Originally published Nov. 22, 1941
Last summer while I was in London, one of our best-known American interventionists arrived there to make a personal inspection tour of the British Isles. Being highly regarded as a sincere and valuable propagandist for the British cause, this American was granted the opportunity to talk at length with Churchill and other cabinet ministers, as well as with chiefs of the British armed forces. From all these conversations the distinguished caller emerged in a puzzled state of mind, and therefore consulted another American, a friend of mine who has lived in London for several years.
“There is one thing I haven’t been able to find out from anybody,” explained the visitor.” Probably it is a deep military secret, but you enjoy the confidence of so many high officials here that you may know the answer. What is Britain’s grand strategy for winning this war?”
“Britain’s grand strategy,” replied my friend, “is to let the United States figure out how to win this war. The bitter truth is that there are not enough Britons in the world to beat the German army on the continent of Europe, and Britons know it.”
This grim fact is well recognized in England, and by this time it should be recognized also in this country, for the United States government has been sending a steady procession of military and technical experts to Britain to study the question of how Britain proposes to win the war. I talked with several of our investigators while in London, and learned that they all had arrived at the same conclusion. As one of these men explained to me, “The British haven’t had time even to think about how to win the war. They have had their hands full to keep from losing it.”
Another American military expert commented upon how many British staff officers express admiration for Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who fought a defensive campaign for four years during our Civil War. They admire General Lee because they, too, have had to fight a defensive war. They have fought that defensive war marvelously, but defensive wars never lead to final victory.
This is an unpalatable fact, a fact which some our political leaders are afraid even to hint at. These statesmen talk constantly about democracy, but when it comes to a showdown, their actions suggest that they do not trust the judgment of the majority of the people, and such trust is the very essence democracy.
Denied access to the facts, our democratic debates on American foreign policy have become as remote from reality as the medieval discussion about how many angels can stand on the point of a needle. To an American who has come home after four continuous years in war-racked Europe, as I have just done, it seems almost as if our debaters had followed Alice into Wonderland.
My work in Europe was to cover the war there as a reporter for The Saturday Evening Post. I stress that word reporter because there are not too many of us left. Some of the foremost American newspaper and magazine writers have been transformed by events, or by their personal convictions, into propagandists. It is not for me to criticize them: a man who becomes converted to any cause is privileged to propagandize on its behalf.
Nevertheless, I suspect that the American people today could use more reporting and less propaganda. The function of a propagandist is to present his cause in the best possible light, while the function of a reporter is to get the facts. In search of the facts, I have covered both sides of this war as thoroughly as it was possible for me to do. I have visited both England and Germany during each of the three war years: 1939, 1940, and 1941. I watched the German army enter Paris, and since that time I have visited practically every country on the continent — the occupied countries and the satellite countries and the neutral countries. I have seen what post-Blitzkrieg Europe looks like, from Finland to Turkey, from Norway to Portugal, and from Poland to the British Isles.
I mention these experiences because they are my credentials. Whatever information I possess has not been obtained by remote control from “secret sources” or mysterious documents or “confidential reports” to Hitler or Churchill. The only facts in my possession are those which I have observed with my own eyes, or obtained from men on the spot whose judgment I trust. The only bias of which I am conscious is a pro-American bias. It is on this basis that I venture to point out how the war stands in its third winter, and how we Americans stand in relation to it.
The first and foremost fact about the war in Europe, so far as Americans are concerned, is that we are definitely in it. It is only in the United States that any doubts still continue on this matter. Every European, whether he is German or British or neutral, understands well enough that we have adopted the European war as our own, and Europeans are bewildered by evidence that some of us still shirk looking this plain fact in the face.
To pretend that we are not in the war, merely because our Congress has made no formal declaration, is like refusing to recognize death until one has read a funeral notice. Japan and China have been fighting each other since September 19, 1931, and neither country has declared war yet. Nor did Germany and Russia bother to declare the war which broke out between them on June 22, 1941. We Americans already have gone deeper into the European war than France and Britain did up to the moment when the German Blitzkrieg hit them in May 1940. There was more “business as usual” in both those countries in the spring of 1940 than there is in this country today.
The second fact is that we got into a war which, before we got into it, was a one-sided war. The Germans were more than a match for all their other opponents, and, if we had stayed out, the Germans would have won hands down. In June 1940, when the German army cracked France wide open and drove British forces back across the English Channel, I saw for myself that the Germans were convinced that the war was virtually over, and that they had won it.
Most of the French people thought so, too, and so did most of the people in other occupied countries which I visited in the months which followed. All of Europe at that time was dazed by the extent of German conquest, and these stunned people were resignedly preparing to adjust themselves to a Europe dominated by Germany.
The third fact is that the British people, and the British people alone, stood between the Germans and complete conquest of Europe in those months which followed June 1940. At that time the Germans had no other serious opposition. Our country was not yet in the war, and Soviet Russia still was “co-operating” with Germany.
During those months the British people stood alone against the Germans: 40,000,000 people on some islands against 80,000,000 Germans with the greatest army in the world and in absolute control of the continent of Europe. Yet the British people dared to defy Germany and to refuse the peace which was offered to them. The Germans expected the British to accept peace then. Many Germans kept repeating to me, with ludicrous indignation, “The English are not logical!” But this is not the first time that Germans have failed to understand the British.
As subsequent events proved, British statesmen were entirely logical and knew exactly what they were doing. They understood how one-sided the struggle was then, and that they could not possibly hope to win the war by their own unaided efforts. They recognized that their one chance to stave off German victory was to fight a defensive war until the United States got into it. They also were too well informed about American opinion not to be aware of the risks they ran in depending upon us to come into the war.
But what alternative did they have? Their only alternative was a deal with Germany which would transform Great Britain into a second or third rate power. They had to choose between blood and tears or inferiority, and they chose the blood and tears.
And that brings us to the fourth fact, which I stated at the beginning of this article. As matters stand now, Britain is too weak to win this war. When British statesmen decided in June 1940 to fight on against Germany, they did not believe for one moment that all we Americans needed to do was to provide the tools and that they could then beat Germany singlehanded. Whatever statements they made to that effect were designed to tide over a bad period in their own country and in this country. There is ample evidence in England that British statesmen always have known, and still know, that they cannot beat Germany — barring the improbable and the unforeseeable — without tremendous outside support. They received a large measure of such support when Hitler attacked Soviet Russia. But no British leaders believed this would be enough.
The British have fought a defensive war because they have not had the means to do anything else. British inability to take the offensive was made abundantly clear when Hitler gave them their chance by throwing the major part of his forces into Russia. After the Russian war started, there was such popular clamor in England for “a war against Germany on two fronts” that the idea of some kind of invasion of the continent was seriously considered. However, the British general staff reported last July that such a diversion could lead only to “another Dunkirk.” British strategists had little confidence in the ability of Russian armies to hold out indefinitely against the Germans, and they had to consider the defense of the Near East as well as the British Isles. Most of the million and more soldiers in the British Isles had not been trained for offensive warfare; they had been trained to protect their own country from invasion.
The Nazi Strength
It is understandable that all of Germany’s enemies should look wistfully for signs that Germany is cracking under the terrific strains of total war. It would be very fine indeed for us all if the Germans would crack under the combined effect of British bombing, naval blockades, the war in Russia, and disaffection among the masses of hostile peoples in conquered countries. But everything I have seen in Europe convinces me that we are deluding ourselves by pinning our hopes upon any such outcome of the war. Every military expert I consulted in Europe concurred in the opinion that Germany will not be decisively beaten until her opponents are able to take the offensive against her armies. And Germany’s opponents in Europe simply do not possess enough soldiers to undertake such an offensive on the necessary scale.
However unpleasant these facts about the war in Europe may be, I am enough of a democrat to believe that the American people can take them. It seems to me that there is real peril to this country in concealing or playing down the real facts. There is peril also in attempts to picture the war in Europe as a simple study in black and white, with everything good on one side and everything bad on the other. There has been altogether too much of that kind of oversimplification in the past, which is one reason the American people are so confused today.
The truth is that the war in Europe is not black and white but a dirty gray. It is not a war between democracies and dictatorships, because some of the worst despotisms in Europe are now counted among Britain’s allies; and one of the few genuine democracies in Europe — Finland — has fought alongside Germany. I last visited Finland in January of this year and reported at the time that the Finns would do just what they have done, if ever they got the chance. The Finns did not fight against democracy; they fought against a totalitarian power which ravaged their country in 1940. And that same totalitarian power, Soviet Russia, had to fight later for its life against Germany, with the active encouragement of Britain and the United States.
Does that mean our government made a mistake in supporting Soviet Russia? Of course it doesn’t mean that. Such support of Russia, under existing circumstances, was coldly realistic. Since we have got ourselves into this war, we are compelled by the logic of war to support anybody who fights our chosen enemy. But it is not necessary to drag in such red herrings as religious freedom in militantly atheistic Russia to cover up our awkward predicament. Neither do we have to fool ourselves that, so far as Europe is concerned, this is a crusade for the four freedoms. It is one of the most confused civil wars in Europe’s long history, and is certain to result in the savage aftermath of all such civil wars.
We Americans can appreciate our position most clearly if we accept, without further equivocation, the fact that no matter how gray this war may be, we have got ourselves into it, for better or for worse. As Hugh Johnson recently pointed out, we have even sent the first unit of our expeditionary force across the ocean to Iceland, where our soldiers are serving in cooperation with the British command.
We have taken too many belligerent actions against Germany to be able, as some of our isolationists still propose, to tell the Nazis, “Let’s forget everything; all we want now is to mind our own business.” No nation can make war its business, as we have done, without being forced to face the consequences of victory or defeat. Our only choice today is which outcome we prefer and, such being the case, it may naturally be assumed that we want to win. How are we going to accomplish this?
When we ask ourselves that question, we find ourselves once more back in Wonderland. Some of our political leaders have repeatedly assured us that we can win the war without actually fighting it. That assurance sounded like a fairy tale when it was first advanced, and it sounds even more fabulous to anyone who, like myself, has just returned from the battlegrounds.
I was in London at the time of the Roosevelt-Churchill meeting. It is difficult to exaggerate the disappointment among all sections of the British people which resulted from that conference. When the British first heard rumors of the meeting, they were delighted. The British people have long regarded President Roosevelt as their champion in this country. When they learned that our president had arranged to meet Mr. Churchill, they said, “ Now Roosevelt has figured out some way to bring the United States completely into the war.”
When the so-called Atlantic Charter finally was announced, some Britons almost burst into tears. They were sick and tired of words; they were hoping for nothing less than all-out action from us. And when President Roosevelt told newspapermen, upon his return to home shores, that he did not believe the meeting had brought us closer to a fighting war, then the British cup of woe overflowed. That is the only occasion when I ever have heard Mr. Roosevelt criticized by Englishmen.
According to a credible report circulated at that time in London, the British prime minister returned from his meeting with Roosevelt more depressed than he has been for some time. He was startled to discover, in conversations with our president, that Roosevelt still hoped that the war could be won without American troops. Churchill knew that some Americans still clung to this hope, but he had not imagined that President Roosevelt was among them.
If that report was true, it is possible that our president has changed his mind by this time. Perhaps Mr. Churchill gave him convincing facts to support the view which is held by almost all the best-informed men in Europe — the view that Britain can never hope to fight any kind of war except a defensive war unless the American people back her up with armies as well as with armaments.
Every move which we have made thus far in this war has served merely to enable other nations to continue to fight on the defensive. That is just as true of the Russians as it is of the British and as it was of the French. And meanwhile the Germans succeeded in entrenching themselves upon the continent of Europe as never before in history. They have transformed that continent into a German empire, and they are prepared to strike with the utmost ruthlessness — as recent events in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia proved — at any attempts to challenge their rule. They have so thoroughly ringed the European continent with steel that they have convinced a large number of Europeans that they cannot be beaten. This explains why so many Europeans have decided that the best thing they can do for themselves and their countries is to get in as charter members of Germany’s “new order.”
The recent disorders in Europe inspired the usual false optimism in this country. Yet it should be obvious that mass civil revolts under present conditions are suicidal.
That is well understood by the émigré governments in London. President Benes and Foreign Minister Masaryk, of Czechoslovakia, broadcast appeals from London to their homeland beseeching patriots there to bide their time rather than lose their lives in a premature, fruitless move against Germany. The Polish, Norwegian, and other governments in exile also have tried to restrain their hotheaded countrymen from wasting potential strength in hopeless revolts.
Whence, then, came the inspiration for recent disorders? They were almost certainly directed from Soviet Russia, which desperately needed diversions. The Russians prepared underground organizations for years in every European country, and Stalin relied upon the support of thousands of fanatical followers. Moreover, Russia’s sympathizers were not limited to these organized communists. They included many non-communist Slavs who make up most of the population of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Poland.
In London last September, I attended a diplomatic luncheon at which I sat next to one of the ministers in the Czech government there. In the course of our conversation, I said to him, “As I understand it, about ten percent of the Czech people were members of the Communist Party before the Munich conference. Is that correct?”
He replied, “I don’t know what percentage of our people were communists. But I do know that they were nearly all pro-Russian, and they still are. It is Russia we rely upon to smash Germany far more than we rely upon the British.”
I consider that a typical expression of Slav sentiment in Europe. I have heard similar statements from Poles and Serbs. Due to the nature of this war, European Slays are more stirred by pan-Slav feeling than they have been conscious of for generations. The German Nazis, with their racial theories of Slav inferiority, have driven the Slav peoples passionately together.
The Germans are well aware of this growing Slav solidarity. Hitler has warned the Germans that if they lose the war, the Slavs will break up their country into insignificant fragments and will massacre them and their families. That is very effective propaganda for Germans, because they have guilty consciences. Since they have treated Slavs so brutally, they understand that they can expect no mercy from Slavs. And the Germans are told there is little which Britons or Americans could do to restrain the Slavs, however much they might desire to do so. Because Germans believe this, they are all the more determined to win the war. That is one of the many factors which militates against revolt inside Germany against the Nazis.
Why Hitler Turned on Russia
In as much as European Slavs relied so fervently upon Mother Russia, defeats in Russia were bound to have a disastrous effect upon morale in all Slav countries. Even before the war began, in the summer of 1939, Czech patriots in Prague assured me earnestly that Russia, and Russia alone, could save them from the German rule to which France and Britain had surrendered them. It is significant that recent disorders in Europe were confined largely to countries where pro-Russian sentiment was strongest. Hitler calculated that if he could knock Russia out of the war in Europe, then his most fanatical opponents in conquered countries would be reduced to apathy and despair. That is one reason he wanted to smash Russian armies with maximum speed.
But his chief reason for attacking Russia was that Britain’s defensive strategy had proved so successful. For that reason the German High Command decided that it was necessary to take the offensive against Britain in a new theater of war — the Near East. As a preliminary to such a campaign, the Russian threat had to be removed. It was not essential to annihilate Russia’s armies, as some military observers have suggested, but merely to break them up so thoroughly that they could be immobilized with a comparatively small portion of Hitler’s forces.
When Hitler took on Russia, he did not have to worry about his western front. During the long, peaceful winter of 1940–41, as I traveled all over Europe, I watched German soldiers and French and other prisoners of war transforming the European continent into a fortress — building coast defenses from the northern tip of Norway to the southernmost ports of France; dotting the countries of Western Europe with skillfully camouflaged aerodromes; constructing a network of motor highways to enable Hitler to rush his mechanized divisions to any part of the European coast where invasion might be attempted. The Germans were expending an enormous amount of effort to safeguard themselves from invasion, just as the British were doing in their own islands across the English Channel. And later, during the Balkan campaign in the spring of 1941, I watched Hitler consolidating his defensive position in Southeastern Europe.
There has been a widespread belief that the Russian war was a German gamble, the evidence of desperation. But it is now apparent that the German high Command chose this move as the safer of two courses. If the Germans had struck last summer into Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, then they would have been gambling upon the chance that Russia would continue to “cooperate.” But when they hit Russia first, they did so in the belief that they were playing safe. They did not feel that they were risking war on two fronts, because they calculated correctly that the British were incapable of creating an offensive front, either in the Near East or in Europe.
Last summer I met a neutral military observer from the Near East. He said, “The British Empire should thank heaven for Russia. If Hitler hadn’t been afraid of Russia, he would have gone straight into the Near East after his Balkan campaign. And if he had done so then, there was nothing there which could have stopped him. It would have been Greece and Crete all over again. The British didn’t have the necessary warplanes or tanks or guns.”
The Near East Front
There has been so much fanfare in the United States about the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic that the Near East may have looked to us like a sideshow. But it hasn’t looked like a sideshow either to the British or German general staffs, or to farsighted strategists in this country. Britain’s position there is better now, but it is better only because the Russian war has provided time to pour in British soldiers and American materials. It doesn’t seem to be generally known in this country that we have sent most of our warplanes and munitions to the Near East, and not to the British Isles. We have arranged to fly our own planes across the center of Africa, and to send our own munition ships around South Africa into the Red Sea. It is easier to send them from here than it is from the British Isles.
During Germany’s invasion of Russia, the British also have been concentrating their most vigorous efforts upon reinforcing their armies all through the Near East, in anticipation of a German offensive there this winter. The British government has been criticized, both in its own country and over here, for holding back too much while Russia fought. But it has been the same old story with Britain from the beginning of the war. The British have survived only because they have held back enough to resist the next blow, and the next blow in this case pointed straight toward the Near East.
The Waiting Lion
But this sort of thing cannot go on forever. The British have accomplished everything which they hoped to do. They have consolidated their defenses in the British Isles, and they have managed to hold and even to extend their defensive positions in the Near East. They have played a waiting game, because they could not do anything else. What were they waiting for? They were waiting for us.
The time is now rapidly approaching when we Americans will have to put up or shut up. That is not an expression of personal opinion or a piece of propaganda; it is a cold fact. This European war, with all its infinite complications and appalling prospects, has been dumped into our laps. We are confronted now with a fact which should have been apparent to us from the outset — that no nation can get itself into a war, as we have done, without expecting to fight that war.
There was a time when Americans could afford to follow the foreign policy summarized by Tyler Dennett in the epigram, “When we are asked to put up or shut up, we do neither.” Some of us apparently thought we could still do that. But events have proved that these Americans were mistaken. Now, since we have refused to shut up about the war in Europe, we have been compelled to put up one thing after another. And the time is at hand when we shall have to choose between putting up everything we possess, or shutting up completely so far as an effective voice in European affairs is concerned.
So where does that leave us? It still leaves us the most fortunate people in the world. We are fortunate, in the first place, because the war is not going to ruin us, no matter how it comes out. Whatever our nightmare mongers may tell us, no power or combination of powers can emerge from this cataclysmic conflict in any position to destroy the United States.
We are fortunate, in the second place, because we are the only people who still have a clear voice in shaping our own destiny. All the peoples of Europe already have had their destinies shaped for them, either by their own decisions or by circumstances beyond their control.
We still can choose, but our choice is not so wide as it was in 1939, or even in 1940. Since that time we have got into the European war, and this fact cannot be exorcised by any political hocus-pocus. Our choice today is confined within narrower limits.
From both Germany and Britain the same question will soon be directed to us: “What are you Americans going to do now?” And because of our own actions, we are now restricted to only two possible answers.
We can reply, “We are going to do just what we have been doing, edging bit by bit into the war without getting fully into it.” If that is to be our answer, then we must accept the probability that the war in Europe will end at best in stalemate and at worst in German victory. And since we have openly challenged the Germans, a German victory would mean a humiliating defeat for us. The former German consul general in New Orleans, who bluntly told us that Germans will never forget that we sided against them in this war, was speaking the plain truth.
The only other answer we can make now is, “We are going into an all-out shooting war against Germany.” If that is to be our answer, we must realize that American soldiers probably will go into action first in Africa and Asia, in those Near Eastern regions where American reinforcements will be most urgently required.
And then, if we are determined to win this war, our soldiers eventually will have to join in an assault upon the entrenched German empire in Europe. Because the German High Command has so arranged its grand strategy that if the time ever comes when their armies must make a last stand, then the decisive battle will be fought on this battleground of their own choosing.
If we make this maximum choice, we should understand the price we will have to pay. The cost will be incalculable in both lives and treasure. And we shall have accepted the burdens of Europe, not for a year or a few years, but for generations.