Hanson Baldwin on the World War II “Second Front Debate” and The Loss of Eastern Europe

Hanson W. Baldwin (d. 1991), a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, was the 1943 Pulitzer Prize winning military-affairs editor for The New York Times, and prolific author. Recognized as one of the nation’s leading authorities on military and naval affairs during the World War II (WWII), and Cold War eras, Baldwin’s  remarkably compendious 1950 monograph, Great Mistakes of the War, remains one of the most esteemed post-mortem assessments of U.S. WWII politico-military strategy.

As I have discussed elsewhere (here; here), Baldwin’s Great Mistakes of the War indentified four “great—and false premises” which undergirded certainly the crucial political component of U.S. “politico-military” policies, vis a vis the Soviet Union, pursued during the WWII-era: 1) that the Soviets had jettisoned their aggressive drive for global Communist totalitarian hegemony, via “revolution”; 2) Stalin was a benevolent leader and true U.S. ally; 3) even during  the latter stages of the war, the Soviets might seek a separate peace with a (then retreating) Nazi Germany; 4) entreating the Soviets, unnecessarily, to join the war against a tottering Japan, oblivious to the dangers of Soviet hegemonic pursuits in  Asia. Baldwin is pellucid in identifying the fundamental (and willful) delusions upon which these false premises were based:

Russian aims were good and noble, Communism had changed it stripes.

Baldwin’s analysis (pp. 25-45) drills down, objectively, on the so-called “Second Front” military debate, and its enduring geopolitical consequences, as a salient example of the operational impact of these false premises (i.e., 1-3).

As is his wont, Baldwin immediately highlights one of the essential philosophical differences between the British and U.S. strategic outlooks:

…fundamentally, the British evaluation was politico-military; we [the U.S.] ignored the first part of that compound word.

Britain’s traditional policy, for centuries, Baldwin notes, “had been to check the expansionism of Russia.” He concedes that, “In 1942 and 1943, with the Russians in deep retreat and the Germans almost at the Caspian, the British may not have foreseen 1944 and 1945, with the Russians entering the Balkans…” However, Baldwin continues, the British,

…perceived clearly the political importance of this area [i.e., the Balkans], and they saw that an invasion there would preserve it—in the best possible manner by soldiers on the ground—against either Russian [emphasis added] or German interests…Thus the British believed Germany could be beaten and the peace won “by a series of attritions in northern Italy; in the eastern Mediterranean, in Greece, in the Balkans, in Rumania, and other satellite countries.”

Baldwin recounts an obvious impediment to the British forcefully promoting their sound political argument about thwarting Soviet hegemonic aspirations:

[I]n conferences which Russian representatives attended an effort had to be made to maintain the stability of the unnatural “Big Three” alliance that had been created. It must be remembered that during the latter part of the war it was Britain that filled the role the United States now occupies [circa 1950], of chief protagonist vis-à-vis Russia, in the battle for Europe.

As Baldwin also notes, the “British preoccupation with southern Europe” was not based exclusively on geopolitical arguments, emphasizing: “the British were never stupid enough to think they could win the peace by losing the war.” He observes,

Their military logic was good, although the difficult Balkan terrain did not help their arguments. They believed an invasion through the “soft underbelly” would catch the German Army in the rear, would find recruitment of strength from the doughty Slavs of the occupied countries, and would provide via the Danube a broad highway into Germany. But the British clearly were thinking of winning the peace as well as the war…

Despite the soundness of Churchill’s (representing the British) geopolitical and military arguments, Baldwin writes,

…on November 30, 1943, the invasion of Normandy was finally decided at [the] Tehran [Conference], and Stalin strongly supported the southern France invasion [emphasis in original], rather than a trans-Adriatic operation into the Balkans which was mentioned by Roosevelt and backed strongly by Churchill.

Major General John R. Deane, was the U.S. Military Mission head in Moscow during WWII, and he attended the late 1943 Tehran Conference. Deane’s 1947 analysis, The Strange Alliance—The Story of Our Efforts at Wartime Cooperation with Russia, provides these additional telling observations about the “Second Front” discussions in Tehran, and the consequences of the course of action decided upon:

Stalin knew exactly what he wanted—the second front in France, and the quicker the better. Churchill based his argument on the disastrous effects of a long period of inactivity that would be necessary for most of the forces in the Mediterranean if they had to remain idle until the invasion took place…Stalin wanted the Anglo-American forces in Western, not Southern Europe; Churchill thought our postwar position would be improved and British interests best served if Anglo-Americans as well as the Russians participated in the occupation of the Balkans…From the political point of view hindsight on our part points to foresight on Churchill’s part. It will always be debatable whether Churchill might not have been right even though the action he proposed put an additional burden on our resources and probably would have prolonged the war.

Notwithstanding the Second Front military debate, Baldwin’s irrefragable characterization of the geopolitical landscape its “resolution” begot, makes clear that the strategy was a geopolitical disaster:

…the dominant factor in the political complexion of Europe after the war was the presence of the Red Army soldiers in all countries east of the Trieste-Stettin line. The eruption of the Russians into the Danube basin gave them control over one of Europe’s greatest waterways, access to Central Europe’s granaries and great cities, and a strategical position of tremendous power at the center of Europe.

He then carefully and persuasively argues how a Southern European invasion might have averted this “unfortunate climax” to a war of alleged “liberation,” which left half  of Europe enslaved by Soviet Communist totalitarianism:

Champions of the western invasion point out that attack from the south might have permitted the Russians to advance through northern Germany, almost unchecked, to the Low Countries, and perhaps even into France. This seems highly unlikely. [emphasis added] In the north the Nazis fought in defense of their own soil; in the south, of alien soil. The bitter last-ditch German defense on the Oder and the bloody battle of Berlin showed the type of fanatic resistance the Reichswehr [German army] offered in the north; in the Balkans, on the other hand, resistance was sporadic. A large-scale Mediterranean invasion might have been mounted some months sooner than the June, 1944, attack in Normandy; bases already were available in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and the dirty Channel winter weather was not a factor. There was a real chance, as Churchill believed, that a push from Belgrade up the Danube into Czechoslovakia, eastern Germany, and perhaps into Poland would have beaten the Red Armies to northern Europe. A southern invasion, in any case, presupposed a war of limited military objectives and definite political aims, not unconditional surrender or unlimited conquest. It implied a beaten Germany but also a weakened Russia. [emphasis added] And attack through the “soft underbelly” and invasion from the east were never mutually exclusive operations. One naturally complemented the other; this was particularly true after the successful invasion of Normandy. There can be little argument that the invasion of southern France two months after the Normandy attack had little military, and no political, significance; our main effort in the Mediterranean should have been transferred from France and Italy across the Adriatic. [emphases added]

All of this Churchill and the British had clearly foreseen; none of this insofar as the public record goes, did we foresee. Not all [emphasis in original] Americans, of course, were so completely bereft of political foresight. But those who possessed it were not in positions of power. A paper was actually written in the old Military Intelligence Division (G-2) of the War Department warning of the exact dangers which later developed. But the authors had their ears pinned back by a superior, who told them sharply: “The Russians have no political objectives in the Balkans; they were there for military reasons only.” [emphases added]

And Baldwin concludes, ruefully,

Today [circa 1949/50] some of the principal architects of our policy understand their mistakes; and many of our great military figures of the war now admit freely that the British were right and we were wrong. For we forgot that all wars have objectives and all victories conditions; we forgot that winning the peace is equally important as winning the war; we forgot that politico-military is a compound word.

Writing in 1949, Baldwin was not privy to the full record of the late November, 1943 Cairo Conference proceedings, which were not released in full, as Diana West notes in American Betrayal, until 1961. Her stunningly original and meticulously documented analysis records how, unbeknownst to Baldwin at the time he wrote Great Mistakes of the War, even General Eisenhower opined the following at Cairo on November 26, 1943:

Italy was the correct place in which to deploy our main forces and the objective should be the valley of the Po. In no other area could we so well threaten the whole German structure including France, the Balkans and the Reich itself. Here also our air would be closer to vital objectives in Germany.

The next best method of harrying the enemy was to undertake operations in the Aegean…From here the Balkans could be kept aflame, Ploesti [Rumanian; a significant source of oil for Nazi Germany ] would be threatened and the Dardanelles [a Turkish strait, connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara] might be opened.  [emphases added]

Finally, West’s American Betrayal supplements Baldwin’s astute—and sobering—politico-military analysis with a disturbing exposition of the fanatically pro-Soviet influence operation orchestrated by FDR “Deputy-President” Harry Hopkins to extinguish support for the Mediterranean invasion approach advocated by Churchill and the British. Chapter 9 of American Betrayal is linked in full as a fitting updated epilogue to Baldwin’s conclusions published over six decades earlier, here: CHAPTER NINE_AMERICAN BETRAYAL_blog

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