We are at the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. That victory did not usher in an era of universal peace. Rather, it introduced a new constellation of powers and a complex balance among them. Europe’s great powers and empires declined, and the United States and the Soviet Union replaced them, performing an old dance to new musical instruments. Technology, geopolitics’ companion, evolved dramatically as nuclear weapons, satellites and the microchip — among myriad wonders and horrors — changed not only the rules of war but also the circumstances under which war was possible. But one thing remained constant: Geopolitics, technology and war remained inseparable comrades.
It is easy to say what World War II did not change, but what it did change is also important. The first thing that leaps to mind is the manner in which World War II began for the three great powers: the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. For all three, the war started with a shock that redefined their view of the world. For the United States, it was the shock of Pearl Harbor. For the Soviet Union, it was the shock of the German invasion in June 1941. For the United Kingdom — and this was not really at the beginning of the war — it was shock at the speed with which France collapsed.
Pearl Harbor Jolts the American Mindset
There was little doubt among American leaders that war with Japan was coming. The general public had forebodings, but not with the clarity of its leaders. Still, neither expected the attack to come at Pearl Harbor. For the American public, it was a bolt from the blue, compounded by the destruction of much of the U.S. Pacific fleet. Neither the leaders nor the public thought the Japanese were nearly so competent.
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Pearl Harbor intersected with another shock to the American psyche — the Great Depression. These two events shared common characteristics: First, they seemed to come out of nowhere. Both were predictable and were anticipated by some, but for most both came without warning. The significance of the two was that they each ushered in an unexpected era of substantial pain and suffering.
This introduced a new dimension into American culture. Until this point there had been a deep and unsubtle optimism among Americans. The Great Depression and Pearl Harbor created a different sensibility that suspected that prosperity and security were an illusion, with disaster lurking behind them. There was a fear that everything could suddenly go wrong, horribly so, and that people who simply accepted peace and prosperity at face value were naïve. The two shocks created a dark sense of foreboding that undergirds American society to this day.
Pearl Harbor also shaped U.S. defense policy around the concept that the enemy might be identified, but where and when it might strike is unknown. Catastrophe therefore might come at any moment. The American approach to the Cold War is symbolized by Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain. Burrowed deep inside is the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which assumes that war might come at any moment and that any relaxation in vigilance could result in a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Fear of this scenario — along with mistrust of the wily and ruthless enemy — defined the Cold War for Americans.
The Americans analyzed their forced entry into World War II and identified what they took to be the root cause: the Munich Agreement allowing Nazi Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. This was not only an American idea by any means, but it reshaped U.S. strategy. If the origin of World War II was the failure to take pre-emptive action against the Germans in 1938, then it followed that the Pacific War might have been prevented by more aggressive actions early on. Acting early and decisively remains the foundation of U.S. foreign policy to this day. The idea that not acting in a timely and forceful fashion led to World War II underlies much American discourse on Iran or Russia.
Pearl Harbor (and the 1929 crash) not only led to a sense of foreboding and a distrust in the wisdom of political and military leaders, but it also replaced a strategy of mobilization after war begins, with a strategy of permanent mobilization. If war might come at any time, and if another Munich must above all be avoided, then the massive military establishment that exists today is indispensible. In addition, the U.S.-led alliance structure that didn’t exist prior to World War II is indispensible.
The Soviet Strategic Miscalculation
The Soviet Union had its own Pearl Harbor on June 22, 1941, when the Germans invaded in spite of the friendship treaty signed between them in 1939. That treaty was struck for two reasons: First, the Russians couldn’t persuade the British or French to sign an anti-Hitler pact. Second, a treaty with Hitler would allow the Soviets to move their border further west without firing a shot. It was a clever move, but not a smart one.
The Soviets made a single miscalculation: They assumed a German campaign in France would replay the previous Great War. Such an effort would have exhausted the Germans and allowed the Soviets to attack them at the time and place of Moscow’s choosing. That opportunity never presented itself. On the contrary, the Germans put themselves in a position to attack the Soviet Union at a time and place of their choosing. That the moment of attack was a surprise compounded the challenge, but the real problem was strategic miscalculation, not simply an intelligence or command failure.
The Soviets had opted for a dynamic foreign policy of shifting alliances built on assumptions of the various players’ capabilities. A single misstep could lead to catastrophe — an attack at a time when the Soviet forces had yet to recover from one of Josef Stalin’s purges. The Soviet forces were not ready for an attack, and their strategy collapsed with France, so the decision for war was entirely Germany’s.
What the Soviets took away from the June 1941 invasion was a conviction that political complexity could not substitute for a robust military. The United States ended World War II with the conviction that a core reason for that war was the failure of the United States. The Soviets ended World War II with the belief that their complex efforts at coalition building and maintaining the balance of power had left them utterly exposed by one miscalculation on France — one that defied the conventional wisdom.
During the Cold War, the Soviets developed a strategy that could best be called stolid. Contained by an American-led coalition, the Soviets preferred satellites to allies. The Warsaw Pact was less an alliance than a geopolitical reality. For the most part it consisted of states under the direct military, intelligence or political control of the Soviet Union. The military value of the block might be limited, and its room for maneuver was equally limited. Nonetheless, Soviet forces could be relied on, and the Warsaw Pact, unlike NATO, was a geographical reality that Soviet forces used to guarantee that no invasion by the United States or NATO was possible. Obviously, the Soviets — like the Americans — remained vigilant for a nuclear attack, but it has been noted that the Soviet system was significantly less sophisticated than that of the Americans. Part of this imbalance was related to technological capabilities. A great deal of it had to do with the fact that nuclear attack was not the Soviet’s primordial fear, though the fear must not be minimized. The primordial fear in Moscow was an attack from the West. The Soviet Union’s strategy was to position its own forces as far to the west as possible.
Consider this in contrast to the Soviet relations with China. Ideologically, China ought to have been a powerful ally, but the alliance was souring by the mid-1950s. The Soviets were not ideologues. They were geopoliticians, and China represented a potential threat that the Soviets could not control. Ideology didn’t matter. China would never serve the role that Poland had to. The Sino-Soviet relationship fell apart fairly quickly.
The Soviet public did not develop the American dread that beneath peace and prosperity lurked the seeds of disaster. Soviet expectations of life were far more modest than those of Americans, and the expectation that the state would avert disaster was limited. The state generated disaster. At the same time, the war revealed — almost from the beginning — a primordial love of country, hidden for decades under the ideology of internationalism, that re-emerged spontaneously. Beneath communist fervor, cynical indifference and dread of the Soviet secret police, the Russians found something new while the Americans found something old.
France’s Fall Surprises Britain
As for the British, their miscalculation on France changed little. They were stunned by the rapid collapse of France, but perhaps also relieved that they would not fight in French trenches again. The collapse of France caused them to depend on only two things: One was that the English Channel, combined with the fleet and the Royal Air Force, would hold the Germans at bay. The second was that in due course, the United States would be drawn into the war. Their two calculations proved correct.
However, the United Kingdom was not one of the ultimate winners of the war. It may not have been occupied by the Germans, but it was essentially by the Americans. This was a very different occupation, and one the British needed, but the occupation of Britain by foreign forces, regardless of how necessary and benign, spelled the end of the British Empire and of Britain as a major power. The Americans did not take the British Empire. It was taken away by the shocking performance of the French. On paper, the French had an excellent army — superior to the Germans, in many ways. Yet they collapsed in weeks. If we were to summarize the British sensibility, after defiance came exhaustion and then resentment.
Some of these feelings are gone now. The Americans retain their dread even though World War II was in many ways good to the United States. It ended the Great Depression, and in the aftermath, between the G.I. Bill, VA loans and the Interstate Highway System, the war created the American professional middle class, with private homes for many and distance and space that could be accessed easily. And yet the dread remains, not always muted. This generation’s Pearl Harbor was 9/11. Fear that security and prosperity is built on a base of sand is not an irrational fear.
For the Russians, the feelings of patriotism still lurk beneath the cynicism. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Russia’s sphere of influence have not resulted in particularly imaginative strategic moves. On the contrary, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to Ukraine was as stolid as Stalin’s or Leonid Brezhnev’s. Rather than a Machiavellian genius, Putin is the heir to the German invasion on June 22, 1941. He seeks strategic depth controlled by his own military. And his public has rallied to him.
As for the British, they once had an empire. They now have an island. It remains to be seen if they hold onto all of it, given the strength of the Scottish nationalists.
While we are celebrating the end of World War II, it is useful to examine its beginnings. So much of what constitutes the political-military culture, particularly of the Americans, was forged by the way that World War II began. Pearl Harbor and the American view of Munich have been the framework for thinking not only about foreign relations and war, but also about living in America. Not too deep under the surface there is a sense that all good things eventually must go wrong. Much of this comes from the Great Depression and much from Pearl Harbor. The older optimism is still there, but the certainty of manifest success is deeply tempered.
“World War II and the Origins of American Unease is republished with permission of Stratfor.”