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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.

To begin with, as Overy points out, the critical, early successes that helped stem the tide of Axis advance were achieved without benefit of overwhelming material advantage. The stunning American victory at Midway in June 1942 was won by a numerically inferior force, but one blessed with superb signals intelligence, more than a little good fortune, and twenty years of preparation for precisely the kind of battle that it was called upon eventually to fight. Victory in the Battle of the Atlantic came quite suddenly, in the first half of 1943. It was due not to a cumulative attrition of German submarines by vastly superior Allied navies but to the successful Anglo-American integration, after many months of experimentation and bitter experience, of cryptography, high-frequency airborne radars, small numbers of extended range aircraft, and aggressive tactics for hunting and killing enemy U-boats. The Nazi forces encircled and destroyed at Stalingrad at the end of 1942 were not markedly inferior in size to their Soviet counterparts, but they faced an opponent fighting on his own soil, with a hard-won mastery of the arts of deception, growing skill at combining massive air and ground forces, and a willingness to accept virtually unlimited casualties in the defense of the motherland. Even late in the war, aggregate Allied numerical superiority was not sufficient, by itself, to ensure victory. If the Germans had known in advance where the blow would fall, or if they had been willing, early on, to concentrate their forces in a massive counterattack, the June 1944 invasion of France could easily have ended in catastrophe.

While the Allies may have possessed more raw, industrial resources at the outset of the war, there was no guarantee that they would be able to mobilize them effectively. This was a particular problem for the Soviet Union, which in the wake of the Nazi invasion lost as much as 40 percent of its electric generating capacity and two thirds of its coal and steel. It was only by dismantling hundreds of factories, loading machinery and workers hastily on trains, and shipping them east of the Urals that the Soviets were able to sustain even minimal levels of production. No statistical measure of prewar industrial output could have predicted the presence of the organizational skill, willpower, and sheer ruthlessness essential to the performance of such a feat.

Nor did superiority in materials assure an advantage in arms production. Although the Germans manufactured more steel and mined more coal in 1943, it was the Russians who were able to squeeze out much larger numbers of tanks and heavy guns. The reasons, according to Overy, include not only the increasingly disruptive effects of Allied strategic bombing, but the ability of the Soviets to mass-produce a relatively small assortment of simple but effective weapons. The Nazis, with their hopes of quick victory and a short war, were slow to gear up for a protracted all-out struggle, and as they did so, their mobilization effort reflected the chaotic, irrational character of their political system. In the end, the German economy "fell between two stools. It was not enough of a command economy to do what the Soviet system could do; yet it was not capitalist enough to rely, as America did, on the recruitment of private enterprise." Instead, German war production remained remarkably disorganized and subject to constant interference from the military, which persisted in pressing for development of a dizzying array of weapons, many so sophisticated as to be difficult and costly to manufacture and maintain.

Ultimate Allied victory depended not only on the individual productive efforts of the three main powers but on their ability to combine forces effectively to defeat the common foe. Cooperation was not a given, even between Britain and the United States (whose top officials had deep differences about how best to conduct the war), and certainly not between the democracies and their Soviet counterpart. Here Overy rightly gives the bulk of the credit to Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill, extraordinary wartime leaders who never lost sight of the need for the Allies to hang together if they were not to hang separately.

In a striking comparison of the Allied chiefs with their Nazi nemesis, Overy argues that by the later stages of the war, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had adopted the same essential managerial style. While retaining enormous power in his own hands, each was ultimately willing to delegate a large part of the authority for the actual conduct of the war to a top staff of highly competent military and civilian officials. Critical tasks "were carried out by professionals whose experience and qualities singled them out for office. The Allied wartime administration was on balance surprisingly free of political stooges and dud appointments."

On the other side of the line, meanwhile, Hitler neutered his general staff, sacked competent commanders, surrounded himself with lackeys and party cronies, refused to establish a unified military command or an effective body for coordinating production, logistics, and military operations and, to the end, indulged his Wagnerian fantasies of himself as the solitary strategic genius. In contrast to his enemies, and to their considerable benefit, " Hitler took his position as Supreme Commander literally."

No book on a subject so large can be without shortcomings. Too little attention is paid here to Japan and to the war in the Pacific. And Overy seems at times to be bending over backwards to give the Soviets their due, mentioning only briefly the crucial economic assistance that they received from the United States and brushing past the prewar purges, which had a devastating effect on the preparedness of the Red Army.

But these failings do not detract from the overall power of Overy's argument or diminish the compelling importance of his message: Victory in the Second World War was not inevitable, and it was not due solely to material factors and impersonal forces. The generation that won the war did more than simply throw the switch on some vast industrial machine. As they pass slowly from the scene, it is therefore fitting that we should honor them for their courage, ingenuity, tenacity, and willingness to sacrifice. We owe them all we have.

Aaron Friedberg is associate professor of politics and international airs at Princeton University.