In the early years of World War II, the Axis powers had the upper hand. The tide turned when the Axis leaders overreached and the Allies steered their more massive economies and populations into wartime mode.
By 1942, the Axis powers seemed invincible, but the course of the war soon changed in ways that offer lessons for the U.S. and its allies in today’s world, said Victor Davis Hanson, a Hoover Institution senior fellow. (Image credit: narvikk/iStock)
Understanding how miscalculations by Germany and Japan led to their defeat offers lessons for world leaders today on how to avoid another major conflict, a Stanford scholar said.
"The once ascendant Axis powers were completely ill-prepared - politically, economically and militarily - to win the global war they had blundered into during 1941," writes Victor Davis Hanson , a military historian and a Hoover Institution senior fellow, in a new book , The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.
At the start of the war, the misperception was "that the Axis powers, particularly Germany and Japan, were ferocious war makers in the global sense and that they were strategically adept and almost unstoppable," Hanson said in a recent interview.
Germany had a head start rearming militarily in the 1930s after the global depression, and then it enjoyed quick success in 10 border wars against much weaker European states. As for Japan, it invaded China and other parts of Asia and faced very little resistance. (Italy, which entered WWII on the Axis side in 1940 as the defeat of France became apparent, encountered more opposition in North Africa.)
"The Axis powers, Japan and Germany primarily, had convinced the world, and themselves, that they were capable, militarily and economically, of waging a global war," Hanson said. Fascism was pronounced superior and modern - the future of humankind - by the Axis nations.
"But there was nothing in their prior histories, and nothing in their rearmament strategies, to suggest that was true. So, they had to win the war very quickly," he said.
"The other misunderstanding is that we have this idea of Britain as a weak link in the Allied triad for population and land size issues," Hanson said. "But they really punched above their weight. They were the only country to face Hitler alone for a year between June 1940 and June 1941."
British technology, cryptology, aircraft and vehicle production were superior to Germany’s efforts, he said.
Britain, Hanson said, was the only country to go to war on virtually the first day of the conflict (Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and Britain declared war on Germany two days later) and fight until the last day of the war (the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945). In fact, the British were exclusive in going to war on the principle of protecting an ally (Poland) rather than being first attacked themselves - or surprise-attacking another country.
And, British prime minister Winston Churchill was the strongest and most eloquent voice in making the case that WWII was an existential war for the West, he noted.
An apparent aversion to conflict among Western nations laid the groundwork for Nazi and Japanese aggression, Hanson said.
"Appeasement during the 1930s had convinced Hitler that the West was so traumatized by WWI that those countries did not want to fight," he said.
For example, in French schools during the 1920s, students were discouraged from talking about the Battle of Verdun - the largest and longest of WWI - "as if the victory were not based on past heroism, but rather was simply a nightmare," Hanson said.
"There was this utopian and pacifist political correctness that to Hitler represented weakness to be exploited rather than magnanimity to be appreciated."
The other factor was active German collusion with Russia early on after the non-aggression pact of August 1939 that allowed Hitler to focus on the Western flank, he said.
Hanson said that Hitler mistakenly assumed that America’s isolationism would mean it would not move millions of soldiers to Europe as it had in WWI. "Similarly, the Japanese thought if America let Britain burn in 1940, then they were not going to worry about going into China, Malaysia or Southeast Asia to rescue colonial allies."
But a few months changed the course of civilization, Hanson said.
In June 1941, Germany attacked Russia, opening itself to a two-front war, and in December 1941, Japan struck the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. America entered the war on both Asian and European fronts, after Germany and Italy first declared war on the U.S.
After June 1942, the Allies grew more united and pragmatic in their approach than the overreaching Axis powers, which had smaller populations, economies and industrial production, Hanson wrote in his book.
The Allied powers eventually built more long-range bombers and aircraft carriers and became highly efficient at transporting troops and machines to faraway theaters, Hanson said. By 1945, the gross domestic product of the U.S. economy alone was almost larger than that of the Axis and other Allied powers combined.
Meanwhile, Germany had no aircraft carriers, and both Germany and Japan had no true long-range bomber advantage.
Today, WWII offers valuable lessons in deterrence for leaders and policymakers, Hanson said.
"Deterrence is the idea that a potential aggressor understands in a cost-benefit calculation that it’s not in his interests to start a war, because his intended target either has the spiritual or the material wherewithal to resist him in a such a way that it would be catastrophic," he said.
From the 1930s onward, "the Allies had sent a message of appeasement to Hitler, and that fooled Hitler into thinking that they were materially and spiritually weaker than Germany."
Hanson said the U.S. relies on deterrence in the North Korea nuclear crisis - tactically, strategically and through naval and air power exercises. "President Trump is trying to be unpredictable and erratic to warn North Korea not to do something stupid. That’s one of the main lessons of WWII - that deterrence relies on public acknowledgement of superior force and will," he said.
Hanson said the study of military history is a confirmation of human nature as unchanging and predictable in times of crisis.
The Greek historian Thucydides pointed this out long ago in his 5th-century BC history of the Peloponnesian War, he said. And so, the classical world provides many insights for the contemporary world on the subjects of war, revolution and peace.
Today, the study of military history is waning in higher education, Hanson said, noting that peace studies programs in U.S. universities outnumber military history courses by about 30-to-1. Some critics, he said, believe that the study of war betrays a "morbid curiosity about death and war."
That view, Hanson said, is akin to saying someone studies oncology because they like tumors.
"Rather, they go into oncology because they want to prevent cancer," he said.
Victor Davis Hanson is also the chairman of the Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working Group at the Hoover Institution.