Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How past leaders fought wars

EXACTLY 68 years ago today, a very relieved Winston Churchill arrived in Washington after a perilous trip across the Atlantic on HMS Prince of Wales. He was ebullient, as his pal Franklin Delano Roosevelt had finally got his wish to become a war president, thanks to that little surprise at Pearl Harbour earlier in the month. And America's participation in what had become a world war was essential if the Nazis were to be defeated.

I've been reading an account of FDR as a war president, and it tells how Churchill arrived at the White House, his larger-than-life self turning the place upside down for Christmas: a big glass of sherry for breakfast, champagne and brandy at bedtime, and a long sleep in the afternoon.

It is clear from meeting notes and correspondence that FDR wanted in the worst way to be a war president, of course partly because he understood the dangers of Nazi world domination, but also because it suited him.

Churchill and FDR busied and surrounded themselves with maps of the war theatres -- the entire world. Send supplies to Stalin because Hitler's armies were facing a bitterly cold winter in Russian territory and that helped to contain any German moves westward; deal with Persian railroads to ship those supplies in; get serious about German plans to capture all of the Middle East's oil; decide what to do about those nasty Japanese who had conquered Southeast Asia in days and were about to enter the great "bastion" of Singapore by the north (the British guns pointing the wrong way) and inching closer and closer to India.

And, deal with Charles de Gaulle's ego as leader of the Free French while America played with Vichy (Nazi-friendly) France, trying to open a North African war front.

Prepare to take on the Japanese air force at Midway, the key to an eventual assault on the imperial homeland.
Buy up minerals in South America.

Send Christmas wishes to the beleaguered forces in Singapore and the Philippines, but little else.

They hadn't even decided on a unified command. Churchill wanted diffuse leadership as befitted a stretched and declining empire where he could manipulate (as was his wont, according to the American historian Kenneth Davis) what General George Marshall perceived as "a general penchant for indirection, dissemblance, and artful procrastination".

Roosevelt, knowing America was already becoming the "arsenal of democracy", wanted centralised leadership. Indeed, there was a little-known brigadier in army war planning named Dwight David Eisenhower, dealing mostly with tanks, who before long was to assume the most powerful position in the history of warfare as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. Things can change monumentally when the threat is life-threatening.

It makes current events seem positively trivial. True, there are epochal problems in the world today -- environment and terrorism, principally -- but there's nothing insuperable about either. Some self-sacrifice for the former, and good and internationally cooperative police work for the latter, are what will solve these. It's not as if there's an imminent threat to civilisation itself.

True, the Middle East smoulders as usual, but I'll bet Barack Obama begins to crunch his nutcracker on the parties next year. Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the world's biggest problems, but this is not something to lose sleep over.

But at Christmas 1941, Germany had an iron grip on continental Europe and obviously could conquer Britain itself if America didn't come to its aid. It could then proceed, with Japan, to dictate terms to the world. They'd started the murder of six million Jews.

Today, from America's point of view, the Russians and Chinese don't exactly have the kind of governments we'd prefer, but there is no problem working with either, and patience and goodwill are manifestly the way to get more of what we want rather than less. We're massively disarming jointly with Russia and undertaking huge economic agreements with China.

There's no Khmer Rouge destroying its own country anywhere, though the generals in Myanmar make quite an effort. Pakistan is in a mess but what else is new? Silly little Mr Kim in Pyongyang is a wasting asset for world trouble and the less we think of him the less danger he can pose.

There's never been a time in world history where so much peace reigned, not to mention, obviously, prosperity. Maybe I'd have a less rosy view of world prospects were I from the Maldives or lived in "Pashtunistan", but just imagine if we were looking at world maps today the way Churchill and FDR did.

Huge swathes of the globe with billions of people are stable and increasingly prosperous. If we didn't have the terrorists to trouble our sleep, I guess we'd have to invent them.

Sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, compared with firing up the US economy onto a war footing with half its industrial production dedicated to war-making, and millions of troops mobilising? It's small beans and Christmas, thanks!
By W.SCOTT THOMPSON professor emeritus at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University

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