In the 70 years since VJ-Day, few wars have ended in outright victory. America tied in Korea, abandoned South Vietnam, quit while ahead on points in Iraq in 1991, declared victory there in 2011, and now plans to flee Afghanistan. The current global war against radical Islam is likely to last for generations.
Israel won significant victories in 1967 and 1973, but the region remains a powder keg. Eastern Europe and Africa still endure warfare.
So what was different about the Second World War?
Historians approximately concur that European timidity ensured that Adolf Hitler’s Germany would launch the Blitzkrieg that overwhelmed most of the continent in 1939-40. The Axis powers, including Italy and Japan, were outnumbered six to one and out-produced by something approaching infinity, but still they tied the world in knots for six years. The combined might of the United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and China was necessary to end the world’s greatest conflagration.
Victory was bought at a staggering price. The actual toll is unknowable but probably exceeds 55 million people, military and civilian. Nations were crushed, empires dissolved, and the global map redrawn. The world lived with the immediate result—the Cold War—for the next 46 years.
Unlike the horrific effects of the Great War, which spawned a naive global pacifism, WW II reminded humans that powerful aggression cannot be argued, managed or convinced. It must be defeated—decisively.
With time, historic Allied victories reversed the Axis floodtide: Midway, Guadalcanal, and El Alamein in 1942, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Sicily in 1943. By New Year’s 1944 the outcome was beyond doubt, but the bloodletting continued.
No WW II event stirs controversy like the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For 30 years the argument existed in a vacuum, until code decrypts were available in the 1970s proving Tokyo’s resolve. Yet even today we hear pacifists argue “Japan was about to surrender.” Well, no it wasn’t, which is why the emperor took the unprecedented step of over-riding his doom-laden war cabinet.
Yet other arguments persist, with critics condemning the Allied bombing offensives that razed urban-industrial areas in so many Axis cities. The RAF incinerated Hamburg in July 1943 with some 46,000 dead. In one night in March 1945, B-29s burned out one-sixth of Tokyo and killed at least 85,000 people.
Still the Axis persisted.
Critics of strategic bombing are not new. In 1944, the benighted Bishop of Chichester claimed that Britain was “losing the moral high ground” by bombing German cities.
How you lose the moral high ground to Adolf Hitler is unknown.
The fact remains: civilians produce the weapons of war, which is why urban-industrial areas were targeted. Even the still-controversial U.S.-UK bombing of Dresden in February 1945 often ignores that it sat astride supply routes to the Eastern Front.
Were civilians unnecessarily killed? Yes, of course: sometimes unintentionally, sometimes from spite. For much of the Combined Bomber Offensive, the RAF continued punishing the German population. But by then, the hope of a morale collapse was long gone. After WW I, airpower theorists held that bombing civilians would bring an early end to a war by populations forcing their governments to surrender. But it would only work against an industrial democracy, and in those days the only such nations within range of each other were Britain and France.
History is ill served when bombing critics limit their complaints to the victors, casting aggressors as victims. The fact remains, by late 1943, when the outcome was inevitable, those who started the war had the power to end it overnight.
That none of them did should never be forgotten.
by Barrett Tillman