Ralph Graham

Behind the Scenes of World War II

(October 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol.7 No.10, October 1946, pp.307-310.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

NOTE: Additional light is shed on the backstage politics of World War II in the book As He Saw It, by Elliott Roosevelt, of which a pre-publication condensation is being published serially by Look magazine. Elliott Roosevelt, son of the late President, was with his father at wartime conferences of the Big Three, the Big Four and the Big Five, and has intimate knowledge of the secret deals made there and the disagreements between the Allied Powers. In the second installment of the Look series (September 17), the junior Roosevelt tells what transpired at the Casablanca conference in January 1943.

Among other things, he confirms what Ingersoll says about British preoccupation with a Balkan route into Europe. He relates that “the American Joint Chiefs of Staff brought Father up to date on plans thus far discussed with their British opposites. It developed that they were opposites in more ways than one, that the British chiefs had worked out with Churchill an agenda differing considerably from the American agenda. Instead of talks about massive thrusts against the flanks of Europe, the British were intent on smaller actions in the Mediterranean. Sicily, and other way-stations to victory, were mentioned; the Dodecanese Islands, for example, leading to Greece, and a push into the mountainous Balkans ... Always he (Churchill) was of the opinion that we should enter Europe in such a way as to meet the Red Army in central Europe, so that Britain’s sphere of influence would be maintained as far east as possible.”

The late President was ever conscious of America’s imperialist destiny and lost no opportunity of advancing Wall Street’s interests at the expense of the British ally. A banquet in Casablanca, young Roosevelt relates, was attended by the Sultan of Morocco. “Father and the Sultan were chatting about the wealth of natural resources in Morocco. Churchill changed the subject, but the Sultan returned to it again. Father remarked on how the British and French financiers had dredged riches out of colonies and raised the question of possible oil deposits in Morocco. He mentioned that the Sultan might engage firms – American firms – to carry out a development program ... The Sultan’s face glowed ... It was a delightful dinner. Everybody – with one exception – enjoyed himself completely. Glowering, biting at his cigar, Britain’s Prime Minister followed the Sultan from the dining room.” – R.G.

Official war histories as a rule tell virtually nothing of the politics of war. Treating war as an independent phenomenon, they disclose strategic plans, describe the order of battle, and record campaign results – all in terms of the military art itself. Reading the map-strewn reports of Generals Marshall and Eisenhower, one gets just that and nothing more. It is as if one were watching a game played for no particular reason but the gratification of the players and the edification of the spectators. Yet if we accept the well-established dictum that war is a continuation of politics, then it is obvious that the politics of war are its most important aspect. The sanguinary clashes of men massed in armies, the corpse-strewn battlefields, the devastated cities, are the end result of political developments and political decisions.

The politics of the First World War were understood and proclaimed by Marxists long before the first shots were fired. The true aims of the warring states accorded not at all with the altruistic purposes which they were obliged to avow in order to get men to fight and kill each other. Conclusive empiric proof of this fact came when the Bolsheviks published the secret war treaties, and the victors drafted the Versailles “peace.” The predatory character of World War I then became apparent to all mankind. So also in the case of World War II. The revolutionary Marxists – the Trotskyists – were its sole consistent opponents. They alone proclaimed its true character as a predatory war on all sides as far as the imperialists were concerned.

The empiric truth of this estimation is now being made manifest in, among other things, the robber treaties which the victors are imposing on the vanquished. While the bloody holocaust was in progress, the hired enlighteners of public opinion did their level best to prop up the myth of a “war for democracy” against fascism and Japanese militarism, by studiously avoiding any reference to the real political aims of the “democratic” participants. The top war-planners conferred in the strictest secrecy. Censorship prevented writers from revealing unpalatable facts which, despite all the secrecy, they were able to obtain.

Now the full truth is beginning to be uncovered. Books of the “Now It Can Be Told” variety are making their appearance. First among them are Ralph Ingersoll’s Top Secret (New York, 1946, Harcourt, Brace and Company, $3.00) and Fred Eldridge’s Wrath in Burma (New York, 1946, Doubleday & Company, Inc., $3.00). Ingersoll’s book is a newspaperman’s story of the Allied invasion of Europe. The author is the editor of the New York newspaper PM and was on the planning staff of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) during the war. Eldridge is a young reporter who went through the Burma campaigns with Stilwell as the latter’s public relations officer. Neither of these books tells the full story of the politics behind the European and Burma campaigns, for they are essentially campaign reports. Yet each lifts a sizable corner of the curtain which hid the material interests at work behind the scenes. For this they are valuable.

Political considerations, the advancement of the interests of the imperialist belligerents, being the motivating factor which produces war, also necessarily enter as a dominating element into strategical and even tactical planning. This is well illustrated by Ingersoll in his description of the conflicting policies of the United States and Great Britain in the war against the Axis. While these two great Powers were united for a common general military objective, they nevertheless remained imperialist rivals with clashing world interests and found it difficult for that reason to agree on common plans of action. Says Ingersoll:

Both the British Empire and the United States of America sought the complete destruction of the armed forces of the German, Japanese and Italian Empires.

The United States of America sought this practically without qualification – that is, sought to destroy the armed forces of the enemy in the shortest possible time, by the most direct route, with only reasonable regard for risk to life and limb and no regard whatever for the expenditure of material resources. In seeking to win the war, the United States of America had no regard, either, for political considerations – it was as willing to trade with a Darlan to secure an advantage in Africa as it was to allow Stalin an advantage in the Balkans, both acts having only to pass the single test that they speeded final victory over the armed forces of the Axis. You might sum up the American objective as: “To destroy the armed forces of the Axis PERIOD.”

The British Empire also sought to destroy the armed forces of the Axis – but only by the employment of such strategy as would best further the highly complex economic and political interests of the British Empire. In the chemical sense of the word, there is simply no such thing as a “pure” British military objective – or at least there is no such thing in any military action larger than a skirmish. The British always mix political with military motives.

Ingersoll displays here, as he does throughout his book, a fairly objective attitude toward British imperialism and its aims. But as an apologist for American imperialism, he displays an equally obvious penchant for idealizing his own imperialist masters.

Britain, it must be remembered, entered the war as a declining world power, desperately trying to hold on to a position which no longer corresponded with economic reality. Its Empire, and for a while even its position as an island kingdom, was menaced by the Axis. But it was menaced, too, by its American “ally” on the other side of the Atlantic. And it was ever fearful of the prospect of Stalin’s expansionism. To meet the more immediate menace of the Axis, it was obliged to enter into a war coalition with the powerful transatlantic rival and with the Soviet Union, In defeat by the Axis it would suffer extinction. In victory it would have to contend with its powerful allies of yesterday. The victory could turn out to be of the Pyrrhic variety. It was therefore essential for the British imperialists, that in the very midst of the war, they should try to strengthen old positions, recover positions lost, gain new ones if possible, and generally prepare to meet the challengers of tomorrow.

Unlike Britain, the post-war dominance of American imperialism was assured as the corollary of its economic and financial hegemony, which in turn assured military ascendancy. After the victory the US could proceed, more or less at its leisure, to garner the fruits. American imperialist ambitions, because of their global scope and magnitude, assumed a geographic formlessness in which particular objectives were obscured and submerged. This made it easy for the propagandists of US imperialism to portray American participation in the war as a grand, disinterested crusade to bring “democracy” to all the world.

Nevertheless, Ingersoll to the contrary notwithstanding, the American imperialists were not at all tardy in picking up what they could, along the path that led them to victory. They grabbed up military bases around the world and assiduously penetrated the world’s markets as first installments on their program of Pax Americana.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that first attention should be given to defeating the forces of the Axis in Europe, while conducting a “holding war” against Japan. With the focus thus narrowed to the European sphere, says Ingersoll, “the conflict between British and American objectives was seen to be primarily a conflict over whether the principal road into Europe should be via the Mediterranean or across the English Channel.” A trans-Channel invasion was indeed agreed upon, but in some “mysterious” manner it transpired that armies, shipping and equipment assembled for that operation got diverted – first to the campaign in North Africa, then to Sicily, then to Italy.

The Italian Campaign

The North African campaign was essential for opening the western Mediterranean to Allied shipping. The Sicilian campaign which followed was, according to Ingersoll, a “concession invasion” – a concession to British demands by the US – and was never regarded as a major strategic operation to be followed up by a plunge into Italy. Yet that is exactly what happened. It seems that the British, in command of the biggest staging area of the European phase of the war – England itself – were able to commit forces to action where they chose and then compel American acquiescence and aid. And so, although on the highest planning levels the trans-Channel invasion had top priority, “all the resources England and American could produce and transport” were drained by the Sicilian and later the Italian campaigns, with the result that the trans-Channel invasion was postponed, not once but several times.

Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed early in 1942 that a trans-Channel invasion should be undertaken in the fall of that year. The North African campaign then intervened. Preparations meanwhile went forward and another date was set. Then came the landings in Sicily and Italy. There was still another delay and still another date set. D-day didn’t arrive until June 6, 1944.

The campaigns in Sicily and Italy were essential from the point of view of British aims. But in light of the over-all strategy of defeating the Axis as quickly and as cheaply as possible, they were stupid and meaningless, besides being very costly. Of the campaign in Italy, Ingersoll proves that it “never made military sense.” The defeat of Germany would have meant the automatic collapse of Italy and of Germany’s Balkan satellites. No military action against them would have been necessary. As it was, mountains of corpses were piled up in the Italian peninsula and the country was devastated from end to end. The war as a whole was needlessly prolonged. But snuffed-out lives and ruined cities count but little in imperialist calculations.

From the first, as Ingersoll explains, Britain had a “passionate preoccupation over the Balkan route into Germany” and hence over an invasion of Italy, since Italy is the main gateway to the Balkans. It was a preoccupation which envisioned a campaign through the Balkans as an alternative to a trans-Channel thrust into Germany.

This preoccupation was in the beginning, and remained until the end, a constant force, always in conflict with American military strategy in the European Theater. It carried the British State to such lengths that the Prime Minister himself even coined a deceptive phrase to popularize it – putting into circulation the notion that the most ornery and easily defended mountain barriers on the Continent constituted “the soft underbelly of Europe.”

After Rommel had been defeated in North Africa and British garrisons were comfortably ensconced in the Italian colonies, the western Mediterranean became safe for Allied shipping. Britain was concerned next to open the eastern Mediterranean and therewith her lifeline to India and the Far East, where she viewed with grave misgivings the American monopoly of the war against Japan. The Italian campaign was a logical next step to the British, for in addition to opening Britain’s lifeline it could furnish a springboard for a drive into the Balkans.

The reason for British preoccupation with the Balkans is obvious. As Ingersoll remarks:

It was reasonable of them ... to have preferred the Balkans to the Channel route; it served their long-term interests, as they understood them, to get to the Balkans before the Russians. This was the secret-that-was-no-secret of their preoccupation with the Balkan route to victory.

The Red Army had already turned the tide of the German invasion. Churchill wanted to drive an Allied wedge north and south through eastern Europe to circumvent Soviet conquest of the Balkans. A Soviet-dominated Europe was the nightmare of British imperialism. But aside from the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, the American strategical concept prevailed: invasion of the German stronghold from the West. The Yankee imperialists felt they could deal with Stalin later.

Stalin was of course well aware of Churchill’s Balkan preoccupation and was pressing insistently for a “second front” in the West. Roosevelt was not prepared to risk a break in the alliance with the Soviet Union in order to satisfy Britain’s eastern European aims. Churchill, on the other hand, wanted the Russians to be kept fighting as hard as possible without the aid of a second front in the West. As Ingersoll says, “the longer the Russians fought, the weaker the Russians would be at the end of the war and the better chance the British bad, vis-a-vis the Russians, in the post-war struggle for the domination of Europe.”

Although Churchill was unable to engineer a Balkan campaign, the British Field Marshal Alexander was able to scrape together from the Allied war pool a motley army of Poles, Frenchmen, Brazilians and Canadians, plus some Americans and British, to continue his campaign all the way up the Italian boot to the Apennine Mountains. In April 1945 he was able to cross the Po and get within striking distance of Trieste – just before the European war ended. Trieste, the gateway to the Balkans, was thus saved from Tito – and Stalin.

After France had been overrun by the Allied armies, a new Anglo-American conflict developed on the question of how Germany should be invaded. The British wanted to drive through the lowlands of Holland and across the Hamburg plains, in order to strike directly at Berlin. The Americans preferred what was known as the “Frankfurt gap” – a drive clear across the waistline of Germany. Their strategists believed German defense would be at its strongest on the northern plains, which are cut by big rivers and thousands of tiny waterways and which, while flat, are so low that the ground was not solid enough to support

heavily armored vehicles off the roads. The Frankfurt gap, on the other hand, was a rocky road which required the cracking of Metz, the crossing of the Moselle and the Saar, and a penetration of the West Wall at a place where it was densest. But offsetting these obstacles, the Frankfurt gap route offered, says Ingersoll:

1. The crossing of the Rhine where it was only half the width it attained near its mouth.

2. Broad unfortified valleys for avenues (the Hamburg plains were packed with military installations, organized into training grounds for the German army).

3. Firm footing for vehicles, which could leave the roads anywhere.

4. The strong possibility of surprise, since it was known that the Germans were vastly more apprehensive about the northern route which led so directly to their capital.

5. At the far end of the Frankfurt corridor into Germany there were magnificent possibilities for strategic maneuver. An army breaking through there had the free choice of three directions in which to exploit – north to Berlin; east, to join with the Russians; or south, into Bavaria and Austria.

The deeper one drove into the Hamburg plains, on the other hand, the more obvious one’s intentions became and the more easily could the enemy concentrate against them.

Despite these weighty considerations, the British stubbornly favored the Hamburg route for the very simple reason that they “wanted Berlin and the north coast of Germany as insurance that in the event of a German collapse these should not fall into the hands of the Russians.” As it transpired, both strategies were employed. Montgomery’s armies took the Hamburg plains route, while the American General Bradley drove through the waist of Germany to link up with the Red Army on the Elbe. But Stalin got to Berlin first.

It was at the Elbe that the last Anglo-American clash occurred over policy in the European war. The episode, never revealed in the press, is another instructive example of the imperialist politics always kept hidden in the background. Here it is as related by Ingersoll:

It was some time after the end of the war that British, American and Russian spheres of action in Germany were announced in the press. Actually they had been determined and formally agreed upon at Yalta. They were posted on our Army Group maps. We had a special map just for their study, two months before the end of the war. The only uncertain lines were the borders of the French area, which was still under negotiation, France not having been represented at Yalta.

Bradley’s plan, after striking through to the Elbe – which was deep in the territory which had been ceded to the Russians at the Yalta conference – was to retreat as soon as possible to within the American boundaries. Very practical considerations moved him. We had no sooner entered Germany than we began uncovering not thousands, but tens and finally hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and liberated prisoners of war, slave laborers and sufferers in concentration camps. An enormous percentage of them came from Russia and eastern Europe. These multitudes constituted a very grave problem to us. UNRRA’s efforts were like a taxicab company’s trying to move all of the commuters out of New York between five and seven. So Bradley ordered that all Russians, Poles and eastern Europeans migrate forward in the wake of the armies, planning to concentrate them in those Russian areas which he overran; then, drawing back, he would be able to give them back to the Russians without the expenditure of a gallon of gasoline or an hour’s argument.

By the time Bradley reached the Elbe, Roosevelt was dead. One evening soon after Roosevelt’s death, Churchill called Bradley personally, and going over Eisenhower’s head asked him not to retreat from the Elbe – because he, Churchill, wished this area with which to bargain further with the Russians. Bradley said he thought this might make trouble; it was sure to be misinterpreted, he felt, since the boundaries had already been formally agreed upon ... so he simply passed the problem back to the Supreme Allied Commander.

As we see, the British imperialists were far more fearful than their American allies needed to be, about Soviet domination of eastern Europe and the Balkans. As the war progressed, this concern took precedence over a speedy military defeat of the Axis. Allied victory was in sight anyway. What matter if the agony were prolonged?

On the much smaller scale of the war in Burma, we observe a similar situation: sordid material motives lurking behind the military campaigns. Japan’s armies battered down the weak British colonial defenses, swarmed into Burma and threatened neighboring India, Britain’s greatest colonial possession. In the campaigns to retake Burma, it was not at all a question of liberating the Burmese, but of restoring British colonial rule. To the Yankee imperialists, Burma was a sort of side-show of the war, but an important one at that. They wanted to keep China in the war and the only way to do that was to open a supply route to China through Burma. The American, British and Chinese allies were perpetually at loggerheads. The conflicts had nothing whatever to do with questions of “pure” strategy. In every case, as Eldridge reveals in his book, it was the broad political and material interests of the participants which produced the disagreements.

Imperialist Intrigues

At the outset, the British refused to permit Chinese troops to enter Burma in sufficient numbers to hold the Japanese back from China’s frontier. They preferred to see all Burma overrun by the troops of Japan rather than permit the Chinese to do what they themselves were incapable of doing. A Chinese victory in Burma would have enhanced China’s prestige, and, correspondingly, reduced the prestige of British imperialism which already was at a low ebb. And it might have been difficult to get the Chinese out after the war. American reinforcements could not be brought in, because the port of Rangoon was in Japanese hands and the Japanese navy and air force was in control of all East Asiatic waters. With unrest seething in India, the British would not risk Indian detachments in combat with the Japanese. So the Allied forces that were in Burma- – British, American and Chinese – got thrown out in a swift debacle which Stilwell described as “a hell of a licking.”

When the time came to execute plans for the retaking of Burma, plans calling for the participation of British-Indian and Chinese-American forces, the conflicts and the bickerings grew.

The “Allies” worked continuously at cross purposes. The British kept practically all the troops they had raised in India for holding the 385,000,000 people of that sub-continent in continued subjection to their rule. They would not spare any sizable forces for the task of “freeing” Burma. The U. S. was keeping its main forces for the assault on the Philippines and Japan, which were the key to the domination of the Pacific. Stilwell’s job was to train and command Chinese troops both to protect American air bases in China and to co-operate with the British in Burma. But military lend-lease intended for use in China and Burma was under the control of Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese dictator kept these supplies for use against the Stalinist-dominated armies in China. Nor would he furnish adequate replacements for Stilwell’s Chinese divisions in Burma. He was holding his troops intact for later use in civil war against Yenan. All through the war he kept his best divisions at the job of blockading the “Red” areas in China’s northwest. This. conservation of Chiang’s forces was carried to such lengths that Chiang even permitted the Japanese to overrun American air bases in southwest China rather than commit the necessary number of troops to their defense. When Stilwell, frustrated and angry, demanded that Kuomintang troops blockading Yenan be deployed against the Japanese, Chiang responded by demanding Stilwell’s recall.

Chiang, of course, wanted the Japanese driven from China. But he figured that once Japan had been conquered in her homeland, the Japanese occupation of China would automatically collapse – which it did. Therefore it was of more immediate importance to Chiang to conserve his forces for the fight with the Stalinist-dominated forces which he knew must follow the war. Meanwhile he strove to squeeze as much lend-lease as. he could from the American ally.

The British similarly wanted to recover Burma. But they knew it would fall into their lap like a ripe plum, together with Malaya and Hongkong, as soon as Japan was defeated. All they wanted in Burma was a sort of token campaign which would keep the Japanese forces there busy and prevent them from making incursions into India. Meanwhile they husbanded their manpower and resources for a quick walk-back into their East Asiatic possessions when the shooting was over. This, too, happened.

War for democracy? The liberation of Asia from Japanese imperialism? These were just deceptive slogans for mass consumption. The Second World War like the First was fought by the imperialists in their own interests. Not “democracy” and “liberation” were the stakes, but world domination, colonies, markets, spheres of influence, profits.


Last updated on 11.2.2009