What If? – Three Strategic-Level Questions of World War II
There are two words in the English vernacular that never fail to elicit a response from historians, professional soldiers and military enthusiasts: What if? These two words spur endless debate, discussion and, occasionally, vehement argument. They generate innumerable books and articles analyzing nearly every conflict in human history.
World War II, in particular, presents a seemingly endless number of “what if” scenarios. While fascinating, too many of these questions narrowly focus upon analysis of individual, tactical-level events, leading to often-erroneous “war-changing” conclusions, e.g., Japanese victory at Midway leads to American defeat in the Pacific Theater.
This article takes a different approach, positing “what if” at the strategic level of decision-making among the Axis nations of Germany, Italy and Japan. Additionally, rather than revisit tried and true questions—What if the Nazis developed atomic weapons? What if Operation Overlord failed? What if Franklin D. Roosevelt had lost his election for a fourth presidential term?—we will examine three less-frequently explored potentialities.
Scenario #1 – What if the Axis had not pursued programs of racial superiority during World War II?
Both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were governments built upon the idea of racial superiority. Adolf Hitler wrote on his views of Aryan supremacy while in prison, ultimately leading to the book Mein Kampf. Japan’s leaders saw themselves as racially superior to all other cultures, including those of other Asian nations. The Axis’ atrocities committed during WWII are well documented and need not be explored in detail here. Nor is it my intent to castigate the entirety of the Japanese, Italian or German peoples. The Germans, in particular, continue to be singled out for their actions as if no other nation has black marks on its national history. Obviously, the idea of racial equality was antithetical to Imperial Japan’s political ideology as well as to the fascism espoused by Mussolini and Hitler. Arguably, such radical alteration to Axis racial policies would have removed the casus belli for war in the first place—without untermensch there is no lebensraum to be taken.
However, the Axis as a whole failed to grasp the incredible opportunity presented as they began operations at the start of the conflict. Japanese military forces could easily have assumed the role of liberators freeing their fellow Asians oppressed by the yoke of European colonialism (which they claimed they were doing). This approach may have even gained traction amongst the Chinese people tired of internecine Communist/Nationalist warfare and warlordism in general. Allied governments would have faced an uphill battle convincing their former colonial subjects of the value of returning to the European fold. President Roosevelt, recognizing the futility of such a Sisyphean task, would likely have refused to assist Great Britain, France and the Netherlands to regain pre-war colonial control over their former possessions. Had the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere lived up to its namesake of equality, Japan may have dominated the Pacific region throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
A similar approach would have been particularly useful to the German war machine in the campaign against Russia and may well have been the key to Nazi victory in the east. The lead elements of Germany’s regular army were routinely welcomed as they advanced towards Moscow. Only with the arrival of the infamous Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary units whose purpose was the liquidation of Jews, Communist Party members, and any other groups deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime) did Russian civilians turn against their assumed liberators. Photos from the start of the operation often show smiling civilians greeting Wehrmacht soldiers with gifts of flowers, food and drink. It is entirely plausible the Germans could have recruited personnel beyond the estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 “Hiwis” who fought against Stalin. Even had recruitment numbers remained unchanged, the lack of partisan activity would have freed up regular army formations, police units and anti-partisan forces for operational use elsewhere.
Scenario #2 – What if the Axis had developed a comprehensive, partnered approach to operations?
Much ink has been spilled describing the differences of opinion between the American and British governments’ approach to strategy during WWII. Historians bemoan British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempts to open additional fronts in Italy and the Balkans as unnecessary drains on limited resources and combat power. Some have even accused Churchill of attempting to revisit his failure at Gallipoli during the First World War through ill-advised Turkish and Balkan adventures. Meanwhile, some American leaders are criticized for their emotional focus on the Pacific Theater during WWII and ignoring the existential threat posed by Nazi Germany on Western Europe and the Soviet Union.
These arguments, while interesting, miss the larger historical context of these meetings. First, the Allies held numerous high-level conferences where they debated and decided upon their nations’ combined policy of total, global warfare. Second, the leaders of the respective Allied nations frequently attended and participated in these discussions—no small feat in the days before Air Force One, satellite communications and other technology advances that allowed the president or prime minister to remain in command outside their national capitals. Third, agreements and plans from these conferences were largely adhered to during the execution phase. Was there deviation and did plans change from what was decided at the conferences? Certainly. The strategic and operational environment matured and changed in unexpected ways. Slavish adherence in the war’s latter years to plans developed in 1941 would have failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented and the lessons acquired from reverses on the battlefield that occurred in the intervening years.
The Axis, by comparison, never truly operated as a multinational alliance with common goals and complimentary war plans. This was partly a function of geography given that the two major partners, Japan and Germany, were separated by thousands of miles of land and sea. Even cursory communication between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany was incredibly problematic given the era’s available technology. The inability or unwillingness of the Axis to coordinate operations ensured they could never remove a major Allied power from the war. Imagine the pressure upon the Soviet Union, for example, had Japan launched a similar-sized attack concurrent with Germany’s Operation Barbarossa. As it stands, however, the Axis governments too often acted individually with little thought as to the second- or third-order effects upon their partners. Returning to the Barbarossa example, Italy’s inability to subdue Greece forced Hitler to deploy forces already earmarked for the Russian campaign and delay operations for six weeks. Both Germany and Japan attempted to communicate via submarines, but the scant number of completed trips prohibited effective strategy development, centering instead upon raw material and technology exchanges. Senior German and Japanese political and military leaders never met to plan and work as a multinational partnership. The Axis’ inability, or unwillingness, to coordinate synchronous or sequential military campaigns guaranteed the Allies sufficient time and space to absorb losses, raise and train tremendous militaries, put their national economies on a war footing, develop strategy and ultimately win the war.
Scenario #3 – What if the Axis had developed a strategic-level intelligence program?
As with all other major nations during WWII, Germany and Japan employed numerous intelligence-gathering organizations to gain understanding and predict their opponents’ next moves. Fortunately for the world, these individual offices were often unable to see beyond the immediate tactical level or coordinate their efforts towards a comprehensive intelligence picture. For example, the Japanese successfully developed the requisite intelligence for their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the short-term loss of some of the United States’ Pacific Fleet surface vessels—a minor tactical victory for Japan. At the strategic level, however, Japan’s intelligence network, thinking the United States weak and decadent, failed to adequately predict the visceral American response to December 7th, a major strategic mistake that would eventually lead to Imperial Japan’s downfall, the deaths of nearly 3 million Japanese, and the end of the Japanese Emperor’s divine status.
Even tactical-level intelligence was lacking, given that Japanese naval experts were unable to foresee how quickly America would raise and refit those ships sunk at Pearl Harbor. Nor did those experts understand the speed with which American industry could launch new ships. Throughout the war, the United States built 22 fleet aircraft carriers and 141 escort carriers compared to a paltry 22 Japanese carriers. The disparity in production numbers holds true in other naval categories as well, with the US fleet gaining nearly 400 new cruisers and destroyers, compared to less than 250 for Japan. The difference in merchant ship tonnage is even more stunning, with the US outbuilding Japan at a ratio of nearly 8 to 1.
In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler’s personal style of command leadership was the primary cause of intelligence failures. First, Hitler played his subordinates against one another and created unnecessary friction between senior military and political figures. While this infighting afforded the Fuhrer some degree of protection from potential rivals, it virtually doomed interservice and intergovernmental cooperation. Further, Hitler often ignored accurate intelligence assessments in favor of his own erroneous—often fantastic—estimates. As the fortunes of war turned against Hitler, he assumed more and more personal control of all decision-making, removing those who dared oppose his views and decisions. This in turn created a climate of “yes men” in Hitler’s inner circle unable or unwilling to provide truthful intelligence products or predictive analysis. Additionally, Germany’s intelligence-gathering apparatus suffered from poor operational security and ineffective counterintelligence that failed to note the Allies’ ability to crack their codes, the turning of every agent in the United Kingdom and the anti-Nazi machinations of Abwehr (German military intelligence) chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Thus, Germany had scant understanding of the Allies’ war plans, the true size of the Russian military, of America’s willingness to wage war, or the deception operations surrounding the D-Day landings.
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It is fortunate that the Axis did not adopt any of these programs or policies. Germany and Japan never truly collaborated and coordinated their operations. Neither nation developed effective intelligence services capable of providing their leaders with accurate information. And both countries pursued programs of racial superiority that alienated conquered peoples from their camps. Like so many other fascinating aspects of World War II, these questions will forever remain in the fascinating world of “what if?”
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.
Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.