Tuesday, May 17, 2005

History Is(n't) Bunk

Interesting post over at HNN, putting forward a couple of rebuttals for this piece on alternatives to Yalta by Professor Bainbridge.

I don't think anyone finds Yalta to be a particularly agreeable state of affairs and even at the time it was hardly viewed as being ideal. That said, I do find some of the revisionism that has gone on of late a touch unpalatable. It has to be said that many of the supposed alternatives don't inspire confidence either.

Let's have a look at Professor Bainbridge's list:

Here's just a few ideas, in no particular order:
  1. Follow the strategy proposed by some of pursuing not a cross-channel invasion but a Balkans-based strategy of beating the Soviets to Vienna and then Berlin
  2. Let either Monty or Patton beat the Russians to Berlin
  3. Not send a dying man to negotiate with two of the best diplomatic card players in history
  4. Not be so desperate to get the Russians to attack Japan that you give away the store
  5. Not let a communist spy (Alger Hiss) be a key advisor
  6. Give the free Poles and Czechs fighting in the West support.
  7. Threaten to use the A-bomb
  8. Keep a viable fighting force in Europe post-1945
  9. Treat the Berlin crisis as a casus belli rather than a humanitarian problem
  10. Support the Hungarians in 1956
Most of these ideas seem to me to be pretty small beer (3) and largely the result of massive hindsight (5) or a disconnect with the political-strategic realities of the time (7, 8, 9, 10).

They Don't Like It Up 'Em

Number 1 is the biggest Big Idea. Does it represent a practical alternative? I admit I've given it very little thought prior to... er... now, but I'd say not. In a pretty big way.

When advocating a particular military campaign it is always worth while to make a map your first port of call. Click the link and take a shufti.

Now, I've already noted on here the logistical problems encountered by the Allies in sustaining an amphibious invasion and subsequent push inland from across the channel. Look at the map again. Even allowing for Allied control of the Med, the logistical effort to support a Balkans based strategy represents an order of magnitude many, many, many times greater. Just typing that doesn't serve to get over what a different ball game we're talking about - again. look at the map. Everything; distance, suitable landing grounds, useable ports, potential airbase facilities, is against it. You don't have to be George C. Marshall to figure it out.

Then let's factor in the terrain on the ground, something that Amy Lamboley has already noted. Even assuming that the Allies could get into the Adriatic to launch an invasion the terrain is horrible. If they had to land at the arse end of Greece they would actually be no closer to Berlin as the crow flies than if they landed in Normandy and would have to fight across some of the worst terrain in Europe in order to get to it.

If you advocate a Balkan strategy, geography and logistics are not your friends.

Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarge!!!!

On the other Moderately Big Idea, setting Monty or Patton loose to drive for Berlin relies less on hindsight (and indeed is a concept Churchill toyed with) but still fails to account for the fact that a) the British effectively didn't have any infantry left and b) even at that stage the Allies were repeatedly coming close to outstripping their logistics train, among other things.

Miscellaneous Premature Ejaculation Jokes

Professor Bainbridge, to his credit, includes an interesting critique emailed by a reader in his post. There's some good things and some bad things in it, but again, the Big Idea, in this case an early 1943 invasion is, in my view, lacking:

We would have been better advised, in a strategic sense, to delay the Pacific struggle even further, provide minimal support in North Africa, and invade France in early 1943, before the Panzer V was available in large-enough quantities to make a difference on the Western front. The Panzer IV was a fairly even match with the Sherman; the Panzer V was... not. Further, the blood on the Eastern Front was still in Soviet territory at that time, which both would have allowed substantial airstrikes and interdiction of transferring troops and kept any Soviet victories from being on our doorstep. Well, relatively speaking: Europeans, even Russians, just don't have any real concept of continent-wide war. Remember that it's farther from Memphis to New Orleans than it is from Berlin to Moscow.


It was long an article of faith that the coup by the Imperial General Staff of convincing the Americans to delay D-Day for a year was highly fortuitous and one of the major Good Calls of Allied strategy (though the invasion of Italy was always viewed as more questionable). This interpretation has since come under attack with some scholars arguing that a 1943 invasion was, in fact, viable and that British strategy was excessively cautious. There may or may not be merit in this interpretation, but it seems to me that the specific option outlined here is dubious. The fact that the author frames the argument in nakedly technocentric terms with a tank comparison doesn't help:

invade France in early 1943, before the Panzer V was available in large-enough quantities to make a difference on the Western front. The Panzer IV was a fairly even match with the Sherman; the Panzer V was... not.


OK. But let's do a balance sheet here. you invade in early 1943 and there's that. There's also (just off the top of my head):

- No opportunity for the US Army to glean lessons learned from its relatively crap performance in North Africa.
- Similarly, no lessons learned from amphibious operations in the Pacific in the case of the US (though the record seems to indicate that relatively little was learned anyway it must be said) and insufficient time for the British to fully absorb out the lessons of Dieppe.
- Significantly less attrition of German infrastructure and capacity through the Combined Bomber Offensive.
- No Allied air superiority.
- Significantly reduced trained military manpower availability for the USA

But yeah, by all means, no Panzer Vs. Sounds like a really sweet little deal.

I'm being a bit catty here - the correspondent does allow for other factors (such as diversion of resources from the Pacific). But even here I think there's a failure to really engage with how things were seen (not unreasonably) then as opposed to now.

It's one thing to say that ,"Yalta was a bad thing, m'kaaay?". I'm not sure anyone would really dispute that. What the critics have largely failed to do, in my view, is really put forward a viable alternative*. If their 20/20 hindsight alternatives can manage to look unattractive right now, then it's hardly surprised that during the war itself statesment and generals without hindsight didn't leap on them.

And what we don't need is for this to become a politicised issue (something of which I don't accuse Professor Bainbridge, just to be clear) wherein a narrative springs up in which, predictably, the Democrats were a bunch of Commie-coddling, surrender-monkey fellow travelers. Such a reading of history would have about as much merit as banging on about Truman "losing" China.


*Professor Bainbridge cites Jonathan Haslam in "Virtual History" as an example of alternative strategies that would have been viable. I freely admit I have not read the book, having as I do only a deeply finite tolerance for alternative history that fancies itself more serious than a Harry Turtledove novel. That said, Jonathan Haslam is a fine scholar and if anyone has read the chapter in question and would like to fill me in on the specifics I'll be more than happy to give it a hearing.

13 Comments:

Blogger J. said...

Excellent analysis. I had never heard of a "Balkans" strategy, and now I know why. The Professor overrates the impact of the Panzer V also - no question it was a lethal piece of work, but since Germany could never produce in quantity, the Allies still win by throwing 10 Shermans at each one Panther. Not a great exchange rate but we still win.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Dave Collins said...

I've just read Jonathan Haslam's chapter in Virtual History (Chapter 7, in particular p361-7 in my edition), so this conclusion may be a bit rushed. However, I can't see how it supports the idea that there was any realistic alternative to the Yalta agreement. He discusses it mainly from a Soviet viewpoint, concentrating on Litvinov's proposal that the definition of 'sphere of influence' should be a lot looser than the one that Stalin eventually adopted - my interpretation was something more like Finland than Poland.

Two points - first, he doesn't mention what we could have done to influence Stalin's decision, and second, he doesn't think Stalin was inclined to pay much attention to Litvinov anyway.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Thanks for the heads up.

It may be that things could have been different - to be honest I really don't know. What I do find, however, is that the current crop of alternative visions aren't terribly satisfying and are either reliant on massive hindsight or are just plain flimsy and not very well thought through.

What I DON'T want to see is a re-run of the "Truman lost China" or "Joe McCarthy was actually a really sound guy" type debates because they are fundamentally political and intellectually more or less sterile. As I say, I'm not accusing Professor Bainbridge of that, just indulging my urge to tweak noses - perhaps excessively.

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