Victor Davis Hanson and Chris Buskirk Discuss The Second World Wars

Military historian, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare, Victor Davis Hanson was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is also a regular contributor to American Greatness.  He joined American Greatness publisher, Chris Buskirk, Monday on The Seth and Chris Show to discuss his new book, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and WonYou can listen to the audio below or read the transcript of the interview that follows.

Chris Buskirk:   I am Chris Buskirk, he is Seth Leibsohn. This is the Seth and Chris show. We are joined by Professor Victor Davis Hanson today. He has a new book out. He’s an author of a number of books, Carnage and Culture, The Father of Us All, one of my favorites, The Ripples of Battle. A book that I’ve just come to recently, Professor, was one of your first books, Fields Without Dreams, but you’ve got a new book out.

Victor Davis Hanson:   Yeah, I do.

Chris Buskirk:   So we’re not going to talk about the book that I’m reading right now that came out in 1996, but the one that came out in 2017, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

Victor Davis Hanson:    Thank you for having me, Chris. I don’t think I can help the Amazon reviews on that book in ‘96.

Chris Buskirk:   It’s a great book. I will tell you that when your publisher sent me The Second World Wars, I put aside what else I was reading. I read it, and then you and I saw each other a couple weeks ago, you told me about Fields Without Dreams. I ordered it and I’m reading it very slowly, because there’s a lot in it. I’m going to make you promise to come back to talk about that book, but not tonight.

Victor Davis Hanson:    Yeah, kind of a pre-Trumpian thing.

Chris Buskirk:  Right, but boy reading it today in 2017, wow. I’m not going to go there right now because we’ve got other fish to fry. So The Second World Wars, it’s a plural. Wars. You go through in this book, you talk about the way there were multiple conflicts within this global conflict. What brought you to this book?

Victor Davis Hanson:     Well, I tried to look at the Second World War. I mean, there’s 8,000 books a year that are written on it. I tried to look at it from a variety of different ways. I used the plural for two or three reasons. There were a lot of wars, if you define wars by theater … So somebody fighting in Burma, for example, against the Japanese really didn’t have much in common with a person on a freighter in the North Atlantic as part of the experience. Or on the Axis side of Bulgarians fighting the Russians, didn’t really know what was going on Manchuria, where the Japanese were fighting the Chinese.

So it was so large from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, from [inaudible 00:02:20] to the English Channel, from the Indian Ocean to the Aleutians, and from Manchuria all the way to Wake Island. It’s hard to envision this one war. So I tried to reflect that in the book with different experiences. Then as well, the war as we know it, Second World War in the Anglosphere in World War II, that term really wasn’t used until 1941. From ’39 to ’41, it was the Norwegian War, the Danish War, the Polish War, to denote nine separate campaigns where the German army won every one of them, and sort of had a stalemate with Britain, and the war was over. These wars were over and considered such.

By May 1941, Germany was in control of the entire area now encompassing the European Union. Then three things happened in ’41 that are almost inexplicable, given the success of Germany, and what followed to Germany after. One was the invasion on June 22nd of ’41 of the Soviet Union by the largest invasion army in the world … In the history of conflict, I should say, almost four million people.

Then the Pearl Harbor attack, as well as the Japanese attack on Singapore, which brought the United States and Britain into the Pacific. Then even stranger, the declaration of war on December 11th by Italy and Germany at that point on the United States. At that point, it was called World War II. You can tell that by looking at contemporary documents where the Great War is now renamed as World War I by 1941. That was a war that the Axis really couldn’t win, because they were outnumbered by about 420 million people versus 160. Their pre-war GDP was a sixth the size of the Soviet Union and United States and the British Empire.

So, I tried to reflect all those sort of paradoxes in the title Second World Wars.

Chris Buskirk:   When you look at the Axis really sort of just overreaching at a certain point. They had these string of successes. The Japanese even had not the sort of unbroken chain of success that the Germans had in Europe, but they had success in mainland China. Was it just hubris at a certain point that they overreached and this brought about their ultimate destruction?

Victor Davis Hanson:    Yeah, I think that’s the best way to sum it up. I mean, they fought the Blitzkrieg, which was a term they didn’t like to use themselves. That is a surprise attack, quick armor thrust, close air support, but not much logistic support. Was only designed against immediate neighbors with good roads, close to the heartland of Germany. But when they went in the Soviet Union, only 20 percent of the roads were paved. Eighty percent of the transportation was horse-drawn. They weren’t going 150 miles into France or 100 into Poland. They were going 1,500 miles to Moscow and the Volga River. That was beyond their logistical capability.

Same was true of the Japanese. They ran wild in China, and then of course Hong Kong, Wake Island, the Philippines, Malaya, but they never really had an ability, nor did Germany, to harm the industrial heartland of the population centers of their new enemies in this existential war. By that I mean, there was never a Japanese idea that they could hit Henry Kaiser’s shipping facility, the ship-building in the Oakland Naval Yard. Or they couldn’t hit Willow Run in Detroit. After the Blitz, and even during the Blitz, they weren’t very successful in knocking out any British industry. They never could go beyond the Euro mountains were most of the Russian heavy munitions industries were.

So they started an existential war, they being Italy, Germany, and Japan, which they had no ability to harm the ability of their enemies to make war, and was not true of the Allies. As soon as the war started, the United States and the British Empire had several models of four engine bombers. We had an aircraft carrier program that was quite ambitious. Our strategy was to get to Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo. In contrast, the Germans never built a single aircraft carrier, nor did the Italians. None of the three Axis powers built a single four engine long range bomber.

Chris Buskirk:  You know, when I was reading the book, I kept thinking that after the … We’ll just call those sort of Blitzkrieg years of 1939, ’40 and early ’41. At least in Europe, the Germans managed to take what was a highly successful string of small wars, of small conquests, and then they did almost the exact opposite … Well, maybe precisely the exact opposite of what Bismarck recognized. Which is they took Germany, which is in the heart of Europe, and they now turned Germany into the battlefield by placing it right in between all of its major enemies in the war, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. That was a … Strikes me as a terrible strategic error. Did they just not think about this?

Victor Davis Hanson:  No they thought about it very deeply. When we go as historians, we go back, we have to understand their mindset. Their mindset, Germany felt that in World War I, they had knocked out Russia in two and half years. But they had never got more than 70 miles into France. But yet in World War II, if I could use that term for the fall of France, they knocked out France in six and a half weeks. So they were thinking in the World War I equation that six and a half weeks equated to three and a half weeks of knocking Russia out.

They also thought that they had miscalculated with Britain. They had no ability to knock Britain out of the war by air or sea, so they thought that by going in the Soviet Union, they would easily knock it out and Britain would be all alone. Again, they looked at the Russian military and they didn’t quite understand that it was one military abroad and a quite different one at home. So they said, “Well, the Soviets hadn’t done well in helping the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, they had been very mediocre in Finland in 1939 and ’40. They hadn’t really divided up Poland very well, so they’re really not to be feared. Then they were very desperate, Hitler said, for the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, and said the communists were the one that surrendered in World War I, and as soon as they took over, they just gave up.

So there were certain indications which seem ridiculous today, but at the time, for an unbeaten army of four million people, when it was the largest multinational army in the history, with Italians, and Spaniards, and Fins, and Romanians, Bulgarians, it looked like a good idea at the time. Now we can see that it was absolutely suicidal.

Chris Buskirk:   Was there anyone counseling Hitler that this was in fact suicide? Was anybody who saw the peril?

Victor Davis Hanson:   Absolutely, no. Especially naval people, even people like Goering and Dönitz and Raeder on the Kriegsmarine. Not so many people like Warlimont on the OKW, the general staff, had said it wasn’t a wise idea, but a lot of people had had close relations with the Russians between the wars and they thought this is just crazy. Of course, it was crazy. Hitler was advised, but what were they to say when Hitler had been right about all nine earlier wars, many of which they opposed?

Chris Buskirk:  Right. We’re going to go to a quick break, Professor. I want to ask you when you come back, was there a point when this first became a global conflict in 1941 and ’42, was there a point at which actually had a legitimate ability to win the war? To win it decisively, if they were able to do it quickly? I’d like to see what your opinion is on that. We’ll be right back with Professor Victor Davis Hanson, talking about his latest book, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. You can find that on We’ll be right back.

I am Chris Buskirk, he is Seth Leibsohn. Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. We are joined today by Professor Victor Davis Hanson. He is the author of a large body of work, but his latest is called The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. So kind of taking off on the subtitle, how it was fought and won, question for you, Professor. Was there a time in your estimation, maybe when it first became a global conflict when the axis powers had a chance to win?

Victor Davis Hanson:  I think there was. They certainly had a head start, as far as shipbuilding and the case of Japanese and Panzer divisions and armor. They felt that the Japanese and German soldier had so much experience, two or three years of fighting or more with the case in China, that they could win the war before the Allies would fully mobilize, if they would fully mobilize.

So we looked at the map, let’s say July or August of 1942, Germans had climbed Mount Elbrus the highest mountain in the Caucasus. They were looking down just 90 miles from Bosnia. They were about ready to cut off the Soviet Union’s, 90 percent of its oil to its industry. They had just taken Tobruk in North Africa and Rommel was only 70 miles from Alexandria. The Japanese had cut off … Had landed in Guadalcanal, were just about ready to cut off American supply routes to Australia. Then in the next 90 days to 120 days, that sort of fantasy vanished. It blew away on the wind, because suddenly the Allies were really mobilizing in a way that nobody thought that they could.

Remember the American GDP was larger by 1945 than all the major belligerents put together. So suddenly the Americans won on Guadalcanal and proved that we could fight like Japanese, but they really couldn’t produce like we could. Then at El Alamein, Montgomery turned Rommel back. We landed in North African and Algeria and Morocco in November. The Soviets, of course, destroyed the Sixth Army, surrounded it this month and then destroyed it in February. That was the end of most offensive operations on the eastern front.

Then it was just a question would the Allies do what they did in World War I and allow Germany or Italy or Japan to have and armistice or would they insist on unconditional surrender? If they did the latter, there were 15 million active soldiers in the field and they would have to … Given the ideologies of World War II, they’d have to go into Rome, as I said, Berlin and Tokyo, physically defeat, humiliate, the Japanese, German and Italian people, and then change their political framework. They were willing to do that to pay the ultimate price.

If you remember, there were 60, 65 million dead. It was 27,000 killed every day of the war for six years. It was the first major war that more civilians died …

Chris Buskirk:   Can you say that number again? What was the casualty count per day?

Victor Davis Hanson:  About 27,000 for six years. Then the first major war where more civilians, probably 80 percent of that figure, of the 60 to 65 were civilians and the losers probably lost 75 percent … Excuse me, the winners lost 75 percent of the total fatalities. So if we reduce, and I tried to suggest that in the book, if you reduce World War II to a story of who lived and who died, it was largely a narrative of Japanese and German soldiers killing un-uniformed and unarmed civilians in Russia, China, and eastern Europe, and killing them at a rate about seven to one. In other words, every German civilian or soldier that was lost or case of Japanese were lost, they killed seven, all the way up to nine people for each one lost.

I think if the book is revisionist, it’s a reminder to the readership that Hiroshima, Dresden, and Hamburg have to be set against this figure of 27,000 killed every day, largely by German and Japanese soldiers, and largely people who couldn’t fight back.

Chris Buskirk:   Is the price paid, particularly in the Soviet Union, is this why World War II, even today, looms so large in the Russian psyche, in their collective memory?

Victor Davis Hanson:  Yeah, absolutely. I think all of us have to recognize that as much Putin is a thug and Russia is an enemy of the United States, that when we start lecturing about Eastern Ukraine, we have to say, “Wait a minute, the largest encirclement of any army in the history of conflict was in August 1941 with 750,000 Russians perished, killed, captured, or died in captivity.” When we even get mad at the Crimea, we have to say wait a minute, this was part of Mother Russia and in World War II at the Siege of Sevastopol, von Manstein’s army killed about 150,000 Russians, taking the cities. These places have a lot more resonance to Russians than say Puerto Rico does to us.

I think sometimes we forget that when we just lecture them about, “You’ve gotta do this, and you’ve gotta do that.” They’re trying to tell us, “We killed two out of three German soldiers, and we lost 27 million dead in these places that you lecture us about are iconic in the Russian mind.” That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing, but it’s sort of a method of understanding what they’re doing.

Chris Buskirk:   Yeah, this is my new catchphrase, Victor. I’ve been telling everybody history is the unknown country. It sure would help if policy makers knew more history. If Americans in general, politicians knew the history, at least they’d understand the people, their diplomatic counter-parties. They’d understand where they were coming from. Maybe that would help us make better decisions.

Victor Davis Hanson:  I think it would. I think people don’t really know modern history, much less World War II, which is now, I guess, ancient history. But if we did learn it, we would have a different appreciation. When Obama said that he sort of downplayed the British-American relationship, as you remember … Britain was the only country in World War II that fought the first day of war September 1, 1939 and the last day on September 2nd. It was the only country that alone fought Germany from June 23rd of 1940, all the way until June 22nd of 1941. It was the only country that went to war without having been either surprise attacked or surprise attacking someone else.

It went to war for the principle of Poland. It actually out produced the Weimar and I mean by that, occupied Europe under German control in every category of munitions except tanks and airframes … And it got very close in those, too. So it was an amazing achievement and I think we should appreciate to understand just how much of an ally Britain was in World War II and how important they were, given the popular stereotype that it was the Soviet Union, United States won the war and British sort of the weak link in that triad.

Chris Buskirk:   Yeah, right. Much smaller in terms of GPD and in terms of population, and yet punching way above their weight. In your view, how much of that is attributable to Churchill’s statesmanship?

Victor Davis Hanson:  A lot of it is. I think there was a large segment of the British aristocracy that wanted to cut a deal with Hitler after the fall of France. Had Halifax been Prime Minister, they would’ve done that. Or they at least would’ve been very close to doing it. Churchill was important but he had some brilliant people around him, whether it was Beaverbrook or Bevin in Labour or Ellenbrook on the general staff.

Chris Buskirk:    Victor, thanks so much for spending the time. Great book, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. This is must-reading. This is a great present for Christmas, which is coming up. Or maybe just a present for yourself if you want to read the best current history of the war for sure. You can find it on Amazon. Professor Victor Davis Hanson is its author. Thanks again.

Victor Davis Hanson:   Thank you for having me.

Chris Buskirk:  Next time, Victor, we’re going to have you on Field Without Dreams, okay?

Victor Davis Hanson:   Okay.

Chris Buskirk:   All right, thanks very much. Have a good night.

Victor Davis Hanson:  You too, Chris.


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