“The Second World Wars” by Hoover Institution Senior Fellow and historian Victor Davis Hanson is a must read for anyone interested in military history. His book goes well beyond the dramatic storytelling that can so often overwhelm the rest of a text about this most heroic hour in our nation’s history. Instead, Hanson takes the reader on a deep dive to answer—using a voluminous yet quite lucid level of detail—the practical questions of the war(s) that continue to shape the politics, economics, and social fabric of the world to this day.
Readers expecting dramatic battle scenes and stories of individual heroism will be left wanting by the author’s lack of narrative style. Seldom in this book does Hanson paint a picture of individual battlefields, and never does he go into, say, the horrors faced by an individual soldier of the 1st Infantry Division at Normandy. But personal narrative and individual storytelling are not what this book is about. Its vision is far grander in terms of scope and purpose. “The Second World Wars” is a tome made up of production figures, strategic decisions, casualty numbers, and other statistics that together form perhaps the most impressive and holistic description of the “how” of the Second World War that I have ever read. Hanson calls the war the “first global conflict.” His thesis:
“The tragedy of World War II—a preventable conflict—was that 60 million people had perished to confirm that the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were far stronger than the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy after all—a fact that should have been self-evident and in no need of such a bloody laboratory, if not for prior British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration.”
Many books about that “preventable” conflict are absorbed with the “what” or the “why.” Hanson, on the other hand, takes it as a given that his readers appreciate the horrors and heroism of the conflict, and that they have a solid understanding of the myriad causes that precipitated the outbreak of war on both fronts. The more important question for “The Second World Wars” is summed up in its subtitle: “How the first global conflict was fought and won.” This is addressed by answering the manifold secondary questions that arise from its asking: “How did the Allies outproduce the Axis to such an incredible extent? How did the Allies overcome the tonnage advantage of the Axis blue-water navies? How did the Allies overcome the initial superiority of the German Army? How important was air power to turning the tide of the war?”
Hanson answers these questions and many, many others in such a detailed and comprehensive way that if one were limited to only one text from which to learn the whole of the logistical, strategic, and geopolitical lessons of this first global conflict, they should unquestionably choose a copy of “The Second World Wars.”
First, a note on the title of the book. Hanson makes the decision to consciously refer to the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns as separate conflicts—something almost everyone does, even as we refer to them together as the Second World War. Hanson cites two reasons for the title of the book:
One, no supposedly single conflict was ever before fought in so many diverse landscapes on premises that often seemed unrelated. And, two, never had a war been fought in so many different ways—to the extent that a rocket attack on London or jungle fighting in Burma or armor strikes in Libya seemed to belong to entirely different wars.
The conflict was, for the United States, two separate wars fought against marginally allied powers who materially cooperated only superficially, and ideologically only in their desire to see the Allies defeated. Unlike the strong cooperation of the Allied powers on both fronts, the Germans and Italians were barely involved in Imperial Japan’s efforts to codify and extend the influence of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Likewise, Japan would have never thought to reinforce Hitler’s Atlantic Wall with any reserve divisions after the Germans extended the borders of Fortress Europe all the way to the sea. Therefore, the conflict was made up of two separate wars, fought simultaneously and against similar ideologies, but separated by geography and a lack of strategic overlap.
Hanson organizes “The Second World Wars” into a series of seven parts, each corresponding to a different area of the war, within which he details the relative strengths and advantages of the various powers with respect to that area, and how those advantages evolved over the course of the conflict. The seven parts are: ideas, air, water, earth (infantry, geography, and tactics), fire (tanks and artillery), people, and ends. We will next turn to each as they relate to this review and Hanson’s general thesis.
Part 1: Ideas, is probably the only part of Hanson’s book that is a significant retread of most books on the Second World War that have come before. However, although familiar ideas and historical realities are discussed, Hanson infuses the topic with a classical flare that adds new dimension and historical context to the progression through the 1930s in prelude to war. Hanson, a trained classical historian, discusses the ideologies of the belligerents and places the conflict in what he calls a “classical context.” Through his classical lens we find such gems as this:
Weather was also never superseded by twentieth-century technology, but as in ancient times it often shaped the battlefield, as it had in the storms that sank much of King Xerxe’s fleet at Artemisium during the Persian invasion of Greece (480 BC), the scorching heat that sapped the Crusaders at Hattin (1187) and cost them a catastrophic defeat against Saladin and the Muslims, or the rain-soaked artillery ground that hampered Napoleon’s artillery and cavalry movements in his defeat at Waterloo (1815). Germans argued that the early and unusually harsh winter of 1941 had robbed them of two critical weeks at Moscow. Inhuman cold stymied airlifts to German troops at Stalingrad. Fog stalled airborne reinforcements to British forces at Arnhem in 1944. Strong winds and clouds in part forced General Curtis LeMay to change tactics by taking his B-29s to lower elevations and dropping incendiary rather than general-purpose bombs. Generals and admirals, like their ancient counterparts, often predictably blamed the weather for their failures, as if they assumed in their plans that nature should be predictably compliant rather than fickle and savage.
Aided by Hanson’s distinctive style, part one more than suffices as an introduction to the players, the ideas, and the historical ideas that shaped the conflict.
Parts two through six cover air power; sea power; infantry geography and siege craft; tanks and artillery; and leadership, casualties, and civilians, respectively. A similar lesson is drawn from each chapter, and that lesson lies in how the Allies managed to overcome an initial deficit in each of the above-mentioned theaters of war. The theme may be the same, but each chapter offers a rich collection of sundry statistics that somehow manage to drive the lesson home more than any book, documentary, or HBO series has managed to do for me. Whether it is detailing just how devastating American air power was to the German and Japanese productive capacity, elaborating on the degree to which the conflict at sea—even with its astronomical financial cost and the destructive capacity of the ships produced—was ultimately fought to enhance land operations, the supreme courage and tactical skill of U.S. Marines in the Pacific theater, or the unfathomable casualty figures the Soviet Union incurred in one Pyrrhic victory after the next, Hanson masterfully captures the central idea while also taking intricate note of its specific parts. Somehow, Hanson effectively communicates both the forest and the trees.
In each of these sections, we again see the classicist in Hanson. In describing the worst of siege warfare in the conflict:
Stalingrad proved to be Germany’s fatal wound in the manner of the Athenian Empire’s disastrous defeat in far-off Sicily (425 BC), so famously summed up in The Peloponnesian War: “At once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered. They were beaten at all points and altogether, all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army, everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.”
He also alludes to the relationship between infantry and armor in battle, now that the tank had become a prominent instrument of warfare:
The fourth-century BC Spartan king Archidamus III summed up the ancient heroic lament upon first seeing a catapult: “By Herakles, the valor of an individual no longer matters.”
Perhaps the most impressive collection of statistics is found at the beginning and then the very end of the chapter on workers, where Hanson shows just how much more powerful than anything before seen the American war machine really was:
Despite the Germans’ vast occupation of Western and parts of Eastern Europe and European Russia, by 1943 the three Allies together were producing an aggregate gross domestic product over twice the totals for Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. Indeed, the United States eventually produced a gross domestic product of approximately $2.6 trillion (in 2016 dollars), almost the same as what the British, Germans, Italians, Japanese, and Soviets produced together ($3 trillion) . . .
[American industrial] magnates ensured in just four years American private enterprise had produced nearly ninety thousand tanks of all types, over a quarter-million artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.4 million machine guns, and more than 40 billion rounds of ammunition—along with 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, 151 carriers (of all categories), eight battleships, and over fifty million tons of merchant shipping, as well as 3,000 aircraft.
As Hanson himself puts it in closing the chapter, “Those who made more stuff beat those who killed more people.” In other words, a fascist may declare war on a capitalist country if he likes, but he will in relatively short order be obliterated by the astronomical productive power such an arsenal of democracy can marshal.
Hanson’s final chapter “Why and What Did the Allies Win?” is a tour de force in the summary powers of a great historian blessed with an important topic and possessing a laconic pen. Every word of this chapter matters, and every word helps construct for the reader a comprehensive theory of the conflict, its constituent parts, and its conclusion. The effect of this chapter is best described by quoting liberally from its introduction:
The Allies won World War II because in almost all aspects of battle they proved superior. In the air war, they produced the only successful heavy bombers of the conflict and deployed them in vast numbers. British and American fighters were as good as the best of those of Germany and Japan but were built in far greater numbers. In key areas of pilot training, the production of aviation fuels, navigational aids, and transport aircraft, the Axis powers lagged so far behind their opponents that their occasionally superior—or surprise—weapons of the air, such as cruise missiles, rockets, jets, and kamikaze suicide planes brought no lasting advantage.
The same sort of paradoxes arose at sea. The Axis navies wasted scarce resources by building huge battleships, and yet unlike the allies found no way to use such powerful gun platforms to support amphibious landings. Carrier war was the future of naval battle; yet Japan was the only one of the three Axis powers to even build an aircraft carrier fleet. The Japanese and Germans believed before the war that naval superiority was predicated on summative naval tonnage put to sea, without proper appreciation that it was not just the size and number of ships that mattered, but rather the type of war vessels that went to sea and the nature of the men who commanded them.
The section quoted above goes on at length, further describing the reasons for allied superiority at sea, on land, in the production and use of artillery and the conduct of siege craft, in the use and construction of tanks and other armor, and in the stock and quality of their military and civilian leaders. The book would be a must buy for this chapter alone, but this is only a short summary of the extraordinary achievement that is the whole of the work. Hanson has written a classic of military history, rather than a generic history of what happened to have been a military event. The lessons contained within its pages cover logistics, strategy, tactics, diplomacy, economics, and psychology, as well as history, making “The Second World Wars” an essential addition to the library of any man who seeks to understand the real-world implications, rather than merely the sequence of events and narrative flair, of the greatest and most destructive conflict in the history of man.