Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: Debacle in the West - America's Second Crusade
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4: Debacle in the West - William Henry Chamberlin, America’s Second Crusade 
America’s Second Crusade (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Amagi, 2008).
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Debacle in the West
The British and French alliances with Poland brought only disaster and suffering to all the partners. The Polish Army, courageous but poorly trained in methods of modern warfare and scantily supplied with tanks and airplanes, was overwhelmed by the invading Germans during the first weeks of September. The defense of Poland was handicapped by the irregular frontiers of the country, by the location of important industrial centers near the borders, and by the obstinate determination of the General Staff to defend every inch of the national soil.
After knocking out the Polish Air Force in the first twenty-four hours of the offensive, the Germans developed a series of pincer movements with the armored columns. The chances of guerrilla resistance in the forests and swamps of eastern Poland disappeared when the Soviet Government, by prearrangement with Germany, struck its blow at the Polish rear. The German Ambassador to Moscow, von Schulenburg, reported on September 6, 1939, that the Soviet Government was doing everything to change the attitude of the population toward Germany.
Attacks on the conduct of Germany had ceased and anti-German literature had been removed from the bookstores. However, as the Ambassador noted in a moment of candor: “The statements of official agitators to the effect that Germany is no longer an aggressor run up against considerable doubt.”1
Molotov on September 9 telephoned his congratulations and greetings to the German Government on the occasion of the entry of the German troops into Warsaw. (The Polish capital actually held out for some time longer.)
The Polish Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Grzybowski, was awakened at 3:00 a.m. by a communication from Molotov stating that the Polish state and its government had ceased to exist. Since the Soviet Government could not view with indifference the fate of the Byelorussian and Ukrainian population, it was directing the High Command of the Red Army to order troops to cross the frontier and “to take under their protection the lives and property of the population of the Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia.”2
Stalin on September 25 proposed a revision of the division of spoils agreed on a month earlier. He suggested that Germany should take a larger part of Poland, up to the river Bug. In return the Soviet Union should get Lithuania. This was acceptable to Berlin. Ribbentrop paid a second visit to Moscow and was received with festive honors and the playing of the Horst Wessel Lied. The new boundary in Poland was affirmed in a treaty which rejected the interference of third powers in the settlement.
One of the most striking foreign comments on the Soviet-Nazi honeymoon was a cartoon by David Low. It was entitled “A Rendezvous in Poland” and represented Stalin addressing Hitler as “the bloody assassin of the workers, I presume,” while Hitler greeted Stalin as “the scum of the earth, I believe.” In the background was the corpse of murdered Poland.
The Kremlin quickly pressed on the governments of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia treaties providing for the establishment of Soviet naval and air bases in these countries. There was no interference with internal administration at this time.
Molotov delivered a long report on foreign affairs to the Supreme Soviet, or Soviet Parliament, on October 31. It deserves attention for two reasons. It shows how far the Soviet Government, which subsequently liked to assume the pose of being uncompromisingly “anti-fascist,” was willing to go in collaboration with Nazi Germany. And it is a striking illustration of how swiftly a totalitarian government can reverse the course of its foreign policy.
In the past the Soviet Government had consistently professed the friendliest feeling for Poland and respect for Poland’s independence and territorial integrity. Molotov struck a very different note:
“One swift blow to Poland,” he said, “first by the German Army, and then by the Red Army, and nothing was left of this ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty.”
Litvinov at Geneva had missed no opportunity to arouse a crusading spirit against fascist aggression, which was used as a basis of Soviet nonaggression pacts with its western neighbors (all these pacts, with Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, were violated in 1939 and 1940). Molotov poured cold water on such ventures in international idealism.
“We know, for example,” he told the docile delegates of the Supreme Soviet,
that in the past few months such concepts as “aggression” and “aggressor” have acquired a new concrete connotation, a new meaning. . . .
Everyone would understand that an ideology cannot be destroyed by force, that it cannot be eliminated by war. It is, therefore, not only senseless but criminal to wage such a war for “the destruction of Hitlerism,” camouflaged as a fight for “democracy.”
The war now, according to Molotov, was an imperialist war, waged against Germany by Britain and France for fear of losing world supremacy. (Hitler, seconded by Molotov, had made a peace offer on October 6. It was rejected, no doubt to the profound relief of the men in the Kremlin. An accommodation with the western powers, which would have enabled Hitler to turn his full force eastward, would have been most unwelcome news to Stalin and Molotov.)
The Baltic area was to be sovietized within less than a year. But Molotov assured his audience:
We stand for the scrupulous and punctilious observance of pacts on a basis of complete reciprocity, and we declare that all nonsense about sovietizing the Baltic countries is only to the interest of our common enemies and of all anti-Soviet provocateurs.
The next Soviet move to cash in on the spoils of the Stalin-Hitler deal was a blow at Finland. This attack was an unoriginal imitation of the German invasion of Poland, even down to such a detail as the conventional falsehood that Finland, with a population less than that of Moscow, had started an invasion of Russia. But the Finnish resistance was stubborn and, for a time, remarkably successful. Before the weight of Soviet numbers prevailed in March 1940 (the war began on November 30, 1939) almost 50,000 Red soldiers, by Molotov’s own estimate, had perished. Only 737 Russians had been killed in the occupation of eastern Poland. German dead in the Polish campaign were a little over 10,000.
The heroic Finnish stand against a country with almost fifty times Finland’s population elicited general admiration in the western world. In his drama, There Shall Be No Night, which extols the fight of free men against tyranny, Robert Sherwood laid the scene in Finland. And Winston Churchill devoted an oratorical purple patch to what he called “this splendid northern race”:
Only Finland, superb, nay sublime, in the jaws of peril—Finland shows what free men can do. The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent. . . . If the light of freedom which still burns so brightly in the frozen North should be finally quenched, it might well herald a return to the Dark Ages, when every vestige of human progress during 2,000 years would be engulfed.3
Alas, war-born enthusiasms are fickle and fleeting. A time would soon come when Sherwood would shamefacedly transfer the locale of his play to Greece and when Churchill would help the Soviet Union to “quench the light of freedom” in Finland by hurling a declaration of war against that country.
The only French contribution to the military relief of Poland was some petty skirmishing in the Saar. During the winter all was quiet on the western front. But debacle, swift and terrifying, came in the spring and early summer.
The British mining of Norwegian waters on April 6, a breach of that country’s neutrality, was immediately followed by a lightning German thrust against Denmark and Norway. Denmark was occupied with little resistance. A local “fifth column” of Nazi sympathizers, headed by Major Vidkun Quisling, co-operated with a German sea and air invasion of Norway. Allied counteraction was fumbling and ineffective. The long Norwegian coastline, important for submarine warfare, passed under German control.
The decisive campaign in the West started on May 10, when German armies poured into the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. Within six weeks Hitler’s forces had achieved what the Kaiser’s legions could not accomplish in four years. France, broken and prostrate, signed an armistice that amounted to a capitulation on June 23.
A main cause of the swift disaster was the failure of the French High Command to take adequate account of the revolutionary change in the nature of modern warfare. The possibilities of the tank and the airplane were underestimated. Too much reliance was placed on the powerful forts of the Maginot Line, built along the most exposed part of the French eastern frontier.
But the Germans did not attempt to storm the Maginot Line. They by-passed it, aiming their main blow through the rough country of the Ardennes forest. A fatally weak spot in the French line near Sedan was pierced, and German armored columns almost unopposed rolled on to the British Channel.
Meanwhile the British and some French forces, including the best armored divisions, had rashly abandoned their positions northwest of Sedan and had moved into Belgium to meet the German invasion there. Taken in the rear after the breakthrough at Sedan, their strategic position was hopeless. Most of the British and some French troops escaped in the memorable evacuation at Dunkirk, but at the price of losing their heavy equipment.
The disaster at Dunkirk would probably have been even greater if the German armored units, on direct orders from Hitler, had not been restrained from pressing home the attack on the town during the days of the evacuation. Churchill believes that Field Marshal von Rundstedt was responsible for this oversight. Von Rundstedt insists that his hands were tied by Hitler’s instructions.
It may be that Hitler and his generals overestimated the power of resistance remaining in the French armies which were still covering the line of the rivers Somme and Aisne. They may have wished to avoid heavy losses of armor in anticipation of hard battles to come.
But there are indications of political motives in the slowing up of the drive against Dunkirk. At the time when the offensive against Dunkirk had been halted, on May 24, Hitler talked with von Rundstedt, army group commander, and with two key men on his staff, Sodenstern and Blumentritt. As the latter tells the story:
He [Hitler] then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world. . . . He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the Continent. The return of Germany’s lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere.4
Hitler’s desire to preserve the British Empire was expressed on another occasion, and under circumstances which preclude the possibility that he was talking for propaganda effect. When the military fortunes of the western powers were at their lowest ebb, when France had appealed for an armistice, von Ribbentrop gave the following outline of Hitler’s attitude toward England in a strictly private talk with the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano:
He [Ribbentrop] said that in the Führer’s opinion the existence of the British Empire as an element of stability and social order in the world is very useful. In the present state of affairs it would be impossible to replace it with another, similar organization. Therefore, the Führer—as he has also recently stated in public—does not desire the destruction of the British Empire. He asks that England renounce some of its possessions and recognize the fait accompli. On these conditions Hitler would be prepared to come to an agreement.5
However, Hitler, the twentieth-century Napoleon, found in Churchill a more implacable adversary than Pitt. There had been increasing dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war by the Chamberlain Cabinet. Churchill, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty, assumed the office of Prime Minister on May 10, the day when the German offensive was unleashed.
During the following weeks defeat was piled on defeat, disaster on disaster. Churchill never wavered in his resolution to fight on regardless of the consequences of a bitter-end war. Among these consequences would be the tremendous impoverishment of his own country, the wrecking of much of the European continent through savage bombing, the bringing of Asia to the Elbe, in Churchill’s own brilliant phrase, and, most ironical of all for Churchill as a great imperialist, the dissolution of much of the British Empire.
Churchill’s first concern was to keep France in the war. Even after the French armies had been hopelessly crushed, he hoped that a French government, taking refuge in one of the overseas possessions, would continue the struggle as an ally of Great Britain. But the collapse of French resistance advanced so fast that all Churchill’s efforts were in vain, despite the active co-operation which he received from Roosevelt, a neutral only in name.
The French Government quit Paris and moved to Tours in an atmosphere of chaotic disorder on June 10. On the fourteenth, when the Germans entered Paris, there was a second government exodus, to Bordeaux. Only one who, like the writer, lived through those tragic weeks in France can appreciate the prevailing sense of helpless confusion, the loss of all sense of connection between the government and the people.
Bordeaux, normally a quiet, comfortable provincial town, was a bedlam, overrun with hordes of refugees, not only French, but Belgian, Dutch, and Central European fugitives from the Nazis. The spectacle of universal crumbling and disorganization must have weighed on the nerves of the harassed government leaders and tilted the scales in favor of acceptance of defeat.
Churchill shuttled back and forth by air between London and Paris and Tours, trying to infuse his own bellicose spirit into the French Cabinet. But France’s military leaders, the venerable Marshal Pétain and General Maxime Weygand, who had succeeded the inept Gamelin after the fatal German breakthrough, knew they were beaten. As land soldiers, they underestimated the defensive possibilities of sea and air power. Knowing the British Army was less trained than the French, they foresaw swift defeat for an England that would continue to fight. They saw no sense in continuing a futile slaughter, or, rather, a roundup by the Germans of enormous numbers of French prisoners. They raised their voices more and more insistently for an armistice.
The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, was intellectually in favor of continuing the struggle from French overseas territory. But he lacked the fanatical fervor of a Clemenceau. The war had never been popular in France. Amid the ruin and havoc of defeat the voices of those who had always considered it futile to “die for Danzig”6 gained ground.
Just before he fled from Paris, Reynaud sent a message to Roosevelt, urging the President to state publicly that the United States would aid the western powers by all means short of an expeditionary force. In language that sounded like a pale imitation of Churchill’s own Elizabethan heroics Reynaud declared:
“We shall fight in front of Paris; we shall fight behind Paris; we shall close ourselves in one of our provinces7 to fight and if we should be driven out of it, we shall establish ourselves in North Africa to continue the fight and, if necessary, in our American possessions.”
Churchill saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone: to keep France in the war and to draw the United States into the conflict. Roosevelt, in a speech at Charlottesville, Virginia, had characterized Mussolini’s declaration of war on France as a stab in the back.8 Churchill through the British Ambassador in Washington, Lord Lothian, informed the President that he was fortified by the Charlottesville speech and urged that everything must be done to keep France in the fight.
Roosevelt’s reply to Reynaud on June 13 gave Churchill a thrill of encouragement. It was much more strongly worded than the American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, a sincere opponent of American involvement in the war, and some State Department officials considered advisable. It read as follows:
Your message of June 10 has moved me very deeply. As I have already stated to you and to Mr. Churchill, this Government is doing everything in its power to make available to the Allied Governments the material they so urgently require, and our efforts to do so still more are being redoubled. This is so because of our faith in and our support of the ideals for which the Allies are fighting.
The fighting resistance of the French and British armies has profoundly impressed the American people.
I am, personally, particularly impressed by your declaration that France will continue to fight on behalf of Democracy, even if it means slow withdrawal, even to North Africa and the Atlantic. It is most important to remember that the French and British fleets continue in mastery of the Atlantic and other oceans; also to remember that vital materials from the outside world are necessary to maintain all armies.
I am also greatly heartened by what Prime Minister Churchill said a few days ago about the continued resistance of the British Empire, and that determination would seem to apply equally to the great French Empire all over the world. Naval power in world affairs still carries the lessons of history, as Admiral Darlan well knows.
Churchill saw in this message two points which were equivalent to belligerence: a promise of material aid, which implied active assistance, and a call to go on fighting, even if the Government were driven from France. The British Prime Minister rushed off a message to Reynaud suggesting that, if France would remain in the field and in the war, “we feel that the United States is committed beyond recall to take the only remaining step, namely becoming a belligerent in form as she already has constituted herself in fact.”9
But the next day brought disillusionment. Roosevelt, apparently feeling that he had gone too far, refused to permit the publication of his communication to Reynaud and emphasized that this message was not intended to commit and did not commit the United States to military participation.
Churchill then tried to stimulate Roosevelt’s willingness to take bellicose steps by painting a dark picture of what might happen if control of Britain should pass out of the hands of the present government. In that case, he warned, Britain might obtain easy terms by consenting to become a vassal state in Hitler’s empire, and the United States might be confronted with a vast naval bloc, composed of the German, British, French, Italian, and Japanese fleets.
In the light of subsequent events this suggestion does not sound realistic. Although France was conquered, Hitler never made any use of the French Navy. The British Navy remained independent; the Italian Navy won few laurels, and Germany never came within measurable range of surface mastery of the oceans. Churchill’s message failed to inspire any immediate action, but it furnished useful scare material for advocates of American intervention.
The attempt to keep France in the war failed. An offer, hastily worked out by Churchill’s War Cabinet in consultation with the members of the French economic mission in England, Jean Monnet and René Pleven, and General de Gaulle, of an indissoluble union between Britain and France fell on deaf ears in Bordeaux. The harassed Reynaud resigned in favor of Marshal Pétain, who on June 17 pronounced the decisive words: “Il faut cesser le combat.”
It was then merely a question of learning the armistice terms. These called for the occupation of the greater part of France, including the Channel and Atlantic coasts, together with demobilization and disarmament, although France was permitted to maintain an army of a hundred thousand men. The fleet was to be recalled to French ports, laid up, and dismantled under German supervision. Germany promised not to use French warships for military purposes.
After the first stunning shock of defeat, the swiftest and most complete in the long series of Franco-German wars, Frenchmen were divided among three camps. The then little-known General Charles de Gaulle, denouncing the armistice from London, had only a few followers. At the other extreme were men like Pierre Laval, who argued that the best French hope of survival lay in adopting a pro-German and anti-British orientation, and trying to win Hitler’s favor.
The position of Pétain, the new chief of the French state, was between these extremes. The aged Marshal tried to save the French Empire, to alleviate the sufferings caused by the occupation and the food stringency, to substitute for the fallen Third Republic a conservative, paternalistic regime. It would be unfair to brand Pétain and the great majority of the French people who at this time accepted his leadership as traitors. As William L. Langer says: “Until November 1942, at least, the vast majority of patriotic Frenchmen felt they could serve best by staying in France.”10
France fell; but Britain stood. Whatever may be thought of the judgment of the British Government in following policies which led to such a political disaster as the Stalin-Hitler pact and to such a military debacle in Poland and in France, the heroism of the British people deserved and excited world-wide admiration. They stood alone and lightly armed against the greatest military power the Continent had seen since the time of Napoleon.
On June 18, just after the French decision to surrender became known, Churchill pronounced the most famous of his many dramatic speeches, with the following ringing peroration:
The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Churchill was assiduous in seeking new allies to replace those who had failed. He was incessant in his appeals for more aid from the United States. He also turned to a less sympathetic and responsive source. He addressed a letter to Stalin on June 25, describing the two objects of British policy as saving Britain and freeing the rest of Europe from German domination. Churchill expressed readiness to discuss fully with the Soviet Government any of the vast problems created by Germany’s present attempt to pursue in Europe a methodical process of conquest and absorption by successive stages.
This overture fell on deaf ears. Stalin made no formal reply. But his informal reaction, set forth to the new British Ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, was flatly negative. Stalin told Sir Stafford that he saw no danger of the hegemony of one country in Europe, still less any danger that Europe might be engulfed by Germany. He had not discovered any desire on Germany’s part to engulf European countries. Stalin further expressed the opinion that German military successes did not menace the Soviet Union and its friendly relations with Germany. These relations were not based on transient circumstances, but on the basic national interests of both countries. Molotov hastened to inform the German Ambassador, von Schulenburg, of this rebuff to Britain.11
The Soviet dictator had no intention of coming to the aid of Britain in its extremity. On receiving the news of the French collapse, Molotov summoned the German Ambassador to his office and “expressed the warmest congratulations of the Soviet Government on the splendid success of the German armed forces.”12 The Soviet Government had already shared in the partition of Poland. Now it began to gather in the other territorial spoils of its deal with Hitler.
An ultimatum was sent to Lithuania on June 14, accusing that country and other Baltic states of military conspiracy against the Soviet Union. One or two border incidents were manufactured, and Red Army troops moved in. Similar ultimatums were sent to Latvia and Estonia on the sixteenth. Three Soviet “trouble shooters” (the term had literal as well as symbolic significance in this case) were rushed to the capitals of the occupied countries: Dekanozov to Kaunas, Vishinsky to Riga, Zhdanov to Tallin.
Elections on the familiar totalitarian pattern were held in July and led to the selection of parliaments which were entirely subservient to the Soviet will. Pre-election propaganda did not call for absorption into the Soviet Union, but only for maintaining friendly relations with that country. There was, therefore, no plebiscite, not even a plebiscite under foreign occupation, on this issue.
Soon after the tame parliaments assembled, they voted in favor of association with the Soviet Union. This request was quickly granted. Molotov gave a realistic account of the method by which annexation was accomplished when he reported to the Supreme Soviet:
The Soviet Government presented the demands you know of concerning changes in the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and despatched additional Red Army units to those countries. You know the results of this step of the Soviet Government.
This was a time when Soviet actions were still appraised realistically in western capitals. Sumner Welles, Acting Secretary of State, summed up the American official reaction in the following statement of July 23:
During these past few days the devious processes whereunder the political independence and territorial integrity of the three small Baltic Republics—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—were to be deliberately annihilated by one of their powerful neighbors have been rapidly drawing to their conclusion.
From the day when the peoples of these republics first gained their independence and democratic form of government the people of the United States have watched their admirable progress in self-government with deep and sympathetic interest.
The policy of this government is universally known. The people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities, no matter whether they are carried on by force or by the threat of force. They are likewise opposed to any form of intervention on the part of one state, however powerful, in the domestic concerns of any other sovereign state, however weak.
The Soviet Government on June 26, after some behind-the-scenes diplomatic parleying with Berlin, served a twenty-four-hour ultimatum on Rumania, demanding the cession of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Bessarabia was a prewar Russian province with an ethnically mixed population which had been occupied by Rumania in the confusion after World War I. Bukovina, where many of the inhabitants were of Ukrainian stock, had formerly been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had never belonged to Russia.
Germany had renounced interest in Bessarabia as part of the price of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Bukovina (Molotov had first demanded the entire province) was an awkward new request for Ribbentrop. However, after persuading the Kremlin to limit its claim to the northern part of the province, Berlin advised the Rumanian Government to yield. Stalin now regained the old Russian frontier on the Baltic and at the mouth of the Danube.
August and September were critical months for Britain. Hitler declared in a victory speech on July 19 that it had never been his intention to destroy or even to harm the British Empire and made a general peace offer in the following words:
In this hour I feel it to be my duty before my conscience to appeal once more to reason and commonsense in Great Britain as much as elsewhere. I consider myself in a position to make this appeal, since I am not the vanquished, begging favors, but the victor, speaking in the name of reason.
I can see no reason why this war must go on.13
This speech was followed by private diplomatic overtures through Sweden, the United States, and the Vatican. But Churchill was in the war with the objective, not of saving Britain from destruction and its navy from capture, but of destroying Nazi Germany and reconquering Europe. Lord Halifax, then Foreign Secretary, brushed aside what he called Hitler’s “summons to capitulate at his will.”
The British Government had already given two demonstrations of its intention to “stop at nothing,” as Churchill puts it in his memoirs. When the French naval commander at Mers-el-Kebir, in North Africa, refused to comply with a British demand to sink his ships or proceed under British convoy to a British or American port, the British warships opened a full-scale attack and sank or disabled most of the French ships, with a loss of over one thousand lives. On the same day, July 3, the British seized French ships in British ports and interned those at Alexandria.
The British also took the initiative in one of the most savagely destructive methods of modern warfare, the indiscriminate bombing of cities. This point was usually obscured by wartime passion and propaganda. But the evidence from British sources is strong. So Mr. J. M. Spaight, Principal Assistant Secretary to the Air Ministry, says in his work, Bombing Vindicated.
We began to bomb objectives on the German mainland before the Germans began to bomb objectives on the British mainland. That is a historical fact which has been publicly admitted. . . . Yet, because we were doubtful about the psychological effect of propagandist distortion of the truth that it was we who started the strategic offensive, we have shrunk from giving our great decision of May, 1940, the publicity which it deserved. That surely was a mistake. It was a splendid decision. It was as heroic, as self-sacrificing, as Russia’s decision to adopt her policy of “scorched earth” (68, 74).14
A well-known British military commentator, Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, notes that the night bombing of London in September 1940 followed six successive British attacks on Berlin during the preceding fortnight and observes:
The Germans were thus strictly justified in describing this as a reprisal, especially as they had, prior to our sixth attack on Berlin, announced that they would take such action if we did not stop our night bombing of Berlin.15
When it became clear that the British Government would not consider his peace proposal, Hitler gave orders for the preparation of a plan of invasion, known as Operation Sea Lion. The original D-Day was September 15. The German Navy proposed to establish a narrow corridor across the Channel, wall it in with minefields and submarines, and ferry the armored forces across in successive waves. The Army leaders protested that they needed a wider range of coastline to attack than the Navy felt able to guarantee.
Neither service was very optimistic about the prospects of Sea Lion. It was recognized that a preliminary condition of success was mastery of the air over southeastern England. This the Luftwaffe, in a series of fierce air combats during the last days of August and the first weeks of September, failed to achieve. Sea Lion was postponed several times and finally shelved indefinitely.
Hitler’s inability to surmount the narrow barrier represented by the British Channel is a sufficient commentary on the charlatan quality of alarmists who before and during the war represented a German invasion of North America as a serious possibility.
Had Hitler regarded Britain as his principal enemy, he would have found other means of striking, even though the plan of direct invasion was frustrated. Gibraltar and Suez, at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, were key communication points of the British Empire. Had Hitler given up or postponed his reckoning with Russia and concentrated his war effort in the Mediterranean area, the course of hostilities and the final issue of the war might have been different. But the Führer’s enthusiasm was reserved for continental land operations. As he once told his naval chief, Admiral Erich Raeder: “On land I am a hero, but at sea I am a coward.”
The Gibralter operation, somewhat vaguely conceived after the fall of France, was held up and never undertaken because the Spanish ruler, General Francisco Franco, was unwilling to let the Germans pass through Spain without greater economic aid and political concessions than Hitler was willing to give him. When Hitler met Franco at Hendaye, on the Franco-Spanish border, in October 1940, the Spanish dictator proved so obstinate in demanding and so evasive in conceding that Hitler later remarked that he would rather have three or four teeth drawn than go through such an experience again.16 Mussolini’s attempt to win Franco’s consent to the German demands in February 1941 was equally unsuccessful.
The German commander in North Africa, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was a brilliant tank specialist who ruined the reputation of several British generals. But he never received enough men or matériel to make possible a successful drive to Alexandria and Suez. After December 1940, Hitler was committed to the realization of a design of which he had always dreamed: the smashing of Soviet Russia.
The dissolution of the Nazi-Soviet quasi alliance lies outside the limits of the debacle in the West. But it will be briefly described here, because it exercised a profound effect upon the military and political course of the war, in which America would soon be involved.
The situation which prevailed in Europe after the fall of France, with Hitler and Stalin as the masters of the Continent, recalls the period between 1807 and 1812. At that time Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I shared a similar domination in an equally uneasy and precarious alliance.
Stalin followed Alexander’s example by using the period of understanding to attack Finland and to strengthen the Russian position on the Danube. Some of the effusive congratulations exchanged between Moscow and Berlin recall the Tsar’s expansive remark to the French Ambassador Savary:
“What is Europe; where is it, if it is not you and we?”
A new brand of ideological cement was improvised for this strange friendship of two systems which had formerly exchanged the bitterest abuse. German propaganda stressed the idea that Russia and Germany were “young, revolutionary, proletarian countries,” naturally leagued against “the old, weary, decadent plutocracies of the West.” Ribbentrop seems to have believed his own propaganda to some extent. He expressed favorable views of Stalin and his regime, not only in public statements, but in private talks with Mussolini and Ciano. He believed that Stalin had become a “nationalist” (a somewhat delusive source of comfort to western statesmen in a later phase of the war) and that Jews were being eliminated from high places in the Soviet administration.
But the forces that made for rupture outweighed Ribbentrop’s dream of lasting co-operation between nazism and communism. Among these forces were Hitler’s emotional hatred of bolshevism, the Soviet tendency to procrastinate and drive hard bargains in diplomatic discussion, and the clash of German and Russian interests at the Dardanelles, so often a focal point of international rivalry.
The first serious rift in Berlin-Moscow harmony occurred when Germany and Italy guaranteed the new shrunken frontiers of Rumania in August 1940. Besides losing Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, Rumania, under pressure from Berlin and Rome, had ceded part of Transylvania to Hungary. Molotov grumbled that Germany had not been altogether loyal in giving this guarantee without consulting Moscow. The shrewd Rumanian Ambassador in Moscow, Grigore Gafencu, reports the following acid interchange between Molotov and von Schulenburg:
“Why have you given the guarantee? You know we had no intention to attack Rumania.” “That is just why we gave the guarantee,” retorted the German diplomat. “You have often told us that you have no further claim on Rumania; our guarantee, therefore, can be no source of annoyance to you.” This was already a far cry from the saccharine congratulations on the German victories in Poland and France.
The definite turning point in Soviet-German relations, however, may be dated from Molotov’s visit to Berlin in November. Representatives of Germany, Japan, and Italy had signed a tripartite pact in Berlin on September 27. This provided for Japanese recognition of the leadership of Germany and Italy in establishing a new order in Europe. Germany and Italy, in return, endorsed Japan’s leadership in setting up a new order in “Greater East Asia.” Clause 3 was perhaps the most important item in this treaty:
“Germany, Italy and Japan agree . . . to assist one another with all political, economic and military means when one of the three contracting powers is attacked by a power at present not involved in the European war or in the Chinese-Japanese conflict.”
The only powers which might have fitted this definition were the United States and the Soviet Union, with the former a far more likely participant in intervention. Ribbentrop hoped that the Soviet Union could be fitted into the framework of the pact. As he told Ciano on November 4,17 he wanted a political and economic pact, based on mutual recognition of the territorial situation, on an undertaking by each party never to give aid to the enemies of the other, and on a broad collaboration and friendship clause.
More than that, Ribbentrop wanted an agreement to direct Russian dynamism to the south (it was to be anti-British in character and to aim at safeguarding the position of Afghanistan and Persia as far as possible). Italian “dynamism,” in Ribbentrop’s conception, was to be channeled toward Mediterranean Africa and the Red Sea, German dynamism toward Equatorial Africa. Ribbentrop did not wish to discuss Balkan questions with the Soviet Union; and on this point he reckoned without Molotov.
The Soviet Foreign Minister arrived in Berlin prepared for hard bargaining. When Hitler and Ribbentrop tried to allure him with visions of expansion in Asia, Molotov demanded a free hand in Finland and the right to give a guarantee to Bulgaria which would bring that country into the Soviet sphere of influence. He also wanted to obtain an assurance against an attack in the Black Sea through the Straits, “not only on paper, but in reality,” and believed the Soviet Union could reach an agreement with Turkey on this point.
Hitler was cool to these hints of further Soviet expansion in the area of the Baltic and Black seas. He declared flatly that there must be no war in Finland and pointedly inquired whether Bulgaria had asked for the kind of guarantee Molotov suggested.
So the general atmosphere of the November meeting in Berlin was chilly and negative. Molotov received for consideration the draft of a four-power treaty to be signed with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Soviet territorial aspirations were rather vaguely defined in this document as centering “south of the national territory of the Soviet Union, in the direction of the Indian Ocean.”18
Molotov’s response to this offer was given to Schulenburg on November 26.19 The Soviet Foreign Minister was willing to sign the four-power treaty, but at a high price. He demanded withdrawal of German troops from Finland, a mutual assistance pact with Bulgaria, a base in Bulgaria for Soviet land and naval forces within range of the Straits, Japanese surrender of coal and oil concessions in Soviet North Sakhalin. Molotov also stipulated that “the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf be recognized as the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union.”
To this proposal the German Government returned only evasive and noncommittal replies. The real answer was given on December 18, 1940, when Hitler issued a “top secret” directive for the preparation of Operation Barbarossa.20 The nature of this directive was summarized in the first sentence:
“The German Armed Forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign (Operation Barbarossa) even before the conclusion of the war against England.”
Rumania and Finland, countries which had been despoiled of territory by the Soviet Union, were counted on as allies. The ultimate objective was to establish a defensive line against Asiatic Russia running approximately from the Volga River to Archangel. Then, in case of necessity, the last industrial area left to Russia in the Urals could be eliminated by the Luftwaffe. It was considered of decisive importance that the intention to attack should not be discovered.
The vast preparations necessary to mount an offensive against Russia, however, could not be entirely concealed. In January 1941 the American commercial attaché in Berlin, Sam E. Woods, sent a confidential report, based on information surreptitiously received from an anti-Nazi German in high position, outlining the plan of invasion. Undersecretary Welles, at the request of Secretary Hull, communicated this to the Soviet Ambassador, Constantine Oumansky.21 With his farflung secret service Stalin probably received similar information from other sources.
German-Soviet relations remained outwardly correct during the first month of 1941. American and other foreign Communists followed the party line dictated by the Stalin-Hitler pact until the German attack actually took place. But as Germany overran the Balkans, the Soviet Government indulged in a few verbal gestures of dissatisfaction.
When Bulgaria adhered to the Tripartite Pact early in March 1941, and German troops moved into that country, Molotov expressed regret to Schulenburg that “the German Government has deemed it possible to take a course that involves injury to the security interests of the Soviet Union.”22 The Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement disapproving the Bulgarian action.
A more serious diplomatic brush occurred early in April. The Yugoslav Government which had subscribed to the Tripartite Pact had been overthrown by a revolt from within. Germany was poised for the invasion of Yugoslavia. Molotov informed Schulenburg on April 4 that the Soviet Government was signing a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with the new anti-German Yugoslav Government. The German Ambassador protested that the moment chosen for the signing of the treaty was very unfortunate. But Molotov persisted in his design and urgently requested the German Government to do everything in its power to preserve peace in the Balkans.23
The German reply was to launch a smashing and quickly successful offensive against Yugoslavia on April 6. The Soviet-Yugoslav pact had no influence whatever on the course of events. It merely served as an embarrassing revelation of Soviet diplomatic weakness.
From another direction, however, Stalin obtained some compensation for his failure to halt the German forward march in the Balkans. (The conquest of Yugoslavia was soon followed by the occupation of Greece.) He induced the volatile Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, to sign a treaty of neutrality and nonaggression in Moscow on April 13. This was a first-rate disaster for the United States, just as the Soviet-Nazi pact had been a severe blow to France and Britain. Pearl Harbor was foreshadowed when Japan thus demonstratively insured itself against Soviet pressure from the north, thereby freeing its hands for expansion to the south.
Stalin was mainly concerned to assure Japanese neutrality in the event of a war with Germany. And it seems reasonable to assume that, with his belief in war as a midwife of revolution, the Soviet dictator viewed with complacent satisfaction the prospect that Japan would use up its energies against the United States and the European powers with colonial possessions in the Far East. The Rumanian Ambassador, Gafencu, sums up as follows some of the more far-reaching implications of the Soviet-Japanese pact, which was to run for five years:
Japanese action to the South would free Western Siberia from the Japanese menace, to some extent relieve China, hardly able to breathe in the Japanese embrace, embark Japan in a war with the United States that could only be fatal to Japan in the long run, reveal the weakness of the British Empire, drive the great masses of Central Asia to self-consciousness and prepare the struggle for the liberation of Asia.24 (Italics supplied.)
A bizarre prelude to the attack on Russia was the flight to England of Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler’s chief lieutenants. Hess had been aware of peace feelers which Albrecht Haushofer, son of the famous geopolitician, had tried to put out to England. But his message, when he was arrested and interrogated after his arrival in England, was little more than a restatement of Hitler’s earlier offers, to an accompaniment of hallucinations and hysteria which bordered on insanity.
As the hour of danger grew nearer with the coming of summer, Stalin made desperate efforts to appease Hitler. He was punctilious in fulfilling Soviet promised deliveries of grain and raw materials to Germany, although German deliveries to Russia fell into arrears. He withdrew diplomatic privileges from the Belgian, Norwegian, and Yugoslav missions in Moscow. He recognized a short-lived pro-German rebel regime which was set up in Iraq.
Finally, when tension and suspense had reached a high point, the Soviet official news agency, Tass, on June 13, issued a very significant communiqué referring to rumors circulating in the foreign, especially in the British, press to the effect that Germany had presented territorial and economic demands to Russia, that these demands had been refused, and that both sides were mobilizing troops. Characterizing these rumors as “absurd,” Tass denied that any such negotiations had taken place, professed full confidence in Germany’s pacific intentions, and continued:
“The recent movement of German troops, released from the Balkan campaign toward regions to the east and northeast of Germany was from other motives and does not concern the relations between the Soviet Union and the Reich.”
As for Russia’s “summer mobilization,” this, according to Tass, was nothing out of the ordinary. To suggest that it is aimed at Germany “is, of course, absurd.”
The wording of this statement is an excellent example of Asiatic style in diplomacy—cunning, oblique, and full of double meaning. The communiqué was designed to intimate to Berlin that the Soviet Government knew of the large German troop transfers toward its borders and was taking mobilization measures of its own. But at the same time there was an expression of willingness to set down everything as a misunderstanding, due to British intrigue, if only Germany would not attack. It was a clear invitation for some kind of reassuring declaration from Berlin. But no such declaration came. Instead, at dawn on June 22, Ambassador Schulenburg delivered a three-line message to Molotov:
“In view of the intolerable pressure exercised by Russian troops on the lines of demarcation separating them from the German troops, the latter have received orders to advance into Soviet territory.”
The war of the totalitarian giants had begun.
Hitler explained his attack in a long proclamation issued on June 22. He declared that it was only with extreme difficulty that he brought himself to send Ribbentrop to Moscow in 1939. He recalled the Soviet demand for Lithuania, contrary to the original terms of the Moscow pact, and the later Soviet demands at Berlin for a free hand in Finland, Bulgaria, and the Straits. These statements are consistent with the documentary evidence discovered after the fall of the Nazi regime.25
More doubtful is Hitler’s assertion that the Soviet Union promised delivery to Yugoslavia of arms, aircraft, and munitions through Salonica. And the accusations of Soviet frontier violations are no more credible than the earlier German charges against Poland—or the Soviet accusations against Finland and the Baltic states.
Molotov’s hard bargaining seems to have been one cause of the German attack. Hitler also emphasized the point that such powerful German forces were tied up in the East “that radical conclusion of the war in the West, particularly as regards aircraft, could no longer be vouched for by the German High Command.” Other phrases in the proclamation suggest that Hitler hoped to rally a united Europe in an anti-Communist crusade.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union was the last but one of the big political developments in choosing sides for World War II. A few months later there would be Pearl Harbor and the formal belligerence of the United States against Japan, Germany, and Italy.
The origins of this war and its character must be understood if America’s involvement is to be fairly judged. Several points which were overlooked at the time stand out with increasing clarity, now that more evidence is available.
First, there is no factual evidence, after close examination of all captured Nazi archives, that Hitler had prepared any plan for offensive action against the Western Hemisphere.
Second, German ambitions were directed toward the east, not toward the west. The danger, hysterically stressed in the United States by advocates of intervention, that Hitler might capture the British Navy and press it into service against the United States was nonexistent. There is no proof that Britain and France would ever have been attacked if they had not gone to war on the Polish issue. Even after the debacle on the western front, Britain at any time could have had peace on the basis of retaining its fleet and its empire. The attack on Britain was undertaken reluctantly and with inadequate means. It was quickly abandoned for the more congenial enterprise of Continental eastward expansion.
Third, no element of freedom, democracy, or morality entered into the struggle for Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin, two tyrants with equally bloody and obnoxious records. When a satisfactory division of prospective loot was arranged in 1939, Stalin was quite ready to pledge eternal friendship to Hitler. We now know that Russia would have formally joined the Axis if Molotov’s demands for an additional cut in the spoils had not gone beyond what Hitler was prepared to concede.
Fourth, the professed war objective of the western powers, the maintenance of the independence and territorial integrity of Poland, was almost impossible to achieve. The western powers could bring no military pressure to bear directly on Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union was just as clearly committed as Germany to the extinction of Polish independence and the mutilation of Poland’s frontiers. We shall see in a later chapter how feebly, half-heartedly, and unsuccessfully America and Great Britain defended the cause of Poland.
Fifth, it should not have required great perspicacity to recognize that the Soviet Union, in view of its record of aggression and bad faith, its philosophy of world revolution, and its vast assets in territory, manpower, and natural resources, would be a very difficult and dangerous ally. If the war against Hitler perhaps could not be won without Russia, it was certainly doubtful whether the peace could be won with Russia.
These considerations were certainly important. They should have been carefully weighed in the balance before the United States committed itself to a Second Crusade. That they exercised little influence on the thinking of those responsible for shaping American policy is evident from the record which will be set forth in the next three chapters.
[1. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 88.
[2. ] Part of the population of eastern Poland was composed of people of Byelorussian and Ukrainian stock.
[3. ] Reprinted in Churchill, Blood, Sweat and Tears, 215.
[4. ] Liddell Hart, German Generals Talk, 135.
[5. ] Ciano, Ciano’s Diplomatic Papers, 373.
[6. ] This phrase was first used by Marcel Déat, a French opponent of the war who was later associated with the Vichy regime and disappeared after the end of hostilities.
[7. ] Reynaud was thinking of the Breton peninsula.
[8. ] It is symptomatic of the bias of the Roosevelt Administration in favor of communism, as against fascism, that no such language was publicly used when the Soviet Union delivered its “stab in the back” to Poland.
[9. ] Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 185.
[10. ] Langer, Our Vichy Gamble, 387.
[11. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 166-67.
[12. ] Ibid., 154.
[13. ] Hitler, My New Order, 837.
[14. ] Cited in Fuller, Second World War, 222. General Fuller adds the tart comment: “Thus, on Mr. Spaight’s evidence, it was Mr. Churchill who lit the fuse which detonated a war of devastation and terrorization unrivalled since the invasion of the Seljuks.”
[15. ] Liddell Hart, Revolution in Warfare, 72. Cited in Fuller, Second World War, 404.
[16. ] Ciano, Ciano’s Diplomatic Papers, 402.
[17. ] Ibid., 406.
[18. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 257.
[19. ] Ibid., 258-59.
[20. ] Ibid., 260.
[21. ] Hull, Memoirs, 2:947-48.
[22. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 278.
[23. ] Ibid., 317-18.
[24. ] Gafencu, Prelude to the Russian Campaign, 156. Gafencu in the same book offers this plausible interpretation of Stalin’s design in signing the pact with Hitler: “Stalin no longer fought to prevent war, but only to turn it from his own frontiers. . . . A war in the West, with every prospect of being long continued and exhausting for all the Western peoples, was to Russia a guaranty of peace at the moment and preponderance in the future.”
[25. ] The main outlines of Nazi-Soviet relations during the period from the spring of 1939 until Hitler’s attack on Russia are convincingly presented, on the basis of documents captured in the German Foreign Office, in Nazi-Soviet Relations.