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A Democracy At War, A Book Review

Discussion in 'Biographies and Everything Else' started by belasar, Feb 8, 2015.

  1. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    A Democracy at War: America's Fight At Home & Abroad in World War II, By William L. O'Neill, Free Press, Hardback, 480 pages, Notes, Index, Photo's and Maps.

    In a nutshell O'Neill attempts to tell how a functional democracy fights a global total war against two implacable enemies, while seeking common ground with vital allies and retaining its democratic spirit. The author also attempts to puncture the common perception that America was a Arsenal of Democracy that fought a well managed war.

    O'Neill does a respectable job in laying out how the US political system of the era worked and how it impacted both production of the tools of war and the mobilization of it's man (and woman) power to actually come to grips with Germany and Japan. He does prove that American industry, despite the mind boggling numbers, never reached its full potential. This can be traced back to a number of factors.

    Neither Congress or FDR wanted to ask too much of the American people, fearing they would lose the popular mandate given to them after December 7th, 1941. Polls taken through out much of the war showed the public was willing to do more, but were never asked. Coordination and cooperation between the services, industry and resource allocation was at best fragmentary or non-existent. A fault that ultimately lay at FDR's desk who created a bewildering array of offices, boards, commissions and agency's that too often worked at counterpoint to one another. Many were closed and superseded by new ones that operated better only by comparison. Racial and gender bias's also prevented considerable numbers from entering the workforce or the military.

    Unfortunately, O'Neill undercuts his own arguments here by what seems to me to be a liberal-progressive bias. He can find excuses and apologies for FDR's actions, but not those of Republican, Conservative Democrat's (Blue Dog's) and industrialists. This is even more telling when discussing organized labor. O'Neill states that between 1942 and 1945, 10,700 strikes or work stoppages occurred ( 41 affecting 5,000 or more workers), but in the end he calls these as having a 'negligible impact' on American production.

    I have some problem with that. If each strike/stoppage averaged say 100 workers for one 8 hour shift, this works out to 8,560,000 work hours. Divided by a 24 hour day, this equals over 356 days of lost production! Almost a year lost in a 3 and 1/2 year period can hardly be called negligible. Worse, a number of these strike were called to prevent minorities and women from entering union shops, or after they got in, getting equal pay, benefits and promotions.

    If O'Neill had stopped there he would have had a decent book with some flaws, but he decided to offer his opinions on war strategy also and here he went off the rails. Many of his observations range from the debatable, to the flat out wrong. Worse he repeatedly contradicts himself by flip-flopping his position to prop up the subject at hand.

    Some examples are in order.

    The Pacific conflict he contends was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and against the wrong enemy. Yes Japan was bad, but anything that delayed or took away from fighting Hitler was a waste. He doesn't say how we avoid war with Japan with any detail other than 'make some kind of deal'. He can't decide what to do with Guam, at one point we should have made it a major naval base before Pearl Harbor, then questions the value of capturing it later in the war. He can not understand how MacArthur wasn't sacked after Bataan, yet praises him fully for his appointment in SWPA. O'Neill feels his command should have been the primary one in the Pacific and call most of the USN's and USMC's battle history a utterly pointless waste that only prolonged the war.

    The B-24 was a inferior aircraft to the B-17, and the famed Willow Run plant should have produced B-17's instead. But that's OK, Willow Run should never have been built in the first place he contends because it never reached it projected potential. Then again Strategic Bombing was a stain on American honor that only lost valuable lives to little good. He speculates that it might have been better not to have them at all, thereby giving Eisenhower enough men to form another field army!

    The M-4 Sherman was a 'deathtrap', yet he relates that per thousand the casualty rate for infantry battalions was higher than tank battalions, and that tank battalions had loss rates similar to other combat formations like tank destroyers and engineer's. He also seems to think they only TD fielded was the one mounted on the M-3 half track!

    By far the worst is his scouring of our friends across the pond. FDR was the greatest statesman of the war, oh Winston was good, but just not up to snuff. FDR also won the Battle of the Atlantic with a few key decisions in early 1942. Perfidious Albion also prolonged the war by at least 6 months and possibly a full year (Those scoundrels!). The only thing Montgomery did right was win at El Alemein. I'm not a card carrying member of the Monty fan club, but jeez there is a limit.

    There are more but my finger is getting tired.

    I had hoped this book might serve as a counterpoint to Tooze's Wages of Destruction, but it falls depressingly short of what I have heard about that book.

    I can not recommend this book at all.
     
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  2. Terry D

    Terry D Active Member

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    The extent of labor trouble rather surprises me, but I did know that there were some ugly cases of non-cooperation by unions. You should look into the story of the Brewster Aircraft factory in Pennsylvania.

    I am not too surprised that US war industry was not as well organized as it could have been. I have a book called Don't You Know There's a War On (Linderman) that goes into this. FDR was a politician, and sometimes he allowed political considerations to affect his judgment and impede efficiciency. Still, even with this the US wartime production acheivement was remarkable, and our industry was more efficient than that of Germany or Japan.

    The B24 was no good? It was the plane that won the Battle of the Atlantic, it was ideal for the long ranges of the Pacific, and it dropped more bomb tonnage than the B17. Not bad for a bad plane.

    A deal in the Pacific? Oh, please. You couldn't 'deal' with the Japs, that had already been demonstrated. We were still trying to 'deal' with them on December 7th.

    Guam was too far to the west and consequently too exposed for a fleet base in 1941; at that time we lacked the fleet train that could support a base that distant. In 1944, the story was different. No conquest of Guam and the other Marianas, no bombing of Japan, no conquest of Iwo and Okinawa, and no carrier operations in the Western Pacific. The Japs knew this, and that was why they fought so hard to keep the Marianas.

    The Sherman a 'deathtrap'? Not at the time it was designed it wasn't; on the contrary, in armor and gunpower it compared pretty well with the latest versions of the Panzer III and Panzer IV, and it was better than almost anything the British had at that time. The M4 was based on a proven chassis (that of the M3 Grant) but it was a big improvement over the M3. Moreover, if we hadn't used the Sherman and elected to start a completely new design with new chassis, new gun, etc then our armored force would have had nothing but the obsolescent M3 for a year or more.

    From your review, it sounds as if Mr. O'Neill is another writer who has allowed the vastness of WWII as a subject to lead him out of his area of competence. He may know industry and US politics, but he doesn't seem to understand the Second World War.
     
  3. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    O'Neill admits the B-24's range was better than the Fortress's and notes it value in maritime patrols and the Pacific, but in every other metric he prefers the B-17, 'cept he is not sure we should have ever built them in the first place.

    The thing that nearly caused me to drop the book a few chapters in, and is repeated through out, is his tendency to praise something in one chapter and then demolish it in another. I kept asking myself "has this guy read his own book?"

    I do not fault FDR's bending a little backwards to keep labor peace with the unions, unless you are going to create a police state it was the better solution, but polls and editorial's (at the time) indicated that the public at large wanted a firmer hand taken in these strikes. I just have a problem with intellectual dishonesty.

    O'Neill like's to perpetuate some of the old myth's, Nagumo's 3rd strike at Pearl Harbor, Kimmel would have just sailed the Pacific Fleet into a trap anyway if no Pearl Harbor attack, it took 5 Sherman's to kill one Tiger, and so on. Allied tanks took a lot of their casualties because they were 'attacking' and all too often found themselves ambushed and getting the 2nd shot in, rather than the first. Funny thing, during the Bulge, when the shoe was on the other foot, O'Neill credits American tankers with doing great damage to attacking German tanks from ambush positions.

    O'Neill wrote a book around a agenda, not history.

    It does make a fairly decent door stop though!
     

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