Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
9 March 2011
Review by Ingo Trauschweizer, Ohio University
Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941
By Joseph Maiolo
New York: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. xix, 473. ISBN: 978-0-465-01114-8.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

Joseph Maiolo, a specialist in international history (King's College London), is among the leading historians of strategy and policy in the interwar years.[1] His important new book on the world's descent into war in the 1930s reminds us of the benefits of careful integration of international history with the study of domestic pressures and threat perceptions; it incisively explores the role and direction of state power in the history of the violent twentieth century. Maiolo posits a (perhaps overly) bold structural thesis: the destructiveness of World War I shocked the leaders of all great powers and led them to build strong armaments industries that required central management or direction and a regimented society. Naturally, as soon as one power began building its armaments, others felt threatened. The arms race first ensued between the Soviet Union and Japan but quickly spread and took on an irreversible dynamic. Political and military leaders of various ideological persuasions came to regard military-industrial mobilization as necessary for long-term survival in an age of total war. The central argument holds that totalitarian regimes were more readily prepared than the democracies to impose regimented societies and embrace state-controlled economies, but that "the arms race sent everyone down the same totalitarian track" (4). The enemy within for freedom, individuality, and democracy, then, is the dynamic of the arms race itself, which Maiolo believes must lead to totalitarian tendencies.

Cry Havoc is based on a massive literature on the origins of the war[2] in both Europe and the Far East that became a global event in 1941. It also draws on archival and published primary sources from Germany, Italy, France, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia to add fresh research and insight. The resulting narrative and analysis are wonderfully lucid and comprehensive.

Maiolo argues that rearming began in response to the Great Depression and to the termination of arms control agreements that were observed in the decade after the First World War. While his narrative begins with the first five-year plan of Stalin's Soviet Union, he rightly insists that the arms race began in 1931 with Japan's aggressive expansion into Manchuria. It is, therefore, difficult to locate the point of origin in Moscow, Tokyo, or the headquarters of the Japanese army in Manchuria. This uncertainty underlines the complexity of mistrust and misinterpretation of intentions and capabilities between, for example, the Soviet Union and Japan:

All ... changed with the Soviet Union's First Five Year Plan (1928-32). A foretaste of what it would do for the Soviet presence in Asia came at the end of 1929, when Red Army air and ground forces swept aside Chinese troops in a railway dispute. [Japanese] intelligence warned of worse to come. The Army Ministry in Tokyo calculated that one quarter of the budget of the Five Year Plan was devoted to armaments.… "Although Russia probably won't be starting anything for two or three years," predicted the Japanese Army's chief of operations in March 1931, "to say flatly that they won't would be a mistake." Total-war officers such as Suzuki, Nagata and Ishiwara agreed. A Soviet Manchuria would prevent autarky. Without autarky, Japan would fall irreversibly into armaments decline, while the Soviet Union's war machine grew stronger and moved closer. With each passing month, the urge to take preventative action grew (28).

The author agrees with the conventional argument that Stalin built up a Soviet armaments industry at great cost and breakneck speed under the cloud of an anticipated war with the capitalist powers. And yet, he cautions, the rearmament of the Soviet Union was not a straightforward proposition. For one thing, Stalin himself rejected Marshal Tukhachevsky's 1929 plan to create a massive force of 250 army divisions and produce 122,500 aircraft and 197,000 tanks per year in a future war (7). Indeed, Stalin, fearful of overtaxing Soviet heavy industry, accused Tukhachevsky of "red militarism." Only in response to Japan's hostile takeover of Manchuria did he concede to all-out military-driven industrialization. By the same token, those Japanese army officers, led by Col. Ishiwara Kanji, who engineered the crisis in Manchuria without orders or consent from their own government, acted largely in response to the emerging military potential of the Soviet Union; they believed only the acquisition of a powerful industrial base on the Asian mainland would secure Japan's future and the growth of its empire.

Chapters 1-4 of Cry Havoc address the policies and intentions of the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's Italy up to the mid-1930s. Chapters 5 and 6 turn to London, Paris, and Washington. In chapters 7 through 10, Maiolo interweaves these strands, moving quickly between capitals in his investigation of the buildup of naval power, central control of economies, and the intensification of the arms race in Europe in 1936. Here, he most clearly presents an international and diplomatic history of the origins of World War II. Indeed, after the escalation of the arms race, leaders in all great powers wondered about sustainability and the ultimate objectives of the other players. But, following the logic of an arms-race, Maiolo outlines how, despite doubts and hesitations, the competition accelerated yet again in 1938-39 in reaction to crises in Central Europe and Japan's invasion of China proper. The book's conclusion emphasizes the continued danger of the arms-race dynamic throughout the Cold War and to the present.

The arms race thus preceded Adolf Hitler's rise to power and his decision to rearm German in 1935. This is not to suggest, of course, that Nazi Germany merely reacted to an ongoing phenomenon. In fact, Maiolo, like other recent historians, sees both Hitler and Stalin as fundamentally evil but also driven by an uneasy mixture of ideology and pragmatism.[3] His narrative of the late 1930s traces the aggressive and imperial intentions of both Hitler and Stalin, and, of course, of Hirohito's Japan and Mussolini's Italy. The complicated international relations of the times are front and center. For example, Maiolo shows that Soviet leaders in 1938-39, distracted from European affairs by a hostile Japan, were dismayed by western appeasement of Germany, which they suspected of desiring an anti-Soviet alliance. The Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 was, therefore, from the Soviet perspective, a defensive measure designed to buy time and divide a camp full of enemies. Maiolo persuasively contends that Marshal Zhukov's war plan of May 1941 (see Map 5, p. xix) was the Red Army's answer to the buildup of Wehrmacht forces on the USSR's western border. Zhukov and other senior officers urged a preemptive attack, but Stalin rejected the proposal outright, calling Zhukov a "warmonger" (367-68). Still unexplained is Stalin's insistence on keeping a peace to which the Germans themselves were obviously no longer committed.

Despite his strong condemnation of the motives behind the arms race, Maiolo examines the 1930s from the viewpoint of the political, economic, and military leaders who led the world into war. Within that approach, it proves difficult to determine who acted or reacted for what reasons. For example, Maiolo concludes that the arms race impelled an increasingly desperate Adolf Hitler to choose war against a much stronger coalition of foes lest Germany fall further behind. He acknowledges "Germany's pivotal role in the arms race and in causing the Second World War," but notes "we should not overlook the much wider forces that converged to make the arms race possible in the first place" (5). This is problematic: "wider forces" may account for the timing of German aggression but not the ideology of National Socialism or Hitler's clear intent to wage war to secure resources and Lebensraum. Maiolo somewhat downplays the significance of the less rational decisions made by European dictators' and the army and navy officers who dominated the political scene in Japan.

Maiolo finds that all major players subscribed to the same notion of geopolitics: the dictators strove for autarky, while France, Great Britain, and the United States hoped to balance interests of empire, commerce, and security. He blames the Second World War on a self-fulfilling prophecy: the lessons of World War I required preparedness and the ability to mobilize men, industries, and society much more effectively than in 1914. Moreover, such an understanding of total war aligned with a Keynesian impulse to rescue national and global economies by strong state intervention during the Great Depression. Most immediately, armaments projects offered jobs and profits, but the need for a disciplined society underlay state-directed programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps in the United States, which was run by the army and looked suspiciously military in nature.

Though Maiolo recognizes inherent differences of intent between totalitarian and democratic regimes within a complex picture of international relations and domestic pressures, his thesis and analysis never fully align. Nonetheless, throughout the text we encounter vivid portraits of the political leaders and military and economic planners who made decisions that shaped the future. Though strong on policy matters as well, the book is most rewarding in its discussions of officers like the young Dwight D. Eisenhower, who were working on plans for military and industrial mobilization.

As regards the principles of total war, Maiolo rejects legitimate concerns about preparedness and national security against the rising dictatorships. He sets Major Eisenhower planning for the American "military-industrial complex" in 1930 in ironic juxtaposition to the President Eisenhower of the 1961 farewell address. This, however, underestimates the critical difference between planning and actually implementing full-scale mobilization, a distinction that informs Maiolo's own discussion of Neville Chamberlain's role as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1936. It would have been irresponsible for any democratic power not to plan for total war at a time when Stalinism and fascism posed such dire threats. That said, the book shatters any notion that the arms race began in earnest only in the mid-1930s and it demonstrates important connections among events in East Asia and the Pacific and in Europe and the Atlantic.

The broader question raised here is whether all arms races take on a momentum of their own and whether the frenetic competition of the 1930s could recur. Cry Havoc is a comprehensive indictment of the machinations of military, industrial, and political leaders, even when they meant well for their citizens and had peaceful intentions, as was the case in Great Britain, France, and the United States. The book also pays homage to Maiolo's mentor, Donald Cameron Watt, in parsing "how war came."[4] It will force students of the interwar period and of World War II to rethink old assumptions about appeasement and to consider the interactions of the great powers from economic, diplomatic, political, and military angles. This truly international history will richly reward not only scholars but any reader interested in the Second World War or the genesis of the military-industrial-political complex.

[1] See his The Royal Navy and Nazi Germany, 1933-1939: Appeasement and the Origins of the Second World War in Europe (NY: St. Martin's, 1998); The Origins of the Second World War: The Debate Continues, ed. with R. Boyce (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond, 2nd ed., ed. with A. Best et al. (NY: Routledge, 2008); and Strategic Studies: A Reader, ed. with T. Mahnken (NY: Routledge, 2008).

[2] Notable omissions are Edward J. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on Japan's Imperial Army (Lincoln: U Nebraska Pr, 2003) and Japan's Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853-1945 (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2009); David French, Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-1945 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2000); and Eugenia C. Kiesling, Arming against Hitler: France and the Limits of Military Planning (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 1996).

[3] See Norman M. Naimark, Stalin's Genocides (Princeton: PUP, 2010) and esp. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (NY: Basic Books, 2010).

[4] See Watt's Too Serious a Business: European Armed Forces and the Approach to the Second World War (Berkeley: U Cal Pr, 1975) and How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-1939 (NY: Pantheon, 1989).

Purchase Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941
Site News
MiWSR Farewell
A note from the editor.
Contact Us
Around the Web
Michigan War Studies Review
© 2005-2023 Michigan War Studies Review