The Year That Tried Men's Soulsby Winston Groom
From the author of Forrest Gump and A Storm in Flanders, a riveting chronicle of America’s most critical hour.
From the author of Forrest Gump and A Storm in Flanders, a riveting chronicle of America’s most critical hour.
To the generation of Americans who lived through it, the Second World War was the defining event of the twentieth century, and the defining events of that war were played out in the year 1942.
It was a time when unexpected attack on American territory pulled an unprepared country into a terrifying new brand of warfare with a ruthless enemy. Soon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, German U-boats were sinking hundreds of U.S. merchant ships, some right off the American coast. In the Pacific, Japan’s army and navy far outmatched those of the United States and was threatening the American mainland from Alaska to the Panama Canal. The beginning of 1942 was a relentless cataract of defeats. The Japanese annihilated MacArthur’s 130,000-man army in the Philippines and set into motion the infamous ‘death March” on Bataan. Hong Kong fell, followed by Malaya, with its vast natural resources, and then Singapore itself. By May, it appeared to many that the entire Western Pacific, including Australia, would be in Japanese hands.
Then, in June, the tide began to turn. Off Midway Island, aided by new technologies in code cracking, Admiral Chester Nimitz commanded his outnumbered fleet to victory in one of the most decisive sea battles in naval history. In August, the United States landed the first marine division on the desolate island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where by the end of the year, despite devastating naval setbacks and lack of material, they would finally destroy the enemy army and pave the way for the famous island-hopping strategy to recapture the Philippines. In the West, the British defeated Rommel’s panzer divisions at El Alamein and the U.S. Army landed in Algeria and Morocco to begin the push to force the Germans out of North Africa. Though it would take another three years to run the Axis beast to the ground, a year that began in a pall of uncertainty would end with the hope and vision of victory.
In this riveting account, acclaimed novelist and historian Winston Groom relates the story of 1942 as it has never been told before, with an accomplished storyteller’s eye for the time’s fascinating tales and characters–from the great leaders of the twentieth century to war heroes such as General Jimmy Doolittle, who led a daring revenge raid on Tokyo, to lesser known but equally fascinating characters such as Claire “High Pockets’ Phillips, an attractive actress and dancer who, after her husband was killed while a prisoner of war, used the nightclub she ran in Manila to front a spy-and-supply ring that got desperately needed items into the POW camps and probed Japanese intelligence officers for vital information.
Allowing us into the admirals’ strategy rooms, onto the battle fronts, and into the heart of a nation at war, 1942 tells the story of America’s most critical hour–a year of perseverance, courage, and ingenuity in the face of great odds, during which America rose against adversity and displayed the qualities that have made her what she is to this day.
“Fast-moving, readable prose, spiced with lively commentary and quotations, and taking note of just about every meaningful leader and significant event. . . . By the time we arrive at 1942, we’re expecting a roaring pace, a broad perspective and telling revelations about events that shape the fate of nations. Groom doesn’t disappoint.” –Wesley K. Clark, Washington Post
“The narrative is brisk and never falters’.An absorbing read”.Provides the necessary keys to unlocking the larger story of the final Allied victory.” –Prof. John Rosser, KLIATT
“Using one pivotal year as a means of teaching about the entire war is a fascinating concept. The writing is approachable, at times lyrical. . . . When not drawing readers in with narrative, Groom is impressing them with his masterful analyses.” –Steve Weinberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Groom uses his talents as a writer to create a riveting narrative around the events of 1942. . . . His treatment of American-Japanese relations is particularly helpful. . . . Groom has done an artful job of blending the many stories of 1942 into a readable narrative.” –George M. Lauderbaugh, Anniston Star
“The tale was so gripping I could not put the book down. . . . 1942 reads more like a novel.” –Christopher Ruddy, NewsMax
“[Groom’s military] background has given him a feel for military strategy and the rhythm of battle. . . . Groom brings immediacy to the soldiers’ wretched conditions and their military engagements.” –Patricia Cohen, New York Times Book Review
“Provides fresh renderings of the familiar Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal incidents.” –Publishers Weekly
Praise for A Storm in Flanders:
“A fascinating, evenhanded, page-turning account of the events, strategies, leaders and soldiers . . . A dramatic, thoughtful and extremely humanistic treatment of this heartbreaking chapter in early-twentieth-century history.” –Mark Luce, San Francisco Chronicle
“Everything nonfiction should be . . . Ghastly, unforgettable detail . . . A fabulous historical account.” –Jeff Guinn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
World War II descended on planet earth as swift and deadly as a desert whirlwind, but the forces that unleashed its terrible power had been building beyond the horizon for years. Whole libraries exist to house only the books that grapple with the roots and causes but, as most wars do, it boils down to three simple things: pride, property, and power–and two more complicated things: prejudice and persecution. With this in mind I believe it is useful for readers of this story to have an appreciation, however abbreviated, of the events leading up to the critical year of 1942, and in that spirit a concise narration is offered.
Germany’s role of instigating the conflict is better understood than that of the Japanese. The Nazi militarists had arisen bitter and venomous from the bones and ashes of the First World War, convinced that they had been stabbed in the back by their own cowardly politicians and the Jews–these latter perceived as either communists (the poorer ones) or war profiteers (the rich).
Added to that was the loathing that practically all Germans felt over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which the Allied Powers, principally France and England, imposed upon Germany following the armistice of 1918. Among other things, this document stripped the Germans of 25,000 square miles of their territory, which included vast amounts of its raw materials such as coal, ores, and oil, as well as all of its overseas colonies and practically all of its military armaments. Most gallingly, it required the German people to pay “war reparations’ to the victors to the tune of many billions of dollars. Germany struggled under these conditions, plagued by labor strikes (ultimately, so they claimed, forced on them by the Jews) and other internal strife, for the next ten years.
Then in 1929 the American stock market crashed, setting into motion a worldwide economic depression. In Germany, monetary inflation at one point reached such stupendous proportions that a mere loaf of bread cost a million or more German marks! At the normal ratio of four marks to the dollar, this was devastating, and many Germans saw their life’s savings wiped out almost overnight.*
Finally there was the matter of German honor. Up until the very moment in 1918 when the Germans sought an armistice, that nation’s people were persuaded by its leaders and the press to believe that they were only a few footsteps away from total victory. News of their defeat came as an unbelievable shock. This was where the stabbed-in-the-back theory came into play. The American army had arrived on the scene in force just six months before the cease-fire was requested by Germany, but the American commander in chief, General John J. Pershing, was all for marching into Berlin anyway, herding the German army before him with all of its soldiers’ hands in the air.
This was the only way, Pershing declared, that the German people would believe they had been beaten. But France and Britain, exhausted by four years of slaughter in the trenches of the Western Front, disagreed about further military action, and their view prevailed. Thus the Germans increasingly came to think that they had not been beaten at all, but had been betrayed by dishonorable politicians (backed by Jews) who gave up the fight before victory could be won. Humiliation is a stern taskmaster, and the Germans had long memories. Thus some historians, and many others, are of the opinion that the Second World War was merely an extension of the First World War, with a twenty-year “rest period” in between.
Into this combustible mix entered Adolf Hitler, a cranky aspiring Austrian artist who had served as a corporal in the German army from 1914 to 1918. Having been decorated with the Iron Cross, Hitler emerged from the First World War even more bitter than most of the rest of his adopted countrymen. By 1922 he had assembled about him a clique of like-minded people who called themselves Nazis (National Socialist Party) and who distributed pamphlets such as Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin, which attempted to prove that “Judaism was the great destructive force which had ruined Western Civilization.” Psychiatrists have diagnosed Hitler’s case history as that of a “psychopathic escapist type with a complex effecting megalomania.” Historians smugly described him as someone who had “escaped from his case history into world history, before the psychiatrists got him.”
The Nazis were a disturbing grab bag of thugs, criminals, zealots, and dupes aided by not a few misguided aristocrats and otherwise intelligent people such as General Erich Ludendorff, who had masterminded the German army in World War I and nearly engineered a German victory in 1918. In 1923 Hitler felt strong enough to challenge the new Weimar government but only got himself thrown in jail, where he penned his grimly prophetic Mein Kampf (my struggle). This seven-hundred-page screed, published in 1925, was the blueprint for Nazi dictatorship (with Hitler himself, of course, as dictator), advocating ethnic cleansing and aggressive territorial expansion, and has been described as “a satanic Bible.” It remains a great curse that so few people in positions of power have ever read it, or understood its sordid implications.
Thereafter, Hitler and his cronies organized themselves into a kind of paramilitary party, goose-stepping up and down the streets in brown shirts and displaying the swastika* as their national emblem. Yearly their power grew, feeding off hatred, intimidation, resentment over the Versailles Treaty, staggering unemployment, leftist labor strikes, and the seeming inability of the new democratic Weimar government to solve the nation’s problems.
By 1933 the Nazi party had gained not only enough votes to make itself a formidable force in the German Reichstag (parliament) but also enough power to force the eighty-six-year-old president, Paul von Hindenburg, to appoint Hitler chancellor, from which position he quickly consolidated his strength and seized total control of the German government, setting it up as a brutal police state. Calling himself ‘der F”hrer” (the leader), Hitler then set about pacifying the seething German nation, building the vast autobahns, housing projects, and industrial plants, and, of course, repudiating payment of any more war reparations.
Also, from that point on, Hitler and his Nazis began a stealthy but deliberate program to rearm Germany with the most modern weapons, converting otherwise peaceful businesses into war-making enterprises. Even though the Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans from having a naval fleet, tanks, heavy artillery, and an air force, the Nazis brazenly defied the Allied nations and the new League of Nations–forerunner to the United Nations, set up in 1919 to maintain world peace–and continued creating what would become one of the most powerful military forces in history.*
Still horrified by the slaughter of the 1914–1918 war, as well as financially devastated by it, and caught up like everyone else in the worldwide depression, France and England did nothing to head off Hitler’s warlike machinations. The great pity is that they easily could have, at least at the beginning; France’s army alone outnumbered Hitler’s infantry divisions by more than ten to one. But the mood in the so-called Great Democracies was quiescent, perhaps, more accurately, ostrichlike, while Hitler fulminated from the speaking platforms of huge outdoor stadiums and the German people became true believers, eagerly and delectably cheering every violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Not only that but the Nazis began to fulfill their grisly prophecy of ridding the nation of all but their own concept of a pure Aryan (Nordic) race. Millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and anyone else unlucky and un-Aryan enough to be caught in Germany from the mid-1930s onward were subjected to almost unendurable hardships and indignities and, in many cases, death. First, Nazi victims were stripped of their citizenship, then their property, then the right to practice their trades and professions. Finally, they were herded into concentration camps, which, beginning in 1942, became death camps. Those who had been unable to emigrate or escape were worked or starved to death, and many were murdered by firing squad and, later, more efficiently, in gas chambers.
In Italy, meanwhile, a similar though somewhat lesser evil had been at work. Benito Mussolini, like Hitler, had fought in World War I and, also like Hitler, appeared to be promising material for psychiatric study. The child of socialist parents, Mussolini was editing a socialist newspaper in 1914 when the war broke out and quickly became a draft dodger until the authorities caught up with him in 1916 and marched him into the army. At war’s end, great labor strikes paralyzed Italy, many organized by Italian communists. Mussolini, who has been described variously as a crude bully, an atheist (in Catholic Italy!), and a womanizer, soon abandoned his socialism and in 1922 he became the leader of what was called the Fascist party, a group consisting primarily of former soldiers who had by a decade presaged Hitler’s Nazi “brownshirts’ by adopting their own “blackshirts’ and strutting around town beating up anyone who disagreed with them.
Many of the early Italian fascists simply wanted jobs or for the government to halt the chaos and run the country effectively, but Mussolini had a far greater plan: he envisioned an Italy returned to the glory days of the Roman empire (with himself, naturally, as a Caesar). Like Hitler, Mussolini could legitimately be described as a comical character, right down to his dress and the hands-on-hips posturing–like something out of Laurel and Hardy pictures–were it not for the fact that he was a brutal dictator who murdered people at the drop of a hat.
He called himself “Il Duce” (the leader), “a superman, in the words of Nietzsche, with whom of course he agreed,” and became a much-celebrated windbag among disaffected Italians. It was said that “he made the trains run on time,” and this was true enough, but at dear cost to any tardy trainman. In 1922, four years after the armistice to end World War I, Mussolini and his fascists–now comprised of a huge throng of gangsters as well as the ex-soldiers and other well-wishers–marched on Rome, and for their efforts the hapless king of Italy anointed Mussolini prime minister. As Hitler was to do later, Mussolini quickly consolidated his power, abolished parliament, and became a totalitarian ruler. In a move that Hitler would also emulate, Mussolini forthwith outlawed all political parties except his own fascists and set about turning Italy into his personal vision of a great empire. First, though, he made certain improvements on the domestic scene, as Hitler was to do later, building much-needed housing and roads and getting industries operating again, mainly the armaments industry. For this he was publicly admired by such diverse personalities as Thomas A. Edison, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and Mohandas Gandhi.
Then, perceiving correctly that one cannot have an empire without colonies, Mussolini decided to acquire more of these for himself. In 1935 he mandated that every male between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five be subjected to military service. As a victim of colonial conquest Mussolini selected the peaceful and undeveloped African nation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), just down the Red Sea from the Mediterranean. It was one of the few African countries not yet colonized by other powers and, besides, the Italians had lost an important and humiliating battle there at the end of the previous century, and this still rankled. Ruled for years by its hereditary emperor Haile Selassie, who sat on a throne draped in leopard skins, this poor tribal land was hardly a match for Mussolini’s new army of tanks, artillery, and air force bombs. Testing every weapon in the Italian arsenal, including poison gas, which had been outlawed by worldwide treaty, Mussolini’s army slaughtered an estimated 500,000 Ethiopian natives and subjugated the rest. The League of Nations condemned Italy but took no action, thus paving the way for mid-twentieth-century dictators to flout the international democracies’ efforts to contain them.
In 1937 Mussolini met Hitler for the first time and was suspicious of him (the feeling was mutual) but, dictators being dictators, Mussolini agreed as a sop to Der F”hrer to strip Italian Jews of all their civil rights and, for some odd reason as well, to adopt the German “goose step” as the official Italian army marching cadence. Two years later, on the eve of World War II, he and Hitler signed their names to what was called the Pact of Steel, a fateful decision for everyone concerned, which created the first two of what would soon become known as the Axis powers.
With the Nazi rise the Germans, particularly the warlike Prussians, were becoming more belligerent by the moment. The whole nation seemed to be on some kind of war footing, including teenage German “youth groups,” who paraded around in khaki short-pant uniforms shouting Heil Hitler! at everyone they passed on the streets. The ‘stabbed-in-the-back” theory assumed renewed national importance, spurred on by state-sponsored propagandists who had begun shortly after the end of the 1914–1918 war to distribute all sorts of material aiming to prove that Germany was not responsible for starting World War I.
This disinformation soon reached foreign shores, including Great Britain and America, where revisionist scholars began publishing books and articles denouncing German “war guilt” and laying blame for the great conflict on France, England, Russia, and even the United States.* Hitler’s ranting diatribes merely fueled the flames of this fiery new nationalism, born of the humiliation of defeat and the urge to avenge its perceived dishonor.
One of the main grievances the Germans had was the dismemberment of part of what it considered its own territory by the Allied victors who in 1919 had created the independent states of Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and returned to France the Alsace-Lorraine provinces, which had been seized by Germany in 1871. These separate entities contained some seven million German-speaking citizens, and the Fatherland, as defined by Hitler and his associates, wanted them back. Here lay the immediate bones of contention that would eventually rattle and herald World War II.
There was something else in Hitler’s mind, too, more momentous than merely occupying or reoccupying such small-potato territories as Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. This was his doctrine of lebensraum (living space), in which he hoped to relocate into huge areas of Europe Germany’s overpopulation of millions of peasants. And where was he to find this immense lebensraum? In Hitler’s own words, taken from his Secret Book, a sort of sequel to Mein Kampf: “The only area in Europe that could be considered for such a territorial policy therefore was Russia.”
One of the first statesmen to read true danger in the Hitler regime was the British parliamentarian Winston Churchill, and he remained a lone voice in the wilderness until it was far too late to halt the German juggernaut. The policy of both his country and France, the only two European states then powerful enough when combined to have stopped Hitler, was one of “appeasement.” But the victors of World War I had lost their stomach for war, or even the prospect of it. The year that Hitler came into power the prestigious Oxford Union, a student debating society, overwhelmingly approved a motion stating that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” and within a short period similar resolutions were adopted by most of England’s other colleges and universities. When in 1934 it became apparent that the Germans were swiftly rearming, the leader of the British Labour Party vowed “to close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force,” and he got his candidate elected by saying so. The Peace Ballot, a national survey of public opinion, was distributed throughout Great Britain in 1935 and a majority of those polled stated that while they supported collective national security, they did so only “by all means short of war.”
At a time when Hitler was openly flouting the Versailles Treaty by building up his army strength to exceed that of England and France combined, those two nations were cutting their military budgets to the bone, and Britain’s new Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, was declaring: “We on our side are for total disarmament because we are realists.” Antiwar literature inspired by the World War I generation, such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, the poetic works of Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as stage plays such as R. C. Sherriff’s passionately convincing Journey’s End, had become extremely popular and added to the growing notion that all war was a stupid, wasteful, unacceptable enterprise. This was not a bad notion at all, except that Adolf Hitler had no such innocent visions and kept a careful eye on what he perceived as the pacific mood of the ‘decadent democracies,” which he gleefully realized were playing right into his hands.
The only other European power remotely capable of dealing with Hitler at the time was the communist behemoth of the Soviet Union, which, since its inception in 1917, had been cloaked in a dark veil of secrecy. Its leader, Joseph Stalin, had succeeded Lenin and was as tyrannical a brute as Hitler and Mussolini ever hoped to be. During the 1930s Stalin purged his vast army of almost all its useful officers–as if the word purge, with its ironically sanitary connotation, could do justice to the wholesale murder this tyrant inflicted on his victims. Despite Hitler’s and Mussolini’s constant and fanatical ravings against the evils of communism, Stalin seemed blithely unaware of Hitler’s designs on his country. He therefore kept quiet and inscrutable in Moscow and adopted a wait-and-see attitude, concentrating his considerable energies on converting Soviet Russia from an agrarian peasantry into an industrial giant. Thus the Nazis, and their cohorts the Italian fascists, were left with practically a free hand to work their aggressive machinations against their weaker neighbors.
Only one other force existed that might have stopped Hitler and the Axis powers during the dark days when the war clouds began to loom over Europe. This was the United States of America, comfortably safe (or so it was generally thought) on the other side of the Atlantic with even less inclination than France and England to get itself embroiled in another European conflict. Since the days of George Washington’s presidency, Americans had taken heed of the warning to “avoid all foreign entanglements.” Their mood by and large had become one of disillusionment and disappointment that the Europeans after World War I seemed to have learned nothing from that hideous slaughter and appeared headed for another senseless and savage contest. And who could blame them?
A large part of the American constituency felt that they had seen all this before. After promising in 1916–in order to get reelected–that “American boys will not be sent to war overseas,” President Woodrow Wilson soon realized the dangers posed by the great conflagration in Europe and by 1917 had asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and its allies. When he got it, American soldiers began pouring into France, and the weight of their numbers is generally credited with Germany’s ultimate suit for peace. Wilson, however, had a greater plan in mind. After trying for two years to mediate between the warring nations, he produced his Fourteen Points, which included the slogan “Peace Without Victory,” the notion of self-determination for all nations, and a plan for a League of Nations that would somehow provide collective security throughout the world and prevent any reoccurrence of the “War to End All Wars.” Most of Wilson’s scheme was quickly blown apart at the Versailles Peace Conference, and though the League of Nations was indeed established it was so, to Wilson’s great chagrin, without the support of America, whose Congress wanted no part of any “world government.”
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s America’s post–World War I military might was virtually dismantled in favor of domestic programs–especially after the Great Depression deepened. Its army and navy were not only neglected but almost forgotten. The American attitude became again one of “Europe’s problems are Europe’s problems,” and a wave of isolationism began to take hold in the country, especially in the Midwest, where the mostly right-wing newspapers (with their many Germanic subscribers) inveighed heavily and often against American involvement in European and Far Eastern troubles. This was due in part to the aforementioned wave of so-called revisionist scholars and historians during the 1930s who had removed the blame for the First World War from Germany and placed it upon France and England. In addition, there was an all-out effort by American leftists, pacifists, isolationists, and socialists to publicly denounce munitions makers and war financiers such as J. P. Morgan as being largely responsible for all the misery caused by that war, or any war. And there was the fact of the Kellogg-Briand peace pact of 1928, signed into international law by the U.S. Congress, Britain, France, and other nations, including Germany, which actually outlawed war, but which, in fact, had no more validity than the passing of laws against invention of perpetual motion machines.
The American left still clung to the notion of the League of Nations, even though the U.S. Senate had refused to ratify the agreement.* After all, the League was perhaps the penultimate experiment in idealism, as typified by Harold Nicolson in a passage from his book Peacemaking 1919 where he describes his emotions upon attending the first conference of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as a young British diplomat: “We were journeying to Paris, not merely to liquidate the war, but to found a new order in Europe. We were preparing not Peace only, but Eternal Peace. There was about us the halo of some divine mission. We must be alert, stern, righteous and ascetic. For we were bent on doing great, permanent and noble things.” Much irony attaches to these stirring words, since Nicolson did not write them until years later, in 1933, when the world had again begun marching down the tragic path of war.
In any event, Hitler loved it: cowardly decadent idealistic democracies, forever arguing among themselves and letting their people vote on everything!
And so the kettle heated with no one, so to speak, minding the stove, except perhaps for Winston Churchill, whose increasingly shrill but prophetic warnings fell on mostly deaf ears. Churchill, who turned sixty years old in 1934, was by then a humpty-dumpty-looking man, in stark contrast with his dashing appearance as a young British officer who had captured his nation’s fancy with a series of on-the-spot newspaper and magazine pieces on British army exploits before World War I. As a member of government during that war he ran the Admiralty until his insistence on the disastrous Gallipoli campaign forced him to resign and he joined his old regiment in the terrible trenches in Flanders. Always controversial, Churchill floundered between the wars, and except for a brief stint as chancellor of the Exchequer and colonial secretary in the 1920s, he held on on to his parliamentary office but did not receive another major appointment to government. As Hitler came to power, Churchill reached the height of his oratorical powers, and his alarms against both the Nazi menace and England’s unpreparedness to meet it if heeded might well have saved the nation some of the wretched ordeal it was soon to undergo.
In 1936 Hitler made his move. He marched troops into the Rhineland, a direct violation of the Versailles Treaty, which had set up that area along the French-German border as a demilitarized zone. The French and British squawked but did nothing. Hitler, for his part, made a series of false promises such as: “We have no territorial intentions in Europe. . . . Germany will never break the peace.” Thus was the pattern Hitler repeated until the outbreak of total war, and it very often worked. He even tricked old Arnold Toynbee, best known among British historians, who returned from a visit with Hitler convinced of “the Fuhrer’s sincerity in desiring peace in Europe and close friendship with England.”
True to form, Hitler next marched on Austria and annexed it to the Nazi empire; again the Western democracies did nothing. It was true that the Austrians did not resist and many even welcomed Hitler’s storm troopers with flowers and cheering, but it was another flagrant violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Next it was Czechoslovakia’s turn, and both England and France were finally and thoroughly alarmed. Czechoslovakia had been carved out of the old Austro-Hungarian empire in accordance with the Versailles settlement. Hitler had been making threatening gestures toward this peaceful neighbor ever since the Anschluss (the annexing of Austria), and France was actually sworn by treaty to protect it, but was unwilling to do so without British support. The British now began to feel they were being slowly sucked into a war on the continent that they did not want, and during the month of September 1938, there was a sort of collective foot stomping and hand wringing throughout the United Kingdom.
Der F”hrer’s pretext this time was that there were some three million German-speaking citizens living in Sudaten Czechoslovakia who were unhappy at being separated from their Fatherland. Meantime, the British government was desperately seeking some way to placate Hitler. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who not only had suffered the abomination of the First World War but had lost two close relatives in it, went on a last-minute journey to Munich to dissuade Hitler from dismantling Czechoslovakia. He failed miserably. Hitler wound up persuading Chamberlain to agree that Germany could control all Czech areas in which German-speakers were a majority. Here was a perfect example of the old Arab proverb about never allowing a camel to get its nose into your tent lest the rest of the camel soon be inside as well. In any case, the Czechs themselves were not consulted in this betrayal.
The tall, bowler-hatted, wing-collared, umbrella-carrying Chamberlain arrived back in London waving the agreement with Hitler and declaring “peace in our time.”* For the most part the British and the French held their noses but also managed to breathe a sigh of relief. One of those who did not sigh with relief was Churchill, who declared, “We have passed an awful milestone in our history . . . the whole equilibrium of Europe has been disarranged.” He denounced the Munich agreement as cowardly, and in a towering prophetic rage he roared, “The government had to choose between shame and war. They have chosen shame, and now they will get war.”
As if on cue six months later, in March 1939, Hitler’s storm troopers moved in and annexed all of Czechoslovakia, including its vast armament factories at Skoda and elsewhere. Again the British and the French governments did nothing, but it was becoming painfully clear, in places high and low, that Hitler had to be stopped. Then, in August 1939, Hitler pulled off one of the most breathtaking diplomatic coups of all time. Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop concluded with the Soviet government a ten-year “nonaggression” treaty, thus making Hitler’s rabid anticommunist regime an ally of the world’s most powerful communist power. This news shocked the world and more than befuddled leftists and fellow travelers. In the United States, for example, the Communist organ The Daily Worker, which for years had been preaching of the dangers Hitler posed, fell suddenly silent, but then quickly took up the Soviet line that Nazi Germany was now a good friend and no action should be taken to restrain Hitler.
For his part Chamberlain, who had consistently blocked all attempts to rearm Great Britain in the face of Hitler’s threats, now warned that the British armed forces were “not strong enough” to take on the Germans. Nevertheless, he agreed to a treaty with France pledging that if Hitler should attack Poland, both countries would come to her aid. In September 1939 Hitler did exactly that–overrunning Poland in a matter of weeks–but Britain and France did not come to Poland’s aid at all. Instead they declared war on Germany, then squatted along their own lines of defense to await developments, which were not long in coming. Meanwhile, Germany’s new ally Communist Russia also maliciously marched into Poland and took about half the country as spoils of its own, at the same time making a grab for the small Baltic Sea nations on its border, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.*
For the next seven months the action between the Allies (Britain and France) and their German antagonists took place mostly at sea, with each side losing a battleship. This came to be known as the Phony War, because correspondents who knew of the mayhem of the Western Front in the 1914–1918 war naturally expected more of the same. Meantime, Germany set about gobbling up the small Scandinavian countries Denmark and Norway.
Then on May 1, 1940, with a stunning swiftness that would startle the world as Blitzkrieg (lightning war), Nazi tanks and infantry smashed through neutral Holland and Belgium and headed for France. Chamberlain was forced to resign, with the words “peace in our time” still warm on his lips. He had embraced the shame of Munich and could not be trusted to fight the war Winston Churchill had predicted. The British Parliament named Churchill prime minister that same day. It took Hitler just over a month to crush France, which surrendered under the absurd understanding that the French could continue governing a small part of the nation, as well as its foreign colonies, from the inconsequential town of Vichy. This so-called Vichy government became internationally recognized as merely a puppet regime of the Nazis, who could abolish it at any time (and eventually did so). Nominally, Vichy was headed by the ancient field marshal Henri-Philippe P”tain, the so-called Hero of Verdun during World War I, who was then in his dotage and dusted out of retirement as a figurehead. It was actually run by a right-wing lawyer and media mogul named Pierre Laval, whose cooperation with the Nazis spilled over into collaboration; after the war he was stood up to the firing squad.
Mussolini, meantime, promptly declared war on France and England in order to get in on the plunder. A British army of 300,000 that had gone to France to help out was isolated by the German onslaught and narrowly escaped destruction by a miraculous evacuation from the cross-Channel port of Dunkirk.
With France securely in his grasp, Hitler then contemplated his invasion of England, which thankfully never came off. Knowing that no invasion could succeed without knocking out the British will to fight, Hitler launched the Battle of Britain with mammoth air strikes against England’s cities and ports, especially against the mostly working class of London’s East End. He had concluded that the common British people, whom he had scornfully lumped among those in the category of “weak and decadent democracies,” would soon rise up against their government in the face of massive bombing attacks. Fortunately for the British, their military had been able to establish powerful air defenses, built around a new English invention called radar, as well as fast, maneuverable, and high-flying fighter planes, the Hurricane and the Spitfire. Churchill later described this as the “wizard war,” because technology and new arms helped the British shoot the Germans out of the skies by the hundreds.
Less than a year after razing thousands of buildings and killing tens of thousands of British civilians, Hitler sourly abandoned (at least temporarily) his plan to conquer England by invasion and turned without warning upon his erstwhile partner in crime, Stalin’s Soviet Union, with a monstrous assault along a two-thousand-mile front. Although he did not yet realize it, Hitler had become like the sorcerer’s apprentice, who had set the broom to hauling water and then forgot the spell to turn it off.
*It has been argued, though not conclusively proven, that the German government intentionally printed money to devalue its own mark and thus avoid paying the hated war reparations. In other words, if the German mark became almost valueless, then the amount previously designated to be paid to the victors under the Versailles Treaty would be nearly valueless also.
*The swastika consists of two interlocking Greek crosses, thought by the ancient Germans to bring good luck.
*For instance, in order to avoid international reaction to the building of a formal air force, the Germans organized presumably harmless civilian “flying clubs’ in which young men were secretly taught by World War I flying veterans all the techniques of aerial combat.
*Led by German-American academics and writers, and their associates, this soon resulted in what became known in scholarly politics as the “textbook wars.”
*If in fact the U.S. Congress had ratified the League of Nations treaty and put its considerable teeth behind it, things could have turned out differently. But by then the United States, in the throes of the Great Depression, had dismantled its “considerable teeth,” like most of the Allied nations, and its armed forces by the early 1930s ranked behind even the country of Portugal.
*After Chamberlain left Munich, Hitler privately referred to him as “a worm.”
*The attack on Poland opened with a typical Hitler sneak. Earlier, he had sent a battleship, the Schleswig-Holstein, on a “courtesy visit” to the city of Danzig, which Germany had lost under the Versailles Treaty following World War I . Without warning or a declaration of war, on the morning of September 1, 1939, this great naval behemoth opened a devastating barrage on Danzig, which was also the signal for thousands of German soldiers who had entered Poland dressed as tourists to go into action.
© 2005 by Winston Groom. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.