A Top-Down History of World War II - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Top-Down History of World War II

American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II
By Jonathan W. Jordan
(NAL Caliber, 624 pages, $28.95)

The most horrific and world-changing event in history traveling under one name is World War II. Some call it “the good war,” not because there was anything good about it, but because, compared to other armed conflicts, if featured a good deal of “moral clarity.” Meaning you can tell who the good guys and the bad guys were. (True, though even here there has to be a good deal of moral sleight-of-hand when it came to the Soviet Union.)

But this is setting a pretty low bar for calling something good. The bad guys in this one were almost unbelievably bad, and set new lows for human depravity. The death and suffering caused by the war was almost incalculable. There are various estimates of the numbers of fatalities — by battle, disease, starvation, freezing to death — caused across the world’s continents by the war of wars. The estimates vary, but most are between 50 and 80 million. Millions more who survived 1945 nonetheless suffered greatly from various losses and privations caused by the war. Holocaust survivors alone…

In addition to the massive human carnage, most of the world’s efforts and resources for six years went into defeating two expansionist fascist dictatorships. Nothing much was the same after the war as before. So it’s understandable and altogether proper that bookshelves groan with the weight of uncounted volumes devoted to the most destructive conflict in the planet’s history. And 70 years out from the end of this dreadful war, there are still new contributions to our understanding of it being published. Such a contribution is Jonathan W. Jordan’s American Warlords.

Of course World War II is not one story but millions of individual stories. By war’s end America alone had more than 12 million men in uniform (and a much smaller number of women). So there are many perspectives from which writers can illuminate the war. One is from the point of view of privates, sergeants, and lieutenants (not to mention seamen, chiefs, and lieutenants junior grade) who did most of the direct fighting. And there’s the view from the generals who directed things locally. George Patton was and is always good copy. 

Jordan’s view of the war is from the absolute top. He focuses on America’s high command. He chronicles how President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, and Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King directed America’s huge and unwieldy transition from an isolationist country with a tiny military establishment — in 1940 America had a smaller army than Belgium or Romania — to the arsenal of democracy and the most powerful nation on the planet, militarily, and economically, in less than five years.

Perforce, a history of high command decisions and actions will include transactions with other household names from the war, including Winston Churchill, whose strategic imperatives ranged from genius to delusional, from well-thought-out to impulsive. There are the workhorses, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Walter “Beetle” Smith. There are the show horses with redeeming military acuteness such as Douglas McArthur and Bernard Montgomery. There is the aggressive genius and unguided missile that was Patton.

And then there was the prima donna of prima donnas, Charles de Gaulle, who brought obstructionism and self-interest to new and unimaginable heights. (The world awaits an instrument sensitive enough to detect a contribution le Grande Charlie made toward allied victory. The ways in which he made it more difficult stand out.) We see the cold-blood reptile that was Joseph Stalin, an ally of convenience that FDR refused to recognize as a cold-blooded reptile.

The documentaries on the war make it look like a seamless and logical progression in both the European and Pacific theaters, from the dire days of 1939 to 1942 through victory in 1945. There were the Invasions and victories in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and then Northern France while striking the Reich with a strategic bombing campaign, and defeating the Nazi U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. The battles of Coral Sea and Midway slowed the Imperial Japanese Navy’s romp in the Pacific. This was followed by the island-hopping campaign that finally put America’s B-29s within range of the Japanese home islands, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki putting period and paragraph to the war.

Well, none of this was seamless, and the next step wasn’t always obvious. The various allies often had very different views of what should be done next, and who should be in charge of doing it. Views which they pressed vigorously. Inter-ally and inter-service rivalries were often fierce. Add to this the necessities of partisan domestic politics, and the war years were infinitely more complex than anyone would suspect from watching Victory at Sea, fine and inspiring production though this is.

Jordan’s contribution is the more remarkable in that he is not a professional historian. His undergraduate degree is in accounting and he now practices commercial and bankruptcy law in Atlanta. As he’s not a professor he doesn’t have endless free hours and endless assistants to help him with his research. As he’s not a professor he writes clearly, and sometimes with humor. He doesn’t flog any pet theory. He doesn’t promote any political agenda. He doesn’t write for academic specialists, but for the general reader, who will benefit from this important story well told.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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