Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.