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.

Weekend Watching: The Little Ships of England

This fun contemporary documentary details the effort put into the construction of a fleet of wooden vessels – from small civilian boats to minesweepers – for the defense of Britain in World War II.

Among other things, it’s a fascinating look at the total war in which Britain was engaged that was unknown in the US. All of the nations resources were put into the effort, from forests to high schoolers. The young teenager showing up to serve as a learner (he couldn’t have been more than 15) was sobering, as was a look at how the ships were built of timber, oakum, and tar. That the Royal Navy was sending men to sea in wooden ships in an age of steel is a tribute both to the skill of her shipwrights and the courage of her men.

The film is also an oblique reminder that we have, for whatever reason, given up on wood for fiberglass in our small ships, and that it may be time for a reconsideration of the value of wooden vessels in modern war.

Finally, it is a reminder that great is ever the enemy of good enough. Britain needed hulls, and it understood that getting ships to sea trumped any compunctions about looking like a second-rate force.

The film is about 15 minutes long. Enjoy.

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.

Nazis and Christians

In a discussion about Nazi Germany recently with a few fellow amateur historians, the question of the role of religion in Naziism came up. The consensus of the group (which was made up primarily of atheists) was that Naziism was at its core a Christian movement, and they point to the use of the phrase “Gott Mit Uns” (“God is with us”) on Nazi heraldry at the time as prima facie evidence of their point.

It is worth pointing out, however that the use of “Gott Mit Uns” harkens back to the Teutonic Order of knights from the 12th Century, and used in Prussian heraldry from the time of Friedrich I in the 18th century. Indeed, if you pursue the history, it appears likely that the Nazis were simply trying to establish popular legitimacy by harkening back to both the Teutons and the rise of Prussia. This was likely less about any form of faith than an attempt to anchor National Socialism more deeply into the heart of German identity, and thus legitimize it.

What is more, historians like William Shirer suggest that the Nazis were trying to eliminate Christianity altogether, and that by instituting Kirchenkampf and making public examples of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the Christian Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists, the Nazis were able to cow the other churches into toeing the line.

Churches, like any other institution, are often led by humans who (sometimes for what appear to be good reasons) place the continuance of the institution above the mission it was created to conduct. This is why so many of the major denominations rolled over. This is why the resistance from Christians primarily came from individuals (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer), rather than religious institutions. Indeed, Eric Metaxas’s superb biography of Bonhoeffer offers substantial support to the idea that National Socialism was a rejection of Christianity, and that any association between the church and the Nazi regime was tenuous and best characterized by the image of a stormtrooper’s boot on the neck of a clergyman.

In their defense, I think the the religious leaders of the Third Reich knew that Nazism was anti-Christian, and they were trying to appease Hitler and his sociopathic coterie in a desperate effort to save themselves, their flocks, and their faiths from being tossed into the camps. If there is approbation or praise to be laid, it is upon individuals rather than the ethos they tried (with varying degrees of care and success) to uphold.

Screwball Airplane Factories

Inspection and rework at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, October 1942.

Hurd Barrett, who worked at several different jobs in three aircraft factories for seven years, drew two conclusions from his experience: Americans built the world’s finest airplanes, and the manner of their building was “strictly screwball.”

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

Free Book of the Week: Troopships of WWII

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Long overlooked despite a vast library of works on warships from PT boats to aircraft carriers has been the humble but essential transport vessel. We are still waiting for a definitive and engaging popular history of the type, and may yet wait a while, but a superb resource for anyone interested in the topic is Troopships of WWIIby naval architect Roland Charles.

Published in 1947 by the Army Transportation Association, the book also serves as a reminder that for the duration of the war, the Army had its own navy. One cannot help but wonder if a few of the Navy’s admirals, particularly of the pre-war vintage, were a little uncomfortable about the army having more ships in 1944 than the Navy had a decade earlier. But Charles is clearly agnostic in this regard, and apart from the subtle reminder that the war at sea was not an exclusively naval affair, does not pursue it.

There is, however, more to be written. It takes nothing away from the USN and its core role in the eventual victory in WWII to delve into the history of the Army at sea, any more than a study of the Coast Guard or Merchant Marine would. But ignoring or underplaying the role of these fleets prohibits us from understanding the kind of fleet we will need in a future conflict.

No doubt the Navy is not proud of the fact that it entered the Second World War materially unprepared for that conflict, and woefully so. Understanding the full width and breadth of that gap is essential for understanding both the drivers of victory and the essence of maritime power.

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