The Blog

THE MEN WHO WON

12:00 AM, Aug 5, 1996 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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Anyone tempted to believe in the inevitability of historical progress should consider where things stood at the beginning of 1942. In Europe, having driven first to the English Channel, Hitler had turned on his erstwhile Soviet ally and advanced east all the way to the outskirts of Moscow. Only Great Britain remained free and defiant, and the ocean artery through which she received vital supplies from the United States was being steadily constricted by German submarines. In the Pacific much of the U.S. fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, and, with full-scale mobilization just beginning, no replacements were yet in sight. Japan controlled the entire continental rim of East Asia from Manchuria to the tip of Malaya, and its dominion now extended south, across the oil-rich East Indies towards Australia, and east, over virtually every outpost of American power from the Philippines to the shores of the Hawaiian Islands.


In early 1942 there seemed every reason to fear that the world was poised for a descent into what Winston Churchill had described as a new Dark Age of fascist rule, "made more sinister, perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." Even the bravest and most confident of souls could not have predicted that, within a year, the tide would begin to turn against the Axis powers and that by the autumn of 1945 they would lie defeated and in ruins. How did the Allies manage to reverse their earlier misfortunes and come back to win the war?


As Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King's College, London, notes in How the Allies Won (W.W. Norton, 396 pages, $ 29.95), there is today a "commonly held assumption that the Axis states were beaten by sheer weight of material strength." The productive capacity of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined was puny in comparison to that of the United States together with the Soviet Union and the British Empire. Once the fascist powers had made the fundamental error of attacking all three of these industrial giants, forcing them into an awkward, temporary alliance, the outcome of the war was foreordained. In this view, to put it crudely, "Gross Domestic Product won the war: the Allies simply had more of it than the Axis."


Those who experienced the war firsthand, and who remember its dark early days and subsequent ebb and flow, will regard such arguments with appropriate skepticism; but their numbers are fast dwindling. The scholarly keepers of historical memory, meanwhile, seem drawn to a materialistic determinism. This may be because, as Tocqueville predicted, historians in a democratic age are inclined to explain events in terms of great, impersonal causes, rather than great men or momentous decisions. For modern social scientists, the claim that God is always on the side with the bigger battalions (or GNP) also has the virtue of being a concise, quantifiable, and seemingly scientific proposition.


Overy is himself a renowned expert on the industrial bases of modern war, but in his fascinating new book he mounts a sustained and extended attack on the purely material accounts of Allied victory. Where others are obsessed with hardware, with the sheer numbers of tanks, guns, ships, and planes engaged on both sides, Overy draws attention instead to the software of war, to the role of leadership, organization, learning, and morale in defeating the Axis powers.