The 1917 Centenary: Two crucial maps

The 1917 Centenary: Two crucial maps
Stalin, FDR, and Churchill in Tehran, Nov 1943. (Image: Wikimedia Commons: U.S. Signal Corps via Library of Congress)

In 2013, Diana West set off something of a chain reaction with her book American Betrayal, which took a fresh look at Western patterns of thought in the 20th century, and contemplated how they shaped our national priorities and purposes in World War II – and shaped what is, in retrospect, an extraordinary narrative about those factors, and the war itself.

Most of her rich and varied treatment ended up being missed by critics, who focused on her coverage of the extensively documented involvement of Soviet agents of influence in the FDR administration.  This is too bad, because the concerns West expresses go beyond the activities of Soviet agents.

Those concerns, in fact, have a lot to do with why the Soviet agents could be as successful as they seem to have been in affecting U.S. policy.  We’ll look at that in more detail in a later piece.

In this one, my focus is on two maps of Europe during World War II.  They are separated in time by only a few months.  But the fate of the 20th century was decided with the shift they reflect.

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And what is fascinating to me, and should be to all of us, is that the lens through which their information was viewed by the West in 1943 was so abstract, theoretical, and ideological as to obscure what would have been blindingly obvious to the vision of strategists looking at the same maps – especially the earlier map – at any prior point in Western history.

Indeed, it still is.

Whether thinking in a pre-Westphalian, Westphalian, and/or “Vienna-era,” concert-of-nations framework, the strategists of previous centuries would have seen something about that first map in 1943 that doesn’t seem to have occurred to those in the Western alliance of World War II.  At least, if it did, it was not seen as actionable.  (I would suspect Churchill of having seen it, although I don’t find him directly addressing it in his own writings.)

To appreciate what I’m speaking of, we need two basic facts.  One is the first map, and what it shows about the territory conquered and controlled by Germany in early 1943.

The Eastern Front between Germany and the USSR in early 1943, with occupied/forcibly Nazi-“allied” Europe to the west of it. Only the uncolored nations had escaped being subsumed in a scheme of occupation, affiliation with, or “protection” by Nazi Germany. (Map credit, Wikipedia: By Gdr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link; author annotation added)

An alternative opportunity

The second fact is another extensively documented but little known one: that the internal German resistance to Adolf Hitler, which reached up to a very high level in his corps of military officers, attempted several times between 1942 and 1943 to open secret talks on an agreement with both Britain and the United States for a German surrender on terms* – one of the terms being that Hitler and his henchmen would be removed from power.

This topic seems to be hard, even today, to discuss temperately.  I affirm up front that I do not think it was wrong for the U.S. to fight in World War II.  It is not my assertion that the war didn’t have to be fought at all, or that it would have been clever to leave Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to fight it out between them.  Those are foolish propositions, and I repudiate them without caveat.

But recognizing that the war had to be fought – against Hitler – doesn’t require buying into everything else the Western alliance did, as if all the choices made were inevitable, or were the only realistic ones.  That was not the case.

And in fact, the pivotal choice to destroy Germany and demand unconditional surrender has been treated as legitimately questionable throughout my life.  In high school, college, and military academic classes, I have written essays and participated in debates on that very topic.  It has been regarded as an exceptionally important issue in the study of war and policy, in fact.  It was never considered ridiculous or unconscionable to discuss whether unconditional surrender and the destruction and partitioning of Germany were necessary.

Never, that is, until Diana West’s book came out, and suddenly – in the face of what may well have been a realistic alternative – it was horrifying to even say out loud that it might have been better to do things differently.

The very fact that we cannot think about the possibility she points out, without getting our noses out of joint, ought to tell us something.  We are deeply invested in a narrative that may not stand up to rigorous inspection. We don’t like the idea of having to reexamine assumptions.

But what is interesting to me, for the purposes of this essay, is that a set of abstract assumptions could so easily blind us to what is obvious if we just look at the map.

What there was no vision for

Here, in brief, is the frame for the proposition.

Roosevelt decided at the Casablanca conference in January 1943 to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender, whatever the cost.  Interestingly, his friendliest biographers portray this as almost accidental: explicitly not arrived at through counsel and deliberation.  FDR himself spoke of basically blurting it out during the conference, and never tried to justify it with systematic reasoning.

The memoirs of his advisers are not illuminating, on the whole.  Historian Thomas Fleming, however (in his work cited in footnote one*, pp. 180-81), builds a case that FDR arrived at the unconditional surrender requirement through a combination of adviser personalities, his own perspective on the inconclusive ending to World War I, and a desire to appease Stalin.  Fleming doesn’t offer a view on why FDR would have been especially coy about that.

All of this makes a thought-provoking counterpoint to the alternative represented by a negotiated surrender, with the Nazis removed from power.

If the U.S. and Britain had negotiated a surrender with the German resistance in early 1943, conditioning it on the removal of the Nazis from power, and agreeing in advance that Germany would relinquish the territories conquered up to that point to our administration, we would have controlled the territory Germany controlled on that first map.

This does not, of course, mean that we would have tried to claim and occupy it as if it belonged to us.  It means we would have been in a position to oversee its restoration to its own peoples.

And it means that if the Soviet Union under Stalin wanted to occupy and control it, Stalin would have had to fight the locals backed by us for it – instead of fighting an invading, overstretched Nazi army in retreat on all fronts, and under the pressure of assault by the Western powers.  On most of the map, Stalin would not have attempted that.

The second map shows what actually happened instead.  By December 1943, the German forces in Eastern Europe were being pushed back by the Red Army.  And the “iron curtain” was beginning to descend over the region.  It was in early 1943, when FDR (or perhaps someone in his inner circle) made the choice to ignore the overtures from Admiral Wilhelm Canaris for a negotiated surrender, that the fortunes of Europe and the world were decided for the next half-century.

The Eastern Front begins retreating westward in the second half of 1943, with the Soviet Iron Curtain invasion pushing the Nazis out. (Map credit: Wikipedia, By Gdr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link; author annotation added.)

We can pose sets of factors against each other to put this decision in context.  I do not believe, to begin with, that the decision was entirely about Soviet influence in the FDR administration, or its agents misrepresenting the character of the German resistance.

Diana West makes a strong case that those factors were present, and I believe her assessment is correct that they mattered.  But there were other reasons why no impetus built, somewhere in Washington, for seeking a strategic solution different from the one we went with.

World-historical distortions

The most important, in my view, is the least concrete.  I’ll discuss it more in a later piece in this series.  It has to do with the sense, inflamed with the accelerant of Marxism, that 20th-century man was in a world-historical crisis, one in which the prosaic compulsions of the map didn’t apply.

After a first world war in which the map hardly mattered, as a pivot point of interest and calculation, it wasn’t strange to think that our great human crises would no longer involve territorial conquest, or at least would do so less and less.  World War I was recalled, justifiably, as a static charnel house, with little maneuver and less martial glory.  The demons unleashed during it were political, turning peoples against themselves.

Virtually all of the globe was under recognized claim at that point anyway.  There was no longer a civilizational idea that maneuver conflicts took place with unclaimed, encroachable margins of open territory around them.  Europeans had been at work on this shift in mindset for decades, in fact; they went into the “Great War” with a series of limited wars behind them, fought over long-claimed territories and for remarkably small changes in political boundaries.

Lenin put a definitive stamp on this a-cartographic sense with a dictum captured by Brian Crozier in his Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire (Prima/Forum, 2000 trade paperback, p. 18; emphasis added):

Peace was “a slogan of philistines and priests. The proletarian slogan must be Civil war.”

Crozier continued:

Trotsky was even blunter: “Soviet authority is organized civil war.” As [Richard] Pipes rightly puts it, “From such pronouncements, it should be evident that the [Russian] Civil War was not forced on the Communist leaders by the foreign and domestic ‘bourgeoisie’: it lay at the heart of their political programme.”

The import of these dictums was profound.  Class conflict – a world-historical working out of Marxist predictions – was about war, and the war that mattered was civil war.  Civil war is not inherently about geopolitics and maps.  It is about clashes of the most painful kind within a nation and between brothers and sisters: clashes of narratives, beliefs, worldviews, prescriptions for communal life and the future.

In the 20th century, it became reflexive for people to see war in general in these ideological and sentimental terms.  We often could hardly remember how normal and pragmatic it was to view the armed control of territory as a matter of national interests.  Referring to informative maps was neither cynical nor immoral; it was what nations did.

But instead of looking at maps, we became invested in the ideological narratives that attended wars.  In the 20th century, those narratives revolved around collectivism, which tended to require civil war – or at least civil conflict, as in Germany and Italy – to impose.  No one embraced forcible collectivism willingly.  No one ever has.

Fifty years from now – in 2067 – it will not look as sane as we think it does today to be invested in a narrative that required ushering Stalin and the Red Army into Eastern Europe.  But invested we were.

America behaved as if it was necessary to adopt Stalin’s view of strategic priorities in order to win World War II.  Objectively, there is no other way to put it.  Our priorities in the war were pursued as if we were principally invested in the deep-continental line of confrontation between Hitler and Stalin — a line that, for all its geopolitical power implications, essentially demarcated a civil war of totalitarian socialism.

But my point here is not that our president was being led by the nose by Soviet agents.  My point is that there existed no countervailing idea, or even strain of pragmatism, that looked at a map and said, “Ye gods, we don’t want to do that.”

Perhaps the sense of a world-historical crisis being in the driver’s seat was strong enough among our leadership class that no incipient resurgence of pre-ideological pragmatism could really overcome it.

This could have been partly because America was still a young nation, and our traditions of diplomacy and strategic thinking still forming – at a freighted time in history that wasn’t going to cut us a break.

With the weight of a world-historical crisis on us, perhaps it seemed necessary to reward Stalin for his people’s performance in battle by handing him Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and two-thirds of Germany.  Yet it doesn’t take a Metternich to see that in sober fact, that was simply ridiculous.

Nothing Stalin could have done ever justified such a “reward.”  But I still hear people today making the case that we had to “repay” Stalin by reducing Germany to rubble and literally making it possible for the Soviet Union to occupy Eastern Europe.

That is a sentimental assessment, not a realistic or responsible one.  What actually requires explaining is our inability to come up with another plan.

Consideration of alternatives: Unthinkable?

In that regard, Diana West juxtaposes the decision to mount the Normandy invasion – urged relentlessly by Stalin – against the option of either treating with the German resistance to end the war, or prosecuting the war to conclusion through axes on a southern front, through Italy and perhaps the Balkans.

West has taken a lot of grief for this, and some of it is justified (although much of it is bizarrely vituperative).  We didn’t invade France solely because Stalin wanted us to, or because his agents were agitating for it inside the FDR government.

West does rightly point out that those were factors in the decision, and that there was some dissent against the Normandy invasion from within U.S. military ranks.

The underlayment of conventional assumptions

But the U.S. military had been seriously planning for an invasion of northwestern France since 1937, and regarded that as a core element of its war plans for a European contingency.  The basic reason for this was as predictable as the sun coming up.  It’s what we did in 1917, and the reality of geography and logistics hadn’t changed since then.

Fighting Germany from a beachhead in Britain meant exercising reach in some way across France and the Low Countries.  It wasn’t frivolous or outdated to assume that using infantry and armor would be necessary in such an effort.  One way or another – as a combat or a logistics operation – those forces would have to be landed on the Continent.

Henry G. Gole’s indispensable The Road to Rainbow is the only work I am aware of that systematically tracks the actual, specific pre-war planning for Army-envisioned contingencies in World War II.**  It outlines how planners at the U.S. Army War College, who annually addressed a problem posed for them by the Army staff in Washington, were shaping up an invasion force of over 700,000 as early as 1937.  Their planning concepts formed the basis of the Rainbow plans that took us into World War II.  And it was that long before the war that they assumed we would adopt a “Europe first” war strategy, and that fighting Germany would entail a large-scale landing in France.

This history comports with the sense from more-general historians and analysts that any dispute on the military staffs about “Europe first” and the Normandy invasion was limited.  If there was a strong current of alternative views, it is not evident from the record.

To acknowledge this is not to say that the military planners were “right” in their thinking.  It is not to say that the most senior military officers preferred to do things this way.

But it helps clarify how their assumptions – not preferences; assumptions – militated against war staff pushback, when FDR decided to pursue the costliest strategy (i.e., a combat invasion of France, into the teeth of German defenses), and the strategy that gave Stalin the biggest assist in taking over Eastern Europe.

It would have been on FDR and his top political advisers to recognize the opportunity for something different, and order the military to prepare for it.  They did not do that, probably for multiple reasons.  I believe Diana West is correct in identifying Stalin’s influence within the FDR administration as one of the key factors.  In hindsight, it was certainly Stalin’s vision of strategic priorities that prevailed.

But if that factor was effective, I think it was at least partly because there was no unifying, alternative idea of victory for anyone to coalesce around.

Perhaps Stalinist socialism was simply better prepared with a systematic view toward opportunistic predation.

And we can point out that few individuals in the Western alliance were directly aware of the mid-war queries made by the German resistance, which meant that the opportunity for that negotiated solution depended entirely on FDR himself, and a handful of top aides (possibly, in fact, just one top aide, Harry Hopkins).  It’s easier to account for the lack of varied thinking, in such a small set of actors.

History, I think, will judge us deficient in not seeing alternatives to the total destruction of Germany, and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe that inevitably ensued.  If you believe that God works providentially in human history, you may see other factors in the 20th century’s defining war that would explain why things had to fall out as they did, to the detriment of Germany and Eastern Europe.  That would be a different kind of discussion.

I would stress that we cannot litigate the geopolitical past.  But we should seek to understand it.  The great service Diana West has done is to highlight our continuing adherence to a narrative about World War II that stands before those two maps without a good answer.  It is not good enough to gloss over that reality for the sake of comity, and not acknowledge that doing so risks letting the same thing happen again.

We know the outline of what did happen.  A look at two maps from 1943 tells me that the debate provoked by West has not concluded, but has only begun.


* The outreach to the Allies of Admiral Canaris, a leader of the German resistance, went back as early as 1940, and had intensified with British contacts in 1942.  Early in 1943, shortly after the Casablanca conference from which it was announced that the U.S. and UK sought Germany’s unconditional surrender, Canaris contacted a special emissary of FDR’s in Istanbul, George H. Earle III (one-time governor of Pennsylvania), hoping to open a negotiation for a settlement with FDR.  FDR declined to respond in any way.  Canaris contacted Earle again in March 1943, but there was never a response from FDR.

The events in this outreach are recounted in West’s book (Chapter 10), as well as in Thomas Fleming’s The New Dealers’ War: F.D.R. and the War Within World War II (Basic Books, 2001; especially pp. 176-80 and 203-4), and Heinz Hohne’s Canaris: Hitler’s Master Spy (Cooper Square Press edition 1999; original copyright 1976 by C. Bertelsmann Verlag GmbH; trans. 1979 by Martin Secker, copyright Wartburg Ltd. and Doubleday, Inc.; in 1999 ed., see esp. pp. 481-85).

Canaris, who reportedly worked covertly to rescue Jews in some of the German-occupied nations, was involved in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and was arrested that month along with other participants in the plot.  He was incarcerated for the remainder of the war, and was executed on 9 April 1945.

** The special virtue of the Gole book (The Road to Rainbow: Army Planning for Global War 1934-1940; Naval Institute Press, 2003) is its methodical, detailed focus on Army planning in the 1930s.  Much has been written about War Plan Orange: the plan for a fight in the Pacific against Japan, which was used after December 1941 with few significant revisions.  The neatness and general interest of that point has somewhat overshadowed the lesser-known account of Army planning, which is what set the framework of operational thinking for the European theater when the U.S. entered the war.

Gole’s account contains nuggets of special interest for Diana West’s readers.  Besides clarifying how early the Army was already thinking in terms of a “Europe first” strategy and a massive landing in France (the assumption of a “Europe first” perspective was prevalent as early as 1935), Gole quotes the Commandant of the Army War College in the spring of 1939 asserting that the Philippines were not defensible, and would have to be abandoned if Japan attacked (Chapter 9).  Several officers who would rise to prominence in the war years concurred with that assessment, according to Gole.

In general, Gole’s findings about Army planning are convincing as reflections of what the Army officers really thought.  They track well with the assumptions General Albert Wedemeyer writes about, in a war memoir that includes his involvement in the War Plans Division of the General Staff starting in early 1941 (Wedemeyer Reports!; Henry Holt & Company, 1958).  Gole includes lists of officers who participated in the annual planning projects assigned to the War College, and shows which ones went on to conduct World War II itself, making the case that their activities in the 1930s put an imprint on what they did in the 1940s.

That said, West’s readers would be especially intrigued by a reference on p. 140 (Gole) to the following assessment of General Thomas T. Handy, who served through several ranks on the War Plans Division staff between 1936 and 1940, and again from 1941-44.  I will simply quote the passage in full:

Another ally of the soldiers with a need for access to FDR was his confidant, Harry L. Hopkins: “Harry Hopkins was a hell of an asset.  General Marshall used to use Harry Hopkins.  If you had to get something to the President right now and it was really critical, he was pretty good.”

The quote is from Handy’s papers at the Military History Institute (citation in the footnote in Gole).  Even in an analysis dealing entirely with the Army perspective on planning for the war, Harry Hopkins’ centrality as a conduit to FDR comes up.  We are justified in supposing that that was meaningful to the outcome of policy.

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J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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