Monday, January 24, 2011

What We're Reading

Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941
By Joseph Maiolo

Cry Havoc is in all respects an impressive work of historical research. It must have taken years of work and travel and, as the notes and bibliography attest, relies on a vast array of materials in European and American historical archives. Book titles, if they are worth their salt, are always a little provocative and overreaching, but it is clear from Maiolo’s introduction that however important a dynamic the international arms race of the period became in driving the world to war, that is not the same as saying that the arms race was the cause of World War II. Maiolo has made an original and compelling case that this arms race framed the thinking and decisions of leaders during this period in profound ways, and has convincingly elevated it to a major role in any future historical considerations about decision-making and the prelude to the war. This is a major achievement.

The causes of World War II must be assigned fundamentally to the national ambitions of Germany, Italy and Japan, ambitions that it is hard to divorce from the nature of their totalitarian regimes, which seemed to need autarchic policies both to control their domestic politics and to efficiently focus national economic resources on effectively and efficiently arming the state. What Maiolo brilliantly delineates here, and demonstrates as compelling in decision-making, is the strategic military thinking that was the legacy of the First World War, the new understanding that future wars would be “total wars.” The countries with the deepest and broadest industrial economies and access to raw materials and natural resources important for conducting war would win a future war that was expected to be a sustained conflict, the slow grinding down by one major nation and its economy of that of an enemy state. Every nation accepted the truth of this strategic paradigm in its arms buildup and international decision making.

The major irony is that war broke out when those nations that had developed their armaments programs and organized their economies in response to this compelling logic, when faced with the prospect of not being able to develop the economic base that would allow them to out arm and out last more powerful nations, convinced themselves that they could elude this logic. Germany, Italy and Japan simply did not have the natural resources and industrial economies to compete with the economic strength of France and Britain with their large empires or with the formidable industrial economy of the United States. Unwilling to give up ambitions for greater national power, these powers came to believe that they could gamble on winning wars of “quick decision,” conflicts that they could win without falling into a war of long attrition, quick and limited victories that would allow them to gain resources they needed to develop their industrial bases and increase their level of armament (Japan in Manchuria, Germany against the Soviet Union). In this new--and risky--calculation, “timing” became a compelling factor in military action. They wanted to take military action at a time when their level of readiness was at the most favorable ratio to that of their enemies, to act before their foes with their larger economies and greater resources inevitably surpassed them in arms production and the capacity for producing arms.

The great disaster that gave this erroneous calculation credibility was the irrational gamble that Hitler took, against the advice of his generals, to attack France. The swift victory of German forces in a few weeks was unexpected and shocking. It gave rise to the mythology of the blitzkrieg, and emboldened Germany to expect an easy victory when it attacked the Soviet Union, a mistake that set the groundwork for their slow but inevitable defeat. But the early victory over France also made the Japanese feel they could make a quick strike against the United States, and although they never expected to outlast the U.S. in a sustained conflict, they thought they could fight things to a stalemate that would produce a negotiated end to hostilities that would be to their long-term national advantage.

The other great illumination of this book is that the author shows us just how directly at odds the need to arm and win an arms race was to political freedom within each country. The Nazi and Fascist regimes had little compunction about seizing control of their national economies and directing manufacturing in service of armament. For the great democracies, limiting freedom and markets in their countries in order to produce arms in the most efficient and quickest buildup posed a great problem, and they often struggled with the notion that they would, in order to defend themselves against their enemies, end up becoming just like them in dictatorial policies, the restriction of freedom, and the regimentation of the state. How this issue was finally addressed in Britain and the United States is an instructive story in its own right.

Cry Havoc explains effectively the framework of international thought in this period, and demonstrates the impact of its contingent strategic logic in one crucial decision after another that led to war. It also demonstrates the ineluctable trade-offs between domestic freedom and national security that were required in a dangerous world. One might call it a systems approach to history, but the fruitfulness and insights of its application here are quite impressive. Nuclear weapons and the Cold War created another strategic paradigm, of course, one that replaced the one Maiolo described. But as China rolls out advanced military hardware, as it did in the last few weeks, it makes you wonder what the current strategic international military framework might be, and what dynamic might lurk in its contingencies. Rest assured, in an office somewhere, someone is planning how to win the next war.

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