“All may have if they dare try a glorious life or grave.” I saw those words—George Herbert’s, as it turned out—incised into the stonework of a church near Waterloo Station. There was a little churchyard nearby, it was a warm spring afternoon, and I think I must have read those words over a thousand times. Beats reading a newspaper, that’s for sure.
It could be an epitaph on the tomb of Europe, indeed of all Christian civilization. A book fallen into my hands recently, a book published in 1941 and long forgotten, suggests that image with a vividness I find difficult to convey. The author is one Virginia Cowles, an American journalist who, like Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, and a vast number of less talented or distinguished useful idiots, made a dash for Spain when Stalin, unbeknownst to them, had decided to snatch it from under Hitler’s nose. Like these benighted scribblers, Virginia knew little of the world beyond her own highly social and fashionable circle of acquaintance (it has been noted that she was the only correspondent to have spent the war years in high heels and full makeup), while her literary gifts, as far as I can judge, were in no way extraordinary.
And yet the book, entitled Looking for Trouble, has made a deep impression on me precisely because it is an innocent’s brush with reality, a debutante’s war memoir, a housewife’s Bildungsroman. It has the immediacy of Anne Frank’s diary, except it isn’t saccharine, and the simplicity of A Farewell to Arms, except it’s real. As the innocent follows, or sometimes anticipates, Hitler’s arrival in every country that is to fall under his boot, her understanding of events deepens—as do the pigments she uses for her depictions, from a still life’s tentative watercolors to Remington’s battlefield oils. By early 1941, with the United States still out of the game and only Lend-Lease on the cards, she has acquired the lucidity and the conviction that many a clever bookworm might envy.
What is it that she has come to understand? Let me put it this way. In 1941, Germany produced 3,623 tanks, out of a wartime total of 46,274. Russia’s tank production for the same year, with a wartime total of 62,424, was comparable to Germany’s. In that same year the United States built 4,021 tanks, out of a wartime total of 88,816—which is just peachy, of course, in that it allowed the Allies to win the war. Except that two years earlier, in 1939, Germany was producing tanks and Russia was producing tanks, while the great and powerful United States produced 18 of them. Yes, 18 tanks, down 80 percent from the 1938 output of 99.
Admittedly, a moat (the Atlantic Ocean) had been there all along, but anyone who has done any sightseeing in the coastal towns of the Mediterranean knows that a fortress also needs battlements, embrasures, machicolations, portcullises, balistrarias—and armed defenders to man them—or else it merely invites the Saracen to plunder. Fortress America’s outer wall—“curtain wall,” if I’m not mistaken, is the medieval engineering term—was Britain, and in 1939 Britain had not been seriously building tanks, either. So the stark truth remained that, ever since Hitler had unveiled his ambition of turning the Eurasian continent into Germany’s Lebensraum, Britain and the United States, by means of a criminally complacent armament policy, had been inviting him to expand and, in particular, to move westward.
If the United States had built 4,021 tanks not in 1941, but in 1939—or, better still, in 1933, when she built none at all—she would not have needed to build the other 84,795. More important, it would have impelled Hitler from the outset to seek his Lebensraum in the east, where a clash with Stalin would have mortally exhausted both combatants and opened their regimes to Anglo-American influence. Like the deterrent value of a future atom bomb, which keeps the world at peace even as I write these lines, timely armament by the United States and Britain would have saved Europe from the catastrophe that these champions of liberty brought upon it by temporizing.
Si vis pacem, para bellum. Who has ever disproved the wisdom of this Latin tag? Yet what could be simpler? I challenge you to find, in the million books written about World War II since it broke out, an explanation of its origins more succinctly phrased.
Here’s something that was said in 1941:
Democracy is humanity at its best, not because we happen to think that a republic is better than a king and a king is better than nothing and nothing is better than a dictator, but because it is the natural condition of every man ever since the human mind became conscious not only of the world but of itself. Morally, democracy is invincible. Physically, that side will win which has the better guns.
This isn’t Virginia Cowles; it’s Vladimir Nabokov. But, writing her dispatches from a blitzed London that same year, the pretty young thing would doubtless have agreed.