Giants and Germans Lose
At the time of World War I, I hadn’t even been born yet, and in World War II, I was still only a child. But those two catastrophes have shaped all our lives. Between the official end of the First, and the outbreak of the Second, was only 20 years. But it was enough time for my father, who had been a young British soldier in France (but happily never saw action) to get married, settle down in London, and have two children – me and my sister (who, again by good fortune, were away across the Atlantic for the entire War).
That War lasted seven years – three years longer than the First conflict. But, in terms of the number of lives lost in battle, the First was notoriously bloodier. The two sides were essentially the same both times, with some significant differences. But each time, at a crucial point, it came down to being Britain against Germany. I’ve now lived in America for most of my life, and what most interests me is the position of the United States in both World Wars.
Each time, the U.S. remained “neutral,” for more than two years, letting “them” fight it out over in Europe, and hoping not to get involved. Some indication of how nonchalantly Americans tended to regard the debacle “over there” can be seen in a single newspaper headline reporting the results of a baseball game, and of a battle on the Western Front: “GIANTS AND GERMANS LOSE.”
Many people today think that it was the sinking, by a German submarine, of the British liner, the “Lusitania” – with over 100 Americans aboard – which brought the U.S. into World War I. But that sinking happened in May 1915, and it was not until nearly two years later, in April 1917, that the U.S. entered the war. In fact, in the presidential election of 1916, Woodrow Wilson won a second term with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”
What, then, made the difference? Germany, too, had been anxious to keep America neutral, and was careful not to sink American ships. But, as the war went against her, Germany became more desperate. Her strongest weapon against Britain was the U-Boat, but it could hardly be fully effective if Americans were free to keep re-supplying Britain. Germany therefore instituted, in 1917, a policy of “unrestricted U-Boat warfare,” and began sinking “neutral” American ships. They knew this would probably bring America into the war, but (mis)calculated that, with the U-boats unleashed, they could starve Britain into submission before an American army could be mobilized and brought over.
Wilson, who was a great orator, now saw no alternative. In his speech before Congress, calling for a declaration of war, he used the memorable justification that “The World must be made safe for Democracy.”
You know the rest of that story.
But two decades later, the situation was in some ways remarkably similar. Britain had been at war with Germany for two years, and was now again at a critical point. Again, the U-boat was a primary menace (of which my father, a passenger on a torpedoed merchant ship, was very nearly a victim). Despite a strong “America First” movement to keep the U.S. out of the war – led by Charles Lindbergh – President Franklin Roosevelt had strong sympathies with Britain, and a warm personal relationship with the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
With Europe overrun by Hitler’s forces, Britain now found herself virtually without allies. Churchill saw that Britain’s last best hope once again lay in America. In a broadcast speech, he quoted a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough which began “Say not, the struggle naught availeth,” and concluded with the words “Westward look! The land is bright!”
But this time, the turning point came in a way hardly anyone expected. Most Americans’ attention was riveted on Europe. It was known that Japan had an alliance with Germany, and was a threat to her whole region. But, like Germany in 1917, the Japanese miscalculated that a single knockout blow would render the U.S. helpless. Hence, Pearl Harbor, which brought America to war not only with Japan, but, almost automatically, with Germany.
Japan had, in effect, saved Britain’s bacon. There were nearly five more years of fighting – but the ultimate outcome was hardly ever in doubt.
For me, the best thing about having grown up in a World War is that nothing since then has ever seemed quite so bad.