World War II: No Model for Contemporary U.S. Strategy
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World War II: No Model for Contemporary U.S. Strategy

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During the weeks bracketing the holidays the Strategy & War Course I teach at the U.S. Naval War College explored the strategic and operational dynamics underlying World War II. We spend a week a piece on the European and Pacific wars while paying due heed to the interactions between the two theaters.

Certain aspects of this struggle strike me anew every time I prepare for class in this phase of the course. The monumental scale of the challenge the Axis powers took on is one of those things. Look at the Pacific from the “red team”—i.e., Imperial Japanese—standpoint.

The U.S. economy dwarfed that of Japan. Because of that burgeoning economic and industrial might, Admiral Chester Nimitz could afford to gamble with the U.S. Pacific Fleet he inherited from Admiral Husband Kimmel following Pearl Harbor. After all, American shipyards had already laid the keels for what amounted to a new—and bigger, and faster, and stronger—navy after Congress approved the 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act.

Construction was proceeding at breakneck speed by the time Admiral Nagumo’s carriers struck at Hawaii. The United States would henceforth maintain two complete navies, one in the Atlantic and another in the Pacific. Whatever damage Nimitz and his subordinate commanders could do would help stem the Japanese onslaught. And if they lost the Pacific Fleet in battle—well, another fleet was on its way! New hulls arrived in the theater starting in 1943.

Material supremacy, then, opens up new tactical and operational vistas.Having a massive inventory of assets also permits military leaders a more generous margin for error. Japan’s navy could absorb few combat losses since it took a long time for industry back home to replace those losses.  By contrast, the U.S. Navy could take a venturesome approach. The Pacific Fleet’s few remaining carriers could raid within the Japanese defense perimeter despite severe risk. The navy could experiment with new concepts in naval aviation and undersea warfare. American mariners ascended a steep learning curve as a result.

Yes, America got it done during World War II. It nevertheless astonishes me that scholars and practitioners who espouse “offshore balancing” see that conflict as a model for U.S. grand strategy. Many—not all—offshore-balancing proponents maintain that the logic of great-power balancing would have kept the Axis from wholly dominating Eurasia, and thereby amassing the resources and geographic jumping-off points to menace the Western Hemisphere. The United States, they say, could have contributed to the war effort through Lend-Lease and other material support without hazarding its own sons in battle.

But suppose not. If Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and lesser powers truly stood on the brink of defeat, declare offshore balancers, Washington could have waited until the absolute last minute before intervening. It could have let its allies bear the brunt of the fighting while the United States won a dominant say at the peace table for riding to the rescue. What’s not to like from a cost/benefit standpoint?

But cost/benefit logic goes only so far amid human strife. Such appraisals bespeak historical forgetfulness in my view. Projecting force across the oceans was a task of immense proportions even against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, which could have contested American access far more effectively than they did. Savvier opponents could have frustrated this early version of offshore balancing, or at least delayed it long enough for catastrophe to ensue. Just-in-time balancing across transoceanic distances is balancing that’s apt to fail.

World War II, then, is no model for contemporary U.S. strategy. If the United States wants to remain a balancer in Eurasia, better to do it from forward staging bases than try to fight back into the region under dire circumstances. Keep on pivoting to Asia, Washington.

Comments
42
Brett Champion
March 4, 2013 at 00:02

Present times are actually more advantageous to an offshore balancing strategy than was the situation in the 1930s or 40s, at least in Asia. Prior to WWII the main US competitor in East Asia was Japan, a naval power in its own right. By contrast, the main rival to US power in East Asia today is China, a land power. China's naval power in the Pacific theater is no where near that if the US, and won't be for some time to come.

Also, offshore balancing doesn't require that the US stand back on US territory and just involve itself in any conflict (cold or hot) with rhetoric, money, and weapons. It means that the US should shore up wichever is the weaker party to any possible conflict, but that such party should be given the lead in taking the brunt of any conflict. In other words, offshore balancing and forward deployment of resources are no mutually exclusive strategies.

Gregory
February 14, 2013 at 12:42

Ivan Rogrov:

 Buy some well written books about WWII, please, but not in Russia. Russians didnt have neither knowledge nor capacity to make nuclear bomb during the war. They got nuclear bomb in 1948 or 1949, thanks to spy activity.

American soldiers, not hollywood or russian-sino military actions, eliminated japanese navy and air power, depriving japan of resources to manufacture military hardware. BTW, when Russia declared war on Japan? Here is the answer: in 1945….

But, may historians agree, WWII in Europe, decisive fight was fought on the eastern front.

Jean-Paul:

Allied bombing didn't do that much damge to germany manufacuring capability. Rather those raids made civilian lives miserable, damaging morale. Germany main problem was access to mineral resources, oil and toward the end of the war, not enough recruits. Russians would eventually get to Berlin, perhaps even as far as to France, even without second front opened in France in 1944. Simply because they could produce many more tanks, planes, not as good as germans, but in huge quantity also had many more soldiers that coud be drafted into military…

Fortunately for french people, they never "liberated" France.

 

 

  

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