Tag: World War II

What do we talk about when we talk about world wars?

'Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial Means; their discredited ideas revive; Breed new belief that War is purgatorial Proof of the pride and power of being alive; My Facebook feed filled up this weekend with salutes to veterans. My friends were mostly Americans, and so most of these (indeed, I’d bet all of them) were tributes to U.S. soldiers. For Americans, of course, Sunday was Veterans Day, but for the British and others it was Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day–Armistice Day, as I think of it–is a more fitting holiday than Veterans Day. It asks us to remember something particularly awful and shattering, the war that the United States has largely forgotten: the war that an American president promised would end all wars.

Every year at this time, I remember the victims of the First World War–the British and the Americans, the French and the Germans, the Australians and the Serbs, the Russians and the Austrians–but I also remember the way that men’s lives were often squandered by thoughtless, pedantic, and careless generals. Too often, as Siegfried Sassoon predicted, their sacrifice has been turned into an argument for offering new generations of young men (and now women) the opportunity to be remembered in wreath-laying ceremonies. There is something about the spectacle of civilians (particularly in the United States) ritually intoning “Thank you for your service” that seems to miss the more profound solemnity of Remembrance Day. (That said, it seems the poppies have gotten out of hand.)

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Addendum: The Use of History in IR and the Causes of World War II

So, in my last post, I critiqued Rosasto and Schuessler’s realist take on the causes of World War II, repeating the IR conventional wisdom of liberal internationalism (that it was reparations and beggar-thy-neighbor policies that worsened the Depression and created the conditions for the rise of Hitler). I ran that interpretation by one of my colleagues at the LBJ School, Frank Gavin, a historian who knows this literature much better than me but also one who has engaged the IR literature quite extensively.

I wanted to quote his email to me at length about how historians now understand WWII, which may be conventional wisdom in  IR among those who follow the issue closely, but I’m not sure. It certainly hadn’t permeated the readings I was assigned in grad school a decade ago.

Frank’s intent was not so much picking one or another historical interpretation, as suggesting a greater, mutually beneficial dialogue between historians and IR specialists. I think what emerges from this discussion is that any particular -isms centric perspective on the causes of World War II may do violence to the complexity of the historical record. It raises questions about how to do theoretically informed work that necessarily simplifies a complex reality without reifying erroneous tropes about the past that then get locked in and passed down to IR scholars in ever simpler form as conventional wisdom.

Here is what Frank wrote:

The LI interpretation of WWII is no longer conventional wisdom among historians. This is an interesting area where archives are important. Take Germany in the 1920s — it used to be thought that Gustav Stresseman was the “Monet” of the interwar period, reflecting the more peaceful side of politics in Germany, and that they economic decline turned the populace against those types. Well, when his papers were opened, it turned out he strongly supported Germany acquiring all nearby German speaking territories — which had been allocated by Versailles to Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia — once German strength returned. In fact, great historical work by Schukur, McDougall, Maier, and Trachtenberg demonstrated that the reparations/Ruhr crisis was the German challenge to Versailles, that the US and UK failed to full back the Frenc, the Germans “won,” and Versailles was more or less dead by 1924. 

War was likely just a matter of time at that point, though this is not to deny the particularly virulent, bizarre, racialist war Hitler pursued. The same goes with beggar thy neighbor policies — due to the great work of Barry Eichengreen, no one really believes that story any more. In fact, those economies that devalued quickly did much better, while those who pursued restrictive monetary policies to maintain parity and stay on gold, did much worse. As as Trachtenberg shows, the reparation question was more a political issue — a “willingness” to pay (and a willingness of others to enforce), rather than a “capacity” to pay (it is interesting to compare the huge reparations the French were forced to pay Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussion War). 

Finally, the standard LI interpretation does not explain why the Depression made one authoritarian dictatorship — Germany — aggressive, while another — the Soviet Union — remained passive abroad, at least until attacked. So here again is another area where the traditional IR interpretation may be a few decades behind the historical one, or at least an important interpretive strand. I wonder too whether the LI interpretation has wrestled with Adam Tooze’s “Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy,” one of the most important books of international history produced in years; Tooze argues that Germany was, in many ways, responding to the threat ofAmerica’s geopolitical rise during the interwar years.


How Wars End: V.E. Day 65 Years On

I will be writing more on the outcome of the British election soon, but for now I thought that I would post in recognition of the fact that it’s the 65th anniversary of V.E. Day. (You know, in that whole World War II thing that pretty much allows Britain – and most of Europe – to have elections in the first place.)

Today there was a ceremony marking the occasion in central London. Interestingly, the focus on the event seems to be on the average ordinary people that were on the home front, celebrating the news that the war, in Europe at least, was over.

Happy pictures of dancing Brits aside, the anniversary had me thinking about how wars actually end. While I remember the day Saddam Hussein surrendered in 1991, our generation, by and large, will likely never know such an occasion. Despite the fact that the West has been fighting a war for several years in Afghanistan, in all likelihood, we will not, at 3pm on any given day, know that the war our nations have been fighting is over.

Such a day is impossible, of course, because we have no idea what victory will look like. Certainly we could postulate some ideas – having Afghanistan become a nation able to credibly (relatively?) defend itself; perhaps as a place where girls can go to school free from attacks and harassment. Or even, more basically, where we can walk away, cross our fingers, and hope that the threat of international terrorism is contained. However, no government or organization has truly been able to articulate a vision for the end of hostilities in Afghanistan.

It’s interesting for more than just moral reasons, of course. Much of international law related to warfare is predicated on the idea that there will be such an actual ending to war. This is true for the law related to prisoners of war, neutrality, the use of force (obviously – but key for issues like targeting) just to name a few areas. How we will manage the ‘end’ of the war on terror in legal terms has very much yet to be determined.

But for now, I’ll just leave you with Dame Vera Lynn.


Making Factories Disappear during War

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

Noah Brier links to some incredible pictures at Sociological Images that show the “efforts to camouflage the Lockheed Burbank Aircraft Plant during WWII. The plant was essentially covered in netting made to appear, from the air, like a residential neighborhood. The aim was to keep it from being found by pilots and bombed.”



The post includes some close ups as well as some views from underneath the netting. Very interesting.


Basterds All

Blogging was light over the weekend while I was in DC on field research. But at least I finally got to see Inglorious Basterds while visiting my brother. Whew. Various bloggers have complained about the questionable values imparted in the film and a human security specialist can’t really argue with that.

But then again it wouldn’t be a Quentin Tarantino movie otherwise… see? See?

Actually, I thought that compared to his earlier stuff this was pretty tame. (Or maybe I’m just desensitized. Yeah, that’s probably it.) I was much more intrigued by the historical revisionism in the film’s premise than I was in the narrative about soldiers acting unjustly in the context of a just war. I think the suspension of disbelief required by the ending undermines the power of Tarantino’s depiction of violence – by forcing us to figure he’s painting a picture of an alternative timeline where the war ended differently, he’s inviting us to believe that in fact “our boys” would never really have behaved that way – instead of destabilizing our cherished assumptions about the “good war.” Ha.


Intervening to stop the Holocaust

Erik Erickson at RedState thinks he’s found an Obama gaffe:

Barack Obama suggests we need to consider moral issues in intervening with combat forces. He mentions intervening in the Holocaust and how we should have done that.

Um Senator, we did intervene in the Holocaust. It was called World War II.

I guess you hadn’t heard of that, kind of like you hadn’t heard of Bill Ayers.

I hate to say it, but Mr. Erickson just had a moment of profound ignorance.

The Holocaust had squat to do with the US intervention in Europe. Hitler declared war on the United States out of solidarity with Japan. In fact, US inaction in the face of genocide against European Jewry is a well-known historical fact:

During World War II, rescue of Jews and other victims of the Nazis was not a priority for the United States government. Nor was it always clear to Allied policy makers how they could pursue large-scale rescue actions behind German lines. Due in part to antisemitism (prejudice against or hatred of Jews), isolationism, the economic Depression, and xenophobia (prejudice against or fear of foreigners), the refugee policy of the U.S. State Department (led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull) made it difficult for refugees to obtain entry visas to the United States.

The U.S. State Department also delayed publicizing reports of genocide. In August 1942, the State Department received a cable confirming Nazi plans for the total destruction of Europe’s Jews. The report, sent by Gerhart Riegner (the representative in Geneva of the World Jewish Congress), was not passed on to other government officials. The State Department asked American Rabbi Stephen Wise, who also received the report, to refrain from announcing it.

Reports of Nazi atrocities often were not publicized in full by the American press. In 1943, Polish courier Jan Karski informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt of reports of mass murder received from Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto. No immediate executive action was taken. The U.S Congress twice rejected legislation that would have allowed entry to the United States for 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children seeking refuge.

On April 19, 1943, U.S. and British representatives met in Bermuda to find solutions to wartime refugee problems. No significant proposals emerged from the Bermuda Conference. In January 1944 Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board (within the Treasury Department) to facilitate the rescue of imperiled refugees. Fort Ontario, in New York, began to serve as an ostensibly free port for refugees. Refugees brought to Fort Ontario, however, were not from Nazi-occupied areas, but rather from liberated zones.

By the spring of 1944, the Allies knew of the killing operations using poison gas at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Jewish leaders pleaded unsuccessfully with the U.S. government to bomb the gas chambers and railways leading to the camp. From August 20 to September 13, 1944, the U.S. Air Force bombed the Auschwitz-Monowitz industrial complex, less than five miles from the gas chambers in Birkenau. However, the U.S. maintained its policy of non-involvement in rescue, and bombed neither the gas chambers nor the railways used to transport prisoners.


Five Days in August

During World War II, teams of scientists raced to build the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. This weapon, everyone believed, was so powerful that it would force the Japanese to surrender immediately, eliminating the need for an extremely costly invasion of the Japanese main islands. They built two weapons using two different models: Little Boy, a uranium gun-style weapon, and, just in case the first one wasn’t enough, the Fat Man, a plutonium implosion weapon. When the weapons were ready, President Truman, who knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until Roosevelt’s death, struggled mightily with the moral implications of using these ultimate weapons. The atomic bomb, once dropped on Hiroshima, and then three days later, on Nagasaki, proved America’s overwhelming military superiority to the Japanese, and they promptly surrendered.

If you attended an American high school, this roughly outlines the story you learned about the end of World War II. Perhaps you had an in-class debate about the morality of dropping the bomb. You may have also learned that the decision to drop the bomb was influenced by a desire to impress Stalin, as the the wartime alliance was beginning to fray.

Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August challenges the central premise of this story: that the atomic bomb was perceived as a weapon qualitatively different from what we now call conventional weaponry. Instead, he argues, many (though not all) of the scientists and political and military decision makers understood the new nuclear weapons as simply a more powerful and efficient method of delivering destruction than conventional weaponry, and that this viewpoint was dominant. Although the atomic bomb was part of a larger plan to “shock and awe” the Japanese into surrender, it was only one component of that plan, along with the conventional firebombing of Japanese cities and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific. Most people involved expected the war to continue for some time longer–at the very least, into September, and they expected that they would need to continue to deliver additional atomic weapons throughout this period. The true impact of the atomic bomb, particularly its radiological effects, was unknown, even to the Manhattan Project scientists, who initially discounted reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Japanese propaganda. The US was surprised not only by the effects of the atomic bombs, but also by the speed of the Japanese surrender.

Gordin makes a convincing case that when World War II became the first (and hopefully last) nuclear war, the people in charge did not fully grasp that they had ushered in a new era. The idea that nuclear weapons are the “unusable weapon” was not immediately obvious, as war-planners not only used the weapons, but planned to use them repeatedly, as fast as they could produce them.

I do wish that he had spent more time on this transformation, though. The final chapter, which discusses the post-war world, doesn’t really explain how the atomic bomb changed from “really efficient deliverer of destruction” to “weapon of the apocalypse”; he notes briefly that the popular imagination was moved by the propaganda about the new weapon’s power and journalistic accounts of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we don’t get much insight into the transformation from either the popular perspective or the policy/military perspective. Perhaps that will be fodder for a future project.


Film class — week 9

Film #9 “The Great Dictator” (1940). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: J. Michael Waller, “Ridicule as a weapon,” White Paper No. 7, Institute of World Politics, January 2006.

This is a terrific Charlie Chaplin film, which satirizes Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler — and takes on Mussolini and war as well.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film accurately describes Chaplin’s portrayal of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania. Chaplin, writes Ebert,

…did not find Hitler at all funny, needless to say, and so although he uses his own comic genius to inspire the movie, the comedy is never neutral. It is jugular, as he creates a Hynkel who is a vain, strutting buffoon, given to egomaniacal rages and ridiculous posturing. Charlie never for a moment allows us to laugh with Hynkel, but only at him, and Hynkel thus becomes the only totally unsympathetic character Chaplin has ever played.

Waller’s short paper about ridicule is interesting and the class talked about the broad use of ridicule to reduce the authority of powerful figures — even those who are not dictators. Ridicule, in other words, is a potentially effective means by which to challenge the legitimacy of those who employ power for dubious purposes. It can serve as a non-violent weapon of the weak!

Chaplin also plays
a Jewish barber, who is not named, and much of the film chronicles this character’s life. He fought in World War I, spent many years in an institution because of an head injury sustained in the war, and returned to his shop just in time to suffer persecution from Hynkel’s stormtroopers.

Indeed, Hynkel’s dictatorship makes life quite miserable for the barber and his neighbors and the barber ends up in a concentration camp after exhibiting some willingness to resist the persecution. Many of his neighbors fled to a neighboring country (later invaded by Tomania). Note: the film was made before the Nazis created the death camps and pursued “the final solution” against the Jews.

Late in the film, an unlikely series of events causes Hynkel’s followers to believe that the barber is the dictator. This affords Chaplin an opportunity to give a 6 minute speech — as himself, really.

As I wrote last week, the class is viewing a number of comedies in order to think about meaningful critiques of world politics. Dictators and fascists make for easy targets, of course, but this film also takes on the folly (and fog) of war and contrasts the political machinations occuring in the great hall to the day-to-day life of the ordinary people (who cut hair, wash laundry, etc.)

I highly recommend the film to anyone who has not viewed it and think that it makes a nice introduction to thinking about the comedy of global politics.

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Film class — week 3

Film #3 “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Daniel Warner, “Two Realist Readings of the Tragic in International Relations,” 20 International Relations 2006, pp. 225-230.

Warner reviews the recent books by John J. Mearsheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics) and Richard Ned Lebow (The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders).

While both Mearsheimer and Lebow discuss the tragic dimensions of international politics, they have a fundamentally different take. Mearsheimer focuses on the structural aspects of international politics, which he says make fear and conflict inevitable.

Lebow, on the other hand, emphasizes that human beings make the tragic choices that often define international relations. He criticizes Mearsheimer’s neorealism for its structuralism and argues that neorealism is incapable of offering meaningful criticism of hegemonic behavior and American foreign policy. By emphasizing the inevitability of conflict and the pursuit of power, Mearsheimer’s neorealism eliminates the complexity of human behavior — and the responsibility for human choices.

Obviously, “Saving Private Ryan” is a tragic tale. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, makes a number of tactical choices throughout the film that have foreseeable tragic consequences.

  • Why did he direct his men to attack a heavily guarded radar post?
  • Why did Miller order the German survivor (credited as “Steamboat Willie”) to be set free, even when his squad members argued that the soldier would likely join another unit and fight other Americans?
  • Why did Miller and his squad remain in Ramelle to defend a bridge against much more heavily armed opposition forces — even after Private Ryan had been located and his mission was arguably completed?

The humility Lebow desires is clearly present in Miller’s “everyman” hero, though he makes one tragic decision after another.

At the same time, the grotesque and nearly anonymous violence at the beginning of the film arguably reflects the kind of tragedy imagined by Mearsheimer. Given the circumstances, the allied powers had no choice but to launch the D-Day attack — even at the cost of tremendous and completely foreseeable human suffering.

Thus, director Steven Spielberg introduces a film about a series of tragic human choices with a monstrous context that arguably overwhelms the rest of the picture. Film critics, in fact, have argued that the Omaha Beach battle sequence, which takes up nearly the first half hour of the film,

blows up the rest of the movie. For this shattering vision is so corrosive, so subversive of all logic, all morality, all stories, that it devours the story that follows.

Spielberg may have Lebow’s sensibilities, but his movie cannot escape Mearsheimer’s tragic vision.

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Film class — week 2

Film #2: “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949). We watched it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: by the neorealist John J. Mearsheimer, “Power and Fear in Great Power Politics,” in G.O. Mazur, ed., One Hundred Year Commemoration to the Life of Hans Morgenthau (1904-2004) (New York: Semenenko Foundation, 2004), pp. 184-196.

In this brief chapter, Mearsheimer outlines some of the basic tenets of his influential theory of offensive neorealism, which emphasizes the role of fear in motivating tragic state action. Horrible wars and costly arms races occur even though no state necessarily seeks them. This is primarly because of the anarchic nature of international relations.

States know that other states possess offensive forces; yet, they cannot predict their intentions, cannot trust their assurances, and cannot rely upon others (or certainly not a central authority) to restrain these other states. Therefore, they have little choice but to make worst-case assumptions and to pursue more and more power. Such (difference maximizing) strategies are adopted to assure their own relative success (and to avoid loss).

In the film, Gregory Peck plays a hard-ass General in World War II who is put in charge of an air unit that is both critical to the war effort — and failing. The previous leader was a nice guy, even a friend of Peck’s, but he was not getting the necessary “maximum effort” out of his forces. Part of the problem is that the US employs daytime precision bombing, which is more accurate for hitting targets, but far more deadly for air crews.

Peck’s character, General Frank Savage, said this to his men on his first day on the job:

We’ve got to fight and some of us have got to die. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it, and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves dead. Once you accept that idea, it won’t be so tough.

How’s that for rallying the troops?

You can probably guess a fair amount of the storyline. I won’t reveal the plot details, but will say that the men become more engaged with the fighting when the bombing turns directly to German military targets and away from various missions over France.

The film has some genuine air bombing footage courtesy of the “War Department” and is well-acted by a good cast. If you eat various Kellogg’s cereals, you can even order a free copy of the DVD.

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Film class: week I

The University of Louisville semester started this week and I’m holding the second session of my two classes Thursday. One of those courses is new for me: “(Global) Politics Through Film.” For the past 15 years, this class was taught without the (Global) by a now-retired colleague who was interested primarily in domestic American politics.

Consider this post the first in a semester-long series relating to the class (find the syllabus here).

Film #1: “Casablanca.” Students viewed it with me on Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Tilly, Charles, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 169-191.

Tilly’s argument is provocative and I hope the class members will have lots of interesting things to say about states and violence.

It might seem trite to show “Casablanca,” but at least half the students had not seen it before and it is a perfect film to highlight some of the morally ambiguous aspects of IR that often dominate introductory discussions about the field.

Of course, on that note, we could spend the entire hour talking just about Captain Renault (played brilliantly by Claude Rains).

Note: Regular Duck readers may recall a comment thread that highlighted Tilly’s classic essay — sparked by my post about the first episode of “The Sopranos” this past March.

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