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An Exchange on Dominoes

In response to:

Falling Dominoes from the October 27, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Before expounding on “Falling Dominoes” [NYR, October 27] and the perils of historical analogy, Theodore Draper should try to get his history straight.

Draper suggests that a domino theory “rationalization” (which he has read into the speeches of Sparta’s Corinthian allies) caused the Peloponnesian War. But he also quotes approvingly Thucydides’ famous remark that the “real cause” of the war was the growth of Athenian power and Sparta’s reaction. He seems strangely unaware that Thucydides’ interpretation flatly contradicts his own, and that Thucydides also wrote that the Spartans voted for war “not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of the allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians” (I, 88; my emphasis). Draper also writes that the Corinthians proposed to “challenge the expansionist Athenians in Potidaea,” the Corinthian “domino.” In fact, Thucydides’ Corinthians said nothing of the sort. They had all along pressed the Spartans to invade Attica itself (I, 71). The “ancient Greek example” that Draper cites is a complete invention.

Draper’s accuracy scarcely increases as he moves closer to home. His claim that in 1936 “Hitler was even prepared to retreat [from the Rhineland] if the French had shown any inclination to use force to make him back down” is untrue. German forces had orders to shoot, and Hitler himself, although intermittently nervous, showed no sign whatever of willingness to back down.1 Defeating him in 1936 would have meant war, as it had since 1933.

When he reaches 1938, Draper muddles both the politics and the military balance. The British had not “resigned themselves to follow[ing] the French lead.” It was Chamberlain, with his active, thrusting policy of preemptive self-abasement, who carried the willing but secretly ashamed French with him to Munich. Militarily, the French were not at all “inferior,” much less “hopelessly,” as Draper insists. They were not even greatly inferior in material terms a year and a half later, in 1940: they had more and heavier tanks than the Germans, and their air force, although outclassed, inflicted at least as many losses on the Luftwaffe in May and June as did the RAF in the August-September battles over England.

And what of Hitler’s situation in 1938, without Stalin’s quasi-alliance and the Soviet and Rumanian oil of 1939? In the fall of 1938, the Wehrmacht had only three armored divisions (not the seven, then ten better equipped ones of 1939–40), fewer trained reserves, a smaller and far less expert air force, and the well-fortified Czechs to face in addition to the West and probably Poland. Given those odds, could Hitler have achieved in 1938-39 the breakthrough in France that alone could have saved Germany from strangulation and defeat?2 It seems unlikely.

Finally, Draper’s version of the events of 1939 is sadly distorted. He passionately denounces the Anglo-French guarantee of Poland as a “dishonorable snare and deception” because the guarantors had no immediate means of backing it with force. But Anglo-French morality is scarcely crucial—unless Draper is arguing that the guarantee and promises of aid caused Poland’s refusal to become a Nazi satellite, and its consequent destruction. That was also the German view, but the evidence is rather different. Even before the guarantee, the Poles were undaunted: “This is clear: we will fight.”3

The real issue in 1939 was not Chamberlain’s “honor,” but whether Britain would make any attempt whatever to stop Hitler before he consolidated his Eastern European hegemony and moved on to bigger things. The guarantee to Poland was certainly inept, diplomatically and strategically, because it handed the initiative to Stalin. With war between the “capitalists” almost certain, Stalin could bid up both sides before opting for Hitler, the vivisection of Poland, the annexation of the Baltic States, and war against Finland. But for Britain itself, the guarantee had a decisive—if unintended—consequence. It forced a reluctant Chamberlain to declare war on Germany. That declaration could not save the Poland of 1939, but without it Poland might never have reemerged.

In castigating the guarantee, Draper is implicitly endorsing the only likely alternative: an isolated Nazi-Soviet war against Poland. Hitler preferred that, too.

I leave it to others to discover whether Draper is as misleading on American policy since 1945 as he is on the less recent past.

MacGregor Knox

The University of Rochester

Rochester, New York

To the Editors:

In your otherwise fine Vigintial Anniversary Issue [October 27, 1983] there are two errors which call for correction.

First, in Theodore Draper’s “Falling Dominoes” two extra zeros have increased the area of the United States from 3,623,420 square miles to 300,623,420! [The figure printed was 300,615,122.]

Second, Mary McCarthy on page 19 states, “He [F. W. Dupee] was the right man to send a volume of Casanova to, a posthumous work of Jim Agee’s (he knew him, they were at Yale at the same time)….” Not true because Agee went to Harvard, graduating in 1932 and never attended Yale in any capacity. The confusion doubtless arises from the fact that before graduating Agee was committed to work for Fortune Magazine. This was arranged largely through the offices of Dwight Macdonald, Yale ‘28, who knew Jim at Exeter. Fortune at that time was thickly populated with Elis such as Henry Luce himself, Macdonald, John Knox Jessup, Russell W. Davenport, Wilder Hobson (who became one of Agee’s best friends), and Archibald MacLeish who persuaded the Yale University Press to publish Agee’s first book, Permit Me Voyage. The connection with Yale was not at but with.

Richard Edes Harrison

Yale ‘23

New York City

The editors regret the misprint in Theodore Draper’s essay.

Theodore Draper replies:

Professor Knox’s letter exhibits a peculiar academic effrontery. It happens to be wrong in almost every particular, but why it should also be written with such vindictiveness escapes me.

The Peloponnesian War. Knox starts with an outright misrepresentation. I never suggested that “a domino theory ‘rationalization’…caused the Peloponnesian War.” In my very first sentence, I called it a “pretext.” That was Thucydides’ word for it. 4 Knox’s case rests on this slovenly substitution of “cause” for “pretext.” I merely followed Thucydides’ own interpretation counterposing “pretext” and “cause.”

The other point in question is whether the Corinthians asked the Spartans or Lacedaemonians to “challenge the expansionist Athenians in Potidaea.” Thucydides first says that the Potidaeans “went to Lacedaemon with the Corinthians to secure support in case of need.” 5 He later quotes the Corinthian spokesman as having called on the Spartans to “assist your allies and Potidaea in particular” by a “speedy invasion of Attica.”6 In effect, the Corinthians used Potidaea to get the Spartans to challenge the expansionist Athenians—that is the essential point. One might imagine, reading Knox, that the Corinthians said nothing of the sort about Potidaea and merely pressed for an invasion of Attica. Potidaea and an invasion were intimately related at this stage, but no one would ever know this from Knox’s distortion. My “complete invention” is defamatory nonsense.

The Rhineland. Was Hitler prepared to retreat from the Rhineland if the French had shown any inclination to make him back down? The evidence about Hitler’s intention is overwhelming. That an academic historian should have read D. C. Watt’s flimsy, little “Note” so uncritically and as if it alone could settle the matter is startling.

Watt starts out to break down the “myth” that “the German troops which carried out the reoccupation were under orders to withdraw if they encountered French troops….” His entire argument is based on the German Army’s orders. These were in any case not necessarily equivalent to what Hitler was prepared to do in the face of French resistance; the army orders could be expected to put the best face on an operation of such high risk. But Watt finally admits that even the army orders contemplated some sort of withdrawal: “The orders to withdraw, such as they were, applied only to those units which actually crossed the Rhine” [italics in original].7 But that is exactly the point; the German army had no intention of defending the Rhineland.

At the Nuremberg Trial, General Jodl testified that only three battalions were sent west of the Rhine, that “they acted only symbolically,” and that “the French covering army alone could have blown us to pieces.”8

But the real issue is what Hitler was prepared to do. Watt cites Hitler himself only once, in a footnote, to the effect that he told Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg in 1938: “If France had marched then, we should have been forced to withdraw.” Watt’s explanation, to cover up the contradiction with his own interpretation, is that Hitler wished “to overawe and impress Schuschnigg” with the futility of hoping to get aid from the democracies. But Hitler made the same sort of statement to his closest aides who had no need to be overawed and impressed. There are a number of such testimonials before the appearance of Watt’s note in 1966; I will cite three of the most authoritative, two of which came out after 1966 and which Knox might have taken into account if he had done his homework adequately.

Friedrich Hossbach, Hitler’s adjutant in the Wehrmacht, a most authoritative source: “The withdrawal of these troops behind the Rhine was intended if France should take offensive measures.”9

Albert Speer: Hitler “always termed the remilitarization of the Rhineland the most daring of all his undertakings. ‘We had no army worth mentioning…. If the French had taken any action, we would have been easily defeated; our resistance would have been over in a few days.’ “10

From the biography of General Ludwig Beck, chief of the German General Staff: “[Generals] Blomberg and Fritsch shared Beck’s views, and together the generals prevailed upon Hitler to send only small units into the Rhineland to avoid provoking the French needlessly. Then they made him agree to withdraw these units in case the French took strong action.”11

The least that can be said is that there is very strong evidence that my statement on this point was not untrue. I have gone to some trouble to substantiate it because Knox is so cavalier in dismissing it.

1938 and After. Here again Knox starts out with a misrepresentation. The “French lead” to which the British had resigned themselves was, as I indicated, military; it had nothing to do with who dragged whom to Munich. As for French military inferiority, the number of tanks and other such indicators at a given moment were not decisive in the French view. The French strategists were planning for a war of attrition, a long war, in which the decisive elements were “comparative industrial strength and manpower levels,” as shown in the book cited by me, Conventional Deterrence by Professor John J. Mearsheimer. In long-term factors, the French felt that they were inferior to Germany and, therefore, adopted a defensive strategy. Incidentally, Knox seems totally to ignore the basic analysis in Mearsheimer’s book, a strange negligence in view of my reference to it.

The fact remains that the French and British felt it necessary to go on the defensive in 1939–1940, thereby giving up “any intention of making good on the guarantee” to Poland, as I put it. The real issue is whether “Poland was encouraged by Great Britain and France to expect aid which they could not deliver.” Knox does not deny this; he even implies as much by describing the guarantee as “certainly inept, diplomatically and strategically.” That the guarantee also “forced a reluctant Chamberlain to declare was on Germany” is beside the point I was making.

The idea that I, like Hitler, implicitly endorsed an “isolated Nazi-Soviet war against Poland” violates the permissible bounds of historical disagreement. In fact, the failure to live up to the guarantee made possible the dismemberment of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia with minimal cost to themselves (there was no need for a Soviet “war” against Poland). But the shameful way I am linked to Hitler makes me wonder about the motive behind these gratuitous aspersions.

  1. 1

    D. C. Watt, “German Plans for Reoccupation of the Rhineland: a Note,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 1, no. 4, 1966, pp. 193-199.

  2. 2

    See Williamson Murray, “Munich, 1938: The Military Confrontation,” Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, 1979, pp. 282-302.

  3. 3

    The foreign minister, Colonel Beck, 24 March 1939, in Josef Lipski, Diplomat in Berlin (Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 503.

  4. 4

    Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War translated by Richard Crawley (Everyman’s Library ed.), p. 57.

  5. 5

    Crawley translation, pp. 28-29.

  6. 6

    Crawley translation, p. 35.

  7. 7

    Watt, p. 199.

  8. 8

    Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg, 1948), vol. XV, p. 352.

  9. 9

    Friedrich Hossbach, Zwischen Wehrmacht und Hitler (Goettingen 1965), p. 84. The German reads: “Die Zurüchnahme dieser Truppen hinter den Rhein war beabsichtigt, falls Frankreich zu Offensivmassnahmen greifen sollte.”

  10. 10

    Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (Macmillan, 1970), p. 72; original German ed.

  11. 11

    Nicholas-Reynolds, Treason Was No Crime (London, 1976), p. 108.

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