Two wars to defend freedom: exploding an American and a British myth

At the risk of allowing some of these blog entries (I hate that word 'posts', don't you?) to deteriorate into a family mutual admiration society — see an amused comment in Tim Worstall's 'Blogs of the Week' column yesterday — I can't resist recommending a new entry in Owen Barder's blog which looks at the common claim by Americans to have fought two world wars in the defence of freedom and against tyranny, in the light of the actual circumstances (including the dates) surrounding the entry of the United States into those wars.  Almost all Europeans, and millions of Asians, unquestionably owe a huge debt of gratitude to the United States and the brave Americans who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives in the cause of the liberation of Europe (and much of Asia and the Pacific) from fascism and aggression, and there's no question that America's role in ultimate victory was absolutely crucial (as indeed was the role of the Soviet Union in the second world war, as Owen points out). But the idea that the US twice came rushing to the rescue of the Europeans out of sympathetic idealism, without regard to America's national interest, does benefit from a little factual scrutiny.

There's a sort of parallel with the claim often made by ageing (and other) British politicians, when they visit Poland or encounter Poles, that Britain went to war in September 1939 to defend Polish freedom and independence against German attack.  It's true of course that the immediate trigger for the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany was Hitler's invasion of Poland following British and French guarantees of Poland's integrity.  But Poles are not slow to counter British boasts of this kind with the reminder that having declared war on Germany, Britain did virtually nothing to support Poland's spirited but doomed resistance to the German invasion.  On that autumn Sunday morning Poles cheered Chamberlain's radio announcement of the declaration of war and scanned the Warsaw skies for the appearance of the Royal Air Force.  They cheered again when a squadron of aircraft approached over the horizon.  But the cheering stopped abruptly as the planes of the Luftwaffe began to bomb the Polish capital, and the RAF never arrived.  Britain certainly lacked the military resources to come physically to Poland's aid at that point, but it remains the case that we failed to honour a promise that we should not have made unless we knew we could keep it. And Poland's independence was not restored until half a century later, after the genuinely heroic struggles of the Polish Solidarity movement and the implosion of Soviet communism under the weight of its own failures and internal contradictions.

Myths like these develop a life of their own, though, if enough people have a need to believe them, so perhaps it's unnecessarily cruel to dip them in the icy water of the facts.

[In Poland 1986-88]

5 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Yes. I’ve sometimes wondered what would have happened if America had stayed out of the war in 1917 despite the Zimmermann telegram and the attacks on her shipping. Would the two sides, driven by an increasing shortage of cannon-fodder and by public opinion appalled by the butcher’s bill, have agreed in perhaps 1919 to a compromise peace just acceptable to both parties? And what then would the next phase of German expansionism have been? On the other hand would Ludendorff’s offensive in May 1918, in the absence of a large and growing American army in France, have reached the Channel and taken Paris and forced an armistice in which Germany essentially got all she wanted from France plus a number of British colonies and perhaps half the British fleet? I can see the second possibility, with the Kaiser the head of the dominant power – the only real power – in Europe and the militarists in charge, being followed by a successful German war against the still-shaky Russian republic for oil, wheat, and lebensraum, followed in turn by a final showdown with the British Empire. Ultimately that leaves the U.S.A. versus the German Empire. Speculative history is such fun!

    As for W.W.II, we should be grateful for America’s agreement that Germany should be the major enemy. The American reasoning was presumably that either Russia will go under, in which case Germany will have to fight the British in a one-front war; or Russia will bounce back, in which case they’ll overrun and Communize the whole of Europe unless we’re there to help the British. Either way, we have to get a lot of troops over there quickly.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    With the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar coming up it might be worth mentioning that British involvement in the Iberian penisnsula was far from altruistic. The reason for getting the French out of Spain was to check the spread of French revolutionary ideas of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité before — heaven forfend! — they took root in England; it was not to liberate the Spanish people. The whole purpose of British policy in the Napoleonic Wars and afterwards was to preserve an ancien régime, a policy that survives even today in Britain’s dealings with Europe.

    This is not to say that Napoleon should have been allowed to maraud all over Europe; it is an unfortunate fact that the adoption of progressive policy required the presence of the French army to put it into effect. But it is true that in Russia (as War and Peace shows) and also in Spain there were progressively-minded people who welcomed the policies of the French Revolution and would have liked to see them put into practice in their country.

    Does that remind you of anything? To me it suggests the idea that democracy should be brought to the Middle East by the US Marine Corps. Certainly, there are many people in Iraq and elsewhere who can see the benefits of some kind of open, accountable political system. But whether they welcome the US Army as the agency for introducing it is open to doubt.

    Peter Harvey

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    To comment on Peter’s remarks: whatever the reasons for the British originally joining the coalition against revolutionary France (in 1793, after the execution of Louis), their later prosecution of the war once Buonaparte had come to power as First Consul seems to reflect the traditional policy of opposing the nation seen most likely to become predominant on the Continent (preferably by forming alliances and using sea-power rather than our own small army). In 1807 Buonaparte (Emperor since 1805) sent troops to Portugal because the British had been trading through Lisbon in defiance of the Imperial Decrees. When the British sent an expeditionary force, based on Lisbon, to the Peninsula in 1808 – indeed, to get at the French rather than to liberate the Spaniards- Spain (a French ally at Trafalgar in 1805) had already broken with Buonaparte, who had forced the Spanish king into abdication and imposed his brother on the Spanish throne. France by then was no longer much like the sedition-exporting nation of the early years of the Revolution. Under Buonaparte it was as fine a police-state and dictatorship as anyone could wish not to live in. Any Spanish admirers of the Revolution, or of Buonaparte, when the French army invaded were soon disillusioned by the rapacity of the French (looting churches, living off the country) and the brutality of French reprisals against any district suspected of harbouring guerilleros. More and more French troops had to be sent to Spain to protect lines of communication as well as to fight British regulars and Spanish irregulars, and it was the French experience in the Peninsula that gave rise to the aphorism that Spain is “a country where small armies are defeated and large armies starve”. Big N. had, as we would now say, no viable exit strategy, and this to me is the main point of resemblance with the Iraq situation.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    To answer Tim Weakley, in 1805 Spain was an ally of France in the same way that in 1940 Norway was an ally of Germany: it was occupied with a puppet government doing the wishes of the occupiers. The Spanish Navy had no choice about turning out at Trafalgar because its ships had French senior officers. The Spaniards on board had no desire to fight; they loathed the traitor government that had put them in that position, and knew perfectly well that they would lose because the British were better trained, better experienced, and better paid.

    It is also no secret to anyone in Spain that the French occupation was a horror; after all, those horrors were shown graphically by Goya in his etchings ‘Disasters of War’. But the situation really is not so clear; Goya himself probably sympathised with modern French ideas, and the French model of public administration (separation of powers, mayors, prefects, departments, etc.) was copied in Spain and exists even now after so many changes of constitution. Moreover, the introduction of progressive ideas by the French occupation triggered a series of civil wars in Spain (the Carlist wars), which lasted through the nineteenth century, between progressive liberals and absolute monarchists. This conflict went both ways over the years and in fact reached its final climax in 1936-39 with the victory of the forces of reaction and medievalism, but in the long run reason has prevailed and now seems securely established, and it is fair to say that modern Spain, at least the great progressive majority of the country, owes its political philosophy to the ideals of the French Revolution; certainly, nothing that came with Wellington has had any effect.

    The Spanish right, as one would expect in a Catholic country, is Christian Democrat; that means by definition that it is a form of Christianity that has come to terms, however unwillingly, with the world conditions that came about in the nineteenth century and will have no truck with the ideas of the ancien régime. The leader of the PP, Mariano Rajoy, said as much in last year’s election campaign. That distances Spanish politics greatly from the British variety.

    Finally, one big mistake that Napoleon made in Spain was also made in a way by the Americans in Iraq. He occupied the country so quickly and so thoroughly that the Spanish Army had no chance to fight him — so they suffered few losses and were able to take to the hills with their command structures more or less intact, thus inventing guerrilla warfare.

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    I thank Peter Harvey for his comments on my comments. I was not aware that Spanish ships at Trafalgar had French senior officers. It is interesting that the erudite contemporary naval historian N.A.M.Rodgers remarks in his account of the run-up to Trafalgar (after castigating the ham-fisted way in which the Spanish treasure flota had been seized off Cadiz in 1804, thus precipitating Spain’s re-entry into the war): “..Though Napoleon would certainly not have admitted it, the quality of the Spanish navy was in several respects, especially the professional calibre of its officers, clearly superior to that of the French. The promising French officers brought forward by the Jacobin government ten years before had been got rid of, and replaced by former noblemen…who were prepared to serve as the Emperor’s lackeys… The last of Napoleon’s senior sea officers with a mind of his own 1804. After that the French navy was dominated by..the ‘Nile Quartet’, as they were known…all men indelibly associated with the catastrophe of 1798, who could be relied on not to offend the Imperial ears with unwelcome truths”. Cor, what a mess!

    Sorry, Brian, we’re rather a way from the original topic!

    Brian replies: No worries. I’m happy to act as host to these erudite discussions — up to a point, Lord Copper, anyway. It’s all Greek to me, I’m afraid.

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