Lessons of 1940: The hardest decision might be the persuasive one, while a disaster might lead to later success
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Those are thoughts that occurred to me after reading about Churchill’s decision in the summer of 1940 to attack the navy of France, which had been an ally just a month earlier, and which certainly was not at war with the United Kingdom. More than 1,200 French sailors were killed in the attack, while the British suffered two dead. The purpose, of course, was to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands (as had happened with Austrian gold and Czech weapons factories).
President Roosevelt, knowing how difficult a decision it was to launch a surprise attack against a former ally, was said to have calculated that his defeatist ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy, was wrong, and that in fact Britain was determined to fight on alone. (Speaking of FDR, it took me a while to remember the names of his three vice presidents, but eventually I did. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember who Truman’s veep was, and had to look it up.)
On the other hand, I was interested to read in Cambridge History of War, Vol. IV: War and the Modern World that one reason the Germans couldn’t invade England later that same summer was because of their naval losses the previous spring in fending off the British attempt to take Norway. "While the victory of the British in the Battle of Britain was won in the air," Gerhard Weinberg writes in his fine essay on World War II, "the German failure to attempt an invasion was due at least as much to their naval losses in the Norwegian campaign."
That British attack on Norway long has been regarded as a disaster. Reading about its beneficial effect on the Battle of Britain makes me think that Churchill may have been right in his view that in conventional warfare, doing something, even at the periphery, is always better than doing nothing at all.
As Bob Dylan or Clausewitz once observed, nothing is easy in war, because friction makes even easy things difficult.
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.| Report |
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| Turtle Bay |