James Holmes

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

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James Holmes

World War II: 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…”

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.