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May 9, 2005 1:08 pm

More War Bunk

President Bush is far from alone when it comes to dodgy historical claims about Yalta. Thanks to Ralph E. Luker's link below I was able to read Geoffrey Wheatcroft's extraordinary thesis in yesterday's Boston Globe:

Great Britain did not go to war to save the Jews from Hitler’s torment (and did not succeed) but to protect the freedom and integrity of Poland, an aim that Churchill, with Roosevelt’s encouragement, abandoned at Yalta. Worse still was the forcible repatriation of prisoners to torture and death in Russia and Yugoslavia. And yet all this was not simply conspiracy or betrayal: The Iron Curtain, with half of Europe under Soviet rule, was a painful but logical consequence of the way the West had let Russia do most of the fighting.

That Churchill and FDR did not 'abandon' Poland at Yalta (because Yalta decided nothing - and it was hardly theirs to abandon anyway) has already been noted. That the repatriation of Soviet prisoners, however gruesome, was a tacit but necessary precondition for the release of thousands of British and US ex-PoWs accidentally swept up by the Soviet armies at the end of WWII I will mention only in passing. No, what astonishes me is Wheatcroft's final claim: all the evils of the post-1945 settlement can be explained by the Western Allies letting Russia do most of the fighting. (Let: to give opportunity to or fail to prevent).

I won't quibble about 'most' (although the proportion of German forces facing westward steadily increased until at least 1/3 were manning the Atlantic Wall and the Gustav Line in the spring of 1944 - and that's only taking into account the Heer (army): nearly all the Kriegsmarine and most of the Luftwaffe fought on the western front throughout the war). I won't bore you with Lend-Lease. I won't even dwell upon the strategic bombing campaign which Wheatcroft pauses to casually excoriate, though it arguably produced a second front years before D-Day in the form of transfer of planes, AA-guns, and economic attrition.

All I want to know is this: since letting the bulk of the land war take place in the East was a voluntary decision on the part of Britain and the United States, would Commander Wheatcroft sketch out his plan for a successful opposed landing on the northwestern European mainland in 1942? Or 1943? I mean, after all, it was just a matter of choice, wasn't it?

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Alan Allport - 5/9/2005

The famous Strategic Bombing Survey produced a devastating report on the generally negative cost-benefit ratio of the bombing (at least through 1944).

The famous Strategic Bombing Survey produced a report that proved that the 1944 Oil Plan was the correct bombing method to employ - and purely by coincidence it was commissioned by those commanders who had argued so vociferously for the 1944 Oil Plan.

The USSBS is an interesting primary source, but its value as a dispassionate historical analysis is highly questionable.

As for the strategic bombing campaign in general, Albert Speer reckoned that without it the Germans would probably have been able to fight on till Spring 1946, possibly longer. That's a lot of additional American, British, Soviet, and for that matter German body-bags to consider.

Greg James Robinson - 5/9/2005

We are still faced with the question of whether the Western Allies could or should have done something to lessen Russian casualties. I know that Stalin, at the height of the Nazi invasion, was prepared to welcome independent foreign units on the Eastern front. Still, it is hard to see how the Allies could have really drawn away more the German forces arrayed against them, and reduced Russian casualties, other than by a sacrifice move, such as the emergency cross-channel relief operation the US and Britain considered in 1942 if they considered the USSR on the verge of collapsing. Possibly they would have done better to concentrate their forces during 1943 other than in Italy (a very dumb move, as it turned out). Still, it may have perhaps been in the nature of things that Soviet caualties were going to be enormously greater, and thus the USSR's moral position.
This is not a very satisfying answer to the question, to be sure. It seems to me equally unsatisfying, and probably plain wrong, to say that the Air War did much to draw Nazi attention or make up for the lack of ground presence. The famous Strategic Bombing Survey produced a devastating report on the generally negative cost-benefit ratio of the bombing (at least through 1944). The argument reminds me of Chiang Kai-Shek's claim to assistance because of his essential role in the war in tying down Japanese trroops in the occupation of China.

Alan Allport - 5/9/2005

If you count Germans taken prisoner as well as killed and wounded, then the proportion of casualties inflicted by the Western allies becomes much more impressive in comparison with the Soviet tally (while still recognizing that the Eastern Front was the greater in terms of sheer numbers).

Jonathan Dresner - 5/9/2005

I've always been under the impression that at least some of the different casualty rates between the Eastern and Western fronts would be explained by differences in German strategy (i.e. genocide on the Eastern Front) and by the difference in fighting styles between Soviet and Anglo-American forces -- that Soviet casualties could have been lower if Soviet forces had not been hampered by Stalin's politics and heavily reliant on overwhelming numbers instead of tactical or technological advantages.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/9/2005

The question of alternate strategies is an interesting one. Like you, I'm dubious about a cross channel invasion before 1944.

The pace of the offensive across France might have been shifted. Certainly, we could have pushed troops south of Gernman and tried to hold on to parts of Czechoslovakia and Austria. The failure at Arnheim and the Battle of the Bulge both speak to the dangers of pushing even faster.

However, all this ignores the pesky problem that, in January 1945, we wanted and needed the Soviets to enter the war against Japan. The bomb was still being built. Neither FDR nor any other man who might have been president then would have counted on it.

If the spector of high casualties in the invasion of Japan could motivate dropping the bombs, the same spector certainly made it logical to work with the Soviets and not move to antagonize them at that point. This left the US and Britain with little leverage concerning the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.

Alan Allport - 5/9/2005

Roosevelt and Churchill, remembering World War I, deliberately and consciously chose the strategy they did to minimize casualties and thus antiwar sentiment.

Nope, not in the case of FDR and the US military-political establishment. The Americans pushed hard (and unrealistically so) for the earliest possible cross-Channel date; concern about battle casualties, while certainly not irrelevent, was much less of a consideration for them than an expedient end to the war. Britain, with different experiences and manpower restrictions, saw the situation somewhat differently.

But I'm still confused about the alternative strategy implied in your comment. What are you suggesting the US and UK could have done to avoid those 20,000,000 Soviet deaths?

Greg James Robinson - 5/9/2005

I am not at all sure I agree with Wheatcroft about Poland,and it seems pretty certain that a D-Day style cross-channel invasion would probably not have been possible much earlier in the war. Still, the question of letting the Soviet Union fight the war was not simply a question of when to invade. Roosevelt and Churchill, remembering World War I, deliberately and consciously chose the strategy they did to minimize casualties and thus antiwar sentiment. Churchill, indeed, wanted to invade Europe by the "soft underbelly" so as to avoid exposing Western allied troops to great resistance (and halting Soviet advances in the Balkans). The result is that the USSR lost 20,000,000 of its people, between soldiers and civilians, while the Unitred States lost less than 500,000 soldiers in the Atlantic and Pacific wars. After such an extraordinary disproportion of sacrifice, the Western Allies must have felt a strong responsibility to deal fairly with the USSR and to protect what would have then seemed its legitimate security needs.