep those votes, but disfranchise the negroes. That is one of the gravest mistakes in the policy of reconstruction. It looks like a political triumph for the South, but it is not. The Southern people have nothing to dread more than the political triumph of the men who led them into secession. That triumph was fatal to them in 1860. It would be no less now. The trouble about military rule in the South was that our people did not like it. It was not in accordance with our institutions. I am clear now that it would have been better for the North to have postponed suffrage, reconstruction, State governments, for ten years, and held the South in a territorial condition. It was due to the North that the men who had made war upon us should be powerless in a political sense forever. It would have avoided the scandals of the State governments, saved money, and enabled the Northern merchants, farmers, and laboring men to reorganize society in the South.

  7. Isegoria says:

    The geography of the Eastern Front did not lend itself to trench warfare in the previous war, so building up static defenses wouldn’t be the obvious go-to strategy for handling the Germans a second time round:

    The front in the east was much longer than that in the west. The theater of war was roughly delimited by the Baltic Sea in the west and Minsk in the east, and Saint Petersburg in the north and the Black Sea in the south, a distance of more than 1,600 kilometres (990 mi). This had a drastic effect on the nature of the warfare.

    While World War I on the Western Front developed into trench warfare, the battle lines on the Eastern Front were much more fluid and trenches never truly developed. This was because the greater length of the front ensured that the density of soldiers in the line was lower so the line was easier to break. Once broken, the sparse communication networks made it difficult for the defender to rush reinforcements to the rupture in the line, mounting rapid counteroffensives to seal off any breakthrough.

  8. Toddy Cat says:

    My conclusions from this discussion (for what they’re worth):

    1. Stalin almost certainly intended to attack Germany or the West at some point — you don’t build up the world’s largest paratroop and armored force for defensive action — and he was utterly surprised when Hitler attacked on June 22. But it’s also clear that Soviet forces were not anticipating imminent hostilities of any sort. Stalin was probably planning on attacking in a year or two.

    2. Hitler’s entire ideology centered around conquest in the East, the elimination of Bolshevism, and the exploitation of the resources of Ukraine and the Caucasus. Fear of Stalin’s army may have speeded things up, but I don’t think that Barbarossa could really be called a “pre-emptive” attack.

    3. The idea of unconditional surrender was pretty deeply embedded in American psychology prior to the war, and the deeply unsatisfactory outcome of WWI strengthened this. The nature of Hitler and FDR’s Commie advisors were important factors as well — Stalin was terrified that the West would make a separate peace with Hitler, as Stalin himself tried to do several times — but something like unconditional surrender was probably pretty much inevitable. Incidentally, seeing how our non-”Unconditional Surrender” wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have worked out, it’s not clear to me that FDR was totally wrong.

  9. Isegoria says:

    The Nazis and the Soviets were clearly on a collision course. The only question was when. In that sense, the German invasion was pre-emptive, and the Russians were caught off guard. It’s not clear to me how soon the Russians would have attacked though, since the Germans weren’t bogged down on the Western Front. I’m also not sure how to properly prepare a 1,000-mile front against a German blitz.

    I can see the allure of demanding unconditional surrender, but I can also see the allure of letting the Nazis and Soviets go at it for as long as possible. I do wonder if the Nazis would have invited the Americans into Berlin in 1945, if we hadn’t fought our way onto the continent at D-Day.

  10. It’s also important to realize that after the partition of Poland Stalin had to move his armies to the new border with Germany. If, in the interwar period, he’d have set up fixed defenses on the borders of Russia then he would either have to leave his half of Poland unoccupied in order to keep them manned (nope!) or plan for a rapid retreat that would have been impossible to coordinate with the Red Army in the state it was in — thus turning into the rout that happened in real life, except with Russian forces much weaker due to the resources put into the forts.

  11. Space Nookie says:

    If I remember correctly, a large part of Icebreaker is devoted to the border defenses that were removed by Stalin in favor of more offensive troops — minefields, obstacles, fortresses, riverine units, and pre-positioned partisan units come to mind.

  12. Toddy Cat says:

    Personally, I think that Suvarov is on to something in Icebreaker, but he often overstates things to make a better book, as I believe he has done here, but who knows, he may be right. A lot of this uncertainty stems from the fact that there are still a lot of unanswered questions concerning just why what happened in WWII happened the way it did. Like the genuinely odd events of the 1960′s, the true history of WWII remains to be written…

  13. L. C. Rees says:

    A (highly qualified) possible middle course between Icebreaker (Stalin was completely surprised because he was weeks or years away from launching his own attack) and the received narrative (Stalin was so stupid that he willfully missed all the warning flags signaling the onset of Barbarossa) was related by Beria’s son Sergo:

    Stalin knew the Germans were going to attack but needed the Germans to attack first so Germany looked like the aggressor and international opinion would rally in support of the poor victimized Russians. Stalin anticipated that Soviet forces would immediately counterattack, drive the Germans back, and then conquer Europe. Sergo Beria claimed it was the failure of this anticipated counterattack that drove Stalin into his infamous catatonic shock in the days immediately following June 22.

    This may not be close to what really happened but it may have been one fictional explanation that Stalin or others circulated within Soviet elites to mitigate anger at the leadership’s folly.

  14. Toddy Cat says:

    It’s certainly possible. What is not possible, in my opinion, is the conventional “wisdom”. Many words could be used to describe Stalin, but “stupid” and “trusting” are not among them, and that is what he would have had to have been in the conventional narrative of Barbarossa. I don’t know if Suvarov is right or not, but he is certainly correct in that the conventional view is nonsense.

  15. Sam says:

    I’ve read Viktor Suvorov’s “Icebreaker” and the later book “The Chief Culprit”. In the “The Chief Culprit” he goes into great detail about the types of arms production pursued by Stalin and wraps up his conclusions in “Icebreaker”. It would take a great deal of work to convince me that Stalin did not mean to attack Germany. Suvorov is very thorough and makes a logistics iron tight case. Stalin could not have been so foolish, if he was determined on defense, to produce only offensive weapons.

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