David Fettig - Editor
Published December 1, 2002 | December 2002 issue
By James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press
By John Lukacs
Yale Nota Bene
The temptation when reading history pertinent to current eventsin this case reading about military history during a time of war (be it against terrorism or against a state)is to extrapolate too narrowly from the lessons of history to the events of the day; that is, the temptation is to say: "Based on what happened then, this is likely to happen," or "If history teaches us one thing, it is that such-and-such is inevitable."
Well, history teaches us a whole lot of things, perhaps the most important of which is humility. While it is certainly necessary to consider history in light of current eventsindeed, it is negligent to do otherwisecare needs to be taken when drawing airtight analogies to past events and, ipso facto, assuming inevitability. But it's tempting to do so.
It's also tempting to make assumptions about inevitability as regards the past. In hindsight, everything becomes obvious. It's clear, after all, that the Northern states would win the Civil War and the slaves would be freed, that the Allies would stave off Hitler, and that countless other events had little choice but to occur as they did. However, closer consideration of those events reveals any number of contingencies that, had they played out differently, would have set the course of history on an entirely different track.
Two recently published books remind us of this lesson, both written by eminent historians and both providing more than a recapitulation of past events; they also offer insight into the nature and value of historical study.
We'll begin with U.S. history and the war that finally ended the Revolutionary War, which is to say, the war that settled the important question of what it means for a country to exist as a unified republic of democratic states. James M. McPherson, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (a Civil War history highly recommended for, among other things, its description of the United States beyond the battlefield), has written a book that focuses on just one military encounter, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, which is further subtitled on the cover as The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War.
McPherson, of course, well knows that there were many single battles that were crucial during the war and upon which the momentum of the war changed, but he chooses Antietam for a micro examination because it marks the last best chance that the Confederacy had for securing victory. And victory for the South wasn't a destruction of the North, but rather an end to the war and a peace negotiated on Southern terms. However, those terms would also be forever challenged after Antietam (indeed, the very motivation for the war would change) because it was the Union's victory in September 1862 that would allow President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Much blood would be spilled between Antietam and the eventual end of the Civil War in 1865, but it was that battle near Sharpsburg, Md., (and Sharpsburg is how the South titles the battle) that would alter the course of the war. As McPherson wrote:
Union victory at Antietam, limited though it was, arrested Southern military momentum, forestalled foreign recognition of the Confederacy, reversed a disastrous decline in the morale of Northern soldiers and civilians, and offered Lincoln the opportunity to issue a proclamation of emancipation. In a war with several crucial turning points, the battle of Antietam was the pivotal moment for the most crucial of them all.
Again, though 21st century casual observers may glance back at the industrial strength of the North and presume a Union victory, ex post facto, quite the opposite seemed likely at the dawn of the war in 1861. Here was a Civil War wherein the rebels did not have to destroy an army, overthrow and operate a government, or subjugate a land and its people; the South merely had to defend what it already had and to wear down the will of the North. The North, on the other hand, had to attack, overtake, overthrow and destroy a land, its people, an army and a government. To many contemporary observers, McPherson reminds us, the North's mission seemed impossible.
One of the most important of those contemporary observers was England. Had the South achieved victory at Antietam, English recognition of the Confederates and their cause was altogether more likely, and such recognition would have been a severe blow to the North. "Like the secessionists of 1776, those of 1861 counted on foreign recognition and assistance to help them win their independence," McPherson wrote. European intervention would have granted the Confederacy status as a state and would have helped break the Union's naval blockade.
But the story of that naval blockade isn't so simple. First, it wasn't very effective, at least initiallynine of 10 ships successfully pierced the blockade in 1861. On the one hand, this was obviously good for the Confederacy; on the other, the South hoped to use the blockade to its advantage by convincing possible European alliesespecially the Britishthat the blockade would keep precious cotton from overseas markets. So the South created "a virtual embargo" on cotton exports; this restriction, "enforced by committees of public safety and other forms of pressure in the South, kept almost all of the 1861 crop at home." Why? To "coerce" the British to break the blockade and, in doing so, join the fray against the Union, whichthe South hopedwould ensure success for the Confederate cause.
However, the Confederate strategy was frustrated "by an economic fact: The bumper crops of 1859 and 1860 had actually produced a surplus of both raw cotton and finished cloth." Whether the English had increased their inventory for cotton in anticipation of a U.S. war, or whether the increased supply of cotton meant the English chose to cheaply fill their inventories as they would during any other cycle, McPherson doesn't say, but the upshot was the same. By the time this fabricated "cotton famine" took hold, in 1862, it was too late to have its intended effect.
This episode is a reminder of the many important events that took place off the battlefield; indeed, McPherson's book is much more than a recounting of the battle near Sharpsburg. Foreign policy, economic issues, domestic politics and public opinion all get masterful treatment from McPherson. And lest we think that public opinion is the tail that wags the war policy dog in these modern times, it has ever been so: "The roller coaster ride of public opinion in response to events on the battlefield, both in the North and South, was a crucial factor in the war."
But this book is perhaps most valuable in placing Antietam within the context of the slavery debate. Many Union soldiers weren't devout abolitionists, but as the war progressed, they became pragmatic emancipationists. Captured slaves meant workers in Union regiments to serve as teamsters and cooks, putting more Union soldiers on the front lines (eventually, freed slaves and Northern blacks would serve in fighting units). Captured slaves also meant a taking of Southern "property," which was a prime asset of the Southern economy. The moral arguments for emancipation were one thing, but the military and economic arguments also held powerful sway in the North.
Sensing a political advantage, the Republican Party worked to pass legislation intended to chip away at the institution of slavery while the party's leader, Lincoln, prepared to make the boldest move. Lincoln had written his Emancipation Proclamation months before delivering it in September 1862, but though he was eager to announce the proclamation, he withheld due to domestic politics and foreign policy. Border states would seize on the unpopularity of the measure and upcoming midterm elections could shift power in the House and thus sway Northern opinion against the war effort, he was counseled, and foreign countries might view the proclamation as a sign of military desperation on the North's part. Lincoln needed a victory to turn the tide of the war and of public opinion, and Antietam provided it.
Roughly 80 years later and across the sea, England was faced with a crisis all its own, as Nazi Germany stood on the verge of European domination. With the bulk of its Expeditionary Force trapped in northern France, its allies crumbling all around them and little taste for yet another bloody European conflict, England had a choice: Capitulate, or fight to the death. Again, in retrospect, the choice seems obvious, but it certainly wasn't obvious to England in the spring of 1940. And as John Lukacs shows in Five Days in London: May 1940, Hitler never came closer to winning the war than he did in that spring, when British leaders struggled with their country's response to the Nazi threat.
Like McPherson, who makes the case that Antietam outweighs other important Civil War battles, Lukacs makes a similar case that while there were certainly many other key momentum-shifting events during the course of World War II, those five days in May were the "hinge of fate."
This isn't a story about a crucial battle or other military endeavor, it's a story about political leaders arguing, discussing, vying for support and making tough decisions; in that regard, it's a story about the struggle between Churchill and Halifax. Dunkirk, of course, provides a dramatic military angle to this story, but Lukacs reminds us that we only know this in hindsightChurchill had made his decision to fight even if the British Expeditionary Force was lost. He had no idea, at the time of his decision, that the retreat to England would be so successful. For Lukacs, this is also a story about the preservation of a Western culture and civilization that had stood for centuries before: "... during those five days in London, the danger, not only to Britain but to the world, was greater and deeper than most people still think."
Lukacs knows Hitler well, and his insights into the Nazi leader's decisions and motivations add layers of understanding to those crucial days. Hitler may have miscalculated on the battlefield when he slowed his pursuit of the retreating British and French troops, but this decision was likely based on his misreading of the British people and their leaders. Perhaps he misunderstood history and made assumptions about what he perceived to be the conservative sluggishness of old Europe, of which England was just another withering cog. Perhaps he was too convinced of the inevitability of his ideas, his movement and his plans. But he was not alone in this delusion. Many in Europe were seduced in this New Order. And, despite his megalomania, Lukacs reminds us, Hitler was not bound to fail.
He represented an enormous tide in the affairs of the world in the twentieth century. ... Moreoverbeyond Germany, and in the minds of many peopleHitler's rule, his regime and his ideas, represented a new primary force, beside the corroding alternatives of liberal democracy and "International" Communism. For ten years the tide rose, pounding and pouring over obstacles that disappeared beneath its foaming might. In May 1940 it not only seemed irresistible: in many places and in many ways it was.
There is much in Lukacs' small book, including a discussion of the complex relationships among the members of the British War Cabinet, a parsing of Nazi decision-making, the attitudes of allies, andjust as in the Civil Warthe importance of public opinion. The citations from the British Mass-Operations reports were illuminating and reminded this reader of the Fed's Beige Book reports, although the Beige Book is considerably lacking in drama and vitality as compared to the M-Os, which were conducted to gauge British public opinion. The MOs are alive with direct quotes from respondents and subjective observations from the surveyors that gave British leaders immediate insight into public thinking, and Lukacs cites them to great effect.
Churchill looms large in Lukacs' book, quite obviously, but not only because of his role in these events, but because of Lukacs' view of Churchill's place in history. It has become fashionable over the years for historians to look unfavorably at Churchill, challenging his skills as a commander in chief, branding him as a romantic militarist whose shifting decisions and constant meddling resulted in no real war strategy. Lukacs airs some of this revisionism, but dismisses it.
And speaking of historians, it is probably worth noting that Churchill was a historian himself, and Lukacs shows how this understanding of past events helped shape Churchill's thinking. Did history help him predict the future? Of course not, but it helped him better understand the present and therefore informed the decisions he had to make; for if history teaches us one thing ... ahem ... it is the value of studying history.