The Second World Wars

The Second World Wars

How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won

Victor Davis Hanson

Basic Books, New York, 2017, 720 pages

Book Review published on: October 6, 2017

Those interested in military history might well ask why the world needs yet another one-volume account of World War II in the absence of fundamental new revelations. Still, Victor Davis Hanson’s new contribution to the literature, The Second World Wars, should find a place in the front rank of efforts to produce a short but broadly comprehensive history.

Hanson organizes his discussion in a manner that is at once refreshing and insightful, but it could also prove somewhat problematic for those who are not steeped in literature on the war. Instead of treating the war chronologically or sorting it into theaters, Hanson prefers a topical treatment. Thus, he divides his discussion into seven broad sections: ideas, air, water, earth, fire, people, and ends. For those with substantial prior understanding of the war, this way of framing the subject offers intriguing lines of argument without neglecting concerns addressed in previous works.

Hanson leads with an analysis of the war against the background of classical thinking. On the first page, Hanson comments on the horrific scale of the struggle, noting, “World War II exhausted superlatives.” Otherwise, he argues, there is much about the outbreak of the war that is historically familiar, especially the actions of “humans whose natures were unchanged since antiquity.”

Unlike, some other histories by Western scholars, this one does not relegate the eastern front to the margins. Hanson asserts, “There was nothing like the Soviet Red Army before World War II, nor has there been since.” He successfully depicts the almost incomprehensible scale, ferocity, and tragedy of the Russian front. Soviet military losses of perhaps eleven million significantly exceeded the size of the original army with which they went to war. Civilian losses were even worse.

In a short chapter bound to attract the attention of history buffs, Davis assesses the leading figures of the war. He aptly captures the paradoxical figure of Stalin who somehow simultaneously orchestrated a critical expansion of Soviet industrial and military strength even as he devastated his own Red Army officer corps during the purges of 1937 to 1939. Davis oversteps when he cites the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a stupendous blunder, inexplicably pursued by Stalin who was “apparently clueless that Hitler would break it at his convenience.” There is, in fact, little reason to think that Stalin was trapped in some delusion about his ability to prevent war with Hitler. Rather, the policy choice was pragmatic (at least for the short term), ruthlessly coldblooded, and understood to be temporary by both sides.

Franklin Roosevelt, although he “lacked the historical vision of Winston Churchill,” likewise emerges as one who grasped the big strategic picture and ultimately became a “force multiplier of American industry and its twelve-million-man armed forces.” Leading a democracy in wartime posed distinct challenges evident since the Peloponnesian War, but it also perhaps afforded the strongest possible foundation on which a united nation could wage war. Hanson surmises, “Thucydides was right that during existential conflicts … democracies run by a single, powerful, though legitimate leader become the most effective war makers.”

In contrast, Hanson takes Axis leaders to task repeatedly. The author faults Gen. Hideki Tojo above all for his utter failure to grasp one of the fundamental lessons of American military history: there was no precedent for any American administration quitting a war, particularly if it had been attacked first. The decision to attack Pearl Harbor thus guaranteed a two-front conflict for Japan in the Pacific that it lacked the resources to win.

In summary, this work is both a highly readable history of World War II and a philosophical discussion about what insights can be revealed in light of the general record of war throughout the ages.

Book Review written by: Robert Baumann, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas