What the War Was Really About

United States Air Force Archives
Allied B-17 bombers flying toward Germany with an escort of long-range fighters

Different kinds of historians have tended to emphasize different reasons for the Allies’ defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. The more traditional military historians put the stress on the varying qualities of leadership on the two sides. They contrast the inspiration provided by Churchill and Roosevelt and, in a very different way, Stalin, with the remoteness of Hirohito or the unbalanced decision-making and growing withdrawal of Hitler from public life during the war. Generalship counted for a great deal in this view too. Brilliant German military figures like Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, or Erich von Manstein were hamstrung by Hitler’s constant meddling and rigid insistence on outright victory or total defeat. They were outmaneuvered by such leaders as Georgy Zhukov, Bernard Montgomery, and George S. Patton, all given much freedom by their political bosses to pursue their own tactics in the light of the military situation of the moment.

Economic historians, naturally, have pointed to the huge disparity in resources between the two sides, with the Allies outproducing the Axis powers many times over in arms and ammunition, while Japan ran out of food and Germany ran out of fuel. More recently, as the records of the secret services during the war have become available, “intelligence historians” have made the case for the turning of the tide through vital breakthroughs in gathering information, decrypting enemy ciphers, and mounting elaborate exercises in deceit and deception.

Many historians have sought to identify vital “turning points” in the conflict, from Ian Kershaw’s “fateful decisions” taken by the leaders of the belligerent powers to Philip Bell’s list of battles and conferences that set the Allies on course for victory.1 On a broader basis, Richard Overy, whose writings have encompassed both military and economic history, canvassed a variety of reasons Why the Allies Won, to quote the title of his 1995 book, and came to the conclusion that “the Allies won the Second World War because they turned their economic strength into effective fighting power, and turned the moral energies of their people into an effective will to win.”2

Like Overy, Paul Kennedy is a historian who has always tried to see war and international relations in the round. He is properly skeptical of some of the more exaggerated claims made by partisans of one approach or the other. The repeated assertions by “intelligence historians” that one “intelligence breakthrough” or another changed the course of the struggle are, he suggests, unprovable unless they are assessed in a broader setting. The list of intelligence failures in the war, he points out, is a long one, from the French ignorance of the German advance through the Ardennes in 1940 to the American blindness in the face of the planned Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Top…

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