The Myths of World War II
CSPI Podcast with Sean McMeekin
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I usually don’t announce new podcast episodes on my personal Substack because I’m sure many or most of you also get the CSPI Substack, but I’ll make an exception this time for the new followers and because I highly recommend it.
This week, I talk to Sean McMeekin, a professor of history at Bard College and author of Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II. If you’re going to read one book on World War II (and you should read more than one!), this should be it. Professor McMeekin and I discuss three main myths.
1) The idea that there was a clear moral case for helping the Soviet Union over Germany. In fact, Stalin had killed and arrested orders of magnitude more people by 1941. Although Germany would later shrink the gap during the Second World War, it remains true that we have every reason to question the moral calculations made by American and British leaders at the time.
2) American and British decision making was based exclusively on national interests or morality rather than being in many cases largely manipulated by communist ideologues and Soviet agents of influence.
3) There was nothing Churchill or Roosevelt could have done to save countries that went communist during or after the war like Yugoslavia, Poland, and China.
World War II remains central to how Americans understand themselves and our role in the world. Moreover, it’s endlessly fascinating, involving interactions between fundamentally different systems and having spanned across most of the planet from North Africa and England to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The conflict resulted in American global hegemony, ended the British Empire, expanded the frontiers of communism, and led to the creation of the nations of Germany and Japan, and ultimately, China, as we now understand them.
Our conversation closes with a discussions of scholarly reactions to his book and how the myths of World War II should affect how we think about American foreign policy today.
I haven't read Stalin's War yet (though I have read a couple of McMeekin's books), so I am only going by other people's summaries for the time being. A couple of counter-points that I'd be interested in hearing McMeekin address:
* (1) is correct as of June 1941, but it is incorrect in retrospect. It is highly likely to near certain that a Nazi victory would have been far worse for near everyone east of the Oder to the Sea of Japan than half a century of Communist rule. While I am not much interested in questions of morality as pertains to history, insofar as the argument that McMeekin is making is partly a moral one, this merits a response.
* (2) is outright questionable. A Nazi Germany that controlled all of continental Europe up to the Urals (in reality, probably Siberia and the Soviet Far East too, while it's true that stopping at the Urals was a German rhetorical talking point, in practice there would have been scant reason not to finish the job when they got there since resistance at that point would have been minimal, there's very little population and industry east of the Urals) would have been a vastly more formidable competitor to the Anglo-Americans for world hegemony than a demographically crippled USSR laboring under an absurdly inefficient economic system and substantially reliant on foreign technological imports. Had the Germans defeated the USSR decisively in 1942, there would have been no way that the Western Allies could have ended up defeating it militarily; even had the Germans won in 1943, Western Allied victory would have been entirely dependent on racing to the Bomb and getting there at least a couple of years ahead of the Germans (possibly, but unlikely). Insofar as Anglo-American national interests preclude the emergence of powerful competitors, which in the case of a Nazi Germany hegemon in Eurasia would have posed a vastly greater challenge to them than the USSR, then it seems clear that siding with the USSR tallied perfectly with their national interests (certainly in retrospect, arguably pretty obviously from the perspective of Allied leaders at the time too). They got to squash the more powerful competitor, with 95% of the blood price being paid by the secondary competitor. In that sense, it was an almost absurdly "profitable" exchange.
Western Europe was occupied by Germans at the time, and western Europe sort of mattered.
They did stop the Soviets by stopping them from going west of Germany, even if they didn't fight them, and even if the Soviets may not have won had America not intervened.