I recently posted a much-too-long comment on Peter Hitchens’ blog. Mr Hitchens had posted about one of his recurrent themes, that, contrary to what the popular phrase “special relationship” might suggest, the United States does not in fact treat the United Kingdom in a markedly more indulgent fashion than it brings to its treatment of its other allies. He gave a series of examples of hard bargains the US had driven in its relations with the UK. The last of these examples was the aid the US gave to Britain in the period 1940-1941, which was conditioned on Britain’s yielding to the US a large portion of its gold reserves, its shares in many US and Latin American firms, and its naval bases in the Western hemisphere. To this I responded as follows:
Well, with regard to US policy towards the British Empire in 1940 and 1941, I do think you are overlooking rather an important point. It did seem quite likely from May of 1940 on that Britain might very well surrender to Germany. The expectation that Britain would surrender seems to have motivated, for example, Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA. Without Britain among the allied powers, the USA would have been as impotent in Europe in the 1940s as Britain and France were in Poland in 1939. In view of that expectation, Hitler would likely have thought of his declaration of war on the USA on 11 December 1941 much as Argentines may have thought of their country’s declaration of war on Germany on 27 March 1945, a costless gesture designed to appease a nervous ally.
If we look back at the events between May 1940 and December 1941, not in the light of the Allies’ eventual victory, but of the United Kingdom’s probable defeat, both Washington’s demands and London’s acquiescence in them become far less of a scandal. Even if Germany had not chosen to occupy Britain after its defeat, it is likely that the Nazi regime would have found ways to help itself to at least as much of Britain’s gold reserves and other financial assets as the USA in fact claimed, making the Reich a major presence in business in the USA and the leading economic power in Latin America. Had the Nazis added Britain’s naval bases and other imperial assets in the Western Hemisphere to this economic power, the USA would have been entirely incapable of making a contribution to any war against either Germany or Japan.
In that light, I think we can see the Roosevelt government’s demands and the Churchill government’s concessions as a kind of super-Dunkirk. Without actually making British surrender more likely, these concessions represented the choice of a postwar environment in which the far Western boundary of German power would in no case exceed the shores of the Atlantic. Even in the event of the absolute worst case scenario for the UK, in which the Germans occupied and subjugated Britain, a great power would still exist somewhere in the world that was neither fascist nor communist, with a population that speaks English and courts that occasionally cite Magna Carta. Such a power might not be in a position to intervene militarily on the island of Britain, but its example could embolden guerrilla resistance to the Germans. A United Kingdom government of the period may even have harbored the fond wish that the continued viability of the USA might foster a certain residue of respect for Englishness even among Nazi occupiers. This fond wish may look silly in retrospect, as we consider what we know of the Nazi regime, but at the time might not have been an altogether contemptible basis for policy.
The alternative surrender scenario, in which the British Empire had held onto enough of its assets for its fall to terminate the USA as a world power, would in the short term have given Germany and Japan free hands in their expansionist programs. Considering how wildly those programs were inflated beyond each country’s ability to support them, in particular with regard to Germany’s invasion of Russia and Japan’s invasion of China, it seems likely that they would eventually have collapsed and brought the regimes down with them.
But that only makes the idea of Germany capturing a more-or-less-intact British Empire the more frightening. On the one hand, the Germans, unbothered by the nuisance of a Western front, would doubtless have had time to complete their extermination of European Jewry and to make great headway in their genocidal plans against Gypsies and others. On the other, the force that would eventually have defeated the Germans would not have included the USA, the UK, or any other democratic governments. The Soviet Union alone would have defeated the Reich, and the Red Army would have swept into all the territories it had once controlled. Perhaps that would have been rather a different Soviet Union than the one that actually existed in the late 1940s or early 1950s; it’s easy to imagine that Stalin, for example, would not have survived had the Second World War gone much worse than it did for the USSR. But even if the Wehrmacht had done as well against the Soviet Union as Napoleon did against the Tsar, surely it would in the end have been defeated even more thoroughly than was the Grande Armee.
And without the USA in the Western Pacific, Japan’s eventual, surely inevitable defeat in China would have come when the Kuomintang forces were even more completely exhausted than they were in 1945. That would have left Mao’s Red Army to pick up the pieces, not only in mainland China, but in surrounding countries as well. With no American forces in the region to offer an alternative, the Japanese occupations may have proved merely a prelude to a domination of East Asia by Chinese Communists, as the victories of the Third Reich may have been a prelude to the domination of the rest of the Eastern hemisphere by the Soviet Union.
A nightmare world, certainly. And, as with all nightmares, it grows from long chains of contingency. But I don’t think that any of these contingencies are either inherently unlikely to have happened, or unlikely to have haunted the minds of British and American policymakers in the period May 1940-December 1941.
This comment far exceeds the Daily Mail‘s limit of 500 words, a limit of which I was unaware when I submitted it. (I had never posted a long comment to the Daily Mail‘s site before, amazingly enough.) I am most grateful to Mr Hitchens for waiving that limit and allowing my post to stand as it is.
A few weeks ago, I read, for the first time, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I suppose the influence of that alternate-history novel can be seen in this comment. I would add that, unlike Dick, I don’t propose a scenario in which the USA would be occupied by Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, merely one in which German influence in the Western hemisphere and the absence of a staging area from which to launch attacks against German positions in Europe and Africa made it impossible for the USA to fight against the Third Reich.