Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference in 1943.
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference in 1943.
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ANY attempt to specify authoritatively the most important military decisions of the Second World War would require too much by way of preliminary definition to be possible in reasonably short compass. Yet to join together, however sketchily, some of the events which to one individual marked the general pattern of the war may induce other more serious efforts and possibly provoke a reappraisal of some events heretofore overlooked or taken for granted.

In spite of the extraordinary press coverage of World War II, so many facts remain undisclosed or obscure that even the large generalities of strategy have to be stated with caution. The necessity for such a warning is rather spectacularly borne out by the disclosures resulting from the statements of former German and Japanese officials who have been interrogated since the close of hostilities, and by the documents which were made available at the war criminal trials and thereafter. For example, there is no need to debate further the once lively issue of whether Hitler was bluffing when Chamberlain and Daladier surrendered Czechoslovakia to him without a fight. The Nuremberg documents show incontestably that Hitler was prepared to invade Czechoslovakia immediately and to take on a general European war then and there. Although some obscurities still cling to the Soviet-German alliance of 1939, there seems to be little room for doubt that the Soviet Union then agreed with Germany to carve up Poland and other parts of Europe, and that Mr. Molotov even appeared willing to join the Axis as late as the spring of 1941 if the Soviet Union were made a full partner. Again, the disclosures contained in the minutes of the Hitler-Matsuoka conversations in early 1941 in Berlin, dealing with the impending Japanese attack on the United States and Hitler's "blank check" commitment to Japan, make inconsequential the American decisions respecting Japan in the summer and fall of 1941, which appeared important at the time.

The German campaigns in Norway, the Low Countries and France, following the "phony war" of 1939, involved many brilliant tactical decisions on the part of German military leaders, but for the first great military decision of vast strategic importance one is disposed to pass these over for the British decision, in the summer of 1940, to reserve out of the fighting in France a sufficient remnant of the Royal Air Force fighter command to meet the threat of an attack on England itself.

With rare foresight a small group of men in Great Britain had projected the design and the production of what for that time were the unusually speedy and heavily-armed Hurricanes and Spitfires of the Royal Air Force. The Force was tiny as compared with the size of subsequent fighter forces but within its orbit -- England and the Channel -- it was capable of blasting any existing German planes out of the air. The finest British military energies and intelligence seem to have been concentrated on this narrow field, for in most other respects the prewar military planning of the British was less developed. But, as at the Pass at Thermopylae, it was just at this point that the then very limited but special strength of the defender could be best applied against the invader. It was the determined and steadfast opposition of certain leaders of the Royal Air Force to any wasteful use of these planes on the Continent which really saved the day for Britain. If the remaining force had all been thrown in against the general German advance, it would have disappeared like water on a hot stove and with about as much effect.

It was applied over the French evacuation beaches at the end of May and the beginning of June 1940. This, in reality, was the commencement of the Battle of Britain, and the air superiority which this fighter group insured enabled 225,000 British and 113,000 French and Belgian soldiers to be taken safely across the Channel, out of the very maw of the German armies, in less than a week. Thereafter came the heavy German air attacks on England, commencing on August 8, 1940. Of what ensued all the world is now aware. But in contemplating the fine tribute which Mr. Churchill paid to the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force, one should always recall that homage is also due those whose hasty but effective planning gave to the pilots at the critical period the excellent planes which enabled them to deal with the German bombers. And to those even fewer airmen, physicists and engineers who had seen the need and had designed the means for anticipating the German attacks through the use of radar should go thanks as deep.

There are other decisions which rank with these in their ultimate significance, but it is difficult to think of many, particularly if we confine ourselves to a consideration of those of a predominantly military character. The writer summed it up elsewhere as follows:

As the perspective lengthens, this phase of the war stands out perhaps as deeply significant of the ultimate course of the conflict as any development which came later. Until then Hitler had called the tune and his conquests which had matched some of the very greatest of all military history lost much of their momentum at just this point. Thereafter his complications accumulated, and he was compelled to improvise new avenues of conquest. Relying on what he assumed would be the inability and unwillingness of Britain to continue to oppose him after the collapse on the Continent, no adequate plans for a timely or full scale invasion of England itself seem to have been prepared. The Luftwaffe, well conceived for bombing over the battlefield and rear areas in the field, was not adequately designed for the defeat of a nation such as Great Britain. Britain stood, resolute, if shaky, and with her stood hope and the vast strategic consequences of her continuous lines of communication and bases around the world. Her stand signified the preservation of a great bastion in the Atlantic by which reentry to the Continent was possible, a great and firm base in, through, and from which her own continued strength and the great powers of the North American Continent could be delivered.[i]

It might be said that Hitler's decision to attack Russia was a military move and that it carried with it such untold consequences as to justify placing it ahead of the decisions which led to the organization of the air defense of Britain. The area where the political begins and the military ends is always an uncertain and hazy one, but the motivation for the attack on Russia was so much a reflection of the strange mind of the leader of the German state and his unholy ambitions that it is not justly comparable with the kind of choice which the military leaders of Britain made in respect of their use of the Fighter Force in 1940.

It is difficult to deal with the Russian military moves in any detail due to lack of information, but the decisions which left in reserve such a large amount of strength to throw against the Germans, after the heavy battles nearer the frontier, were of the greatest importance. The determination to hold Moscow and to stand fast at Stalingrad stand out as critical. In the case of Russia, as in the case of the United States, the specific decisions as to war or peace clearly were made by the enemy. But so little is known of how and when and by whom most of the subsequent decisions were made that, at least from this distance, we can only speak in generalities about them.


Before coming to the great military decisions which determined the conduct of the war on the part of the United States, it is necessary again to refer to events of a political nature. Though political, their military implications were so great that we cannot follow the course of the actual hostilities without reference to them.

It has already been suggested that the actual entry into hostilities was really decided for the United States by others. If Secretary Hull had made a complete surrender to Japanese expansion plans in the Far East early in his conversations with Admiral Nomura, it is arguable that war could have been temporarily averted. However, the long-held intention of those in control in Japan to intensify the already existing aggressive warfare in the Far East, to seize the Philippines and attack British and Dutch possessions, is now too clear to suppose that any concessions in the summer and fall of 1941 would have meant more than a brief delay. And, if Japan chose to attack the United States, it is clear that Hitler intended to join Japan immediately in war against the United States, which indeed he did before the Congress of the United States could itself act. There were, however, earlier decisions which were of vast importance in determining the manner in which the United States was to wage war if war should come. They fell into two categories -- those which determined that the line of hostilities should be held away from American shores and those which determined that the United States should prepare a total mobilization of the energies of the nation for war.

In the first category we should perhaps start with the "quarantine" speech of President Roosevelt at Chicago on October 5, 1937. Though the President appeared to draw back from time to time thereafter from this strong position, it remained a note of warning to the aggressors and became a true guide to United States policy. Considerably later came the "stab in the back" speech of June 1940, and then the highly important "destroyer deal" of September 2, 1940. Of almost the same order of significance was the introduction of Henry L. Stimson into the Cabinet. A resolute statesman always, he was well known to be a proponent of a most positive policy against aggressors by his stand against Japanese aggression at the time of the Manchurian affair and, more recently, from his New Haven speech of June 18, 1940.

The crowning decision of this phase of United States policy was, of course, the introduction of the Lend-Lease legislation into Congress in January 1941. The determination to make our supplies available to the anti-Nazi forces was an eloquent indication of the determination of the United States to keep hostilities from American shores. At the time, most Americans still hoped to pursue limited objectives -- "aid short of war." But Lend-Lease was likewise mighty evidence that preparations for an "all-out" effort were under way. So important was this legislation that a brief account of the manner in which it was conceived and carried into effect, as it lies in the mind of one who was closely associated with its genesis and the earlier stages of its execution, seems justified.

Prior to the passage of this Act all efforts to make available any military supplies to those who were opposing German and Japanese aggressions met with a perfect tangle of statutory restrictions. Over the years the limitations on any form of disposal of any Government equipment, whether military or not, whether surplus or obsolete, had so proliferated that no immediate substantial transfer to other countries was possible. It became evident that the threat from the Axis was growing stronger, that the tour de force of the destroyer deal would not stand repetition, and that the old process of monetary loans was fraught with such economic and political complications that it could not be applied. It was therefore determined to propose legislation directly authorizing transfers of all types of supplies to those nations whose defense was deemed to be vital to the defense of the United States. Mr. Stimson's naturally forthright approach and his instinct to grasp at the nettle of any problem played a large part in the choice of the method adopted. In the last analysis, however, it was the clear-sightedness and strong leadership of the President which gave direction to the policy. The preparation of the legislative program was given over largely to the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Morgenthau, and he turned over the drafting of the Bill to a few members of his staff headed by the General Counsel of the Treasury, Mr. Edward Foley. In an incredibly short time H.R. 1776 was drafted and presented to the Congress.

Equally important as the decision to keep the war as far as possible from United States territory was the determination to commit the whole nation's strength to the winning of the war if the nation was to become involved in it. It is one of the strange quirks of history that the initiation of one of the most important decisions in this regard, that is, the adoption of Selective Service in the early fall of 1940, cannot be credited to the Administration. Indeed it was not until the advent of Mr. Stimson that the measure was urged or actively sponsored by the War Department. It required the foresight, vigor, and effective effort of a group of citizens, headed by the indefatigable and purposeful Grenville Clark of New York, greatly aided by such men as Senators Austin, Burke and Gurney and Representative Wadsworth, even to convince the War Department authorities that the legislation was worth attempting in peacetime. As the movement gathered momentum, Administration and War Department support gathered behind it. On September 16, 1940, for the first time in the history of the country, universal military service in time of peace was prescribed for the nation. The importance of this step on the future conduct and outcome of the war is hard to overestimate.

There are those who constantly repeat, on the occasion of every consideration of such a measure, the utterly discredited theory that modern war requires simply a highly-trained professional force of moderate size. Wishful thinkers are prone to urge that "science" rather than men win wars, that "mass" armies are useless, and it becomes the fashion to play with crisp phrases, such as "hard hitting," "streamlined," "scientifically trained," "highly mobile," as applied to military units, all adduced to contend against the necessity for training all the eligible manpower of the nation for modern war. (The demands on trained and disciplined manpower in atomic war, if it should ever come, will, of course, be greater than ever before.) The example of 1940 should be borne in mind by all those who are tempted to advocate lesser measures when the defense of the country is involved. Without the 1940 legislation there would have been no attack in 1942 in Africa, nor could such an attack as the United States was able to maintain through 1943 have been possible. While speaking of critical decisions affecting the course of the war, there should always be included the one-vote margin by which the House of Representatives defeated the proposal to release all draftees who had served one year in the forces. Just four months before Pearl Harbor the United States came that close to losing an effective army.

In reference to this second phase of our preparation for war, there should be mentioned the initiation of the so-called Victory Program in July 1941. Though American public opinion was not to accept completely the necessity of an all-out effort until Pearl Harbor, there was put on paper that summer the plan for the full mobilization of the nation's strength. A most important and well-prepared element in the program was the portion dealing with the development and employment of a great strategic air force. The program also included the estimate of the needs in manpower, ships and industrial mobilization of the United States for the complete defeat of the Axis. It also included an estimate of the needs and the productive possibilities of Great Britain and provided for the pooling of resources of the two nations.

The President gave his approval and his inspiration to the project. To him should go the chief credit for its conception, though there were many others involved in a lesser capacity. Among them should be named Major General James H. Burns, now retired, who worked first with the Under Secretary of War's office and later with the Combined Munitions Assignment Board. General Burns gave inspiration and impetus to the program in a manner for which he forever deserves well of his country. Major Wedemeyer (now Lieutenant General) was the main draftsman of the War Department plans for the military units and their employment, all of which were a corollary of the adoption of Selective Service.


Now come the decisions which were explicitly military. In the summer of 1941 important conversations were initiated between the United States and United Kingdom military authorities. They were informal, but they led to the conclusion that the defeat of Germany should be the first main objective of any eventual combined operations. The President took no formal action on the results of these conversations, but at the Atlantic meeting of Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, which took place between August 9 and August 12, 1941, for the first time the two leaders dealt with the application of the respective strengths of their two countries in the event the United States became directly involved in the conflict.

These meetings confirmed in effect the earlier military conversations (with some changes), and thereafter the principle was accepted that, assuming the United States became involved, the defeat of Germany was to be given priority until such time as the combined strength of the two countries was sufficient to deal with both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters on an equal basis. This was a decision of the greatest consequence, for it determined that our effort in the Pacific should at the outset take on a defensive character -- or at least no more than a character of aggressive defense.

In retrospect, the determination to apply the greatest power to the destruction of the German forces grows in importance. In the first place, there was always the enigma of the Soviet Union. Her strength was largely an unknown quantity. Russia had collapsed in World War I and things were going very badly for the Soviet Union following the sudden German attack of June 1941. Again, while the Soviet Union was in the war, the Atlantic approach offered the best opportunity to destroy Germany by an attack on two fronts and any respite given to such an enemy as Germany was dangerous in the extreme. It was with Germany rather than Japan that the greatest scientific and industrial war potentials lay. Moreover, delay might enable Germany to organize a vast European industrial potential to support her war effort. It was also feared that delay might give Germany an opportunity to form a juncture through India with Japan, if the U.S.S.R. could not hold out. Finally, it was realized that perhaps the chief obstacle to the transmission of any United States power to Europe lay in the German submarine. All these considerations led to the determination to treat Germany as the major threat and, in case the United States became involved in the war, to apply the combined energies of the United States and Britain against Germany as early as possible.

As things turned out, the submarine menace was conquered none too soon; for even as it was being conquered, new types of under-surface vessels were emerging which, through their speed under water and their ability to remain submerged for long intervals, reduced the effectiveness of our existing anti-submarine devices. Moreover, and perhaps even more important, any prolonged delay in attacking Germany would probably have meant systematic destruction of London and the ports of Southampton, Portsmouth, and Plymouth by means of the V-1's and V-2's. The V-1's began to fall on London in the very month that the Normandy invasion was undertaken.

Growing out of the decision to treat Germany as the main enemy were the plans for the creation of a large heavy-bombing force, with the attendant smaller air craft, to be made ready for attacks over the Continent at the earliest possible moment. It was this mighty supplement to the already powerful British air attacks which was to furnish the chief basis of all General Eisenhower's planning for the attack on the Continent, namely, overwhelming air superiority. He early recognized that a prerequisite to success was the power of an overwhelming air force to intervene decisively in a land battle on the Continent. The truth of this doctrine was to be demonstrated at Salerno and it was to be confirmed again in Normandy.

When one realizes that in the initial stages of the 1944 landing only five or six divisions were in the assault and when we consider how closely the Germans came to having a preponderance of air fighter strength through their more rapid development of jet planes, some concept of the importance of the time element in the Atlantic theater becomes apparent. It all relates back to the prewar plans to apply the full resources of the nation to the defeat of the enemy and the decision to bring them to bear first against Germany.

The Atlantic meeting was followed by the so-called Rainbow papers which implemented the purely United States aspect of the strategic plan. Generally speaking, they were the plans on which the United States fought the war. At this point the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all incipient doubts and demoralization, some signs of which were developing in the country during 1941, were wiped away. The attack galvanized the nation and solved many pending problems which the War and Navy Departments had been facing in their efforts to achieve a solid preparation for the threatened war. Shortly after the Japanese attack, the meetings known as "Arcadia" took place in Washington, December 24, 1941, to January 14, 1942. Greatly to the relief of Mr. Churchill, who was fearful that the earlier conclusions might be altered because of that attack, the basic strategy was again confirmed.

Thereafter there occurred between the United States and British representatives many debates, differences of opinion, and threats to alter plans, but never in the course of the war was there a fundamental departure from the basic pattern. This was due to many causes but very largely to the fact that there was set up at "Arcadia" the machinery of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. In spite of many divergencies of view, matters were ironed out and finally welded into a close coördination of plans. The fact that the Combined Chiefs of Staff, with such men as General George Marshall and Field Marshall Sir John Dill as the guiding figures, sat continually throughout the war, had much to do with keeping the incessant pressure on the enemy that finally brought his downfall. This phase of the Allied planning is in greatest contrast to the utterly divergent action which marked the course of Axis strategy.

Close upon the determination to afford priority to the European theater came the series of decisions which led to the agreement to throw the main British and American strength directly against Germany by an attack from the Atlantic side. That this was the only sensible thing to do was the view of the United States Chiefs of Staff from the start. It was accepted with reluctance by the British military leaders and Mr. Churchill, though it is doubtful whether Mr. Churchill ever questioned the eventual necessity of such an operation. To him an attack through France held the menace of untold casualties. He seems to have had before him always the dread prospect of a repetition of 1916 and 1917 when such a vital element of the young manhood of England was lost in the prolonged slaughter on the Somme and at Passchendaele. Though Mr. Churchill's inclination was to accept such an operation as eventually necessary, he constantly clung to the concept that it should take the nature of a follow through after Germany's grip on the beaches and in France had been loosened by other operations.

In April of 1942 General Marshall made a special trip to London to press home the necessity for an attack across the Channel as quickly as the essential lift and power could be mustered. The military representatives of both countries then agreed to implement such an attack and accepted the principle that all other operations were to be auxiliary or supplemental to it -- and with the least possible retarding effect on the main effort. The conference led to the plans for the operation whose code name was "Roundup" -- an attack in 1943 -- with "Bolero" as the build up program to make the necessary men and supplies available. As an intermediary step "Sledgehammer" was tentatively planned. The last-mentioned operation envisaged only a limited attack on the Continent pending the major effort. It was also to be made in the event it became necessary to cover the effect of a possible sudden collapse of either Russia or Germany.

It is not proposed to follow all the conferences which either reaffirmed or operated to postpone the cross-Channel attack. The reasons both for the attack, and for its postponement until 1944, seem to be sound. It was obvious that no major attack could be mounted in 1942 and the British War Cabinet made it clear in July 1942 that they would not coöperate in any stabs on the Continent in that year. But the importance of promptly employing the available forces of the United States was apparent. Consistently with the determination to push the war to the enemy, Mr. Roosevelt intervened to demand an attack somewhere in 1942. The British were in enthusiastic accord with the concept of any attack in the Mediterranean, and "Torch," or the combined British-American attack in North Africa, was undertaken. The staffs had been doing preparatory work for landings in this area and to the British the Mediterranean was a much more palatable and feasible area for immediate attack than France. Certainly no heavy effort could have been made in France in 1942. The vitally important "lift" for a full scale invasion simply did not then exist. "Torch" thus became the alternative to "Sledgehammer."

The decision to risk the North African landings proved to be a turning point in the war. That campaign demonstrated that substantial forces of the United States and Great Britain could be transported, landed and supplied in full far from their home bases. The plan was a bold one -- it was reported that General Mac-Arthur termed it "the greatest gamble in military history," though he felt the operation should be undertaken. There were many who agreed with him. The success of the landings threw the entire German effort out of balance, and the German leaders realized immediately that the strength of the United States had again become an enormous military factor operating directly against their plans for the consolidation of their European conquest.

The continuation of the Mediterranean operations was affirmed at Casablanca in January 1943 and, though the cross-channel operation was again subscribed to, it was clear that the "Roundup" of 1943 must become "Overlord" for 1944. Further reaffirmation of "Overlord" came at the meeting known as "Trident" in Washington, and later at "Quadrant" in Quebec in 1943. But it took a final and somewhat pointed discussion at Teheran in November-December 1943 really to convince all quarters that "Overlord," an all-out operation aimed at getting quickly at the heart of Germany rather than taking the long way round, was really to be laid down for early 1944.

Premier Stalin made it quite clear at Teheran that he took no stock in the Allied avowed intentions as long as no commander had been appointed. The justice of this point of view was apparent, and following the Teheran Conference the resumption of discussion by the British and United States representatives at Cairo settled the matter. In its settlement one of the most significant decisions of the war was taken -- namely, that an American rather than a British commander should be selected. At Quebec the nationality of the commander had been discussed and the wisdom of appointing an American had been stated. Mr. Churchill had tentatively promised the position to Field Marshall Brooke, but the force of circumstances was too great to allow this. The competence of the United States military men was certainly as marked as that of Britain, and the dependence of success so heavily hung on the provision of men and supplies by the United States that it seemed only appropriate that the commander should be an American. There was another reason: the United States had not been through the blood baths of World War I and its military leaders, backed by the full vigor of a youthful nation, were less impressed by the difficulties of a European conquest than those who were steeped in the memories of those terrible casualties. It was therefore felt by many that with American leadership the attack would be pressed with greater boldness and on a larger scale than might otherwise be the case.

One finds difficulty in finding the words to suggest this American feeling, since they should carry no imputation of lack of British will to fight or reflection on British military prowess. Nothing was involved but an attitude of mind toward a continental campaign. Whether the American feeling was sound is arguable, but it was a factor in the minds of those on the American side who took part in making the decision.

Mr. Churchill yielded and it was agreed that an American should lead. Whether he was to be General Marshall or General Eisenhower was of lesser importance than that the great attack should be headed, at least at the outset, by one whose country was relied upon to furnish the greater support. The British people and their leaders coöperated, the decision was accepted and made to work. After the decision was made there was no question in anyone's mind of holding back and a sustained period of intense planning by British and United States staffs continued from then to D-Day.

The merits of the cross-Channel operation and of its timing have been argued, but there really seems to be very little of a controversial nature left to discuss. Secretary Stimson and General Marshall are listed as the chief protagonists of the direct attack and Mr. Churchill as the proponent of a main effort in the Mediterranean, with the cross-Channel only as a follow up. We are not concerned with a reargument of the military considerations which led to the adoption of the plan. In view of the complete success of the operation as it was undertaken and the strain it took to find the lift in the form of landing craft for 1944, it seems idle to conjecture as to whether a different approach at a different time would have resulted in a quicker accomplishment of the military objectives. Indeed, since the war, most of the discussion on the matter has centered not upon military considerations but upon the possible postwar political advantages which it is felt might have been gained had the attacks proceeded through the Mediterranean. We frequently hear the remark that "Churchill probably was right," for the idea seems to have gained ground that it was for postwar political purposes that the British Prime Minister for a time opposed the landings in France. The thesis runs that the presence of troops of the western nations in eastern Europe would have greatly dissipated Soviet predominance in those areas, and that the result might have been fewer political and economic frustrations in Europe today.

In passing, it may be well to point out that any assumption that the political consequences of an "under belly" attack would have been advantageous is of somewhat doubtful validity. It is entirely possible that the western Powers are fortunate that they are not occupying more of Europe than they are now. If their troops and policies were intertwined with Soviet troops and policies in areas largely populated by Slavs, the complications and demands on their resources and patience might even be greater than they are at present. Furthermore, if the western Allies' main effort had been through the Mediterranean it is likely that even more of northern and western Germany would have been occupied by Soviet troops than at present. It is doubtful if the United States and Great Britain would ever have been able to maintain substantial numbers of troops in both Germany and southeastern Europe.

It may also be said that it is the feeling of many if not all those who debated the timing of the attacks across the Channel with the English Prime Minister that he never expressed his opposition to the Channel operation on political grounds. There were those who charged him with having political motives, but the general impression which he created upon those who did debate the issue with him at length and vigorously was that he sincerely held to his position for what appealed to him as sound and thoroughly military reasons.

Mr. Churchill has seen much of war and warriors; he comes from a warrior line and has written on military affairs at length. For these and other reasons he did not hesitate to consider himself sufficient of a strategist and tactician to be competent at least to debate military decisions with the professionals, if not to dictate to them. He certainly did not hesitate to express military views, and in the light of his experience in World War I he was naturally disposed, as has been pointed out, to take a rather dim view of landings in France or the Low Countries. "Beaches running blood -- Corpses in the Channel," these were his metaphors and the reasons for his hesitancy. His later attitude toward the attack on southern France, as against a landing in the eastern Mediterranean, may have had some political motive and his excoriation of "Anvil" or "Dragoon," as the attack on southern France in August 1944 was finally called, was vivid to say the least. History should, and particularly Mr. Churchill's own account no doubt will disclose the full motivation; but pending such enlightenment we should hesitate to ascribe to the British position in the cross-Channel operation political rather than military motives. It is said that the Prime Minister always felt that as the code description for the Southern France operation, "Dragoon" was peculiarly appropriate since he always stoutly maintained that he had been dragooned into it.

If we may return to Casablanca for a moment, it can quite reasonably be contended that, apart from the decision to continue the Mediterranean operations and prepare for "Overlord," another decision of moment was made there, namely, to undertake, as a major employment of the United States heavy bombers, a sustained daylight bombing attack on Germany. Daylight bombing had been heavily criticized by some elements of the British Air Force, but the United States Army Air Forces had great confidence in their ability to take out specific targets in daylight with their heavily armed and armored B-17's. It was later proven that their confidence was justified and the decision was deeply significant. It was by the early concentration of heavy bombing attacks on targets which directly affected the maintenance of the German Air Force that the vitally necessary air superiority to cover the 1944 land operations was insured.


Thus far little has been said of the Pacific. It deserves no slight, for the outcome of the war there has had a profound effect on the future of a vast area of the earth's surface. The dominance of the United States in the Pacific, and the shakeup of the Orient as the result of the war, may well have greater long-range consequences than the defeat of Hitler. Yet it is extremely difficult to find parallels in the Pacific to the type of decisions made in the Atlantic war. The reason for this is largely geographic. The Pacific area is devoid of countries and nationalities of anything like the character of those in Europe. A military landing in France, for example, necessarily touches off more consequences and more comment than the occupation of a coral reef or even a large island in the Pacific.

We have seen that the entry of the United States into the Pacific war was determined by the Japanese. The decision to attack Pearl Harbor ranks on about the same level with the German decision to attack Russia in 1941. The Japanese move certainly started a train of events which classes it as one of the major decisions of the war, but it was based on even greater miscalculations than the German decision. In some quarters there has been put forth the fantastic theory, advanced with a persistence worthy of more intelligence, that President Roosevelt deliberately put down his defenses at Pearl Harbor in order to induce the Japanese to attack. The argument runs that thus he hoped to counter the prevalent anti-war sentiment in this country and, on the strength of the national reaction to such an attack, freely enter the war in Europe. This rather venomous suggestion need not detain us, but the very fact that it is advanced indicates the extremities to which it is necessary to go to find any semblance of positive or overt action by the United States responsible for the start of the war in that area.

We have referred to the early agreement to make the Pacific a secondary theater pending such time as full strength could be mustered in both the Atlantic and Pacific. This, however, was decidedly negative as far as the Pacific was concerned. Consequently, though there were a series of military decisions of supreme local importance in that area as bold, as courageous, as intelligent as any which were made in any other area, they appear to have resulted mainly from the developments of the great battle as it moved across the ocean with the growing strength of the United States. Certain of these decisions are no less interesting or provocative of discussion than the decisions taken in the Atlantic.

In surveying the course of the Pacific war, one is disposed to place the order given to the forces in the Philippines to stay on and fight it out on Bataan as the first of the important decisions. Although really capable of only one outcome, this determination, to the writer's mind, remains one of the most spectacular and also important choices of the Pacific war. At the time of the initial Japanese attack on the Islands there was no time or thought for anything but fighting back. However, after the United States and Philippine forces had been driven back on Bataan, but considerably before the total exhaustion and envelopment of the troops which followed about two months later, President Manuel Quezon proposed by cable on February 8, 1942, that the neutrality of the Philippines should immediately be declared and that further fighting should cease. It should be noted in fairness to President Quezon that the proposal was made after consultation with American advisers, military and political.

Though the successful withdrawal to Bataan gave an opportunity to continue a stout, even if eventually hopeless defense, no prospect could be held out, and none was held out, for the relief of the garrison. Sickness and fatigue already were striking the command, but any effort under these circumstances to declare the Philippines "neutral" and to cease fighting could only have been unfavorably construed. To have ceased fighting at this point would certainly have given great heart to the Japanese and marred the strong moral position of both the Philippines and the United States in the Orient. The stalwart fight that had already been put up in the Philippines had been the one thrilling development in a whole series of disasters which up to that time had marked the attempt to check the Japanese. The uncertain defense of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula had already deeply affected the position of the western nations in the Orient.

To cut short the fighting with a declaration of a somewhat belated and questionable neutrality, however painful the alternative, was impossible. Any step which could be interpreted as a display of weakness on the part of the United States at that stage of world affairs had to be excluded. The response from Washington was immediate, for on February 9, 1942, the order to fight it out was dispatched to the United States troops and President Roosevelt cabled President Quezon of his inability to accept the suggestion, at least so far as United States troops were concerned. The destiny of the troops and of the Philippines was fixed by this reply to the Quezon proposal and both Filipino and American units continued the fight until the possibility of further resistance was completely lost. It should be added that President Quezon loyally accepted the decision and gave his full support to the continuation of the fight. This decision not only was of great moral significance, for the continued resistance tied up substantial Japanese forces and energies when time was a great factor in the Pacific. It also rendered necessary the subsequent decision to return to the attack in the Philippines in 1944, rather than, as was later urged by some, to by-pass the Islands for Formosa.

Another decision of importance was General MacArthur's determination, in the closing months of 1942, not to stand in Australia and await the Japanese attack there but to take the battle to New Guinea, hold Port Moresby, cross the Owen Stanley Range, and seize Buna. It was, of course, bold, vigorous and right. The action caused a breath of air to move through the whole heavy atmosphere which up to then had largely pervaded the Pacific scene.

Of at least equal if not greater importance was the decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, really initiated and pressed by Admiral King, to land and fight at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in August 1942. The agreement to make the Atlantic the main theater and stay on the defensive in the Pacific might have justified a watch-and-wait policy in the Pacific, and there were other lines which could have been held in the Pacific besides the line of the Solomons. It was obvious that the Japanese were directing their thrusts down the Solomons to the southeast in order to cut the Samoa-Fiji-New Caledonia route to Australia. The determination to break up that attempt and fight the Japanese, ready or not, on that line stands out as great as any decision of the Pacific war.

Preceding this decision the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway had occurred and, but for the losses sustained by the Japanese, particularly in naval aircraft and pilots, the Guadalcanal operation probably could not have been carried out successfully. As it happened, it took the form of a rather tight fit with the limited carrier and cruiser strength which the United States Fleet then possessed.

The fact that it was decided to fight at all on this scale and with such boldness in the Pacific, before any large offensive operations were undertaken in the Atlantic, had a profound effect on the course of the Pacific war. Moreover, the fact that the effort was successfully made at this point, in the teeth of the heaviest determination on the part of the Japanese to resist it with all the naval, air, and land strength they could muster, created qualms in the Japanese High Command which even the Coral Sea and Midway losses had not aroused.

Admiral Nimitz's decision to concentrate his strength off Midway after the Coral Sea Battle may not fall into the category of grand strategy even though it produced one of the three great air-naval engagements of the Pacific, the others being the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle for Leyte Gulf. Admiral Nimitz took fine advantage of the help which his excellent intelligence gave him. He placed the United States strength in a position to reduce the Japanese naval power to a point where the greatly superior shipbuilding capacity of the United States could rapidly give the American Fleet unquestioned ship and air superiority throughout the Pacific. Midway was a definite turning point in the Pacific war.

Another outstanding decision in the Pacific was the resolve to cut directly across the Pacific, attack Kwajalein, by-pass Truk, and go straight through to the Marianas in 1944. There were great doubts about the attack on Kwajalein; even Admiral Spruance, who was a firm advocate of the central Pacific thrust, doubted the wisdom of an attack on Kwajalein. However, Admiral Nimitz was for it and the Kwajalein operation turned out to be one of the easiest of the Pacific undertakings, instead of a greater Tarawa, as was feared. Admiral Nimitz then made the decision to go directly through to the Marianas, by-passing Truk, and this decision was strongly supported, if not recommended, by Admiral Spruance and Admiral Sherman. Truk had for a long time been the assumed objective of the United States Naval Forces, but the growing realization of what could be done by air power in neutralizing positions of this character prompted the bolder and more effective course. Japanese forces were fatally split as a result of this operation and after it was completed large numbers of them to the south were left merely to "die on the vine."

Moreover, with the taking of Saipan, Guam and Tinian the doom of Japan was sealed. In this decision to seize these islands lay a recognition of the value of strategic bombing in modern warfare. In the Pacific just as in the Atlantic theater, the assumption of overwhelming air superiority was a decisive factor in the contemplation of any landings near the enemy's home base. The B-29 bombings of Japan's industrial cities from the Marianas combined with the great effectiveness of the carrier forces produced this superiority just as it was induced in the Atlantic theater by the weight of the strategic bombing force on the German air industries combined with the direct attacks of hand fighter forces in the combat areas.


In any list of striking decisions the writer would be tempted to include Winston Churchill's dispatch of badly needed troops and material from England to Egypt in 1940 and 1941, while the British Isles were in threat of immediate invasion and the long passage to Africa was hazardous in the extreme. Though no decision was gained in the Middle East at that time by this action, at least this critical area did not then succumb to Axis attack. Whatever the immediate effect, the very boldness of the strategy places it in front rank as a great military decision.

Admiral Andrew Cunningham's management of his slender naval resources in the Mediterranean during the same period was not only brilliant -- it ranks with some of the best accomplishments of Nelson -- but it held important consequences for the future.

In this class of brilliant tactical conceptions and excellent execution are General MacArthur's moves up the ladder of New Guinea to the Philippines and his decision to land the Sixth Army at Lingayan Gulf, which led to the early capture of Manila. In the same class was General Eisenhower's prompt comeback at the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45, and his decision to destroy the German Army west of the Rhine.

The extraordinary record of success which the United States submarines turned in throughout their operations in the Pacific should certainly be placed high in any estimate of the basis for military success; it involved careful planning and imaginative decisions, as well as great boldness and intelligence on the part of the crews. What the submarines did to reduce Japanese effectiveness is not yet fully realized. Another factor of the Far Eastern victory which tends to be underestimated is the completely devastating effect of the B-29 bombings on the Japanese cities prior to the bombing of Hiroshima.

One other spectacular military decision should be mentioned before we bring this appraisal to a close. When one considers what was at stake and the enormous responsibility which attended it, it is difficult to find a decision more acute, more wearing, or more personal than the one made by General Eisenhower as he fixed D-Day and gave the signal for the attack on the Normandy beaches in 1944. General Eisenhower was the one person, and the only one, who could make the decision. In spite of all the force at his disposal, and all the information he possessed, there were still vast uncertainties before him. An armada had once been dispersed, close to these very waters. Any serious disruption of all the delicate timing of the Normandy invasion might mean a great disaster. The success or failure of this mighty attempt was the "pay off" for many agonizing years of effort and sacrifice on the part of many nations.

Only at certain intervals were tidal conditions such that the attack should be attempted. The day first set was discarded because of weather threats, and on the next possible day the weather was still uncertain. If the attack did not take place that day it would have to be postponed for a prolonged interval. Eisenhower had many considerations to weigh; but he chose that day in spite of the uncertainties, and it is rather grim to record the fact that the next day on which the tide would have been favorable, June 19, 1944, the great three-day storm hit the beaches which destroyed the "mulberries" and the "gooseberries" in the unloading areas. It is probable that a disaster would have occurred had the landings been in process when the storm struck.

No reference has been made to the tremendous decisions which were made in connection with the atom bomb. No emphasis is needed to make apparent the awe-inspiring character of the decisions to start work on it, to continue the work on it, and to employ it. They are not discussed here because they have been fully dealt with by the man who as much as any man living had to do with those decisions.[ii] Nor has the writer mentioned the implications of the Yalta Agreement or certain of the decisions taken in preparation for the Japanese surrender, including the provisions made for the eventual position of the Supreme Commander in Japan. These decisions, while well worth discussion, relate more to postwar political consequences than to their effect on the course of the war.

In summing up, the decisions which most importantly affected the United States' participation in the war seem to have been the early determination to prepare for a total effort, to direct the first energies to the defeat of Germany, and to get to the heart of Germany as quickly and directly as circumstances would permit. The course of the Pacific war was also set by these strategic choices. They were steadfastly adhered to in spite of many temptations and much pressure to turn away. After 1943 the important decisions were, except in rare instances, made in the theaters where the course of the battle was then flowing. There remained not much more for Washington to do but keep the pipelines of men and supplies full and to keep the authority to deal with the course of the battle decentralized, as it should and must be, to the theaters of operation.

Many will differ from the estimates which have been made above. They are based mainly on memories and impressions and certainly do not purport to be authoritative.

Possibly all that need be said by way of summary is that, however appraised, the decisions which have influenced the course of events of the last ten years seem to have brought the civilized world face to face with the problem of its own preservation.

[i] "Ten Eventful Years," Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1947.

[ii] Cf. Henry L. Stimson, "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb," Harper's, February 1947.

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  • JOHN J. MCCLOY, President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; Assistant Secretary of War, 1941-45
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