Skip to main content

War Books for Civilians

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

United We Stand! By Hanson W. Baldwin. Whittlesey House. $3.00. America and Total War. By Fletcher Pratt. Smith and Durrell. $3.00. Strategy of the Americas. By Fleming MacLiesh and Cushman Reynolds. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $2.50. America in Arms. By John McAuley Palmer. Yale University Press. $2.00. Toward a New Order of Sea Power. By Harold and Margaret Sprout. Princeton University Press. $375. What the Citizen Should Know about the Army. By Harvey S. Ford. W. W. Norton. $2.00. What the Citizen Should Know about the Navy. By Hanson W. Baldwin. W. W. Norton. $2.00.

One of the effects of war is to turn military criticism and forecast from a science into an industry. Today the occupation shows great competitive hardihood, and its members each have survived crises of miscalculation and deflation. True, Captain Liddell Hart, the leader of the school that produced the blueprints for an unbeatable defensive war of “limited liability,” went so far off that he has had to resign his eminent position; but followers of his, such as Major George Fielding Eliot, who assured his readers that “General Mud” would stop the Germans in Poland and that the French army was “Europe’s best,” are still working at the old stand.

At least two of the authors represented in the present sheaf of books have committed recent similar boners: Hanson W. Baldwin, The New York Times expert, describes the Soviet army in “United We Stand!” as “ignorant, static, without that spark of enthusiasm and initiative that makes great armies”; and Fletcher Pratt, the oracle for Time magazine and The New York Post, declared within a week after Hitler’s attack that the Russian armies were already beaten, and that “only a miracle” could save them. It might be questioned, then, whether full weight should be afforded their opinions on other topics. But this skepticism is the result purely of the experts’ predilection for Delphic prophecy; when they devote themselves instead to reasoned analysis of background, they are thoroughly worth reading and comparing.

The question which underlies all these books, from the scholarly narrative of the emergence of a new American navalism after 1918 to the crisp surveys of our present strength in the “What the Citizen Should Know” series, is this: Can we fight a war on two fronts? The question at once leads the authors back to the basic problem of all armed force: How to keep that force concentrated and intact when it is in danger of being engaged upon several sides. The authors agree that we could not at the same time fight offensively both in the Atlantic and the Pacific without fatally dispersing our forces. Upon which front, then, should we hope to attack, and upon which must we be ready to retreat?

Harold and Margaret Sprout, in “Toward a New Order of Sea Power,” the second volume of what is to be a definitive history of the rise of American sea power, lay clear the background. The first World War seemed to confirm Mahan’s central doctrine that the hit-and-run guerilla warfare of raider and submarine could never defeat a nation which possessed a fleet of great ships. But the theory was confirmed only by a slender margin: Britain almost went down before Germany’s U-boats. And the War diluted Mahan’s conditions as well: in place of one sea empire based upon strong points all about the globe, now there appeared several sea empires. The huge growth of the American fleet was answered by an even more rapid swelling of the Japanese (from four capital ships in 1914 to a projected twenty-five for 1927); and, what was more ominous, the assistance which Japan had given to the Allies against Germany had to be repaid by awarding to the Island Empire the German possessions in the Pacific, with the result that the advanced American bases were outflanked, and Singapore was threatened. Mahan’s doctrine had foreseen a dominant sea power fighting a sea-raiding land power; but not a sea power being attacked in force by another sea power which had sheltered waters at its disposal (i. e„ the Sea of Japan) from which to descend upon the bases of the first.

It was assumed in England, even in 1919, that a Japanese assault would be accompanied by threats near home; and thus there appeared the specter of dispersed forces and endangered communications. Here was the problem which Anglo-American diplomacy spent two decades trying to solve: the problem of a multi-front war, or of a war upon a remote front, where the attacker’s objectives were immediate, and the defenders’ interests far-flung.

Lord Jellicoe wanted to solve it by stationing a fleet of fourteen capital ships at Singapore; but the Washington Naval Treaty scrapped his fourteen ships. Then Britain tried to solve it by declaring that she could do nothing about the Pacific, and that the United States must take on the job. But this was a solution for only so long as Britain maintained clear superiority over every possible combination in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. This—since one must now count French ships as Axis ships—she failed to do. As a result the two-front problem, once Britain’s headache, has now become America’s crisis.

Captain W. D. Puleston, the former chief of Naval Intelligence, recommended some time ago that in case of an Axis attack we should charge with our entire fleet into the western Pacific and endeavor there to knock out Japan, to whose sea forces, he said, ours were in every respect superior. This was a plan after the model of von Schlieffen, the German strategist of 1914: one front was to be denuded while a decisive victory was to be sought on the other; thereupon the forces were to be hurled bodily across to throw back the first invader.

The writers in the present collection are not so sanguine. Mr. Baldwin agrees with Captain Puleston that we must not try to fight in both oceans simultaneously; but he thinks that our best bet is in the Atlantic, while the far Pacific may become our graveyard. He doubts that we could hold the Philippines, but he is sure that we can sit tight at Honolulu while we busy ourselves elsewhere driving the Germans off the Atlantic. Mr. Pratt, too, reminds us in “America and Total War” that Manila is almost five thousand miles west of Hawaii, and that our big ships would find no proper docking facilities when they reached it. So he counsels cruiser and submarine warfare in the western Pacific, while we are to keep our main forces nearer home.

Fleming MacLiesh and Cushman Reynolds, authors of “Strategy of the Americas,” are the most doubtful of all of our Pacific chances. They think we ought to abandon our Far Eastern interests entirely, post the fleet on guard in the Atlantic, and rely upon a few remaining cruisers to “harry the Japanese fleet as it advanced eastward.” Our job, as they see it, “would be not to fight a fleet action but rather to avoid one.” These arguments have the merits of caution and conservatism, but they overlook the question as to why the Japanese fleet should want to “advance eastward” at all. Japan’s advance is aimed not eastward into the ocean wastes, but southward at the specific goal of Malaya. If she gets Malaya—as Messrs. MacLiesh and Reynolds seem willing to permit her to do—she gets our rubber and our tin, and she will hardly feel the need of getting our elusive fleet as well.

Another point which these authors seem to skirt, in their preoccupation with Atlantic over Pacific, is this: just what function would our immense procession of seventeen battleships serve when riding off Iceland or Brazil? The British already have fifteen such ships. The Germans, on the other hand, at this moment probably have only one battleship to pit against them; the Italians, perhaps four; and Admiral Darlan, possibly two. So the British have been diverting their battleships to convoy protection, a use for which they are ill designed. The Atlantic crisis is a cruiser and a small ship crisis. It is on the Pacific and not on the Atlantic that the threat pointed at us is one of battleships. Thus it seems logical that we should put our battleships in the Pacific. And since technical opinion holds that our battleships are better than their opposite numbers, and since we can muster more of them than can Japan, it would also seem logical that our strategy should be to seek out, and not to avoid, a fleet engagement. The hazards of such an encounter, far from home bases, would be great indeed. Yet if we suffered defeat in it, national disaster would still not strike us. The Pacific might be lost, but our territorial integrity would still not be threatened. On the other hand, if the Japanese were defeated, their whole program of aggrandizement would collapse; they would lose the war.

In discussing our second line of defense—the army—the authors of these books follow Mr. Baldwin’s reservations about its present ungainliness and unevenness. They differ, however, upon what its ultimate shape ought to be. Mr. Pratt, stressing the complexity and specialization of modern weapons, opposes the idea of a mass army that will conquer by sheer weight of numbers, and pleads for an expert American infantry made up of only the best and most intelligent material—each man to be, as Mr. Pratt describes the personnel of the air services, an “officer type.” General John McAuley Palmer, in his short treatise, “America in Arms,” takes issue with this doctrine of an expert professional army and proposes permanent conscription along the Swiss pattern. He takes his start from a document, long forgotten, in which George Washington counseled the establishment of a national militia. But General Palmer does not mention the fact that the French army was a conscript army such as he proposes, and that so were all the other armies which fell.

The short “What the Citizen Should Know” surveys of Harvey S. Ford and Mr. Baldwin upon our army and navy, respectively, should serve as excellent layman’s guidebooks to the present state and organization of the two services. But the evidence of huge departmental complexity, cross-purposes, and red tape which the two volumes sometimes unconsciously adduce provides support for the proposal which Mr. Baldwin advances in his other book, “United We Standi” His plan is that we set up, over and above all other joint boards, planning divisions, and the like, a Higher General Staff, whose purpose will be to integrate all our weapons—our political and economic and diplomatic weapons along with our military ones. This Staff, he thinks, should be permanent and part civilian; it should devote itself to all long-term problems of hemisphere defense. Any attempt on our part to fight with military weapons only, while leaving aside the far more mighty weapons of national morale and inter-American belief, cannot, he thinks, succeed against totalitarian attack. And in this all the authors agree with him.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading