Getting History Wrong

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week’s commemoration of D-Day intermixed memory and history. The two are distinct. Memory is personal, and so it often places significance upon one aspect of an event even if the facts subsequently demonstrate that the event was not so significant. Memory can be fuzzy, but memory can also be deep and it carries emotions about which the historian must remain aloof. History cleans up memory, the way bleach cleans the stainless steel in the kitchen, wiping away what has been added by memory, laying bare the facts. It depersonalizes memory, which is a great loss, but makes up for that loss by providing judgment. History does not denigrate memory, to be sure, but it has a different task.

It distresses me when those who pretend to be writing history allow their need for personal drama to obfuscate their task. This affliction is most common among those who subscribe to the “Great Man Theory” of history, which looks at a complex web of events through the lens of its principal actors. And this pretense is, regrettably, a common occurrence on the History Channel.

The past couple of weeks, the History Channel has aired a new series, “The World Wars,” which relies heavily on the “Great Man Theory” of history, relegating complicated historical, economic and political issues to the sidelines, and focusing on the psyches of Churchill, Roosevelt, Wilson, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. I watched most of the show the way I usually watch the History Channel, more than willing to change the channel if Rachel Maddow or Megyn Kelly has an interview worth watching. But, what I saw was enough to horrify.

The show relates the story of Lenin and the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and overthrowing the Tsar. Except that by the time the Reds stormed the Winter Palace in October of 1917, the Tsar was long gone, having been deposed in February of that same year. Does it matter? It is certainly convenient to portray the events in Russia in 1917 as a straightforward context between the Tsar and the Reds. But, the truth is that there were many in Russia who despised the regime of the Tsar and many of those despisers did not share Lenin’s views, still less his brutality. As well, the failure of the Kerensky government to establish a stable regime between February and October is an important fact with repercussions for policy makers. In the long years of Tsarist autocracy, there was little in the way of responsible political leaders, no development of political debate, no competent civil service free from the influences of royal patronage. To try and build a new, democratic regime without these attributes of civil and political society in place was a fool’s errand. One wishes that those in the George W. Bush administration who believed we would be liberating the Iraqis and establishing a democratic polity has spent more time studying the instabilities of the Kerensky government.

“The World Wars” also seems intent on adding drama to the life of Winston Churchill. If ever there was a life that did not want for more drama, it was Churchill’s. But, the show has him being invited back into the conservative government of Neville Chamberlain on the eve of World War II, when in fact, Churchill was brought back to the Admiralty once war broke out and Chamberlain was assembling a War Cabinet. The show, always trying to show the links between the First and Second World Wars, has Churchill coming into Chamberlain’s office at Number 10 Downing Street and saying, “I have not been back here since Gallipoli,” a reference to Church’s resignation from the Admiralty after the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in the First War.

I was not there in September, 1939, so I do not know precisely what was said between Churchill and Chamberlain, but I am one thousand percent certain that Churchill never said he had not been to Number 10 since Gallipoli. Why? Because from 1924 until 1929, Churchill was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the conservative government of Stanley Baldwin. In this post, he lived at Number 11 and, en route to his office on the other side of Number 10, he would pass through the latter building and would visit each work day with Mr. Baldwin. Churchill left Number 11 when the Conservatives lost the General Election in May 1929, and he would depart Baldwin’s shadow cabinet two years later on the issue of India policy. Does any of this matter? Yes, because the television history makes Churchill look like a political pariah for more than two decades, all on account of Gallipoli, when he had held one of the highest offices of the land during that time and broke with his party on an issue unrelated to the main story told by the television show. Complications do not make for good television, perhaps, but especially if you are going to subscribe to the “Great Man Theory” of history, you had better grasp the great men you are writing about!

The History Channel was not alone in misrepresenting history last week. Politico ran a story by Mark Perry with the provocative title, “Should D-Day have happened a year earlier?” Perry has many books to his credit, but in this essay, he displays all the sophistication of a Communist Brit in the autumn of 1941, protesting at Hyde Park with a “Second Front Now!” sign. Perry claims that Churchill and his British staffers were dragging their feet constantly, first in opposing Operation “Sledgehammer” in 1942, and then in opposing a large scale invasion of Northwest France in 1943.

“Sledgehammer” was the name given to the idea of landing, at most, nine mobile divisions in the Cotentin Peninsula, storming Cherbourg and capturing the port. The purpose of this was to gain a foothold for subsequent efforts to liberate France and, most importantly, to help the Russians who were engaged in their second summer of brutal slaughter with the Nazis along a vast Eastern Front. The problems with “Sledgehammer” were many. Even if the Allied succeeded in storming the heavily fortified port and capturing it intact (when they did capture it in late June, 1944, the Nazis had ruined the port and rebuilding it took several months), the troops would be little more than target practice for German artillery and air forces. They would have to be supplied by sea, and the ships would need to be protected from the air and the sea, even though the Battle of the Atlantic was far from won and, in fact, was getting worse in the months after the U.S. entry into the war. Nor could the plan’s proponents explain what help this effort would provide to the Russians. The Germans maintained 25 divisions in France. They would not need to bring back any from the Eastern Front to confront a force of nine divisions, trapped in a narrow peninsula.

“Round-up” was the plan to invade France from England in 1943. It fell by the wayside for largely the same reasons. When the Allies had first pledged themselves to the cross-channel invasion, they had vastly optimistic expectations of the number of landing craft that would be available by the summer of 1943, nor of the other theaters of war where such landing craft would be needed. The invasion of French North Africa, then Sicily, and finally Italy, had required many of these crafts, to say nothing of British and American efforts in the Pacific against Japan. Having recognized that the Allied armies could not stand idle through most of 1942 while the Russians bled, they attacked where they could, landing in North Africa. Unmentioned by Perry was the offer of the Allies to try and bring troops to aid the Russians via Persia, an offer that Stalin declined, not wanting Western influences on his armies in the Caucuses. He also fails to mention the drain on the British Navy’s escort vessels as they tried to bring war materials to the Soviets on Arctic convoys, escort vessels that were needed not only to bring U.S. troops to Britain for any cross-channel invasion, but would be needed to maintain the supply of an invasion force in the face of U-boat attacks. Nor, does he mention Churchill’s desire to mount an additional attack, “Jupiter,” to reclaim Norway and thereby ease the strain on the Arctic convoys. Nor does he ask himself a very simple question: If crossing the Channel was as easy as Marshall evidently thought it would be in 1942 and 1943, why did Hitler not attempt the feat in the summer of 1940? The British expeditionary force had been largely rescued from Dunkirk, but they had to leave all their equipment behind. The British Isles were virtually naked from a military stand point. Hitler assembled as many landing craft as he could, pulling them from conquered ports in Holland and Belgium as well as France. Yet, he did not attempt to cross the Channel? Why is that? Because without complete air and naval superiority for several weeks, at the point of disembarkation, no reasonable military planner could justify an invasion. Those who landed would have to fend for themselves and could easily be hurled back into the sea is unsupplied.

Mr. Perry is well advised to read the minute written by Churchill on November 18, 1942 in which he explains quite clearly the problems associated with an invasion in 1943. In that minute, he wrote: "It is no use blinking at this....I have no doubt myself that we and General Marshall overestimated our capacity as measured by shipping, and also by the rate at which United States forces as well as special landing-craft, etc., could be ready." Later that same month, a lower level U.S. official seemed to swear off any invasion of France and Churchill went ballistic. He was, understandably, wary of an invasion, but he was also intent on it. 

I do not know what Mr. Perry is trying to achieve when he writes:

And there is still historical jousting over the timing of D-Day: If only the British had agreed to invade earlier, all of Germany might have fallen into Anglo-American hands. If only the Americans had been better prepared for war, the Iron Curtain might have been rolled eastward. If only Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had thought more clearly, the bloody campaigns of North Africa (in 1942) and Sicily and Italy (in 1943) might have been avoided.

These what-ifs are the imaginings of someone looking for drama not history. Nor does Perry’s suggestion at the end of his piece that hindsight, though denied to the actors at the time, would have convinced them of the need to invade France in 1943. Hindsight is valuable, but it can’t build landing craft that do not exist, nor can it obliterate the competing choices that faced the actual actors in this world event.

It is often said that if we do not learn history, we are doomed to repeat it. History, of course, is the one thing that never repeats itself. Nor, frankly, does knowledge of history always guarantee a more enlightened exercise of decision-making authority. But, it is surely a better guide than any other that exists. Just so, when history is distorted, an injustice is done to current and future generations. We should expect better from a channel that claims to be devoted to history, and we should expect better from Politico. 

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