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Mistakes Of Strategy

April 2018

Samuel Eliot Morison takes a broader view in his compact, thought-provoking little book, Strategy and Compromise . That is, although he too concerns himself primarily with sea power, it is the strategy of the entire war which engrosses him, and he discusses not so much what happened at sea as the basis on which strategic decisions were reached and the results that rame from them.

Both British and American readers, Mr. Morison remarks, seem to like to be told that their own country’s strategy was bad, and that their leaders made many stupid and costly mistakes. The difficulty, however, is to prove that alleged strategic errors were really errors, for the proof usually rests on the assumption that “if we had done something different the enemy would still have done the same thing that he actually did,” which usually is not true and in any case is unproven. Having said this, Mr. Morison goes on to assert that America and England were definitely mistaken in their wartime appraisal of Russia. AngloAmerican policy toward Russia during the war was based on two assumptions, both of which, says Mr. Morison, can now be shown to have been false: that Stalin would make a separate peace with Germany if not sufficiently supplied with war materiel and appeased by political concessions and that if we treated Russia “honorably and generously” Communist hostility would end and we would find Russia a dependable friend once the war ended.

Strategy and Compromise, by Samuel Eliot Morison. Little, Brown and Co. 120 pp. $3.00.

Essentially, the basic American strategic decision of the war was to “put forth our first and best efforts to the defeat of Germany.” In this decision, the British and American governments remained in agreement throughout. Where the arguments came was in the question regarding the way in which this strategy was to be made effective.

The original American idea was to land an army in France in 1942 and get on with the invasion of continental Europe. To this the British objected violently- partly because they did not believe the Americans could possibly be ready for such a large operation so soon and partly because they were obsessed with the desire to find some backdoor approach to the German stronghold. In the end, the American plan was shelved, and the North African invasion was substituted, with the cross-Channel operation deferred until 1944. This, Mr. Morison believes, was a correct decision; the trouble was that one step kept leading to another, culminating in a painful, step-by-step advance up the Italian boot, which he believes cost a good deal more than it was worth.

What finally happened—the major plan for beating Germany by a cross-Channel invasion in 1944—was a compromise between the original American idea, Churchill’s concept of “pecking away at the perimeter of Festung Europa until a weak spot was found,” and Sir Alan Brooke’s plan to crawl up Italy. It was probably a good compromise; it would not have been arrived at if Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and their advisers had not put constant and tactless pressure on for the cross-Channel invasion. If this move had been postponed, as Mr. Morison says, “London would have been laid flat by the V-1 bombs and V-2 rockets,” since no defense had then been laid out against these missiles, and without an invasion of Europe the launching sites would have remained intact.

So the major decisions, as far as Europe was concerned, seem to have been fairly sound. How about the Pacific?

Here the great mistake was made by the Japanese. In 1942, says Mr. Morison, the Japanese refused to rest content with what they had won and devote themselves to consolidating the immense conquests they had made. Instead, they embarked on a new, more ambitious program, trying to seize Tulagi in the Solomons and Port Moresby in New Guinea, trying to take Midway Island and the western Aleutians, and trying to take New Caledonia, the Fijis, and Samoa in order to cut the line between the United States and Australia. They overextended themselves; on each point they were defeated. The conversations between American and British war-planners took a crucial turn, just here. The Americans agreed to go along with the Mediterranean operations and to postpone the crossChannel operation; in return, they won agreement that America should take the offensive in the Pacific. As a result, they beat Japan more rapidly than anyone had dared to hope would be possible and did it—despite recent British protests—without, actually, withdrawing any strength from the European offensive.

And, at last, we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and Japan surrendered.

Was this a strategic error? Unquestionably, it obviated the need for an actual invasion of Japan, and it may have saved a good many American lives. But over the long pull? Mr. Morison has a thought that may be worth pondering:

“It was probably unfortunate that the war in the Pacific ended so abruptly. Had it lasted two or three months longer, proper preparations could have been made for the surrender of the Japanese armies in China. As it happened, the Communists profited by the confusion in China, and obtained most of the surrendered Japanese war materials. A slight prolongation of the war, moreover, would have enabled General MacArthur to carry out an operation that he had planned, to liberate the Dutch East Indies; and one can well imagine how much better it could have been for us—and, as I believe, for the Indonesians themselves—if an Allied army had been in Indonesia when the war ended.”

Strategic decisions affect not only the war itself, but what comes after the war. Sometimes the point is worth remembering.