Illusions of victory
WHEN I READ your magazine, I seek to learn about new subjects or aspects of the familiar that I had not considered. But “Blinded by Hope” [Autumn 2010], by Thomas Fleming, left me unenlightened and, frankly, angry.
The author’s thesis is not truly groundbreaking. Is it surprising that the United States, or any country, has frequently gone to war without a full accounting of the possible toll? This is true in nearly every human endeavor. Just ask those Americans facing foreclosure. It’s hard enough for an individual to rationally analyze the costs and benefits of an action and select the best option; how much more so for a nation of millions? This article might have been more edifying if the author also considered wars in which the United States chose not to participate based on the assumed cost. (Are there any?)
I’m not a big fan of opinion pieces, especially in history magazines. They feel like they aren’t fully supported by the facts; otherwise, the author would have written a regular article. Too often, it seems, your Point of View story is an opportunity to take a shot at something or someone. Fleming says, “New Dealers were convinced that the Japanese could neither shoot, nor sail, nor fly with the skill of white men.” Was it necessary to single out the New Dealers when pretty much all of white America felt that way? And what about his analysis of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam? His debatable claims—that America had won the jungle war, that the South Vietnamese government was the best we could hope for, and that the Democrats in Congress undercut the South’s ability to resist the North—come across as a “stab in the back” theory. Such a tack wasn’t even necessary; the author’s essay is about the start of wars, not their end. The article felt as though it started with a theory and then sought supporting facts.
Thomas Fleming responds:
Mr. Lenoir claims that it is not really a surprising idea that America has gone to war “without a full accounting of the possible toll.” Yet what is surprising is that we have done this in virtually every war.
I don’t think the comparison to a person buying a house only to face foreclosure is apt. The two activities are too different. A president and his advisers have access to so much more information, if they are willing to use it. As to Mr. Lenoir’s criticism of opinion pieces, an article in a magazine like MHQ is much more than an opinion. There is nothing in the article that is not based on fact.
Mr. Lenoir objects to my criticism of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers’ utterly wrong dismissal of Japan’s military abilities at the start of World War II, claiming that all white Americans felt that way. But FDR and his advisers were running the country, and they acted on their estimate to provoke the Japanese into attacking the United States—a backdoor way of getting America into the war with Germany. They were convinced that the American navy could wipe the Japanese from the Pacific Ocean in six months. I tell this story at length in my book The New Dealers’ War. Other books I’ve written on this topic are 1776: Year of Illusions, and The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I.
Perhaps I should add that I am a registered Democrat and grew up with a portrait of FDR in the vestibule of my house. However, even a great man can succumb to the illusion of an easy victory, and that has entangled us in so many wars.
The road to Khartoum
IN “OUR MAN IN AFRICA” [Autumn 2010], Peter Harrington writes about the British campaign in the Sudan in 1885. In January, Major General Charles Gordon and his force were surrounded and besieged at Khartoum. Harrington notes that Major General Sir Garnet Wolseley mounted a relief effort, but that “Khartoum fell two days before Wolseley and his main force could arrive.”
Actually, an advance force sent to relieve Khartoum and led by Colonel Sir Charles Wilson apparently reached the city on January 26, about 24 hours after the city fell and Gordon died. Wolseley would not have reached Khartoum until March 1885 at the earliest, according to Lieutenant Colonel Mike Snook in his book Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders, 1879–1900.
The editors respond:
Thanks to Mr. Rosen for catching the error, which was made in editing. While Wolseley’s advance troops under Wilson arrived in Khartoum shortly after Gordon’s death, the general and his main force never arrived.
Axis prisoners on American soil
I ENJOY CHRISTINE AMMER’S articles. However, there was an error in her Autumn 2010 story [“The Lexicon of Lock ’Em Up”]. She claimed only Japanese-Americans were interned in camps during World War II. In fact, approximately 11,000 German-Americans and 1,000 Italian-Americans were also interned, as well as a few other Americans from Axis countries, including Bulgaria and Romania.
George R. Muller
Who really owns the Silver Bible?
IN “THE WAR OVER PLUNDER” [Summer 2010], Colin Woodard writes, “After the collapse of communism, Czech president Vaclav Havel tried to persuade Sweden to return the Silver Bible and several other objects taken from Bohemia during the Thirty Years’ War. He was refused, leaving the Czechs despondent.”
Sweden’s University of Uppsala, which holds the Silver Bible, cannot give it back to the Czech Republic, if only because the Czech Republic, formed in 1993, has never owned it. Theoretically, Uppsala could give it back to a descendant of someone who previously owned it or created it—say, the descendants of the Hapsburg family, from whom it was stolen in 1648. None of these have asked for it as far as I know.
Legally, the Silver Bible clearly belongs to Uppsala. The university received the bible as a donation from a man who bought it legally from a man who got it as a donation. It has taken good care of the artifact for three centuries. If that is not enough to qualify for ownership, what is?
Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.