The Day of Infamy at 70: The Care and Feeding of a Black Swan


In statecraft, there are:

  • truths: Oahu is an island.
  • assumptions: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels.
  • theories: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels. A fleet based at Pearl Harbor can attack into the western Pacific or block attacks into the eastern Pacific.
  • hypotheses: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels. A fleet based at Pearl Harbor can attack into the western Pacific or block attacks into the eastern Pacific. Moving the U.S. Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor leaves it close enough to deter Japan but far enough away to be safe from Japanese attacks.
  • guesses: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels. A fleet based at Pearl Harbor can attack into the western Pacific or block attacks into the eastern Pacific. Moving the U.S. Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor leaves it close enough to deter Japanese aggression but far enough away to be safe from Japanese attack. The Japanese lack the will or power to attack Pearl Harbor with carrier based planes.

These are all exercises in faith. Eventually, they all end up reduced to fable. But each flavor of faith or fable differs from other flavors in the rigor of ritualized attention it demands, the fallout when it is followed or ignored, and the lessons it aspires to teach its true believers. The biggest risk run by statecraft is mistaking one kind of faith or fable for another and acting on that mistaken belief. Acting on a guess you have mistake for truth when the truth is that it is only a guess creates a mismatch between hard truth and hazy guess. It’s the impact of these mismatch that separate the harmful from the harmless and the tolerable from the inevitably fatal.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposed two distinct spheres of human experience in The Black Swan:

  • Mediocristan: the realm of truths, safe assumptions, verifiable theories, reasonable hypotheses, and best guesses
  • Extremistan: the realm of absent truths, unsafe assumptions, fantasies slumming as theories, crazed hypotheses, and wild guesses

The titular black swan is the kind of event that separates Mediocristan from Extremistan:

  1. The black swan is disproportionately consequential.
  2. The black swan cannot be predicted.
  3. The black swan inevitably acquires a tight bodyguard of assumptions, theories, hypothesis, and guesses disguised as truths.

A black swan, contrary to its usual portrayal, is not always bad. In Taleb’s writings, black swans are neither intrinsically good or bad. A black swan is what you make of it. It can be a boon or disaster depending on its interplay with the residue of assumptions, theories, hypothesis, and guesses it collides with. The right residue of faith and fable can turn a black swan into progress. The wrong residue of accumulated mental debris can allow a black swan to set off a chain of cascading woe.

Yesterday, December 7, 2011, a day that is living in infamy, was the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese air raids on Pearl Harbor. One question, as usual, is automatically asked as scheduled: could the attack on Pearl Harbor be stopped? Each fable about Pearl Harbor strives to answer this annual question. Each fable differs in its particulars but their story lines clump together around a few premises:

  • Americans were innocent victims of Japanese treachery
  • Americans pushed Japan into war with a series of provocative sanctions but didn’t realize that the blowback included a Japanese attack
  • Americans expected Japanese attacks but though they’d be focused on seizing British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and not American targets
  • Americans expected a Japanese attack but thought it would fall on our forces in the Philippines or elsewhere in the western Pacific
  • The Roosevelt Administration knew there was an attack on Pearl Harbor but expected American forces in Hawaii to repel it
  • The Roosevelt Administration knew there was an attack on Pearl Harbor and deliberately sabotaged efforts to defend the base from Japanese attack

This focus on prevention is an assumption. These fables assume that the right warning to Japan, the Roosevelt Administration, Admiral Kimmel, General Short, or Superman would have prevented the tragedy. This is the purpose of the moral of their fable, elevating its slant on events and its conclusions to truth, assumption, theory, hypothesis, or (when honest) guess.

This longing for prophecy misses the point: the black swan came. The attack on Pearl Harbor sucked American and Japanese alike into the vortex of war in its full primeval fury, wild contingency, and brutal instrumentality. There were no more angels of prevention in the whirlwind. Theory and hypothesis went out the window, leaving behind the hard truths of bombs, bullets, and torpedoes, the misplaced assumptions of peacetime training, and the frantic guessing of frightened boys in metal boxes left to feed flammable petroleum and explosive powder.

Whether the right warnings would have made a difference at Pearl Harbor is unknowable. There were many balls up in the air. The Japanese had never performed a carrier launched aerial attack on a naval base. The Americans had never defended a fleet at its moorings from an aerial attack. If American fighters had been in the air, the Pacific Fleet had gone to sea, or the U.S. Navy been at battle stations, the Japanese attack force might have suffered higher casualties, killed fewer Americans, and sunk fewer ship. The Japanese plan assumed higher losses in men and material that the attacking force suffered so the lopsided outcome in their favor was a pleasant (but unnerving) surprise.

Surprise didn’t kill 2,402 Americans, sink four American battleships and two destroyers, and destroy 188 aircraft on the ground. The Japanese did and it was the poor American response that let them do it. The dysfunctional American effort is only partly explained by shock. American defenses were poorly organized and fatally split between an Army and Navy more at war with each other than the Japanese. The U.S. national security establishment, from Washington to Pearl Harbor to Manila ,was still running at peacetime tempo despite a world running at war speed. Japanese Navy fliers had recent combat experience in and around Chinese waters. The U.S. Army had experienced fliers to counter them but they were away training in and around Chinese airspace. It was the accumulation of small differences like these that disproportionately rewarded Japanese attackers and disproportionately punished American defenders.

So Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his war. FDR had wanted a provocation. FDR had actively conspired to trigger a provocation. However, it’s unlikely that he conspired to trigger this provocation. This provocation inflicted significant damage on FDR’s beloved Navy, the very instrument he needed to intact to win the war he wanted to fight. FDR’s preferred outcome would have been a Japanese (or, better yet, Germans) sneak attack on Mom, Home, and Apple Pie. An attack on Mom, Home, and Apple Pie would have been a massive symbolic blow but it would’ve left America’s core war fighting power untouched.

The critical decision in the care and feeding of a black swan is what you do afterward. This is where faith and fable meet contingency: statecraft sees opportunity or peril in a black swan through the lenses of the truths, assumptions, theories, hypotheses, and guesses that it brings to the scene of the crash. Many of the actions that leaders in this warring states period took were based on the faiths and fables they took away from their fighting the last war.

  • U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt took away several lessons from his experience during World War I. These were the lessons that led his actions following Pearl Harbor:
    1. The need to preemptively keep a single power from dominating Europe. Thomas Woodrow Wilson intervened against Germany because he feared that the threat of a victorious Germany meant the permanent militarization (“Prussianization” is what Wilson called it) of the United States of America. Wilson’s intervention, for all of its flaws, kept the U.S from Prussianization for another 19 years.
    2. The need to beat Germany (and anyone else) totally into the ground so they’re left with absolutely no illusion that they’d lost the war.
    3. The need for an unconditional postwar settlement that left the defeated no wiggle room to get out from under its treaty obligations.
    4. The need for more robust international security arrangements. FDR wanted the four quarters of the globe patrolled by the “four policemen”: the US, USSR, UK, and China. The facade of this four way division was a more muscular League of Nations 2.0 in the new United Nations. The reality of this four way partition was based on America running China as a puppet, reducing Britain to a compliant poodle shorn of its empire, and mesmerizing the USSR with personal charm.
  • For Winston Churchill, Member of Parliament; Lord of the Admiralty; Lieutenant Colonel, 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers; and minister of munitions, Pearl Harbor offered a replay of his experience of 1917-1918. Timely American assistance saved France and Britain from defeat and preserved his precious empire. American entry into World War II would also let Churchill propose countless variations on Gallipoli where American servicemen were repeatedly thrown against the Alps guarding Europe’s “soft underbelly” in the name of outsized British interests that seemed to balloon even as Britain itself shrank.
  • For Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler of the Bavarian Army, Pearl Harbor only confirmed the inevitable. Hitler’s strategy sought to create an integrated political and economic unit on the European continent with the power and clout to resist the material resources commanded by the Americans and British. This would prevent a replay of his experience of 1918-1919 when American and British material power forced Germany into armistice followed by an Anglo-American naval blockade in 1919 that starved Germany into signing Versailles. Hitler would first kick away the English-speaking power’s best tool on the continent, Soviet Russia, and then he’d be able to face the maritime military and material might of America and Britain with the full resources of Eurasia at his command. Hitler already thought FDR, president and tool of the center of world Jewry, was at war with him. Pearl Harbor only made the war explicit under international law.
  • For evil commie Joseph Stalin, it allowed him to live another day while setting the imperialists against each other, leaving the Communists to exploit the disarray after the war like Lenin did after World War I. Stalin didn’t even need a sealed train since he already had sealed moles in the White House.
  • The leadership of the Japanese army saw a rerun of their short but splendid wars in World War I and earlier in the Russo-Japanese War where the shock of quick and surprising victories by little yellow men over large white supermen led to a favorable peace before Japan exhausted its limited resource base. They hoped to bleed the soft Americans white through demoralizing defeats and brutal battles.

The actions these men and millions of others took were based on mental models they’d gleaned from previous experience but the actions they took were taken after the attack, in circumstances and challenges it created. Their past did not allow them to foresee the black swan of Pearl Harbor. But it’s not the black swan that matters. It’s how you care for and feed the opportunities and perils that the black swan unleashes.

In 216 B.C., a Carthaginian army led by Hannibal Barça defeated the Roman Republic at Cannae, reputedly sending over 50,000 Romans to their death in the course of one day:

Following the battle, commander of the Numidian cavalry Maharbal urged Hannibal to seize the opportunity and march immediately on Rome. It is told that the latter’s refusal caused Maharbal’s exclamation: “Truly the Gods have not bestowed all things upon the same person. Thou knowest indeed, Hannibal, how to conquer, but thou knowest not how to make use of your victory.

Whether Pearl Harbor was an American or Japanese victory to make use of remains an unanswered question. Whether FDR or his peers knew how to make good use of the event is ambiguous. The attack itself lasted only a few frantic hours. But the attack Pearl Harbor has been in constant use ever since. As original vintage memories of the attack fade, the black swan of Pearl Harbor wastes away to anonymous gray. Soon there will be no one left to care and feed it. But the faith and fable of Pearl Harbor, glommed from half-truths, lazy assumptions, tenuous theories, fragile hypotheses, and ignorant guesses, goes moralizing on. Any truth in Pearl Harbor’s faiths and fables will only show when the terrors of December once again descend on innocence out of another clear blue morning sky.

26 thoughts on “The Day of Infamy at 70: The Care and Feeding of a Black Swan”

  1. Wilson’s intervention, for all of its flaws, kept the U.S from Prussianization for another 19 years.

    Sorry to disagree with part of an excellent post but Warren G Harding kept the US from Prussianization for 19 years. The Progressives did not yield easily and they fought a rearguard propaganda war for the next 90+ years.

    A friend of mine (now 92) went to the 50th anniversary meeting at Iwo Jima in 1995 with his wife. He had been a young newly graduated ensign physician in the invasion. It was quite an experience. They saw caves that had been converted to aid stations by the Japanese and some of the carved out bunks had skeletons of the wounded Japanese soldiers still in them. Japan has severely limited the tourism on the island in recent years. Americans have trouble obtaining permission to visit.

    Had Hitler not declared war after Pearl Harbor, the Germany First strategy might not have been accepted. I doubt Roosevelt anticipated the reaction to the sneak attack. He was assuming an offensive in Asia.

  2. I should add that Prussianization to me means the Bismarkian state, not just militarism. I have some reservations about some of our interventions. A bigger threat is Progressivism.

  3. I think the fundamental problem is that: (1) black swan events are by definition rule breaking and (2) large organizations like corporations, governments and militaries run by manipulating sets of rules. The bigger the organization, the more rule driven it is. Organizations simply have immense trouble processing the possibility of a radical change in game.

    In the military, these rules are doctrines. Doctrines are grand assumptions about how wars will be fought. They lay down rules for where and against whom a conflict will originate. They lay down rules for what kind of technology, training and tactics will be used.

    I don’t think that Pearl Harbor itself was the actual black swan event. Instead, it was Yamamoto himself who was the black swan. Had it not been for Yamamoto’s rule breaking vision combined with the political skill to move the entire Japanese navy to his point of view, Pearl Harbor could have never occurred. Without Yamamoto, the Japanese Navy almost certainly would have followed the home-water/big-gun doctrine they used before 1940. Heck, they wouldn’t even have developed their air arm to the extent they did. Without Yamamoto all of Kimmel’s assumptions about the best defense for Pearl Harbor would have been wise and valid.

    US planner’s doctrine, based itself on an understanding of Japanese doctrine, could not anticipate that one brilliant individual would alter Japanese doctrine and make US doctrine almost worthless.

    No major organization can establish rules for responding to events that rules don’t cover. The organization would be constantly jumping at shadows. The US military couldn’t set around thinking every year, “Hey, what if some once in a century military genius radically alters our enemies doctrine in so short a time we can’t detect it?” They would have to spend the majority of their time planning, developing and training for extremely rare and unlikely edge cases.

    The compounding problem with institutional rules is that specific rules become associated with the status and influence of individuals and groups within the organization. Breaking the rules/doctrine associated with those actors reduces their status and influence so resist any such attempt. The big tension in the US navy was between the old guard big gun battleship guys and the upstart young turk carrier advocates. Switching from a battleship centric to and carrier centric doctrine radically altered the status of the officers in the battleship group. Before Pearl, they were rockstars and everyone thought they be at the heart of any victory. Carriers by contrast were thought of as little more than scouts who would locate the enemy and then call in the battleships for the serious fighting. After Pearl, battleships were virtually obsolete (and would be completely by the time the war was over) and the battleship advocates and officers were equally sidelined.

    It is to the US credit that we are particularly adept at adapting to black swans. Once we realize something isn’t working, we change regardless of the consequences. We’re probably better at it than any other people.

  4. Given that you can’t anticipate everything, it makes sense to use radical assumptions based on first principles rather than best estimates based on models. If a system can fail plan on it failing. Plan for worst-case event cascades. Plan for financial crises. Plan for EMP attacks. Plan for leadership decapitations. Decentralize systems and authority as much as possible.

    We probably won’t do much of this stuff before something happens, because most of what we need to do reduces the power of the central govt and diverts funds that could be used to buy votes. Maybe we’ll get lucky, for example if another country gets hit bad before we do.

    This column is relevant.

  5. “In the military, these rules are doctrines. Doctrines are grand assumptions about how wars will be fought. They lay down rules for where and against whom a conflict will originate. They lay down rules for what kind of technology, training and tactics will be used.”

    True. But the meaning of “doctrine” is variable.

    For the US Army, doctrine is really “Doctrine”, akin to Holy Writ. Not only do you need to be following Doctrine as a C.O., it sure as hell better be the right one of the moment, or it is your ass.

    To the Marines, doctrine is a set of suggestions in a book on the shelf of the C.O.’s office.

    To the Air Force, it is a checklist.

    To the Navy, it is an acquisitions appropriation.

    To the Office of the Secretary of Defense it is a record of what the armed services are supposed to do whenever the deputy assistant Secretary for Cool Task Force Acronyms is asked by a Member of Congress during a hearing or Mike Wallace shows up with a TV camera.

    To a member of Congress, it is what their priest or minister talks about on Sunday.

  6. Zenpudit,

    I suspect doctrinal rigidity and comprehensiveness is tightly linked to the capital investment that doctrine requires in each branch. Doctrine controls technology choices so it controls the spending on big ticket items.

    The marines have a flexible approach to doctrine because the cost in money, training time and political capital for switching is low. The navy, at the opposite extreme is based on the most expensive machines on earth. If you build 5 battleships you’d better be damn well certain you need them.

  7. Both Japan and Germany were burdened with a certainty that the war would be short and they did not need the forces for a long war. Japan had an odd training program for naval aviators, sort of like samurai in the 15th century. They were very good but there were not a lot of them. Germany had already begun to switch the economy back to peace-time status after France fell. They were certain (meaning Hitler was certain) that the Soviets would collapse in six weeks. German industry did not go to a second shift until 1943.

    In a way, they failed to adapt to their own black swans. I don’t know if we could have avoided war with Japan. We were on a collision course for ten years. John Lukacs is convinced that Hitler came very very close to winning in May 1940. He also believes that, had he won, he would have been in power a long time.

  8. Britain would almost certainly have not survived in the absence of two factors: its integrated radar network, and a pair of excellent fighter planes (the Spitfire and the Hurricane).

    The period during which these systems were produced and deployed overlaps interestingly with Neville Chamberlain’s Prime Ministership of Britain. While I’ve read that Chamberlain did not fully fund the requested programs, at least he did not cut them to a level of nonviability. (Indeed, in the 1835 campaign the ‘deputy Labour leader Arthur Greenwood had attacked Chamberlain for spending money on rearmament, stating that the rearmament policy was “the merest scaremongering, disgraceful in a statesman of Mr. Chamberlain’s responsible position, to suggest that more millions of money needed to be spent on armaments'” (per Wikipedia))

    So while appropriately condemning Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, it is also fair to remember that under his administration much was accomplished for Britain’s preparedness.

    (Can anyone doubt what the reaction of a Barack Obama would have been to an expensive deployment of an “untested” radar technology?)

  9. I am becoming more and more of a revisionist on Chamberlain. We look at the world post-Munich. But he looked at the world post-July Crisis of 1914. The problem there, as it was understood in Chamberlain’s day, was that the major powers failed to talk to each other and to discuss their real interests, and let a regional conflict become a great power war that no one wanted. Modern scholarship suggests that the Germans wanted war in 1914. But Chamberlain believed with some basis that it was possible to cut a deal and prevent another 1914-type series of falling dominoes. Also, as you note, he rearmed Britain. He believed in “appeasement” — which I put in quotes because it was not understood as a pejorative at the time as it is now — but one element of that was to be strong and have credible deterrence. Further, Chamberlain understood the political mood in the country. There was negligible support for a stronger line against Germany until very late. Those were the cards he was holding. We can look back and say he played them badly. Churchill did, and we have come to agree with Churchill. But he does deserve far more credit for Britain’s survival in 1940 than he is given credit for.

  10. Chamberlain’s great failing was that he was unable to fully grasp the nature of evil. Paul Reynaud, who became Premier of France shortly before the German attack of 1940, put it well:

    “People think Hitler is like Kaiser Wilhelm. The old gentleman only wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine from us. But Hitler is Genghis Khan.” (approximate quote)

    On the other hand, I’ve never seen any reason to believe that Chamberlain despised his own country and wanted it to fail. For many of today’s “progressives,” though, this does seem to be what they want.

  11. Chamberlain was a patriot. He did not want his country sucked into a war that would consume its strength and the lives of its people and destroy their empire, which is exactly what happened. Further, when it finally came down to it, he did lead the country into the war. Far from making political attacks on the new government, Chamberlain was in the new government, and not in a minor role, but as a hard-working member of the 5 person war cabinet. Chamberlain was not a villain. He was a tragic figure. He lacked the imagination to see that Hitler was as evil as he was. Churchill saw it early, but very few others did.

  12. Not to feed the thread jack but the British military told Chamberlain that they could in no way take on Germany 1938. German had just revved their entire air force to the new all metal mono wing airframes while most of Britain’s air force was still wood and fabric biplanes. The British army was likewise ill equipped.

    The great depression came at just the wrong time technologically. Aircraft technology in particular was changing as fast as computers did in the 90s. A two year old plane was utterly obsolete. Defense spending cutbacks had caused the Royal air force to stagnate with early 1930s designs which got slaughtered in Spain. The Royal Airforce new they were toast if they went up against the Luftwaffe.

    Chamberlain was playing the hand he was dealt. He disparately wanted a negotiated settlement but he was willing to stand firm if he had the force to back it up. But he didn’t. Defense spending cuts had crippled the military by destroying their ability to control the air at land and at sea.

    It’s a harsh lesson. One hand defense spending is always a waste so the temptation to cut it in hard times is always their. However, you never know when trouble will raise its head.

  13. “the British military told Chamberlain that they could in no way take on Germany 1938″…I’ve also heard this. The best time to have stopped Hitler was at the time of the Rhineland incursion in 1936, when the balance of forces was far more favorable to the French and British.

    Andre Beaufre, later a general but then a captain on the French staff, described the decision-making in his book. As he tells it, there was great concern about the financial impact of even a successful war, and also much concern about the attitude of the neutrals, particularly the US, who might have viewed French/British military action negatively. Also, the French mobilization plan was so complex and intertwined that there was no way to quickly do a limited mobilization, which was really all that would have been needed–it was either a complete and totally disruptive mobilization, or nothing at all.

  14. You are right about the rapid succession of aircraft models, making hardware obsolete very quickly. One of the reasons the Zero got its reputation boosted so quickly after Pearl Harbor and Singapore was that the US and Britain tended to dump off their older models there, so the Zero was flying against things like the Brewster Buffalo. After Singapore the British sent Hurricanes and modern AA guns to Sri Lanka. When Nagumo’s task force tried an air raid against Colombo later in 1942 his planes got cut to ribbons.

  15. “Carriers by contrast were thought of as little more than scouts”: only one side had learnt the lesson of Taranto.

  16. Chamberlain was a businessman and Mayor of Birmingham. His father and brother were better politicians but the invasion of Czechoslovakia instantly convinced him that there was no dealing with Hitler. He supported Churchill completely. Halifax was the one with weakness in 1939 and 1940. Churchill also treated Chamberlain very courteously inviting him and Lady Chamberlain to remain in #10 Downing Street whilst Churchill stayed in Admiralty House after he became PM./

  17. Yamamoto was a black swan for Japan the same way Gorby was a black swan for the USSR. Every poker game needs a patsy. The Gipper got Gorby. FDR got Yamamoto. The USSR and Japan got a black swan.

    Gorby was flexible enough to listen to KGB analysts who convinced him that glasnost and peristroika could save the USSR without destroying it. Yamamoto was flexible enough to listen to his Billy Mitchell wannabes who convinced them to carry out an attack that waved the ultimate red flag in front of the American bull without putting a bullet through its brain. From the USSR and Imperial Japan’s perspective, they would have been better off with a Chernyenko or a Nagumo instead of a Gorby or Yamamoto. Instead of getting cleaned out at the local card game like Gorby and Yamamoto and getting fleeced by smiling Ron and grinning Frank, Chernyenko and Nagumo would have been at home sleeping in front of the TV.

    Sometimes it pays to pick the conservative in the race.

    Sometimes it doesn’t. Chamberlain’s failure was his inability to bring the overwhelming superiority of Franco-British resources down on the rather feeble Third Reich between the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and the surprise German thrust through the Ardennes that brought down France in May 1940. The evidence suggests that Chamberlain was biding his time until French and British forces, implicitly backed by American resources, were overwhelming enough to crush the Germans. This was a sensibly realistic strategy except it failed to provide a sufficient margin of safety against the true black swan of World War II: the success of the Case Yellow and the Wehrmacht’s surprise conquest of France. This was the true black swan that led to Pearl Harbor and Chamberlain’s sensible go it slow approach was inadequate for it.

  18. Chamberlain hated and was contemptuous of Americans and insulted FDR who had suggested a conference with Italy in 1938. FDR had no further interest in Chamberlain and distrusted Churchill for several months after he became PM. Fortunately for the British, FDR was well acquainted with Europe and realized that, if Britain went down, the US would face Hitler alone in a few years.

  19. “It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man.”

    Churchill put it about as charitably and graciously as it could be put.

    I have read the memoirs of Neville Henderson, Chamberlain’s ambassador in Berlin, as well as some of the summaries of diplomatic talks between Halifax and the Germans. Chamberlain, Henderson and Halifax had absolutely no idea who they were dealing with in Adolf Hitler or the character of his Nazi regime. Even at the very end, just before the invasion of Poland, there’s a distinct sense of bewildered and despairing uncomprehension in Henderson’s final dispatches:

    In fairness, Stalin understood Hitler no better than did Chamberlain, mismeasuring Hitler by the same monstrous power calculus he used for himself. That Hitler was not only willing but eager to risk absolutely everything on a mad gamble to sweep the board escaped Stalin and Chamberlain alike.

  20. Stalin’s mind was shaped by Georgian clan feuding and backstabbing, lightly dusted with Marxist verbiage, some of which he might actually have believed. Hitler’s mind was a morass of mystical racial beliefs, astrology, and the turn of the century New Age precursor beliefs running around the Viennese sub-intellectual demimonde. In other words, he was almost as irrational and confused as a second-generation Hollywood celebrity, although with superior cunning bred by life on the tramp and in the trenches. Stalin mistook him for a cold-blooded pragmatist and thought he had a deal. Only Churchill, with his great knowledge of history, including German history, and his highly varied life experiences and travel, understood him well. He knew that if Britain could stay on the game, sooner or later Hitler would do something crazy and/or stupid, and bring about his own downfall.

  21. Michael – if I am not mistaken the B29 was started on the drawing board with the assumption Britain would fall, and we needed a trans Atlantic bomber for Germany.

    As it ended up so frequently with plans the bomber’s range was used but on the other side of the globe – the 14 hour round trip from Tinian or Saipan to Japan.

  22. Historian David Stevenson, in the Q&A session following his presentation at Chicago’s own Pritzker Military Library, fielded a question on appeasement starting at 1:09:10 of this podcast:

    He cites Cabinet minutes where Chamberlain claims that the British government has to go the extra mile to show they’ve done everything or the British public, disillusioned with war, wouldn’t support a war against Hitler. The implication was that Chamberlain had to play rope-a-dope until he was so bloodied the British people saw him as a scrappy can do underdog and rallied to his support. A simular calculus may have driven Stalin’s seeming obliviousness to signs of German attack before June 21, 1941: he may have calculated that the USSR had to be seen as the victim rather than the aggressor to clear the smell of the Ribbentrop pact from the collective nostrils of international opinion. He seems to have thought the Red Army was strong enough to immediately throw back the Germans and go on the offensive. Its failure to do so may explain Stalin’s reported nervous collapse in the first 10 days or so after Barbarossa.

    Stalin was a materialist who believed that humans were a blank slate: he figured he could veer from one tactical extreme to the other because Communism was destiny and would justify any means he took to achieve it. His useful idiots and fellow travelers were malleable enough to be reprogrammed as needed to accomodate his tactical whiplashes like the non-agression pact with Hitler. Hitler on the other hand believed in genetic determinism: the only road to victory was killing off all the other hardwired human races before they outbred and outfought you. This made his effort a now or never gamble, giving it an insistence on driving things to a dramatic point now as opposed to being patient enough to wait for inevitability to happen.

  23. Churchill agreed with that. Chamberlain’s effort to keep the peace proved to the whole world that Germany was the aggressor. Britain had been the aggressor enough times in its history, including recent history, that this was not something anyone would necessarily assume.

    But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire, and to our decent faithful way of living that, however long the struggle may last, or however dark may be the clouds which overhang our path, no future generation of English-speaking folks-for that is the tribunal to which we appeal-will doubt that, even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation, we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb? Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.

Comments are closed.