Victory in Europe Day (May 8th) has inspired a few retrospectives about the war, including why America won. But these retrospectives are often short-sided and based on technology. The National Interest, for example, focused on the quality and quantity of weapons. This certainly had a role as Germans produced high-quality material, but their technical complexity often made them difficult to field in large numbers. Weapons and equipment are just tools that are directed into combat by national leaders and used in particular ways by strategists.
Those are the two main reasons why I found the article ridiculous. Adolph Hitler made the critical mistake of making enemies when he didn’t need to. The Soviet Union had actually signed a non-aggression pact and divided up Poland before Germany invaded in 1941. It wasn’t guaranteed that the Soviets would survive as this appeared to be another brilliant Blitzkrieg, but the Soviet state survived and ended up making the communists allies of the West.
Germany’s treaty obligations with Japan only applied if Japan was attacked by somebody like America, not if Japan attacked first. So when Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor, Hitler made a mistake by declaring war as well. He had little regard for America’s fighting capability and thought they would be more interested in pursuing the war against Japan. But the majority of America’s power ended up being directed towards Germany, who Roosevelt felt (correctly) was the greater threat. The war would have looked vastly different with America fighting Japan in the Pacific, and Britain fighting alone against Germany that controlled much of the continent and had a non-aggression pact with the Soviets.
Once political leaders decide to go to war it is the generals that dictate how aspects are used. In this case it was the Soviets that produced the decisive turning point of the war. Every year, the Germans launched attacks that swept aside countries and added territory. Poland and France were the most notable but the attacks against Russia devastated their country in terms of men and materials. But from mid-1942 through early 1943 the Germans were bogged down in Stalingrad. The Cold War made it unpopular to give the Soviets credit, and Stalin’s regime was horrible, but they still provided the turning point of the war. The pincer attacks from the Russians trapped the German 6th army with casualties totaling one million; it shattered many of Germany’s allies in the war effort and soon wiped out the gains of their latest offensive and much-needed oil. This was a strategic failure by the Germans brought by the Russians that had little to do with American arms and equipment, though America’s lend-lease program helped motorize and supply the beleaguered Russian Army.
This goes to the final point: that the most important American general fought and won the war from behind a desk. General George Smith Patton gets a good deal of credit but he was mostly hot air. It was General George C. Marshall organizing victory from Washington that deserves more credit. America had strong isolationist tendencies before the war that made the American army incredibly unprepared once war broke out. When Marshall became chief of staff the army consisted of 189,000 thousand poorly equipped soldiers, but three years later he would command a force of eight million while integrating new technology and force structures (like airborne and armored divisions.) He had to do this while fighting militaries from Germany and Japan that had been building, training, and winning for the last 10 years…and do it literally across the entire world.
Marshall had to balance the needs of the army, for example, with those of the Marine Corps, decide which tanks or planes best met America’s needs, negotiate when a second front would be opened in Europe, debate the location of the second front with Churchhill, organize the transport of millions of pounds of material, and do so in reaction to German U boats, massive bombing raids, surprise attacks, unexpected collapses of allies, and domestic political considerations.
All of these factors regarding grand diplomacy and strategy were far more important than any one piece of technology, and should be recognized as such on the day of their victory. From 1939 to 1941 the Axis powers made incredible gains that threatened the remaining parts of Europe, the Middle East, India, Australia and even some territory in the Western hemisphere such as the Battle in the North Atlantic and Japanese seizure of islands in Alaska. But by 1945 they were defeated because of larger factors ranging from the mistakes of politicians, the strategy employed by the Soviets winning Stalingrad, and George Marshall directing the forty-fold increase of the U.S. Army and then equipping and deploying them around the world.