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Friday, April 1, 1988

A Reviewers Notebook: Wedemeyer on War and Peace

When General George Marshall, a good judge of character, was looking around in the summer of 1941 for a Victory Plan in case we got into war with the Axis powers, he asked Albert C. Wedemeyer, then a major with experience as an exchange student at the German War College in 1936-38, to draft one for him. It was a shrewd move on Marshall’s part.

Wedemeyer himself has told the story of his life in his autobiographical Wedemeyer Reports. Now we have a selection made by Keith E. Eiler from papers that have been placed on deposit at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, published as Wedemeyer on War and Peace ($25.95 cloth, $18.95 paper). Some of the papers, if published in the late 1940s, might have altered history in China, but, as Madame Chiang Kai-shek has said, they now come 40 years too late. Wedemeyer, who had been our Far East commander in the provisional Chinese capital of Chungking in 1944 and 1945, warned President Harry Truman that if we did not support Chiang Kaishek with arms, the Mao Tse-tung Communists would take over. Using weapons seized from the Japanese, Mao did take over, forcing Chiang and the Kuomintang Chinese government to seek refuge on Taiwan, which continues as a free enterprise bastion in Asia.

Wedemeyer’s concern was to preserve as much of the world as he could for free enterprise capitalism and democracy. He was all for settling international affairs by peaceful negotiation, and was dubious about the ultimate uses of fighting unless war aims were clearly defined. The fact that Wedemeyer had been a Nebraska isolationist for some years after World War I, a war which had failed to make the world safe for democracy, did not bother Marshall. He had been competently briefed by Wedemeyer on the work of the German War College and he knew that Wedemeyer would put isolationist feelings to one side if he were asked to assume responsibility for a Victory Plan.

Pearl Harbor put Wedemeyer into the war as “Marshall’s planner” in a truly active capacity. The Victory Plan, as originally conceived, called for defeating Hitler on the North European plain that was easily accessible from Britain if landing craft were available in sufficient quantity. Wedemeyer set a 1943 date for the invasion of continental Europe. He argued that the best time to go ashore in northern France or the Low Countries was when Hitler’s armies were locked with the Russians at Stalingrad and the lower Volga River.

Marshall agreed with Wedemeyer’s thinking. They were both partisans of what Wedemeyer called the main thrust. It had worked in World War I. For a time Franklin Roosevelt went along with the main thrust idea. But Wedemeyer shortly discovered that Winston Churchill, who thought first of all in terms of protecting the sea routes of the British Empire, had other ideas.

Churchill doubted that landing craft could be readied in time for a cross-English Channel invasion in 1943. We will never know whether he was right about this. But Churchill succeeded in converting Roosevelt to accepting 1944 as the earliest practical date for invading Europe from the north. To keep allied troops “blooded,” Churchill proposed the North African campaign. He remembered that the British of William Pitt’s day had let Napoleon waste French energies at the two extremes of Russia and Spain. A North African campaign in 1943 would extend Hitler as Napoleon had been extended.

Wedemeyer on North Africa

The North African campaign contemplated seizing not only Algeria and Tunis, but also Sicily. Then there could be a thrust at Europe’s “soft underbelly” up the Italian peninsula. Wedemeyer thought of this as “periphery pecking.” He had made studies of port facilities in Dalmatia and southern France and knew that it would be a logistical nightmare to get armies past the Alps by any southern route.

So North Africa was for the most part a waste of time. But it did give General Patton scope for imaginative tank warfare, which paid off in 1945 when the Patton tank thrust reached Czechoslovakia only to be called back for political reasons that had been established at Yalta.

Given a year’s time to recover from his defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler had enough forces ready in the west to slow up the Eisenhower-Montgomery push to the Elbe River. What happened was just as Wedemeyer had feared: Soviet troops had taken over in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary before we could get there. Stalin, who was just as much of a dictator as Adolf Hitler, had won his war for eastern Europe.

This, to Wedemeyer, was the result of lack of foresight on the part of all Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s advisers. Harry Hopkins was a main culprit. Having lost his bet on 1943, Wedemeyer was no longer of much use to Marshall insofar as Europe was concerned. He found himself relegated to China as Vinegar Joe Stilwell’s replacement. The “main thrust” in Asia seemed to call for defeating Japan and moving into Manchuria before the Russians could arm Mao Tse- tung. But even as it had happened in Europe, Wedemeyer’s main thrust thinking was forestalled in Asia.

In a personal letter, Wedemeyer tells me that his papers “have been available in government archives and at the Hoover Institution for Chinese and American historians for many years, certainly in time for appropriate action to shape a policy against the spread of Communism in the Far East.” But Truman let Wedemeyer’s reports on the Far East go without any anti-Communist action. It is only now that the mainland Chinese, tired of the inability of Mao’s policies to feed them, are taming to capitalist practices.

Wedemeyer has been justified by history, but only after the waste of lives, time, and treasure. He is now proposing the creation of a National Strategy Council to do something better than ad hoc thinking about foreign policy. His proposed council would have advisory functions only. Its members would be appointed by the President. Like Supreme Court justices, they would be provided with small professional staffs.

There are certainly enough good long-term thinkers now working for various think tanks to provide staff for a National Strategy Council. But obviously little will be done to get Wedemeyer’s idea moving in an election year. There is little use talking about presidential appointments to a National Strategy Council until we know who the next President will be.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.