Were There Really Two Opposing Alliances?
As we noted, from June 25, 1940, to December 7, 1941, there were not formal “Allies.” The British-Western European alliance, such as it had been, disappeared with the fall of France in June 1940 and the appeasement or absorption of all of Western Europe. True, Britain encouraged and aided Soviet resistance after the German invasion, but the “Big Three” of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union were not officially formed until January 1, 1942, with grand promises of a “United Nations” that would resist the Axis and, with the addition of China, form the basis for a postwar ecumenical world as the new UN’s “policemen.”
These “Allies” after January 1941 were certainly a disparate group of British parliamentarian imperialists, American democrats pledged to reviving Wilsonian utopian dreams of an ecumenical globalist postwar world, and Soviet communist expansionists, determined to use their likely huge postwar military to birth communist states throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Nonetheless, for all of Stalin’s perfidy, the “Big Three” did occasionally work in concert. Their leaders met periodically. And the Americans gave freely massive aid to Britain and Russia, as well Britain itself sending supplies to the Soviet Union.
There were complementary theaters of cooperation as well. In the Pacific, Russia was understood to be unable (or unwilling) to contribute military forces of any sort and was not pressed to renounce its non-aggression pact with Japan that had just bombed Pearl Harbor. Britain focused on Burma and protecting India, and the U.S. and Britain sought to keep China supplied in the war.
The Americans charted two different pathways of hopping islands and territorial invasion in preparation, first, for basing four-engine bombers within range to strike Japan, and second, marshalling forces for anticipated late 1945 and early 1946 invasions of the Japanese islands. The British and Americans jointly planned the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns as well as D-Day landings and subsequently synchronized their drives into Germany. They planned for a mutual invasion of Japan, shared cryptology and intelligence, and fused their personnel and prior research within the Manhattan Project.
The Soviets for the most part kept distant, but not always completely. One of the largest offensives of the war, the massive Operation Bagration assault that destroyed 28 divisions of the German Army Group Center in Belorussia, commenced on June 23, 1944. The timing, size, and surprise of the offensive made it nearly impossible for large German reinforcements from the Eastern Front to help strangle the hard-pressed Normandy pockets of British and American troops that were straining to break-out. The pressure of Soviet assault increased all during July until August 19 and thereby had helped the eventual July 25 Operation Cobra American and British breakout from the invasion beaches.
The Americans were willing to allow the Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact to continue to ensure free transit of American aid to the southern and eastern Soviet Union. For good or evil, the Western Allies did not interfere as the Soviets recouped lost lands and inflicted harsh reprisals against its own people. The Soviets settled with Finland and Poland on terms outside of or contrary to the Allied alliance, and by 1945 mostly ignored prior Big Three agreements in holding elections in all European territory, east and west, liberated by the Allies.
We talk equally of an Axis alliance. But it was even more tenuous—inasmuch as there was not a single consensual society among the three. It is hard to think of any jointly planned Axis military endeavor. During the early continental war, Mussolini had only a vague idea of the planned dates of the German invasions of various European countries, and Japan not at all. Germany apprised neither Japan nor Italy of the June 22, 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union—at the very of time of an ongoing Soviet non-aggression pact with Japan that survived until April 5, 1945, five weeks before the German surrender and following the successful U.S. invasion of Okinawa and intensification of B-29 firebombing of the major Japanese cities.
Germany had no prior warning of the Italian April 1939 invasion and occupation of Albania. Nor did it have any forewarning about the June 10, 1940 opportunistic Italian attack across the French border, when the French army was already crumbling under German pressure. And most critically, Mussolini gave no signal to Hitler of the critical October 28, 1940 Italian assault on Greece, an eventual mess that prompted British deployments to Greece and a brief Yugoslavian coup and transitory anti-fascist government. The need for Hitler to send troops into the Balkans in March and April 1941 may have disrupted the buildup of Operation Barbarossa and siphoned off troops and planes to occupy both Yugoslavia and Greece.
Japan, shocked at being undercut by the August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact never apprised Germany or Italy of the December 7-8, 1941 array of attacks on British and American bases and colonies in the Pacific, just as Tokyo had not informed Hitler of the April 1941 non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.
The Axis ad hoc agreements, and leaky more formal alliances, only reflected their self-interested confusion. The November 25, 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact had supposedly been aimed at containing the Soviet spread of global communism. In fact, Germany and Japan could not persuade Italy initially to join, largely because Mussolini felt his own east and north African colonial, and Mediterranean imperial agendas were far more threatened by the French and British navies.
In turn, the subsequent May 22, 1939 so-called “Pact of Steel” between Germany and Italy never included Japan. Tokyo could not persuade either fellow fascist power to focus on the Soviet Union as their prime enemy, as it was at the time engaged in a bitter war with Japan in Manchuria over the Mongolian border.
The Tripartite Pact of September 1940 finally included all three fascist powers at the outset and was later joined by pro-Germany eastern European nations. Yet the formalization of an “Axis” hardly signaled any new round of mutual cooperation. Germany worked poorly with the Italians in North Africa, and never fully shared its impressive weaponry. Tokyo and Berlin were too far distant for any formal cooperation either in strategizing or in sharing critical military technology.
Perhaps because both the United States and the United Kingdom were constitutional states, they could weather the perfidy of the Soviet Union, otherwise impossible if all three were totalitarians as in the case of the Axis powers. Moreover, the Axis coalition was based more on ideological than national interests. A change in government in summer 1945 did not affect British war policy. Had Roosevelt been defeated in 1944, the war would have gone on largely as before under a Dewey administration. But what tied old World War I enemies like Germany, Italy, and Japan was their newfound common fascist methods and beliefs—a more tenuous bond predicated entirely on the yin and yang of the war’s progress, rather than the people’s perceived national interests.
World War II was the greatest human disaster in civilizational history. Seventy-six years after the end of the catastrophe, arguments still rage over its origins, its methods, aims, and results. The only commonality seems that an accurate assessment of human and material losses is always recalibrated upward, with yearly new information and analyses. In such a fluid climate, we should be open to re-envisioning the larger nature and assessment of the Second World War.
It was two separate conflicts. The first were serial and relatively rapid regional wars won by a highly mobile and well-trained German army unleashed always in surprise fashion against mostly ill-prepared and stunned European militaries, over about 21 months of on-again, off-again fighting and subsequent occupations.
This continental war quiescent by late May 1941 was absorbed by the end of 1941 by a truly global war, under new auspices and alliances, in which a now nominally united Italy, Germany, and Japan mostly fought in their own various theaters against a coalition of the world’s three largest and strongest powers, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The latter alignment not merely defeated, but physically ruined all three Axis powers in less than four years, on a global landscape that ranged from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara and from the American East Coast around the world to the Aleutians.
To win such a war required the destruction of the most efficacious and deadly military of its size, the German Wehrmacht. The Soviet Union at staggering cost utterly ruined the German army. But to fuel the voracious Red Army, to liberate Germany’s occupied nations, to destroy utterly the economy of Germany and its two allies, and to ensure Allied supremacy by air, land and sea in Asia and Europe, all that was possible only if Britain and its domains joined with the United States, and only if both conducted themselves as constitutional partners who coordinated their multifaceted efforts and who jointly excused the perfidy and brutality of Joseph Stalin’s communist superstate—for the perceived greater good of the world gained by destroying the nihilism of Nazi Germany and fascist Imperial Japan.