“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
George Santayana’s comment on remembering the past rings true, but the History Channel’s memory is a bit clouded when it comes to World Wars 1 & 2. Tonight I finished watching there 3 part, six hour miniseries “The World Wars” and found it to be not only inaccurate in many places but at the level for a second grader.
The series produced by the History Channel and narrated by two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Town), this three-night event series features interviews with contemporary leaders, including John McCain, Colin Powell, John Major and David Miliband, along with noted historians from around the world.
According to the History Channel’s promo piece:
“An assassination in Sarajevo sparks a global war. For the next 30 years, deadly fighting rages across Europe, Africa, China and the Pacific.
Hitler. Churchill. De Gaulle. MacArthur. Patton. Stalin. Mussolini. We know them as legends. But they first learn what it will take to rise to greatness as young soldiers, fighting for their lives on the frontlines.
This is the story of a generation of men who come of age in the trenches of World War I, only to become the leaders of World War II. The lessons they learn on the frontlines shape them as they rise to power—and haunt them as the deadly fighting breaks out again. Some become heroes, forged in courage under fire. Others emerge as the most infamous villains the world has ever seen.
Theirs is one story—the story of a 30-year global struggle. A fight that will either save the world—or destroy it.”
While the concept of linking WWI and WWII into one world war of 30 years in length with only pauses here and there is a good and, what I believe, a valid concept their execution missed by a mile.
Anyone who has studied 20th century history and men like Wilson, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin should be embarrassed at what the producers and writers of this series fed the viewing public. Those who are not familiar with the events of the 30 year period from 1914 to 1945, as no doubt most of today’s high school and college graduates are, will get a very flawed picture of the reasons, players, events, and ramifications of this period and how they affect us to this day.
Here are a few of the more glaring oversights and inaccuracies dished out by the series:
Wilson’s Reasons for Entering World War I:
The series portrays President Woodrow Wilson as a man who had no desire to intervene in the First World ar. Yes, they mentioned the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania (1915) by a German U-Boat of the coast of Ireland and the infamous Zimmerman Telegram urging Mexico to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers in 1917. These events turned public opinion against Germany and gave Wilson a green light for declaring war on Germany but Wilson had designs on entering the war as he always was a Europhile since the time he spent at Johns Hopkins University a hotbed of progressivism and Europhiles where those like John Dewey had great influence.
They did not mention the resignation of Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan over what he believed was a dangerous action to enter a world war some 5,000 miles away. Nor was there any mention of Coronel House Wilson’s closest advisor and advocate of intervention into the war.
There was no mention of Wilson’s efforts to counter opposition to the war at home. Wilson pushed through Congress the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress anti-British, pro-German, or anti-war opinions. While he welcomed socialists who supported the war, he pushed at the same time to arrest and deport foreign-born radicals. Citing the Espionage Act, the U.S. Post Office, following the instructions of the Justice Department, refused to carry any written materials that could be deemed critical of the U.S. war effort. Some sixty newspapers judged to have revolutionary or antiwar content were deprived of their second-class mailing rights and effectively banned from the U.S. mails.Mere criticism of the Wilson administration and its war policy became grounds for arrest and imprisonment. A Jewish immigrant from Germany, Robert Goldstein, was sentenced to ten years in prison for producing The Spirit of '76, a film that portrayed the British, now an ally, in an unfavorable light.
Also absent from the narrative was that Wilson set up the first western propaganda office, the United States Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel (thus its popular name, Creel Commission), which filled the country with patriotic anti-German appeals and conducted various forms of censorship. All of these actions were in direct violation of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.
Lenin and the Communist Revolution:
This was one of the most glaring inaccuracies of the series. While their mention of the German’s secretly bringing Vladimir Lenin into to Russia from his exile in Switzerland was correct the rest of this segment was totally distorted. The series writers had Lenin storming the Winter Palace and overthrowing the Tsar Nicholas II.
Actually there were two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The first was led by members of the military, civilian workers groups, and members of Russia’s parliament — the Duma. This revolution took place in March of 1917. The outcome of the demonstrations and strife was the abdication of the Tsar and his eventual being placed under house arrest by the provisional government.
When the leader of this provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, a young and popular lawyer and a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party while instituting reforms that provided more civil liberties he did not withdraw from the war. . This is when the Germans smuggled Lenin into to Russia.
The political group that proved most troublesome for Kerensky, and would eventually overthrow him, was the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin had been living in exile in neutral Switzerland and, due to democratization of politics after the February Revolution, which legalized formerly banned political parties, he perceived the opportunity for his Marxist revolution. Although return to Russia had become a possibility, the war made it logistically difficult. Eventually, German officials arranged for Lenin to pass through their territory, hoping that his activities would weaken Russia or even – if the Bolsheviks came to power — lead to Russia's withdrawal from the war. Lenin and his associates, however, had to agree to travel to Russia in a sealed train: Germany would not take the chance that he would foment revolution in Germany. After passing through the front, he arrived in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in April 1917.
With Lenin's arrival, the popularity of the Bolsheviks increased steadily. Over the course of the spring, public dissatisfaction with the Provisional Government and the war, in particular among workers, soldiers and peasants, pushed these groups to radical parties. Despite growing support for the Bolsheviks, buoyed by maxims that called most famously for "all power to the Soviets," the party held very little real power in the moderate-dominated Petrograd Soviet. Lenin and his followers were unprepared for how their groundswell of support, especially among influential worker and soldier groups, would translate into real power in the summer of 1917.
On 7 November 1917, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin led his leftist revolutionaries in a revolt against the ineffective Provisional Government (Russia was still using the Julian Calendar at the time, so period references show a 25 October date). The October revolution ended the phase of the revolution instigated in February, replacing Russia's short-lived provisional parliamentary government with government by soviets, local councils elected by bodies of workers and peasants. Liberal and monarchist forces, loosely organized into the White Army, immediately went to war against the Bolsheviks' Red Army, in a series of battles that would become known as the Russian Civil War.
While the Bolsheviks did storm the Winter Palace it was not the Tsar who was overthrown, It was the Kerensky Provisional Government. I realize the story of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Communist state is long and complicated but at least the writers of the series could have gotten this fact correct.
Versailles Peace Conference and Wilson’s 14 Points:
This was a topic very lightly covered. Too integrate the two world wars together the Versailles Peace Treaty is a subject that cannot be brushed over as it laid the groundwork for the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party to power and should be considered as the single most cause of WWII.
There was no mention of Wilson’s 14 Points and how the European Leaders pretty much ignored them. It was Clemenceau of France, upon hearing of the Fourteen Points, was said to have sarcastically claimed “The good Lord only had ten!” While the 14 Points were the basis for the armistice they were not really incorporated into the final treaty.
There was no mention of Wilson failing health and the conference and the role played by his foreign policy advisor “Colonel” Edward M. House.
The fact that the Japanese, members of the winning side, walked out of the conference when they felt left out was brushed over with a light touch.
There was mention that the Germans were not present, but once again it was given a one or two sentence statement. The German snub and enormous reparations were the primary reasons for the rise of the Nazi Party and Adolph Hitler. The reparations demanded were the cause of the collapse of the German economy which resulted in the civil unrest in Germany.
The Failed League of Nations:
No mention was made of the League of Nations and how Wilson, a proponent, was unable to get the treaty accepted by the United States Senate. This resulted in feckless organization that had no power to enforce penalties on violators and without the treasure of the United States it was bound to failure. Nations will act in their own self-interest and that’s the way it was to be.
Mussolini’s Rise to Power:
Benito Mussolini was shown as a fascist dictator, but no mention was made of his corporatist policies which tied him closely to the Italian industrial leaders, which without their support he would have been relegated to the trash heap of failed wanabe dictators. It was the Italian industrialists that really made El Duce.
Hitler’s Annexations and Territorial Grabs:
While some time was given to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland and their takeover of two-thirds of Czechoslovakia little mention was made of the plebiscites in the French Occupied Saarland and the Anschluss with Austria.
The Battle of Britain and the Blitz:
This one really bugged me. The series had the Battle of Britain and the Blitz reversed on the timeline. They had the Blitz (the German night bombing of London and other cities in the UK coming prior to the RAF’s battle to stop the Luftwaffe from gaining air superiority over Britain. The Battle for Britain, or has Churchill described it as “Their Finest Hour” took place in the skies of England from July 10, 1940 to October 31, 1940.
The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces and was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date. The battle received its name from a speech Winston Churchill delivered to the British House of Commons on June 18, 1940, in which he stated "The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin." The German objective was to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), especially Fighter Command. From July 1940 coastal shipping convoys and shipping centers, such as Portsmouth, were the main targets; one month later, the Luftwaffe shifted its attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. As the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted aircraft factories and ground infrastructure. Eventually the Luftwaffe resorted to attacking areas of political significance and using terror bombing strategy – the Blitz.
Regardless of the ability of the Luftwaffe to win air superiority, Adolf Hitler was frustrated that it was not happening quickly enough. With no sign of the RAF weakening, and Luftwaffe air fleets taking punishing losses, the Luftwaffe was keen for a change in strategy. To reduce losses further, a change in strategy was also favored to take place at night, to give the bombers greater protection under cover of darkness. On 4 September 1940 after a RAF night rain on Berlin, in a long address at the Sportspalast, Hitler declared: "And should the Royal Air Force drop two thousand, or three thousand kilograms then we will now drop 300,000, 400,000, yes one million kilograms in a single night. And should they declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, then we will erase their cities.”
The Blitz lasted from September 7, 1940 to May 21, 1941 and took the lives of 40 thousand civilians and injured as many as 139,000.
By preventing Germany from gaining air superiority, the battle ended the threat that Hitler would launch Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. However, Germany continued bombing operations on Britain, known as The Blitz. The failure of Germany to achieve its objectives of destroying Britain's air defenses, or forcing Britain to negotiate an armistice or an outright surrender, is considered its first major defeat and a crucial turning point in the Second World War
The Use of Documentary Footage:
The use of documentary footage was atrocious. In many scenes of German bombers shown during the Blitz and the invasion of Poland German four engine bombers were shown and in some cases the editors used footage of American B-17 bombers. At no time during WWII did the Germans use long-range four engine bombers. These scenes mad the series look amateurish and the documentary film researchers and editors could have done a proper job.
Roosevelt’s Constitutionally Illegal Support of Britain and Lend Lease:
No mention was made of Roosevelt’s providing illegal military support to Great Britain or his policy of Lend-Lease without it would have been almost impossible for England to survive.
The Battle of the Atlantic:
No mention was made of the German U-Boat campaign that almost destroyed Great Britain’s ability to survive. The German U-Boat offensive in the Atlantic cut off much of the war materials and foodstuffs until the United States entered the war after Hitler’s Declaration of War on the U.S on December 11, 1941. Once the U.S entered the WWII they were able to provide convoy support thus allowing the buildup of forces in the U.K. This was a major factor in the Second World War.
Japan’s Reasons for the Invasion of China and Korea:
The series focused on Roosevelt’s oil embargo which was correct but did mention Japan’s need for more natural resources than oil. They needed timber, iron ore, copper, rubber and other precious metals for their war effort, resources they did not have.
While the United States was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression at the end of the 1930s, and would do so partly because of the war, Japan had emerged from its own period of depression, which had begun in 1926, by the mid-1930s. Many of the young soldiers mobilized into the Japanese army by the early 1930s came from the rural areas, where the effects of the depression were devastating and poverty was widespread. Their commitment to the military effort to expand Japanese territory to achieve economic security can be understood partly in these terms. The depression ended in the mid-1930s in Japan partly because of government deficits used to expand greatly both heavy industry and the military.
The Japanese military faced a particular tactical problem in that certain critical raw materials — especially oil and rubber — were not available within the Japanese sphere of influence. Instead, Japan received most of its oil from the United States and rubber from British Malaya, the very two Western nations trying to restrict Japan's expansion. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's embargo of oil exports to Japan pressured the Japanese navy, which had stocks for only about six months of operations.
The Japanese army, for its part, was originally concerned with fighting the Soviet Union, because of the army's preoccupation with Manchuria and China. The Japanese army governed Manchuria indirectly through the "puppet" state of Manchuria and developed heavy industry there under its favorite agencies, disliking and distrusting the zaibatsu (large Japanese corporations). But the Soviet army's resistance to Japanese attacks was sufficient to discourage northern expansion.
The Japanese army, for its part, was originally concerned with fighting the Soviet Union, because of the army's preoccupation with Manchuria and China. The Japanese army governed Manchuria indirectly through the "puppet" state of Manchukuo and developed heavy industry there under its favorite agencies, disliking and distrusting the zaibatsu (large Japanese corporations). But the Soviet army's resistance to Japanese attacks was sufficient to discourage northern expansion.
Meanwhile in 1937, the intensification of Chinese resistance to the pressure of the Japanese military drew Japan into a draining war in the vast reaches of China proper, and in 1940 into operations in French Indochina, far to the south. Thus, when the navy pressed for a "southern" strategy of attacking Dutch Indonesia to get its oil and British Malaya to control its rubber, the army agreed.
While it seems that economic factors were important in Japanese expansion in East Asia, it would be too much to say that colonialism, trade protection, and the American embargo compelled Japan to take this course. Domestic politics, ideology and racism also played a role.
Japan’s Brutality in China:
While much space was given to the Nazi’s brutality and the Holocaust no mention was made of Japan’s brutality during WWII. No mention was made of the Rape of Nanking or the Japanese Unit 731, a united devoted chemical, biological, and human experimentation. Also no mention was made of the Battan Death March. Possible this was done to preserve sympathy for Japan after the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Russo-German Pact:
Not much space was given to the 1939 Russo-German Pact. Without this agreement with Stalin’s Soviet Union it is doubtful that Germany would have invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. This pact allowed Germany and the U.S.S.R. to spilt Poland in two giving each party their portion. Eventually Hitler voided the Pact on June 1, 1941 when he invaded the U.S.S.R.
The North African Campaign and El Alamein:
The series claims that the first use of American troops in the European Campaign was the Invasion of Sicily. This is blatantly wrong. The first use of U.S troops was in North Africa with the landings at Algeria. They did not even mention the fighting in North Africa and the defeat of Rommel’s Africa Corps. They wanted to focus on Patton’s performance in Sicily. No mention was made of the British Eighth Army’s final defeat of the Africa Corps at El Alamein and the eventually dominance of the Mediterranean. This cut off Hitler’s supply of oil from Libya and the allies ability to build air bases where their long-range bombers could reach other oil fields in Romania.
General Patton vs. General Eisenhower:
Not one word of mention was given to General Eisenhower the appointed Supreme Commander of all allied forces in Europe. The focus was on Lt. General Patton and his part in Operation Fortitude, a ruse conceived by the British to disguise the Normandy site for the invasion by forcing Hitler to believe the real invasion would take place at the Pas de Calais.
Fortitude was one of the major elements of Operation Bodyguard, the overall Allied deception stratagem for the Normandy landings. Bodyguard's principal objective was to ensure the Germans would not increase troop presence in Normandy by promoting the appearance that the Allied forces would attack in other locations. After the invasion (on June 6, 1944) the plan was to delay movement of German reserves to the Normandy beachhead and prevent a potentially disastrous counter-attack. Fortitude's objectives were to promote alternative targets of Norway and Calais.
The planning of Operation Fortitude came under the auspices of the London Controlling Section, a secret body set up to manage Allied deception strategy during the war. However, the execution of each plan fell to the various theatre commanders, in the case of Fortitude this was Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. A special section, Ops (B), was established at SHAEF to handle the operation (and all of the theatre's deception warfare). The LCS retained responsibility for what was called "Special Means"; the use of diplomatic channels and double-agents.
While this faint was important it did not surpass the job Eisenhower did in planning the Normandy invasion and his tireless efforts of holding the allied coalition together — especially when it came to Charles De Gaul. If one did now know better watching this series would have you believe Patton won the war in Europe with his tanks. Yes General Patton’s role was not insignificant, especially during the Battle of the Bulge, but so were the efforts of many others. It was Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander, who made the tough decisions and held the political wolves at bay.
On the other side of the world the focus was on General MacArthur the overall commander of the army forces in the Pacific Theater. No mention was made of Admiral Nimitz, the overall naval commander and co-commander with MacArthur, and the role of the Marines in the brutal island-hopping war nor the naval battles such as the Coral Sea, The Battle for Leyte Gulf, The Philippine Sea, and Guadalcanal carried out in that theater of operations.
The Yalta and Potsdam Conferences:
Mention was made of the Tehran Conference between the big three; Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin where Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan at some point. However, no mention was made of the Yalta Conference where to get agreement on unconditional surrender by Germany a physically weakened Roosevelt surrendered all of post-war Eastern Europe to the Stalin’s Soviet Union while a war-weary Churchill looked on. Also no mention was made of the Potsdam Conference after victory in Europe where President Truman got the same terms of surrender for Japan. I will say, however, that I thought Winston Churchill’s role in WWII was accurately displayed.
I began watching this series with great expectations but as the series drew on I became more and more disappointed with its soap opera appearance. I guess I was expecting too much from a six hour TV mini-series. Some of the historians had a chance to save the series with more cogent remarks but they fell into line with the writer’s narrative. It’s a shame as a series such as this had great possibilities to educate the viewers who were not aware of the history of the two world wars and their linking into a conflict lasting 30 years.
If you have the time and want to watch a comprehensive history of the Second World War I would suggest viewing the “Winds of War” and its companion series “War and Remembrance.” While a dramatic series it packs in a ton of accurate history.
If we want to follow George Santayana’s advice we have to view the past in a clear and accurate manner, not through the eyes of a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease.