How the ‘Cowboys’ of the West Defeated the Nazis

by Victor Davis Hanson

Wall Street Journal

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 9, 2005.

President Bush is in Moscow’s Red Square today, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. Less than four years earlier, Hitler had declared war on the “cowboys” of the U.S. following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. When America in response entered the world conflagration, the Nazis had already been fighting Britain for 27 months and the Soviet Union for over five — and seemed days away from knocking the Russians out of the war. The ascendant Reich and its Axis protectorates stretched from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert and from the English Channel to near the suburbs of Moscow, gobbling up more territory in three years than had Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon in their entire bloody careers.

Just three-and-a-half years after America’s abrupt entry into the war the Nazis were not merely checked or defeated — but rather annihilated in one of the most brutal and extraordinary military achievements in history. The American ordeal was not without heartbreak and hard choices. In the present age of national furor over WMD intelligence failures and inadequately armored Humvees, we forget that World War II was largely a test of whether an America ill-prepared for war would make fewer fatal mistakes than its battle-hardened Nazi adversaries.

Heroic unescorted daylight bombing over Europe in 1942-43 proved an American bloodbath. If the intelligence for the Normandy invasion was impressive, the fighting during the next six weeks in the bloody hedgerows was tragically a near-disaster due to inexplicable ignorance about the landscape of the bocage, just a few thousand yards from the beaches. Well-meaning but flawed ideas about the requisite amount of armor and firepower of tanks led to permanent battlefield superiority for the Panzers, costing thousands of American lives. Pleasant mediocrities like Mark Clark were sometimes promoted; scary authentic military geniuses such as George Patton were occasionally ostracized. Repeatedly, we failed to destroy retreating and trapped German armies in Sicily, Italy and Normandy in the summers of 1943 and 1944. We had not a clue about Hitler’s buildup of 250,000 attackers on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Strategically, critics complained that the war had broken out to prevent Eastern Europe from being absorbed by a totalitarian power only to end up ensuring that it was.

For all the horror of Hitler’s culture of death, to end it we were put in the morally ambiguous position of aiding Stalin, who had killed millions more of his own Russians than the Nazis ever did. An ironic dividend of the wreckage of war was that tens of millions who had once chafed under the paternalism of the aristocratic Victorian imperialists were now for the next half-century to be enslaved under the savage socialist emissaries of the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, on V-E Day, Hitler and Mussolini were gone, Europe was liberated, the Holocaust ended, and the Americans free to finish off the waning militarists of Japan. Credit for victory was not ours alone. Our British and Soviet allies had fought longer and killed far more Germans. Hitler’s follies — the invasion of the Soviet Union, the belated mobilization of the German economy, the misapplication of his frightening new weaponry, and his sometimes lunatic intrusion into military decision-making — all helped.

Revisionists now tend to credit the lion’s share of the Allied victory over Hitler to the Soviets who probably killed two out of every three soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Yet the Russians waged a one-front war in comparison to the Anglo-Americans. They did not invade Italy or North Africa, and opportunistically took on an already defeated Japan only in the very last days of the war. Global submarine campaigning, surface naval warfare, long-range strategic bombing, massive logistical aid — all vital to the allied success, were beyond the scope of monolithic Russian power.

The Americans and British went from the windswept and hard-to-supply beaches of Normandy to the heart of Germany — on some routes about the same distance as Moscow to Berlin — in about a fourth of the time it took the beleaguered Red Army to cross into Germany. How did our forefathers pull it off, and are there any wartime lessons that we can distill from their accomplishment?

What destroyed the Nazis was the combination of American matériel and the zeal of large democratic conscript armies that, despite little preparation or experience, within mere months proved as formidable as their more experienced German adversaries. By the time the Americans were through, they had built 100,000 armored vehicles, 300,000 planes, 27 aircraft carriers and mustered 12 million people into the military. Indeed, by May 9, 1945, nearly 20 million more Americans were working than in 1939.

What the highly individualistic GI may have lacked in discipline, he more than made up with improvisation and initiative. Rambunctious Americans were innately mechanical and at home racing through Europe on their machines of mobile war. A free press at home debated decisions, and a popular and re-elected president explained how the sacrifices of war were tied to the higher good of democracy and freedom — and hence ultimately to national security. Gone was the old notion that two oceans ensured parochial Americans a pass from the perennial mess overseas or that the advent of industrial wealth abroad brought with it reasoned foreign leaders free from primitive emotions.

Once the Axis declared war, the U.S. did not have much patience with arguments that Hitler had legitimate grievances arising out of World War I or that clumsy American diplomacy had incited the fascists in Tokyo. Naiveté and the appearance of weakness in the face of bullies — not an accident, an old wrong, or a misplaced word — were agreed to have prompted attack.

The generation that was forced to ignite enemy cities, send billions in aid to a mass-murdering Stalin, bomb French rail yards, and deploy soldiers who sometimes fought with obsolete equipment, felt that they did not have to be perfect to know that they were good — and far better than the enemy. For them, war was never an easy utopian alternative between the perfect and the bad, but instead so often a horrific conundrum of bad choices versus those far worse — victory going only to those who had greater preponderance of right, made the fewer mistakes, and outlasted the enemy.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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