In some ways I was glad to see a front page article in the Reader on the Second World War [March 7]. In other ways I wasn’t.
The first thing that caused me to blink a few times was the claim that “World War II came to America like an epidemic from overseas” and the accompanying paragraphs, which describe the American entry into the war as “war fever” and contrast it with the months of debate that occurred before the gulf war. In the first place, there were years of debate about entering the war, and many people claimed we had nothing to fear from the troubles in Europe and Asia. They were proven rather spectacularly wrong when we were directly attacked: there had been skirmishes in the North Atlantic with U-boats, but Pearl Harbor was an open assault on the United States of America. The gulf war was a murkier case; the decision to respond to Japan’s attack, and the Nazi declaration of war shortly thereafter, was a no-brainer. The decision had been made for us, unlike the gulf war. Mr. Sandlin may want to read William L. O’Neill’s excellent A Democracy at War for background on the American debate on entry into the war, or check out any good book on the Roosevelt administration.
Second, on the same page, Mr. Sandlin makes the claim that “a purely cynical and cold-blooded calculation of the world crisis could have suggested to Americans that they could easily have stayed out.” That is true–we could have stayed out. But that doesn’t mean that staying out was the best idea. Charles Lindbergh and his ilk made that argument, and they were just as wrong as Mr. Sandlin is in making that claim. Hitler’s plans or lack thereof are beside the point: the man had a nasty habit of changing his mind and exploiting opportunities to attack people when they arose. Would Mr. Sandlin really feel comfortable living in a world where an aggressive megalomaniac had succeeded in fastening his iron grip on the resources of Europe and the Soviet Union? We might have been able to avoid war with a triumphant Hitler–but only at the cost of our own freedom. I’ll leave aside the way Hitler’s U-boats had already begun to rub up against American interests even before we came into the war: Mr. Sandlin did not even see fit to mention the struggle against the U-boat menace (which Churchill later claimed was the only thing that frightened him during the whole war).
Finally, Mr. Sandlin makes some interesting (and fallacious) claims about the war on the eastern front. Kursk is a city, not a town. Mr. Sandlin is also dead wrong to claim that the battle there in 1943 was a draw. It was a bloody slaughter, but it was also a Soviet victory. Kursk ended not, as Mr. Sandlin asserts, “like all the battles in the eastern front–in a draw,” but in a crushing defeat for the last German offensive in the East. Mr. Sandlin is also dead wrong when he asserts that all the battles in the eastern front ended in a draw. If that was the case, how did the Germans get to a point where they could attack Kursk, which is rather far from the 1941 Soviet-German frontier? How did they get to Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kiev, etc? The Soviets did not spot them a few hundred miles to make it a fair fight. The few living survivors of the 6th Army that was encircled at Stalingrad might also wonder at Sandlin’s definition of a draw, as might any Soviet survivors or German survivors of the war. (The East Germans might wonder too–considering that they ended up living in East Germany precisely because so many battles did not end in a draw.) I recommend David M. Glantz and Jonathan House’s When Titans Clashed or Alan Clark’s Barbarossa as reading if Mr. Sandlin wants to improve his knowledge on this subject.
Other than that, I felt it was an interesting article and I was pleased to see an attempt to keep a more realistic picture of the worst tragedy–and also, paradoxically, the greatest triumph–in human history before the public. Would that these attempts were more common.
Lee Sandlin responds:
More than one person has objected to my description of the Battle of Kursk as a draw. Obviously I should have taken the space to explain what I meant, and I can only offer the excuse that I felt I was taking up more than enough space already.
What happened at the Battle of Kursk was this: after the Germans tried and failed for eight days to break through the Soviet lines, Hitler ordered the attack abandoned. For those keeping score at home, that does count as a Soviet victory. But the Red Army took horrendous casualties and it lost more than half the tanks it had brought to the battle. In the immediate aftermath, it was too exhausted to exploit any advantage it might have gained from the German failure. This is what I meant when I called it a draw: the word may have been misleading, but I was trying to emphasize the disparity between the enormous size of the battle and the inconclusiveness of the result. “The main significance of Kursk,” John Keegan wrote in The Second World War, “was that it deprived Germany of the means to seize the initiative in the future and so, by default, transferred it to the Soviet Union.” This still sounds to me like a tepid kind of victory to have attained, at the end of the single largest battle ever fought.