Week four

Stokesbury, A Short History of WW II (161-171, 200-216)
Terkel, The Good War (19-38)
Kershaw, The Bedford Boys (7-39)

Ron’s Response
Rather than giving you specific questions this week, make a connection between the three readings.  Stokesbury gives an overview of the Japanese attack (including Japan’s motivations) and the damage it caused to the U. S. Pacific Fleet.  Studs Terkel introduces some Americans on the West Coast who felt the impact of internment and experience the chaos in the days following the attack.  Then Alex Kershaw take things to Bedford, Virginia to introduce a set of ordinary young men who face extraordinary circumstances.  Choose an idea, theme, or thought to link the readings together.

I have always felt a connection to World War II and especially the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because I was born on December 7th. Granted it was 33 years after the actual attack, it was close enough for many people that I always heard a lot about it growing up. As soon as I could read about it, I began researching the events of WWII. My great aunt was a nurse who served in England, lost her paratrooper boyfriend in 1944, and brought a German Mauser rifle home with her given by a soldier who took it from a German officer. Enough about me.

One of the connections I made between our readings for this week, and has been an underlying theme in other Stokesbury chapters, is the state of preparation the United States was in prior to the attacks. Our nation was embroiled in a political debate prior to December 7 and the confusion caused by that debate led most to prefer inaction over making too aggressive an action. Every generation has its doves and hawks, and they don’t always hold true to specific political preferences because they exist for different reasons. In the Pacific, we were an Imperial force that was much like many of our young soldiers—well trained and well armed but little actual experience in the real world. In the Atlantic, we were much more at home but so gun shy from WWI that we sat on our hands rather than took decisive action. There were experts and leaders who knew what to do, but it was hardly a consensus and nobody had the political will or was willing to expend the political capital it would take for advanced action. But I digress, the will of the people was not there before December 7 and that date served as a great waking point in history.

Another related theme each of the readings had in common was the lack of knowledge and information possessed by leaders as well as the people. Living in the “information age” this is much more apparent but while commanders were making often ill-informed decisions in the field, people on the home front were confronted with ill-informed decisions of their own. MacArthur was ill-informed in the Philippines leading to his retreat and the Western Defense Command was ill-informed of the actual threat leading to the internment of Japanese Americans. The Japanese were ill-informed of the American spirit of ingenuity and people of the United States were ill-informed of the Japanese character.

One more rambling theme to discuss is the issue of motivation. Italy, Germany and Japan each achieved tremendous success and victories early on in their campaigns because they had a goal in mind and they set for it. Each of those goals unraveled for their own multiple reasons, but when they were rolling on they were prepared and focused. The wishy-washy policies of the democracies prior to attack, followed by the slow-turning juggernaut of democratic governance (even with tremendous power given to the executive), allowed for the offensives to be successful for a time, but once the juggernauts were turned and more focused, they proved to be the most formidable of war machines. I’m not sure if that translates to a maxim on life but I can’t help but think it does.

Matti’s Responses
War is not just a question of who did what first. It’s not black, white cut and dry the way most textbooks will have you believe it is. War is a muddled shade of grey, a shade which can force a nation into bereavement or unify its broken heart. War is an instance where as much as one would have you believe it’s all about the politicians, the military, and the strategies, it’s just not. War is not something you can just put on a paper as a stat; it’s not something that only affects a patriotic few. War is convoluted, confused and complex. 

Simply put, War is human. 

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the reaction in America was fear; black outs, people running in the streets, cowering in terror on their couch because the Golden Gate Bridge was going to be hit too. This reaction some could say was expected amongst the confusion, but as the dust settled the tensions did not. Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War” blatantly exposes this idea of war being a human phenomenon. His heart wrenching anecdotes describing the hysteria present after Pearl Harbor show the reader how while we all have read that people were scared, the reality was something much harsher. The human element of fear drove a country to create internment camps and separate mother from child based sole on ethnicity. 

This human element, from the perspective of the soldiers, is discussed not only by Terkel but by Kershaw as well. Kershaw when describing the soldiers’ reaction to the news not only highlights the perceived façade of a quick war, but the fact that many men didn’t want to go to war. Most of the Bedford boys had enlisted to avoid the depression, not to go to war. How can one look at a text book and measure that? How can you put yourself in the shoes of those young men, angry at the “dirty japs” drinking whiskey almost on a daily basis to cope with the horror and not classify war as human? Stokesbury too hints at this idea of a human aspect to the war. While much more technical in his delivery Stokesbury makes comments that provide a better rounded perception of the human aspect of war. Stokesbury when describing the Japanese in both this chapter and chapters prior the author describes the Japanese is such a way one can’t help notice their frustrations. The European powers keep yelling at them for trying to build an empire in Manchuria and China, when the nations themselves all have large empires over similar conquered peoples. 

That national sense of wrong doing Stokesbury almost uses as reasoning behind the bombing of Pearl Harbor all together. The Basic component that is war as taught by a text book could never describe to you in any justifiable way the impact on the war that human reactions and emotions had. It is for this reason, not only, can a central theme in these three books of war being human in nature, be established, but in the entire direction that would follow as a result of this human aspect to war.

Week three readings

Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II (123-160)
Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont (3-39)

Ron’s Response
1. We start to see the role that innovations plays in WWII in this section. Discuss instances where science, technology, and general innovation played a key role.
With the industrial revolution in full swing throughout the leading nations involved in WWII, the knowledge and the tools existed by all to adjust and adapt to a changing battlefield. Each side was well equipped to exert their experience with the engineering process of innovation to out do the other side no matter what they created. One of my students, who has been researching the history of airplanes, showed me a quote basically saying that World War II started with biplanes and ended with jets. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like war I guess and the desire to destroy and defend rather than be destroyed. 

The magnetic mine used by the Germans is a classic example. It was very effective for the Germans until the British got ahold of one and reverse-engineered an effective and relatively inexpensive countermeasure. The war at sea fueled a tremendous amount of innovation on both the tactical level and the tool level. Throughout the war, the British, Germans and United States modified their tactics in the Atlantic. The British reaction to the submarine was the convoy system, an innovative way of handling submarine attacks with armed escorts. The British also developed the Q-Ship as an innovation against submarine attacks. The use of airplanes, the German’s modifications to their submarines and shifting tactics by both sides greatly advanced this form of warfare. Anti-aircraft submarines, acoustic torpedos, and snorkel breathing tools are among the innovations created in a naval war that wrecked great losses to all sides. As Stokesbury outlines, “More than 2,600 ships were sunk, totaling over 15,000,000 tons. The British alone lost about 30,000 sailors of the Royal Navy, and 30,000 of the merchant service. The Germans built 1,162 U-boats during the course of the war; 785 of them were sunk, 156 surrendered at the end of the war, and the rest were either scuttled or otherwise destroyed. Almost 41,000 men served in the U-boats; 5,000 were taken prisoner, and 28,000 were killed” (p. 131).

While science, technology and the spirit of innovation have brought us great things in the world, they have also brought us powerful means of being destructive. The desire to innovate seems to be stoked to higher levels at times of war. This is not just true in WWII, it’s been true for as long as people have fought. Many of our modern conveniences were conceived from these efforts and it’s a sad statement to our human priorities. It seems that our innovative spirit is fueled more to survive through violence rather than to thrive in peace.

2. Comments on “The Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont: 1940-1944” pages 3 to 39 (including introduction pages)
Something that resonated me even before reading a page of madame Osmont’s diary was the introduction by John Keegan where he states, “Her diary leaves us with a record for which there is no equivalent for the battle of Normandy, and very few from the whole history of warfare.” Keegan goes on to share significant battles where a civilian account, near the middle ground that always exists before great battles, would be a luxury item if it existed. Too often the civilians in just such an area are drawn into what’s going on or pushed out and almost certainly don’t have the time or wherewithal to keep a journal. I think the nature of the occupation of France and the separation across a waterway from the invading force made her journal more possible. The stresses, the fears, the extreme conditions do come through in her diary and really do show how impressive an account this is that it exists at all.

The question I’ll focus on is about the desire for the French to exist and how I might react in a similar situation. It is quite easy to say that one would involve themselves in the resistance movement but quite another to run those very risks in the process. To that end, I believe that madame Osmont is exerting a form of resistance to occupation due to her insistence of leaving her things as they are and working with the occupying troops but also maintaining a distance. She stands up to them, she learns how to manipulate them and she keeps an eye on them. She also listens to them and is civil with them so as to gain their trust and protection when it is warranted. This is certainly not active resistance made to halt the German war machine, but it is a passive resistance that exerts ones humanity and allows one to survive when the alternatives are so grim. She is aware of her limitations, she is hoping to keep her home and property mostly intact and she would like to see her community survive relatively unscathed. She knows that she has no control over this so follows the sage advice of keeping friends close and enemies closer. As if she has a choice, with them patrolling around her home, using her farm and sometimes her home. Nonetheless, she so far has kept herself out of trouble while also becoming more bold with her resistance.

Matti’s Responses
1. The French have a proud and storied history. Seeing the German army occupy their country could not have been easy. A desire by the French to resist was present. The consequences for resisting were serious and immediate. In that situation, how do you think you would react?
To be honest I don’t know that I could actively resist even though my mind insists that it is the most noble and courageous thing to do. Yet I think I would be so afraid of the gruesome consequences that I would just cave to the demands and try to just wait the war out “ under the radar ” so to speak. If any resistance were to come from me I think it would most likely be in the form of passive resistance, things such as pretending to be stupid and performing tasks at a slow pace. Otherwise I imagine myself as possibly trying to befriend some of the soldiers less content with their duties and trying to convince them to keep the other soldiers away from my property. However given my nature I do not believe I could actively resist the demands by the German military as a French citizen facing occupation.

2. We start to see the role that innovation plays in WWII in this section. Discuss some instances where science, technology, and general innovation played a key role.
In World War II the question of who was the best could no longer be determined by size or morale, it could only be determined by who had the best technology. Advancements in several fields changed the nature and tactics of war thus playing a key role in the direction the war would take and the impact it would have on those involved in war. Examples of this can be seen directly from events that took place during the war such as the leap frog like game played between the British and the Germans over submarine warfare. The Germans had created better submarines so the British developed better air craft carriers to counter this. The Germans then developed magnetically charged mines to sink the equally charged British ships and the British in turn developed a method of demagnetizing called degaussing to remove the charge from their ships, countering the Germans. Other innovations such as sonar, radar and new ways to send and intercept messages revolutionized the communications of war and played a central role in the way various operations were handled. The industrial technology side of the war also played a key role in the direction the war would take due to the need for better faster ways for countries to produce new machines.

There is an excellent quote on page 20: “Happy are the dead who do not have to see this sad thing.” Is she talking only about trees?
On page 20 when Osmont states “Happy are the dead who do not have to see this sad thing” Osmont is not only referring to trees but something much deeper. It can be inferred that Osmont is secretly expressing her wish to be among the dead things and not have to experience the horrors the war is inflicting upon all that surrounds her. It can also be assumed she is expressing jealousy towards her late husband who doesn’t have to experience the loneliness, fear and sadness Osmont is subjected to. Osmont sees these trees being unfairly cut down as an expense of the war in much the same way she sees her entire country and way of life being cut down and written off simply as an expense of war.


Week Two Reading

Week 2 – 2/4 to 2/11
Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II (69-122)

Ron’s Responses
1. To what extent did the realities of democracy slow or stop the ability of France and Great Britain to halt the German blitzkrieg into Poland in the fall of 1939?
The wheels of democracy move slowly, especially compared to the wheels of dictatorship and totalitarianism. Add in a militaristic viewpoint of the world and a very reserved approach to policing “rogue” actions and you create the very situation that took place at the onset of World War II. I was very interested to read about the reluctance of French and British military leaders and their vastly distorted estimations of allied versus German might. Stokesbury basically is contending that WWII could have been avoided if British and French military leaders had a more accurate sense of reality. “There is virtually no doubt that had [Britain and France] attacked vigorously, they could have broken through the thin screen of Germans to and across the Rhine. They could, and should, have easily defeated Germany, and the second World War would have never gotten off the ground.” (p. 75) The finger points more at the politicians, and rightly so, of those countries who were more than happy to accept the answer their generals gave them. In a democracy the military reports to the representatives of the people and while their answers are not supposed to be political, the politicians make it that way in their questioning and focus.

It was very convenient to not entertain the possibility of taking decisive action in support of an ally against a force that was not prepared to a concerted effort. At least by Stokesbury’s accounts, and I thought he laid the argument out quite convincingly, WWII was avoidable even after September 1, 1939 if the wheels of Democracy worked a bit faster and less cautious. Actually, not even less cautiously, just plain scared of another war of any magnitude. What they ended up with was a war that shifted the power structure of the world for at least the next century. For the record, while I don’t disagree with Stokesbury’s conclusions, I feel he takes too strong of a stance on this. His argument is well supported but overly simplistic with too many “what-ifs” left hanging for my preference. I’m sure he could convince me, but for now I’m a skeptic.

5. How did the people of Great Britain respond to the air raids?  In what ways was it Britain’s “finest hour” (114)?
The Battle of Britain stands out as the lead turning point of the European Theatre of World War II. Like Stokesbury said, “Had Britain succumbed, it is difficult to see how the war against Hitler would ever have been won.” (p. 114). He also makes the case that while the Battle of Britain emboldened the United States to get involved, it was a victory won solely by the British. “Britain saved herself by her own efforts, not by future goodwill,” Stokesbury said (p. 114). Those efforts included bringing Londoners to their knees and compelling them to unite together to not just survive, but make their best attempt to carry-on. It also allowed the British to hit Berlin with bombs putting pressure on civilians and politicians in Hitler’s backyard.

Stokesbury doesn’t come right out and say it, but Britain’s ability to hit Berlin emboldened the British as much as it demoralized the Germans. Not on a large scale, at least not yet, but it did a lot to prove the point that the British were strong and not being defeated. It’s hard to say you are winning when you have the enemy on the ropes and they still manage to land punches on your face. Much like in WWI where both sides wore each other out until new players arrived on the scene, the Battle of Britain bought enough time and allowed the allies to gather enough intelligence, for the United States to show up on the scene and be the game changer.

On a side note…
Something that keeps coming to my mind as I read is the lack of intelligence both sides had about each other. It really brings to light the extreme craving for intelligence that dominated the Cold War. Major mistakes were made in the bulid-up and fighting of WWII due to poor intelligence. Not that they gathered it all correctly during the Cold War, but there was such a more impressive effort to out think and outwit the opponent which brings us to today where intelligence is where the battles will likely begin and only after an enemy’s “intelligence infrastructure” is destroyed will a full-scale militaristic attack ensue. Just a random thought…

Matti’s Responses
2. Why was Finland (and later Norway) a key territory for the Germans to control?
Finland and Norway were major acquisitions for the Germans. By controlling them they were able to increase the flow of Swedish Iron ore, which was absolutely necessary to German industry and the creation of war materials. Also the German’s were able to with the taking of Finland and Norway destroy British and French moral with the crushing of the British Navy. This also allowed them to block the encroaching British naval blockade, thus setting them up for, as one could say, “smooth sailing” further on down the road. In addition to crushing enemy moral the Germans also were able to boost their own moral and allow their empire to appear larger and more impressive.

3. In Norway, how did air power trump sea power?
When it came to the Winter War , the skies were key. The foggy coasts of Norway made Britain’s pride and joy, the Royal Navy, obsolete. The advancements made by Germany in aviation by the time of the Winter War made the large slow moving ships, easy targets because while the large ships were easily visible by German air craft the air crafts themselves were not as easily spotted through the cloud cover and were much harder to shoot back at resulting in the sinking of many ships. The significance of air power had up until this time been largely ignored and Britain had felt overly confident that her navy could win where ever it could float. This meant that aside from the initial significance of sinking several British ships and obtaining Finland, the psychological effects caused by this as well made it so that the German people themselves not only felt as though their air power trumped Britain but that they as a people trumped them as well.

My favorite quote this week…
Is from page 103, ” After their delegation signed the surrender terms, Hitler danced his little victory jig outside the railway carriage and ordered that it be hauled off to Germany. He left the statue of Foch, but the plaque commemorating Germany’s surrender twenty-two years ago was blown up. ” I don’t know why but I don’t exactly see Hitler as the jig dancing type and I had to go back and reread this section to myself a few times before I was able to carry on I thought it was so funny!


Week One ReadingWeek 1 – 1/29 to 2/4
Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II (69-122)

Ron’s Responses
3. In the section on Italy and Ethiopia, Stokesbury says “conquest awaits those who are ready for it” (36).  What did he mean by that?
I believe that Stokesbury is stating that Italy laid the groundwork for the conquest of Europe to begin. With the quote, he jumps from Italy’s conquests in Africa to its attempt to conquest Spain, but I think it’s merely a continuation of the theme he began at the onset of the chapter, “Italy was the first of the World War I victors to go.” (p. 33). For the next three pages, he makes the case for Mussolini’s rise to power and Italy’s calculated maneuvering first through World War I and then through the interwar period. Mussolini set the wheels in motion, on the European front at least, that would lead to the greater battles that would be waged in World War II. “Only slowly did the demonic power of Hitler and the real potential of Germany overtake the perhaps illusory power of Italy.” (p. 35). Another supporting comment comes earlier on that page, “Yet gradually, by the mid-twenties, it became obvious that Mussolini was setting out on a policy of allying with and dominating all the revisionist states, those dissatisfied with the conditions after Versailles and wanting to do something about them.” Italy was ready for conquest and Hitler’s Germany was not far behind. Across the Eurasian landmass, Japan was paving its own path of conquest.

4. Why does World War II start in 1937?
The build-up and posturing of the first six years of the 1930s culminated in a lot of blood being spilled in 1937. It is the year in which the Axis powers crystallized thanks to Italy joining with Germany and Japan. All three countries were tipping their hands while the other powers of the worlds stood by, feigned weak responses, and trembled in fear over the prospect of another war. Stokesbury makes the claim that, “Although it was never declared, World War II had already begun” on page 46 after talking of Japanese actions against China in 1937. This Japanese invasion was brutal and virtually unstoppable despite the intervention of British and American ships. Meanwhile, in Europe, Germany had mobilized troops back into the Rhineland without a hitch. Hitler could see that France, England, the League of Nations, and others were inept or fearful of taking action. Mussolini was bogged down in Spain but holding up against the meager defensive provided by a smattering of volunteers from nations unsure of which side to fully support. Also, Hitler was emboldened when he realized his ideals could move forward even when his generals were hesitant. The year 1937 would have made for an interesting History Day topic because it was certainly a turning point in history.

On a note about Stokesbury…
I find his writing to be very well voiced and it’s easy to imagine listening to him as you read it. I keep finding myself trying to get into his head and look beyond the words to piece apart the way he has chosen to tell the story. Stokesbury inserts snarky comments, witticism and personal commentary but I’m curious to know where he places himself in our modern global context. Do his remarks only reflect the time or is he trying to influence readers to modern discussions/debates as well. Statements like, “Their basic weakness stemmed not from the war, but from the attitudes of their governments, and even more fundamentally, of their citizens. People eventually get the government they want…At bottom, their basic problem was a lack of national will. Among the dictatorships, there was no such problem.” (p. 32). It matters not what Stokesbury thinks of modern times as I read this book, but it makes for some interesting fodder for discussion and thought when framed on contemporary issues.

Matti’s Responses
1. Why could historians refer to World War I and II as one conflict with an extended break?
Historians could refer to World War I and World War II as an extended conflict due to the fact World War I was never completely resolved. Due to the fact Germany and the Central Powers were seen as the aggressors of World War I, the allied powers during the peace talks post war didn’t give the central powers a voice and tried to accomplish peace by restricting them. However, these stipulations not only upset the central powers. The demilitarization and stipulations that the peace talks called for meant Britain would have to downsize her precious navy and Italy wouldn’t receive control of the North Adriatic as she had wanted. The general negative feeling that remained then post war in most of Europe fueled the tensions that had never really left, typified by the desire of the French to cripple Germany economically.

By the time Hitler had rose to power these tensions were painfully evident and through a façade of an internal police force Hitler built up his military thus going against the peace talk decisions. The desires of World War I, for Germany to rise as the dominant European power, began to show through again when the German military moved into Rhineland uncontested and the tensions of World War I began to boil over into what would later be known as World War II. Even though there was a 25 year break between the two wars the failure to resolve the first, as shown by the issues stated above, is why Historians can refer to the wars as one continued conflict.

6. How did the deal between Germany and the Soviet Union save the Soviets when the Germans decided to invade?
The nonaggression pact signed between the Russians and Germans in August of 1939 provided a cushion of 100 miles between the soviet frontier and Germany through the splitting of Poland. At the time, the Russians by signing this pact denied British and French Pleas for aid but also saved themselves casualties early in a war that was not entirely theirs to be fighting. This further down the road would save the Russians from a Nazi offensive when the Germans decided to invade this area of Poland, potentially saving many Russian soldiers lives.