When in doubt, consult Sun Tzu. “Know your enemy,” the great ancient sage once wrote.
Good advice in wartime, I’m sure we’ll all agree. The longer I study World War II, however, the more I am convinced how little the antagonists knew about one another. This is especially true for the powers whose aggression started the war, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Both powers were convinced that the western democracies were old, tired, and flabby. Hitler was sure that once Germany had carved out an East European empire for itself, Great Britain and France would simply fall into line. After all, the only alternative would be war to the knife, a life and death struggle for which he was sure they no longer had the will. Likewise, all the smart voices in Tokyo felt certain that Japan could get away with something similar. Singapore, Hong Kong, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines: all were ripe for the plucking. The feeble western empires in Asia would collapse, and young Japan would inherit the estate. About Mussolini’s insane notion that Italy could conquer and rule a modern-day Roman Empire, we will draw a merciful silence.
Perhaps the most wrongheaded notion of all was Hitler’s belief that the Soviet Union, under the yoke of its “Jewish-Bolshevik” regime, was in such an advanced state of decay that that all it would take was one swift kick and “the whole rotten edifice of communist rule will come tumbling down,” as he remarked in 1941 to staff officer General Alfred Jodl.
Similar negative stereotypes existed about the United States, as well. The Japanese were certain that once they had set up their defense perimeter in the Pacific, the Americans would have no choice but to respect it. After all, what U.S. president would willingly throw away the tens of thousands of young American lives it would take to penetrate that perimeter? Frontal assaults on one fortified island after another? Preposterous. A commercial nation obsessed with material comforts would never be able to make the appropriate sacrifices.
While Allied diplomatic and military intelligence services weren’t perfect, and while the Allies powers had their own stereotypes and misconceptions about the Axis, I think we can identify one crucial Allied advantage: their respective leaders had a much more realistic notion of what it would take to win the war: total national mobilization, “blood, sweat, and tears,” and a mountain of industrial production.
The Allies knew their enemy.
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