Monday, June 25, 2018

Leadership in Total War

When World War II broke out the Philippines were in the midst of a phased transition from US colony to independent nation. Though still a colony, the Philippines already had a president and an elected legislature.

As the US/Filipino defense of the islands collapsed in the face of Japanese invasion, that president, Manuel Quezon, convinced General MacArthur that he should declare the Philippines independent and neutral and try to make some arrangement with the Japanese. They sent joint cable to Washington asking the president's permission. Roosevelt was in conference with Army chief of staff General George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson when it arrived:
When the cable was received in the White House, however, President Roosevelt did not give it a moment's consideration. "We can't do this at all," he told Marshall and Stimson. There could be no separate peace with the Japanese. The president was adamant that Bataan must be defended to the last man, and the Philippines must suffer under occupation until they could be liberated by force. Before that day, Marshall had privately doubted whether the amiable New Dealer in a wheelchair was up to the task of waging a world war, but now he grasped that Roosevelt was capable of utter ruthlessness. "I immediately discarded everything I had held in my mind to his discredit," he said. "I decided he was a great man."
– Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible (2012), pp. 242-243 
Of course the British had the same experience: to lead the nation against the Nazis required someone with that capacity for "utter ruthlessness," someone with a long record of advocating violent solutions to colonial problems: Winston Churchill. It was not an era when gentleness accomplished much.


G. Verloren said...

Of course, utter ruthlessness caused the war. How much might gentleness have accomplished if only it had won the day at Versailles back in 1919...

Shadow said...

The pros and cons of Versailles will be discussed without end and without resolution. Versailles probably did feed the German myth that WWI was lost to betrayal by liberals, communists, and Jews. But Germany was a powder keg after the war, with each political party having its own paramilitary, and the Weimar Republic being quite weak and incompetent. I doubt anything short of years of occupation would have prevented what happened, Versailles or not.

Maybe if Napoleon had held onto Europe into the middle of the 19th century there would have been no WWII. Maybe pan Germanism would never have reared it ugly head. Maybe it would have been worse.


Unknown said...


Right. For a significant, activist minority of Germans, who formed Hitler's core support, the fundamental issue was not that Germany had been treated unfairly at Versailles, but that they had lost the war. They directed their hostility largely toward perceived internal enemies who, particularly in Hitler's telling, were believed to be tools of an international conspiracy. I'm struck how mild was their bitterness--and especially Hitler's--toward the governments actually involved at Versailles. So far as I can tell, Hitler didn't take the French that seriously, although he did feel vindicated by the conquest of 1940. He seems to have genuinely respected the British, on some level, and hoped he would not have to fight them.

I suppose you could say that German, Japanese, and Italian envy at the international position enjoyed by Britain and the US after 1918 did contribute to a ruthless, wannabe desire for international expansion. But the foundations of that Anglo-American international order were laid long before Versailles.