Review of Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That
Changed the World, 1940-1941. New York: Penguin, 2007. Pp.
xxv, 623. ISBN 978-0-14-311372-0.
imposing volume analyzes ten key decisions taken in 1940 and 1941
that shaped World War II. Of course, as Kershaw notes, that war
encompassed many turning points; in his view, the linked decisions
examined here produced a world-wide, genocidal cataclysm. Seven of
the ten were made by the Axis powers, a reflection of the situation
noted by George Kennan:
at the beginning of WWII "Western democracy had become militarily
outclassed. The world balance of power had turned decisively against
it." Fateful Choices is a historian's book, not a
political scientist's; unlike Graham Allison's well-known
examination of the Cuban missile crisis,
this work emphasizes the particular rather than the theoretical and
the universal. Kershaw draws attention to human agency, arguing that
"the fateful choices that were made were not predetermined or
axiomatic" (476). Putting readers "behind a ... leader's desk" (6),
he uses a rich collection of primary and secondary sources to
explore the personal, ideological, bureaucratic, and strategic
issues that shaped these decisions. However, many readers may want
to consult a military history to fill in some additional detail.
Kershaw begins with a decision that had enormous ramifications for
the dimensions and duration of WWII. The place: London in late May
1940. The situation: the imminent expulsion of British troops from
Europe and the likely defeat of France. The question: should the
British government fight on or explore an accommodation with Hitler
to preserve England's independence? The protagonists in these
"vital, intense, and occasionally heated deliberations" (47): the
new prime minister, Winston Churchill, and Foreign Secretary Lord
Halifax. According to Kershaw, Churchill carried his point "by
reason," through force of argument, in the War Cabinet, which took a
"collective" decision to continue the war (49). Interestingly, the
British Constitution permitted policy makers to make so fundamental
a decision without having to consult Parliament, the press, or
outside pressure groups. In Kershaw's view, this decision had the
"most profound implications" (47): Hitler now found his strategic
options shaped by the likelihood of a two-front war and the
possibility of American intervention on behalf of Britain. John
Lukacs told this story a decade ago.
Kershaw's version, similarly based on the primary sources, though
much shorter, is admirably clear and cogent.
American foreign policy decision making is considerably messier. In
two chapters, Kershaw shows how the United States extended economic
aid to Britain through Lend Lease and then waged an undeclared war
on Germany to protect those supplies as they crossed the Atlantic.
Again, the story is not new--James McGregor Burns and Robert Dallek
have covered this ground--but it is well-told here. The American
people were deeply polarized on foreign policy questions. The
increasingly aggressive policies of the Axis powers alarmed Franklin
Roosevelt and most of his advisors, who felt "Hitler posed a direct
threat to the United States" (240). This position became especially
clear after the summer of 1940. However, broader American opinion
was still sharply divided in the aftermath of WWI. Pollsters found
the majority of Americans opposed to direct intervention and
ambivalent concerning steps short of war. The American constitution
and political system dictated that the President could not just
ignore the "isolationists" in Congress, at newspapers like the
Chicago Tribune, or in organizations such as the America First
Committee. Kershaw portrays FDR as following an "extremely cautious
path between neutrality and belligerence," interrupted by moments of
"boldness," such as Lend Lease (187, 239); "at no point" in this
long process "did Roosevelt consider taking America into war" (242).
It was necessary to educate the American people and build a
consensus for action. This approach periodically infuriated his
American supporters, Churchill, and some later historians. In
Kershaw's view, "the President's caution, however maddening, was
wise" (242). As a consequence, a united nation entered the war in
December 1941. In Kershaw's view, the examples of Britain and the
United States illustrate the advantages of systematic and rational
processes guided by thoughtful leadership.
Fascist and Communist leaders made a series of disastrous choices,
but, as Kershaw hastens to show, not necessarily irrational ones. In
fact, they were the natural outcome of ideology, governmental
systems, and leaders' personalities. In Germany, Italy, Japan, and
the Soviet Union, decisions flowed from force majeure,
rather than force of argument. Apocalyptic ideology operated in
closed governmental systems to produce ultimately fatal choices.
Kershaw stresses that the four nations were organized quite
differently. The German and the Soviet states were the most narrowly
constituted. In National Socialist Germany, Hitler controlled state
institutions staffed largely with supporters of his worldview.
Doubts were occasionally raised and alternative strategies
proposed--for example, the navy's Mediterranean focus as an
alternative to invading Russia--but Hitler could and did easily
ignore them. He envisaged domination of a world from which Jews had
disappeared, but knew that time and resources were not on Germany's
side. Thus, the attack on Russia in 1941 was necessary both to
destroy Jewish-dominated communism and to prevent a potentially
invincible coordination of British, American, and Soviet forces. "It
was madness, but there was method in it"(90).
for declaring war on the United States in December 1941 "without
consultation" (424), that decision was simply a matter of
"anticipating the inevitable" (423) by taking advantage of Japan's
current military power. And the Holocaust, "a decision [or set of
decisions] like no other in history" (412), reflected the "logical"
and "inexorable" consequence of "demonic anti-Semitism" (433), part
of the larger goal of the war itself.
Stalin operated in a similar context: he personally controlled a
bureaucratic apparatus where "toadying"--not rational
argument--was the norm. Aware of Soviet weakness, and fearing, even
expecting, an attack from Germany, he desperately sought to avoid
war. But "ideological preconceptions" (293) led him to ignore
warnings from Britain and instead rely on "his own intuition and
judgment" (244). In Kershaw's view, this was "one of the most
extraordinary miscalculations of all time" (290) and a direct
consequence of a system of "highly personalized rule" (296). It
nearly led to the destruction of the Soviet Union.
Kershaw indicates that the political systems of Italy and Japan
concentrated less power in the hands of their leaders, but they too
were subject to ideology and egotism. Mussolini's fascist state was
a "semi pluralistic institutional system" (141), but institutional
restraints were weakening by 1940. Increasingly the elites displayed
"subservience, servility, and sycophancy" (182) and endorsed
Mussolini's dreams of renewed empire. Thus, when il Duce demanded a
declaration of war on England and France in 1940 and later an
invasion of Greece, Italy's non-fascist elements acquiesced, despite
the general acknowledgement of the country's military and economic
weaknesses. "These decisions reflected the dictator's severe
personal shortcomings, [as well as] the imbecility of the political
Kershaw shows that the Japanese state, too, was pluralistic, but its
elite was driven by grievances over past treatment by the West,
economic insecurities, and a dream of national greatness reinforced
by popular jingoism. Thus, "no significant individual or faction
stood against the imperative of expansion" (377) and the anticipated
war with the United States. Well aware of their nation's weaknesses
and the overwhelming strength of the United States, Japan's leaders
nevertheless preferred likely destruction to compromise. Many
readers will catch a strong whiff of tragic inevitability in all of
these decisions--despite Kershaw's inclinations.
While readers might question Kershaw's argument against
inevitability based on the evidence he presents, his portrait of
closed governing systems making "logical" but fatal choices is
convincing. The experiences of our own times strengthen his
argument. Dictatorships, especially those driven by ideology,
continue to be prone to disastrous choices. Ideology fuels desires,
while the narrow base of advisors' voices fosters paranoia and rash
actions. Hitler and Stalin, meet Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.
democracies have not been immune to many of these problems either.
Were the policies followed by the United States, Great Britain, or
France, for that matter, during the 1920s anything but delusional?
Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor were the results of repeated policy
failures that grew out of both intellectual and procedural
weaknesses. Was England's choice to risk all in 1940 to remain
a great power any more sensible than, say, Japan's choice to risk
all to become a great power? And, as Kershaw reminds us,
isolationist ideology had achieved a stranglehold on foreign policy
in an America nursing grievances dating back to WWI. These
conditions shaped defense choices in very dangerous ways, reflecting
"the deeper mistakes of understanding and attitude ... of [American]
society in general." Kershaw laments "the general ignorance of the
historical processes,... lack of attention to the power realities"
and tendency to follow "emotion" rather than reason (88, 84). In his
view, American democracy could be as delusional as other systems.
Sadly, the experience of the United States (and Britain) after 9/11,
especially in Iraq, suggests just that: our attraction to
ideologically driven visions and willingness to exclude alternative
views in fervid times have led us to profoundly bad decisions. No
system has a monopoly on error.
Greenhills School, Oakland University