Category Archives: Prelude to War

Nationalism had been, before the war, a claim pressed by minorities against large multiethnic empires, but after Versailles it became a claim that minority groups asserted against one another.

– Yehuda Mirsky

Rethinking “Isolationism”

Popularly known as isolationism, it was more accurately unilateralism. The object was not to sever contact with the rest of the globe, especially in matters of trade and commerce, but rather to ensure that only Americans decided what the nation would and would not do overseas.

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America in World War II

Klein’s point suggests another aspect of the Second World War and its prelude that needs to be re-examined. There may well have been elements in the American polity that were strictly isolationist, or were downright xenophobic, but the core of what we have branded “isolationism” is actually something subtly and importantly different.

For many it was much less about cutting America off from the rest of the world than it was ensuring that America engaged in international affairs (commercial, political, and military) on its own terms rather than on those set by foreign powers.

Rather than lump all opponents of the war in a single basket, we need to dissect the opposition movement into its components. To appreciate why, despite numerous provocations, US entry into the war did not take place until after Pearl Harbor, we need to dig deeper into the matter.

Unsuited to Command

When told about war games played at the War College, Wilson said to his Secretary of War, “That seems to me a very dangerous occupation. I think you had better stop.”

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America in World War II

Good Lord.

This speaks volumes about Woodrow Wilson, the way he managed the military, and his suitability to serve as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.

One would imagine these words being spoken to Lindley Garrison, who was Wilson’s first secretary of war and who found himself at loggerheads with POTUS over the need to prepare for the possibility of war. Garrison finally gave on Wilson in disgust and resigned in 1916 to return to his law practice.

History would, of course, prove Garrison to be correct, and prove Wilson to have been shortsighted. Garrison’s successor, Newton Baker, was an ardent pacifist whose sole discernible service to American arms was to insist on keeping American troops under American command during the war. Beyond that, he was a cipher.

Most important, though, Baker was a reflection of his president. One can take the stand that America’s hesitance to get involved in World War I was eminently justifiable. Yet as it became evident that war was on the horizon, Wilson lacked the courage or foresight to prepare the nation for it.

As we look at the troubles faced by US troops in World War I, and the differences in how FDR prepared the nation for WWII, attention must land on Wilson and his failings as a peacetime Commander in Chief.

Time for a New Field: World War Studies

British infantry at El Alamein, 1942

British infantry at El Alamein, 1942

The study of the world wars is defined in most British Universities as “War Studies”

It is time that we in the US begin to recognize the importance of the wars as an independent field of study that incorporates American History, European History, World History, Military History, Economics, and Political Science. The war was a nexus that fundamentally altered all fields, and it deserves its own discipline. For lack of a better phrase, I prefer “World War Studies,” and will use that as a working phrase going forward.

Now that we have given it a term, we need to define scope. World War Studies (WWS for brevity’s sake) should certainly encompass the entire First World War, from the period preceding the war (in which are rooted its primary causes) to the treaty at Versailles. Likewise, it should encompass the period between the German-Soviet invasion of Poland through the signing of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

But is that enough?

What is too often convenient for we Americans to forget is that the conflict did not end when the guns on the Western Front went silent on November 11, 1918. Indeed, out of the physical, human, and psychic wreckage of The Great War and its aftermath emerged a series of conflicts that set the stage for War Two. A partial list of the conflicts raging between the World Wars would include:

  • Greater Poland Uprising (1918-9)
  • Polish-Ukranian War (1918-9)
  • Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919)
  • Polish-Czech War (1919)
  • US Border War (1916-1919)
  • Estonian War of Independence (1918-20)
  • Lithuanian Wars of Independence (1918-20)
  • Franco-Syrian War (1920)
  • Iraqi Revolt (1920)
  • Turkish-Armenian War (1920)
  • Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-21)
  • Silesian Uprisings (1919-21)
  • Irish War of Independence (1919-21)
  • Polish-Soviet War (1919-21)
  • Franco-Turkish War (1920-1)
  • Russian Civil War (1917-22)
  • Turkish War of Independence (1919-22)
  • Sheikh Said Rebellion (1925)
  • Cristero War (1926-9)
  • Ararat Rebellion (1927-30)
  • Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931)
  • Chaco War (1932-5)
  • Second Italo-Abyssinain War (1935-6)
  • Chinese Civil War (1927-1936)
  • German Annexation of Austria (1938)
  • German Remilitarization of the Rhineland (1936)
  • Spanish Civil War (1936-9)
  • Arab Revolt (1936-9)
  • German Invasion of Czechoslovakia (1939)
  • Slovak-Hungarian War (1939)
  • Soviet-Japanese Border Conflict (1932-1941)
  • Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
  • Finnish-Soviet War (1939-40)

Viewed against the full panorama of the interwar era, the importance of seeing that period as more than just a pregnant pause between the two wider wars becomes evident. Neither the First World War itself, nor the Armistace, nor the Versailles Treaty resolved the issues between the combatants. Indeed, those events instigated two decades of civil, local, and regional fights that coalesced and escalated between 1939 and 1941 into a global conflagration.

What we are left with, then, is a global conflict that began in 1914 and continued at different levels of intensity and great-power participation until at least 1945. For the nonce, then, this is how we will approach our study, seeing them all as a single integrated conflict.

At the moment we shall refrain from including the Cold War in WWS. I’ll explain why in a later post.

FDR’s Problem with Industry

“A second factor, easily overlooked, is the extent to which the American experience in World War I loomed over nearly every aspect of mobilization.”

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II

Klein makes a critical point here: the mobilization of the nation for the Second World War was heavily informed by the experiences – and the massive mistakes – made in the previous conflict. The result was often an overabundance of caution, especially among business leaders worried about shifting everything to wartime production, only to face a tsunami of order cancellations when the conflict ended.

Scores of businesses had been wiped out in the demobilization after World War I. Executives and investors had no cause to expect the Roosevelt administration to behave any differently from the Wilson White House. On the contrary: given how Roosevelt had spent the previous decade alternately wooing, excoriating, and emasculating the captains of American industry, they could not be faulted for seeing mobilization as the next step in the creep of government into a position of control over American business.

All of which underscores two key drivers of this blog:

  1. We cannot study World War II, as we do too often, in isolation from American politics at the time.
  2. We cannot study World War II in isolation from World War I. Indeed, it could be argued that the roots of the conflict stretch back at least to 1905.

Nationalism had been, before the war, a claim pressed by minorities against large multiethnic empires, but after Versailles it became a claim that minority groups asserted against one another.

Yehuda Mirsky