Home / From Colony to Superpower XIII: Israel on the Ostsee

From Colony to Superpower XIII: Israel on the Ostsee


Erik starts off this week’s discussion of From Colony to Superpower. Chapter XIII covers the years between 1942 and 1945, which involved a rather significant expansion of the global profile of the United States.

Herring talks a bit about the debate that surrounded the decision to pursue the “Germany first” strategy. Naval officers in particular were strongly in favor of leaning towards Asia, as were many of Roosevelt’s critics in Congress. Herring points out that the exertion of effort didn’t, in material terms, really favor the European theater early in the war, and that in any case the distinction was overblown. I wonder, however, how a more vigorous policy could have been pursued in the early years of the Pacific War. The key limitation was the number of warships available, and the ships that won the war (Essex class CVs, Cleveland class CLs, Baltimore class CAs, Fletcher class DDs) wouldn’t appear in numbers until mid-to-late 1943. The early parts of the Pacific War were largely fought with legacy forces, because those forces were available. There are a few instances in which ships could have been transferred from Europe to the Pacific (several members of the North Carolina and South Dakota classes of battleships did tours in Europe prior to deployment to the Pacific), but I don’t know that much more effort could have been exerted than was, indeed, exerted. The one area in which extra effort could have been made, I suppose, was with the USAAF; the bombers allocated to the Eighth Air Force could have been sent to the Pacific, or to China. The latter was tried with disastrous effect in 1944, and it’s hard for me to see how the former could have had decisive effect.

Herring also spends some time discussing Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist tendencies. Roosevelt despised both French and British colonialism, and often came into conflict with both Churchill and De Gaulle regarding the future of the European colonial holdings. The effect of his anti-colonialism was limited, however, by the need to win the war, and by his belief that immediate independence for many of the colonial holdings would be counter-productive. This is to say that while he hated the idea of colonialism, he tended to prefer policies that were in large part similar to the policy of the United States towards the Philippines, in which independence would be guaranteed following a period of tutelage/development. Churchill, being one of the last unreconstructed advocates of Empire, didn’t cotton to this argument. I suspect that Roosevelt underplayed the anti-colonialist card; the French and the British needed the US much more than vice versa, and had Roosevelt been willing to accept a little risk, decolonization could have been accelerated.

Of course, much may have been different if Roosevelt had survived the end of the war. Herring suggests, I think correctly, that one of Roosevelt’s greatest failures was the non-education of Harry Truman. Herring puts a lot of blame on Roosevelt for not making a realistic assessment of his health situation in 1944 and 1945; surely, he suggests, Roosevelt must have had some sense of his own mortality, and thus some idea of the need to bring Truman up to speed. On the other hand, Roosevelt also had a lot on his plate. That said, if Roosevelt was unwilling to bring Truman into his circle after 1944 and educate him regarding the course of the war, then he shouldn’t have accepted Truman as his VP candidate. Truman became VP primarily as compromise between different wings of the Democratic Party, but it’s hard for me to believe that not just Roosevelt but the Democrats as a whole were willing to make no allowance for the President’s mortality. In any case, Truman was a quick learner and proved to be up to the job, but things could have gone much worse.

Erik alludes to the question of a Jewish state in his post; one of the things I learned from the latest chapter of Herring is that King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia proposed that the Allies carve a Jewish state out of Germany, rather than settle Holocaust survivors in British Palestine. Roosevelt and Churchill rejected this proposal out of hand. I’m thinking that there would have been substantial upside; it would have made the connection between the Holocaust and the Jewish state explicit rather than implicit, and would have had the merit of hurting the people who had actually caused the Holocaust rather than those who hadn’t been involved. The German population could have been expelled from, say, Schleswig-Holstein, which is only a bit smaller that present-day Israel. Israel on the Baltic would control the Kiel Canal, and its security could eventually have been guaranteed by NATO. The Germans might complain, but they were enduring far more violent population expulsions in the East. Moreover, present-day Germans seem to have gotten over the loss of Danzig and Konigsberg. That said, the fact of strong Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s rendered this proposal dead on arrival.

Finally, Herring notes Roosevelt’s increasing disenchantment with the State Department as the primary organ of American foreign policy. Roosevelt came to believe, as early as 1940, that the State Department as an institution was insufficient to the challenge presented by modern foreign relations, especially in wartime. It’s interesting to track the role of the State Department across Herring’s account of the history of American foreign policy; it’s not quite right to say that State’s role slowly, steadily declines across the centuries, but it’s not quite wrong, either. State is slowly supplanted both by private actors and other government institutions; after 1940 this accelerates, with the War (and eventually Defense) departments taking an especially large bite. I’m not sure what to make of this, except to suggest that it has more to do with the institutional structure than it does with the culture of State.

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