America’s war in a nutshell

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

America’s war has been well chronicled. Everyone knows, or can easily learn, how, less than a year after Pearl Harbor, American forces invaded French-occupied North Africa and found their way to Tunisia where they met the victorious British coming west from Egypt and Libya. Together in six months the two armies trapped and captured a third of a million German soldiers – about the same as were captured after the horrific battle of Stalingrad, at about the same time. Then came the invasion of Sicily, and of Italy, and the fall of Mussolini’s government. In June, 1944, Americans and British in about equal numbers successfully invaded Normandy. By August they had liberated Paris (and by now Americans were by far the larger force) and by September (after another invasion, this one on France’s Mediterranean coast) all France had been recaptured. In May, 1945, 11 months after D-Day, it was all over.

The Pacific war took a little longer, but then, only 10% of American armed forces fought there. Nine out of ten soldiers fought in Europe and Africa. In the Pacific, an island-hopping strategy avoided as much as possible armed assaults on heavily defended islands. Instead, successive groups of islands were isolated – their garrisons in effect captured and having to feed themselves – by air power projected from carrier fleets and then from forward island bases as secured. As soon as American fighters controlled the skies over a given area, resupply by sea was virtually impossible, and those troops on that island were useless. Island-hopping to gain successive new forward air bases, America leapfrogged westward until, with the capture of Okinawa, the Japanese home islands were within range of the B-29 bombers that would demonstrate the futility of further Japanese resistance.

And, as I said earlier, with the end of the war and the exhaustion of most of the other participants, two superpowers, or perhaps we should say one and a half, divided the world between them. An additional worry for the west was the Chinese Civil War of 1945-1949, which resulted in Mao tse-tung’s communists overthrowing Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. At first, the new Communist state was assumed to be another puppet of Stalin’s, comparable to his new European satellite countries. Within a dozen years, it began to become clear that this was not the case. What came to be called “the Sino-?Soviet split” was merely the latest wrinkle of the historic Russian-Chinese rivalry.

Fear of China led the United States (indirectly) into interventions in the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, each of which the U.S. saw as resistance to aggression, the kind of resistance the West had failed to offer to Hitler. China and other non-Western countries, however, saw in U.S. actions a continuation of historical Western interference in non-Western affairs. All this added to postwar complications, and should be dealt with not in its military but in its diplomatic and cultural context.

So much for the war that transformed the United States into the center of world affairs. Let’s cast ourselves back to the interwar period, after World War I but before Pearl Harbor, and see if we can understand the country when it had fewer ground soldiers than Romania.

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