America needs to remember: sometimes the future offers alternatives that are unspeakably different, and choices matter
On 7 September 1940, the battle of Britain entered a new phase, when the German bombing command turned its attacks away from British airfields and related defensive infrastructure to British cities more generally. This initiated the famous period known as The Blitz, with increasing civilian casualties and much destruction of housing, public buildings and cultural heritage, but it took the pressure off RAF Fighter Command, which had been near the point of collapse.
At least, that is what I remember from reading a book about it when I was a boy. I can’t lay my hands on it now — it was probably Basil Collier’s ‘The Battle of Britain’, in a new paperback edition brought out to profit from the 1969 release of the movie Battle of Britain.
As I remember the story, much of the narrative drive arose from the fact that the Germans managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The British had radar; the Germans were aware that this was important, and made radar towers the target of their earliest attacks, along with fighter bases, airfields and aircraft manufacturing facilities. But the radar towers were difficult to destroy, and the attacks stopped short of success. As a result, it was impossible for the Germans to catch the British by surprise and destroy their fighter planes on the ground. Nonetheless, the British fighters sustained high losses in the air. German casualties were, if anything, even higher. The Germans attacked the British fighter aircraft bases, but never quite succeeded in knocking them all out. It was an expensive air campaign, but if the air defences of Britain fell, the Luftwaffe would be free to attack where it wished, and a sea invasion of Britain by the Wehrmacht might have been possible. Had Hitler been able to invade Britain, Churchill would have been forced to surrender, as the British army, after its defeat at Dunkirk, was in no state to resist the battle-hardened storm troopers that had swept through western Europe in a few short weeks.
At the beginning of September, after only a few weeks of fighting, the RAF Fighter Command was nearing exhaustion. The attrition of pilots and planes was running at an unsustainable level. But German intelligence had not identified the extent of the weakness. The Luftwaffe switched the focus of its attacks just in time for the RAF Fighter Command to rebuild. Hitler’s plans for an invasion of Britain were cancelled. The air campaign over Britain continued, but its new objective was to break the morale of British resistance and lead to the negotiated peace. Of course, the Blitz did no such thing — it confirmed Churchill’s belligerence and reinforced the public’s commitment to the war effort.
When Hitler decided to invade Russia before completing the conquest of Britain, he placed himself in an impossible position, committed to fighting on eastern, western and southern fronts simultaneously. Had he defeated Britain first, he might have secured the withdrawal of British Empire forces from the Mediterranean/African theatre of war. He would have greatly discouraged America from joining the European war, as there would have been no foothold on the eastern side of the Atlantic for the concentration of American forces. By closing down the southern and western fronts, Hitler would have released more forces for the war in Russia. Victory in Russia would have given Hitler access to essential oil and other resources. A Europe united under the Nazis might have existed for a time, even if the nature of the Nazi regime was unstable and destined to collapse.
Like all history, this narrative of the Battle of Britain as a great turning point is entirely debatable. Hitler did not win World War Two, and no-one will ever know exactly where his insane plans went wrong. Perhaps he might have won the Battle of Britain and still lost the war. Perhaps if he had invaded Britain, he would have been defeated even more quickly, with an earlier American entry into the war followed by an Allied invasion of France in 1942 instead of 1944. Nonetheless, it seems to me, as it has seemed to others, that this moment when Britain avoided defeat and the Nazi regime opened a new front in Russia was a turning point of unforeseeable significance. Before that moment, an alternative future that might have been utterly different was very close to becoming real.
Had they succeeded, the Nazis planned to kill most of the Slavic population of Europe and to enslave the rest. They intended to impose a totalitarian system of government that indoctrinated all people in the culture of ‘One people, one state, one leader’. The white people of France, Britain and other conquered territories would have been forced to adopt German culture (adulterated with Nazi politics), abandoning their own cultures and notions of democracy. Jews would have been eliminated. Blacks and Asians would have experienced a brutal new imposition of racist colonialism. Most of the history of the Western world would have been expunged and replaced with a glorification of ‘Aryan civilization’ that was bigoted, conservative, antiscientific, and fictitious. Women’s liberation and sexual liberation would have vanished. Artistic creativity would have been shackled to the service of Nazi propaganda. Narrow-mindedness, self-censorship, ignorance and wasteful bureaucracy would have crushed human potential throughout the ‘thousand year reich’, and we would now be in a century immeasurably poorer, duller and more fearful.
Or maybe not. Certainly there are Americans alive today who seem to think that the American war to defeat fascism and imperialism was a wasted effort. There are Nazis in America! And there is an American president who thinks that some of these neo-Nazis are good people.
In my mind, there was another great turning point in World War Two, when everything might have turned out differently, leading to a vastly changed world. Of course, there may be millions or billions of such moments, hingeing on decisions large and small — the track of a bullet, the reading of a cable, the misplacement of a sign. But the one that fascinates me comes right at the end of the war, in the months immediately after Germany is defeated. It is the moment when America, despite being the only nation that possesses nuclear weapons, opts for a peaceful accommodation with Stalinist Russia rather than turning on its erstwhile ally and continuing to fight.
This was the situation: Germany capitulated on 8 May 1945, leaving Russian troops in possession of most of eastern Europe facing American and other Allied troops across an unofficial border that Churchill was eventually to describe (in a speech on 5 March 1946) as an ‘iron curtain’, when it had become apparent that the Russians had established an empire and intended never to leave. There were American commanders in Europe (notably General Patton) who would have favoured continuing the war after the German defeat, turning on their Russian allies, perhaps driving them back to the Russian border or even overthrowing the Soviet regime completely. The war against the Nazis had been fought for democracy and freedom; there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the Soviet system was inimical to these ideals. However, as the Russian army was significantly stronger than the American forces, this idea was dismissed by more responsible military and political leaders. A British plan for a possible war against the Soviets, commissioned by Churchill, was called ‘Operation Unthinkable’, and was never seriously contemplated because of the acknowledged superiority of Soviet forces.
From May to August 1945, the American war effort was focused on the defeat of Japan. This was ultimately achieved after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August, leading to Japanese surrender on 15 August. It is generally accepted that the atomic bombs were dropped on a nation that was already destined to be defeated, but that the horrendous destruction wrought by the bombs precipitated a surrender that might not have come for several more months.
Atomic weapons were a game changer, and America was the only nation that had them. No other weapon could kill a hundred thousand people or destroy a city at one blow. President Harry Truman, recognising the political power gifted by such a masterful weapon, denied access to atomic weapons to his generals, insisting that only he as commander in chief would hold the power to order an atomic attack.
From August 1945 until the first Soviet test of a nuclear weapon on 29 August 1949, the United States held a weapons advantage that could have been used to overcome the Russian superiority in conventional warfare. Once the effectiveness of atomic bombs had been demonstrated, Truman could have ordered a massive scaling up in production. He could have taken the weapons to Europe and used them to threaten the Russian leadership. If his demands had not been met, he could have dropped bombs on concentrations of Russian troops, he could have destroyed cities. He could have strong-armed allies into supporting his manoeuvres, he could have demanded submission, obedience, capitulation. Not only Russia, but all the world could have been at his command. Had he been willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, he could have established a world empire for the USA.
It is interesting to reflect that humane instincts and a fatigue with fighting might be the only things that prevented this outcome. It was an ‘opportunity’ that will never arise again. At that point, when no other country in the world had nuclear weapons technology, the Americans could have used their advantage to make themselves masters of all. What this would have done to the nature of American and world society is terrifying to imagine. The contradictions involved in imposing a world dictatorship in the name of liberty and democracy are obvious.
There is no evidence that Truman was even slightly interested in such a course. Truman did not have dictatorial intentions — aren’t we lucky that it was Truman, and not Trump, who headed the United States at that time? Because, if a President had set America on that path, it would have changed everything.
In 1945, the Americans largely believed their own propaganda: that they were honest people fighting to overthrow tyranny and protect the freedom of others as well as themselves. Were there elements of hypocrisy in this vision? Undoubtedly, as the subsequent aggressiveness and self-interest of America in world affairs went on to show. But America wanting power in the world was not the same as the Nazi plan for world domination. There was no appetite for continued warfare; there was a confident (and not entirely mistaken) expectation that the world would voluntarily fall in behind American leadership, and that after defeating fascism, capitalism and liberal democracy would provide riches for some and enough for everyone else to get by.
Part of the outrage in America today runs all the way back to a sense of disappointment that, having saved the world for democracy in World War Two, not all of the world has accepted the Pax Americana in the appropriate spirit. All those nasty communists kept insisting on staying outside the new American world order. All those liberated colonies kept asking for genuine independence. American domination has largely been maintained for six decades, but it has been contested at every point, and now it seems to be slipping away forever.
We have now arrived at a time when the kindest voices in American public life are dangerously weak and the ugliest are loud. Loud, but not actually strong: the hectic coalition seeking to ‘make America great again’ are mounting a belated, foolish and tragic attempt to grasp a power that has already evaporated. Had Trump been President in 1945, he might have combined nuclear superiority with his instincts for tyranny to build a worldwide fascist regime. But Trump in 2020 is more like Hitler in 1941: capable of leading his country into disaster and ruin, but powerless to achieve the conquests he dreams of. The American electors are on the verge of deciding whether they want to get on board for a fascist train-wreck or turn back towards more modest ideals — under Biden they could have a bit of unity, a touch of social justice, some modest commitment to preventing catastrophic climate change. So America is near a turning point today, seven weeks from their next presidential election. Trump might win, accelerating the decline of American power and the global renaissance of totalitarianism; or he might lose, in which case America will hardly be out of the woods but at least it will have an eye on its moral compass again.