By Chet Yarbrough
This year, the Greatest Generation celebrates D-Day’s 70th anniversary. Of the estimated 16,000,000 U.S. Service men and women that served in WWII, about 1.4 million still live.
The Winds of War chronicles the beginning of America’s entry into the war. The main character is Victor (Pug) Henry. Henry is imbued with perfect insight to the war with Herman Wouk’s historical hindsight.
Wouk offers a story that mixes fiction with facts that vivify dry historical perceptions of WWII—literary perfection lays in Wouk’s ability to offer counter intuitive thought about WWII and the nature of 20th century war. One might disagree with Wouk’s suppositions about the war but the logic of Wouk’s presentation is highly believable, historically informative, and entertaining. It is made more entertaining by Kevin Pariseau’s narration.
Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “History is written by the victors”. Wouk leavens that belief by creating a fictional character on the German side of WWII that offers a loser’s perspective. Though this fictional character’s perspective is undermined by Wouk, it earns thoughtful consideration.
The fictional German character that represents WWII’s losers is General Armin von Roon. Roon suggests Hitler’s biggest mistake in WWII is failing to crush English armed forces before the Dunkirk evacuation. Roon argues that Hitler made two mistakes at Dunkirk. One, Hitler allowed the English forces to cross the channel back to England by delaying German attack for three days. The second mistake–With that opportunity lost, Roon argues Hitler should have immediately invaded England with German ground forces.
Wouk develops the argument that Hitler grasps the power, flexibility, and speed of mechanized warfare before anyone else in the twentieth century. Through the von Roon character, Wouk suggests Hitler understood mechanized warfare’s advantage but frequently misused it in critical engagements like Dunkirk.
The fictional von Roon argues that invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 is misunderstood. Roon believes Germany’s attack on Russia is to confiscate oil fields and natural resources to bolster Germany’s war effort. Building for and executing a war decimated Germany’s access to natural resources. Roon explains that Hitler desires Russia’s vast land mass for German colonization at war’s end. Roon’s opinion is Hitler breaks the non-aggression pact with Russia based on economic necessity; not ideological belief.
Wouk creates counter intuitive perspective and insightful context with the von Roon character. Wouk does not deny the ideological stupidity of Hitler’s Mien Kampf but offers a plausible explanation for Hitler’s counter intuitive decision to create a two front war when he assiduously avoided it in the first years of war. Roon suggests Hitler believes England is effectively defeated when he attacks Russia. Roon argues that fear of a two front war is a red herring that distorts the truth of history.
The wild card is America and its covert support of the Allies. Here, Wouk infers Franklin Roosevelt is the greatest political strategist since Machiavelli. Wouk argues that Roosevelt brilliantly deceives the world and manipulates the American public to accomplish a concealed objective.
Wouk suggests Roosevelt’s Machiavellian’ plan is to bolster the American’ economy, and allow combatants to kill enough German’s to win the war or, at a minimum, weaken the Third Reich. While the war rages, FDR is saving American’ lives and buying time to build American military strength, and change American isolationist’s minds.
The American’ public is not interested in entering the war. The public is willing to accept Lend-Lease (barely passed by one congressional vote), a military draft, secretive military equipment transfer, and financial support for the Allies, but without American’ troops. Until, Pearl Harbor, approximately 80% of the American population feels they have no “dog in the fight”.
The best moral face Wouk puts on FDR is that he privately disagrees with American’ public opinion but refuses to enter the war with American troops because of American isolationist opposition. However, Wouk suggests FDR recognizes America is financially strengthened by the continued war.
Wouk posits that Franklin Roosevelt knew America would become the most powerful nation on earth as a result of America’s delay in declaring war. While Europe, Asia, England, and Africa sacrifice lives and money in the war before December 1941, America sits, produces war goods and profits, without loss of blood or treasure. To quote Machiavelli, “No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution.”
The United States loses 407,000 Americans in the war; U.S.S.R.- 8 to 13.8 million Russian’ civilians and soldiers; Germany- 4 to 4.5 million German’ civilians and soldiers, Japan- 2.1 million civilians and soldiers, and the United Kingdom -383,000 English subjects.
The estimated cost of the war in 1945 dollars is $1.075 trillion with the highest costs being to the U.S. ($341 billion), Germany ($272 billion), Soviet Union ($192 billion), and Britain ($120 billion). But, GDP growth from 1938 to 1945 tells a completely different story:
The United States nearly doubles its GDP while all countries, except for the British Isles (increases by 16.5%), have a lower GDP in 1945 than 1938.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept the United States out of the war. As a consequence, the United States becomes the most powerful nation in the world. Wouk infers FDR’s Machiavellian’ strategy is the reason for America’s delay in declaring war and its consequent rise to power.
However, one might argue it is simple intransigence of a democratic and capitalist republic, separated in the twentieth century from the rest of the world by two oceans. In either case, morality appears to play little or no part in America’s decision to declare war. Today, oceans are no longer a barrier between continents.
One is left to wonder, after listening to The Winds of War, what would have happened if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor. How much more blood and treasure would have been lost in Europe, Asia, and Africa? How many more Jews would have been exterminated? What ethnic group would be vilified, isolated, and exterminated next?
Wouk shows himself to be a novelist, philosopher, and historian. The Winds of War is an enlightening work of literature about America’s Greatest Generation.