Breaking: Opening salvo fired in coming war with machines

Dr. Ken Payne

DeepMind, the world’s leading Artificial Intelligence outfit, has released a remarkable new study with implications for those of us interested in war, cooperation, and the strategic ramifications of AI.

You can read and watch it here.

In short, their agents demonstrated the ability to relate socially in a competitive environment. When resources (green apples) were plentiful, the agents cooperated happily. When they were scarce, all hell broke out – DeepMind had endowed he agents with the ability to shoot each other; and that’s exactly what they did.

So what?

In my next book, I take a long-run view of strategy, all the way from early human evolution through to the advent of AI. It’ll be out soon, but by way of preview, and since DeepMind has made it relevant.

First things first – DeepMind’s agents may have cooperated or fought; but they didn’t do so for the same reasons we did. They were making ‘rational’ decisions about whether to cooperate on the basis of individual gain, of the sort that will be familiar from game theory puzzles, like the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Human cooperation is a puzzle – why do we cooperate when the benefits from slacking off can be substantial, especially if we deceive others about it? Natural selection happens at the level of the gene, not the group – so why should I risk my genes to help the group out?

One answer (mine, in fact) is war: the pressure of intergroup conflict, which we now think was pretty ubiquitous. Groups that cooperate together win against groups that do not. This is particularly true when weapons are pretty primitive, and fighting is in the form of a melee, rather than a one on one duel. If you don’t cooperate with group members there’s a good chance that both you and your group will go out of business.

Frederick Lanchester did the maths back in 1916, in his catchily named ‘square law of armed conflict’. When the force of many could be concentrated against the few, there were disproportionate gains from scale. The takeout: there is a massive military advantage to be had from being in a larger group; and larger groups that cooperate will win against smaller groups that do not.

Two results follow – we instinctively cooperate, especially with those we identify as being in our group (conversely we are chippy xenophobes against outgroup people). And second, there’s a clear incentive to form larger groups – including of non-related people. Hence a motive for the development of cultural identities – a shorthand way of saying who can be trusted in a tussle. Over a long period of time, and beginning some half-million years ago, humans developed unique social abilities – including a sophisticated empathy and theory of mind, allowing us to gauge what other individuals believed. Could we trust them not to malinger? In war, we, like chimpanzees today, worked the odds in our favour – fighting primarily by raid and ambush, and attacking with surprise and massively advantageous force ratios. Victory goes to the big battalions.

The arrival of culture, thanks to all that cooperation, modified the situation somewhat: new strategies were available – including, of course, defence in depth! Scale mattered, but clever thinking might offset it.

Back to DeepMind, and the impending rise of the machines. Their agents cooperate to harvest digital apples; but the logic of that cooperation is not the same as that which drove humans to develop culture, empathy, theory of mind, and instinctive cooperation. Their cognitive architectures are far different from ours: they are not embodied biological intelligences, whose very survival depends on navigating a rich social terrain. They are not enmeshed in a biological world of natural selection; driven – often unconsciously – by the imperative to propagate their genetic code. They do not exist in groups that are in a constant state of conflict with neighbours. Harvesting a digital apple does not require the same cooperation as a mammoth hunt. DeepMind’s ‘toy universe’ is a much simpler affair – like an 80s arcade game, but with better baddies.

So, let’s all relax, no?

Well, to a point. Artificial General Intelligence, if it ever manifests, is unlikely to mirror human intelligence, which evolved as the answer to a particular environmental problem – replete with its emotions, massively parallel unconscious deliberation, and narrowband self-aware, reflective conscious. You could perhaps model that in cyberspace – but that would just remain a model. Philosophers like to pose the conundrum: what is it like to experience life as a bat? Answer: we’ll never know, but you can bet it’s much closer to us than the ‘life’ of a machine.

Still, groups of AI will face very similar meta-problems: scarce resources; the possibility of conflict to secure them; and a need to understand what other agents are likely to do. Their inclination to cooperate or compete with those agents may differ radically from our own. Watch this space.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

China’s space weapons test ten years on: Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plough


This post is based aspects of a forthcoming paper presented at the ISA Annual Convention 2017 in Baltimore, MD.

Ten years ago, on 11th January 2007, a road-mobile SC-19 Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) weapons test renewed interest, debate, and occasional polemic hysteria, in the role of space weapons in international security and Sino-US relations. The test destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite, and in the process created thousands of pieces of debris which threatened other satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the bulk of which will take another 30 years to de-orbit. It also caused some chaotic, heated, and embarrassing diplomatic fallout: three months later, China was due to host the 25th annual meeting of the international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. .

This instance was part of a wider programme of Chinese space weapons development and testing – which has included a series of ‘cleaner’ kinetic-kill tests at allegedly higher altitudes (almost reaching geosynchronous orbit ), laser dazzling, and radiofrequency jamming – and which is the fruit of the larger program of military modernization in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its supporting defence industrial base that stretches back to Plan 863 from 1986. This space weapons programme itself is part of a larger drive to modernise the PLA to enable it not only resist and inflict punishment and pain on a spacepower-enabled adversary (such as the United States), but also to develop its own space infrastructure in support of terrestrial military capabilities.

These two pillars of Chinese military spacepower have altered the balance of forces significantly 20 years after the Taiwan Crisis of 1996. As well as flooding the Taiwan Strait with over 1,200 short range ballistic missiles in support of an amphibious assault, China is on its way to holding US Navy carriers, naval bases, and air strips across the western Pacific hostage with precise long-range weapons systems. These long-range weapons systems depend upon Chinese space services to provide targeting data and to cue terrestrial air, land, and sea reconnaissance and targeting systems. This dependence on space systems will only increase if aerial and naval drones are increasingly deployed

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the potential of spacepower in terrestrial warfare. Spacepower supported mechanised forces are, generally speaking, faster, more mobile, flexible, precise, and efficient than those without, as the ‘Highway of Death’ and Schwarzkopf’s ‘left hook’ in the Iraqi desert proved. China, like many other powers, is developing or refining armed forces that can effectively target what they can see as rapidly as possible – and space technologies are central to this endeavour.

Since 2007, Chinese space infrastructure has grown tremendously. China has been launching rockets with orbital payloads at almost twice the usual rate of the preceding years, at around 15-20 Long March launches a year. China has over 180 satellites registered to it, whilst Russia registers just over 140. The United States meanwhile, registers approximately 580 satellites, both military and non-military. Russia’s involvement in Syria demonstrates some of its progress in long-range command and control, as well as in precision munitions with cruise missiles and guided bombs. China has been consistently investing for longer in space technology for ‘force enhancement,’ and has a far larger chequebook and space industrial base to rely on than Russia. The space security community is still waiting for the watershed moment in Chinese space support for its military. Recently, a reorganisation of the PLA created the PLA Strategic Support Force, which combines PLA ‘space troops,’ ‘cyber troops,’ and ‘electronic warfare forces’ as one independent service. Whilst it is too soon to draw any firm observations from this, it is clear that China is thinking strategically about the role of its space systems as the connecting mesh between its terrestrial forces, and how it should be protected and exploited.

The dual-use nature of satellite services means that space infrastructure can be used for military and non-military purposes rather easily. China’s maturing position as a major spacepower is thus not solely a military story. Its development of a navigation system – Beidou/Compass – to rival GPS is as much an economic infrastructure as it is a military asset. Similarly, Chinese Earth observation and continental communications satellites are about economic development as well as military modernisation. China’s international space diplomacy continues apace, and is making inroads in developing satellites, services, as well as control and tracking stations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Chinese space systems now take centre place in civic planning, infrastructure development, and the building of a high-data urbanised economy.

The economic take off from the late 1980s gives Chinese spacepower huge potential, and this is being delivered upon through efficiencies in resource use, communications networks that span a continental state, and the consumer markets that emerge from that infrastructure. Spacepower is essential for China’s ongoing ecological crisis and for managing the worst effects of climate change and urbanisation. Should President-elect Trump fatally wound the United States’ leading position in Earth science and climate change monitoring, China is on track become the single-largest 21st century spacepower contributing to climate politics and developing a less carbon-intensive advanced economy.

Chinese spacepower development has been so rapid in the 20 years since the Taiwan crisis, and the ten years since its controversial space weapons test, China has not only developed an ability to threaten aspects of US spacepower and military capability but also begun to mirror the United States in its multifaceted dependence on spacepower for conventional military power and economic well-being. True, in a Taiwan war China will be less dependent on space systems than the United States. However, Chinese long-range weapons systems needed cueing and targeting information from space to strike American and Japanese ships and bases at a distance. However, for missions other than Taiwan, the PLA would find greater use for space communications, especially as its Navy begins operations further afield. And it is these expeditionary operations or regional wars with non-nuclear states that are far more likely to occur for the PLA than a ‘tweet’ that launched a thousand missiles.

In the context of a maturing Chinese military space power, American worries of a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ are making a comeback. A crippling Chinese attack on US space infrastructure would no doubt hamper US abilities to conduct a war in the Pacific. Yet, the details required to plan such a scenario cast doubt on its practicality. Some satellite constellations can suffer significant losses before services even begin to degrade – such as the Global Positioning System. Those who worry of a pre-emptive space attack are right to worry, but the effects of such attacks will depend upon whether an adversary can disrupt or destroy enough of the right satellites and communications networks. That caveat and lack of information is sometimes missing in public debate. Specific satellites provide specific services, and the timing of such attacks must be coordinated with terrestrial operations for space warfare to have any meaningful effect. Furthermore, the United States continues to explore methods to not only adapt to space warfare, but also is developing latent space weapons technology of its own, with a dual-use capability in the Aegis-equipped ‘missile defence’ destroyers and in on-orbit manoeuvring technology in the X-37B and the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. Simplistic notions of surprise attacks at the outset of hostilities in space clash with the ability of many space systems to actually be resilient in warfare. Space weapons do not herald the era of certain doom for, or easy solutions against, high-technology militaries.

China and America are two leading space powers that are integrating spacepower into their military, political, and economic power. It is no surprise, then, that both are hedging against the possibility of space warfare – although rhetoric and proposals on space arms control seem to ignore this reality. Indeed, even European and Japanese space infrastructure has increasingly military potential through dual-use services. The growing Chinese orbital behemoth, like America’s celestial leviathan, is a fount of economic and technological momentum, as well as a source of simultaneous vulnerability and resilience depending on the space systems relied upon and threated. Although China has continued its space weapons development on a steady course in the past ten years, it has been hard at work launching many more targets of its own into outer space.

Image: a US SM-3 missile launch to destroy the NRO-L 21 satellite, via wikimedia commons.

It’s about reaching the decision, not victory: strategic theory and the difficulty of taking action


As students of the Defence Studies Department grapple with strategic theory this winter, a useful way to begin is to consider the purpose of strategic theory and the work of ‘that dead Prussian’. One perspective on this issue is that we are engaging with why reaching decisions in war is difficult – not merely why certain decisions in particular wars were the right ones. Answering such questions requires intellect as well as experience. The conduct of war is as much an intellectual activity as it is a physical one. Planning and conducting organised violence for political purposes, from the smallest tactical engagement to the grand strategic level, demand powers of comprehension, multilateral thought, organisation, and decision that can test even the most agile and sharpest of minds. The thoughts and concepts developed by the likes of Carl von Clausewitz, Henry Lloyd, Sun Tzu, Antoine Henri Jomini, and Mao Zedong – to name but a few – combine to constitute what we today call strategic theory. Many classic theorists melded experience and intellect into strategic works that continue to stand the test of time and the political, economic, and technological changes since they committed their ideas to paper. No matter the time and place, reaching good decisions that produce the desired strategic results remains at least as difficult as it was Sun Tzu’s day. The strategic theories we use today are based on the desire to educate us in what to consider when making strategic appraisals and decisions in war, and not in how to win a particular set-piece battle.

My own research involves using the experience and thought which informed ‘classical’ strategic writings for thinking about the use of spacepower and the possibilities of space warfare in the 21st century. The base elements of strategic theory allow us to consider the various manifestations politics, uncertainty, passions, friction, and intelligent competition in any scenario. For my research, it means that space warfare involving satellites, rockets, lasers, and particle beam weapons will also be ultimately political, emotional, and uncertain in its fundamental nature. Strategic theory provides timely and timeless insights into the pervasive nature of war that does not change across time and space.

This sort of theory is not one that can be held accountable to being ‘proven’ like the laws of gravity and thermodynamics that can accurately predict the movements of bodies in the cosmos. Rather, strategic theory is more of a philosophical lens used to study and teach about the practice of war. Such theory can only be more or less useful for the task it has assigned itself, not whether it is objectively true or false. This perspective gains its weight not only through the persuasiveness of its own arguments, but also through its relative consensus among the works of numerous strategic thinkers. Strategic theory, then, is a collection of propositions and concepts that help us think in more constructive terms about war, regardless of our own time and space.

Whilst Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have often been compared regarding their insights on the political nature of war, civil-military relations, and the psychological aspects of conflict, many others have thought along the same lines. The most persuasive of the commonalities between them all is that such theories of conducting war are about educating the mind to consider all the possibilities open to the commander or leadership with a free and critical mind. With such a plethora of possibilities, and how only some concepts can be applied at certain times, we gain an insight into why strategy is so difficult in practice.

Principles and concepts in strategic theory are a point of departure to consider your options for action, which can provide mental structure to the chaos of reality and guard against unhelpful dogmas at the same time. In other words, strategic theory is not a strategy. Strategic theory should be useful in any circumstance to help you develop a strategy for any particular scenario. This approach is used in the seapower theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Raoul Castex. Their seapower theories are the intellectual bases or frameworks for forming applied maritime or naval strategies. Mahan, Corbett, and Castex did not argue that decisive battle would always grant you the strategic success you sought, but grappling with the difficulty of why decisive battle only sometimes succeeds in bringing about a strategic result would help you decide when a decisive battle at sea may be worth pursuing or denying. Engaging with these questions in the classroom develops the strategic intellect. For example, we learn more about the practice of maritime strategy not by asking how Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar, but by examining how and why Nelson chose to impose battle upon the French at Trafalgar in the first place.

Consistent and long-term reflection is required to develop the mind-set and attitude to learn principles, detach from those principles to clear your mind, and then see the possibilities open to you. Yagu Munenori instructed that it is a sickness to be obsessed only with winning, or only with the offence or the defence. A keen mind is required to understand what is possible and necessary in any given scenario. This intuitive grasping of strategic truth at any moment is what Jon Sumida referred to as the ‘undermind’ in Clausewitzian theory, and is also evident in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s teaching style which draws on the educational styles of Zen Buddhism.

Principles discussed in books and classrooms on strategy include the duel, the centre of gravity, concentration and dispersal, attack and defence, decisive engagements, friction, and the politics, passions, and uncertainty of war. Munenori, Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz can help outline the various lessons from the applications of such ideas in the past, but they cannot tell you when or how you should apply them next. Clausewitz urged you to strike the centre of gravity of an opponent when there is one and if you can strike it without undue risk; Sun Tzu tells you to adapt asymmetrically to the enemy’s weaknesses but also to not merely be reactive to the enemy; Munenori cautions you against single-minded offensive actions yet admonishes defensive obsessions; Musashi tells you to understand your foes as well as your own side’s nature, but your own deviancy from norms must be embraced. None of these theorists will tell you how their abstractions will work in your particular situation. A critical and thoughtful intellect is required to do that, and through critically applying such concepts, you sharpen your intuitive grasp of the nuances of conducting warfare.

Michael Handel argued persuasively in Masters of War that the seeming contradictory observations within the works of individual theorists are more instructive for thinking about warfare than the few disagreements between them. They all grappled with the difficulty of applying the strategic theory, of why strategy is so difficult to do. All argue in their own way that understanding this difficulty is the key to strategic education.


Further reading:

Carl von Clausewitz On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans., ed. (Princeton UP 1984) Book II in particular.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, Thomas Cleary trans., ed. (Shambala, 2003), also contains The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagu Munenori

Raoul Castex, Strategic Theories, Eugenia Kiesling, trans., ed. (Naval Institute Press, 1994)

Jon T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997)

Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (Routledge, 2001)

Image: Miyamoto Musashi, via wikimedia commons


This is the second in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

By Dr Tim Benbow

The Suez conflict provided many salutary lessons for British strategy and defence policy. The majority of these emerged from political, diplomatic and military failings associated with what was by common consensus the worst debacle in British foreign policy between 1945 and, perhaps, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Essentially, it provided a long list of things not to do, errors to avoid. However, some of the conclusions drawn were more positive, not least for Britain’s naval forces. The Suez crisis occurred at a critical point in an on-going debate over the role and capabilities of the Royal Navy, facilitating the emergence of a viable and important future role. In doing so, it resolved – for a time at least – a bitter and high-stakes dispute over the value of naval power in general and naval aviation in particular.

Since the early 1950s, the role of the Royal Navy and even of sea power more broadly had come under concerted attack in Whitehall. The Air Ministry pushed hard for a narrow focus on the early, nuclear stage of a total war with the USSR – for which, as it happened, the RAF’s cherished medium bomber force was well suited. This approach left little room for naval power; why seek to defend sea communications when the war would be settled quickly, by nuclear weapons? Some senior politicians and civil servants were convinced of the strategic logic of this case, while others went along with an approach that appeared to offer significant savings in defence spending. The Admiralty put up a spirited counter-case arguing that defence policy could not plan only for total war, let alone for only one form that such a war might take. Conventional forces, it insisted, including naval power, were an indispensable part of the deterrent to war; they would be essential to fighting any war if Britain was to survive; and they were vital for waging the cold war, which was bound to continue and even intensify as total war became less likely. The strategic logic of the Admiralty case was compelling but the financial implications were unpalatable; the Navy held on but only just and the assaults kept coming. Suez provided a much needed reality check.

First, it was a reminder that while deterring or fighting total war with the Soviet Union was bound to be the main focus for policy, it was not the only game in town. Britain and the West more broadly had interests around the world that were important in their own right, as well as having a potential connection to the cold war. Indeed, with a deliberate resort to war by the USSR being viewed as unlikely, preventing the outbreak of minor conflicts that could escalate became an important element of avoiding war. The Suez crisis both demonstrated the need for military intervention overseas and also shed a harsh light on existing British capabilities for such operations.

The second question concerned how such intervention should be conducted. Britain had hitherto relied on garrisons stationed overseas and on the use of air bases. These were expensive to maintain and as pillars of a strategy for intervention, they were being increasingly shaken by nationalism and decolonisation, resulting in the loss of bases or tight restrictions on their use. A potential ‘air barrier’ across the Middle East further complicated the British response to any crisis in the Gulf, Indian Ocean or Far East, reducing the utility of any UK-based strategic reserve. In response to these developments, the Admiralty was beginning to propose that the Royal Navy could take the lead ‘east of Suez’ with maritime task forces, based around carrier air power and amphibious capabilities, which would provide a stabilizing influence and a capacity for intervention. This vision appealed to those wanting a cheaper strategy as well as accommodating the reality of reducing access to overseas bases. It suited the Air Ministry which, focused on nuclear-armed bombers, was entirely content to see conventional, expeditionary air power fall primarily to the Fleet Air Arm. It also gave the Royal Navy a clear and viable role which attracted wider political support – at the same time as preserving capabilities that the Admiralty continued to see as essential for total war; hot war was de-emphasised in favour of warm and cold war.

This concept was circulating and gaining some support before the Suez crisis; the lessons of the intervention greatly strengthened the case for it. Previous British planning had rested on the wealth of air bases in the region, yet in the event Libya, Iraq and Jordan had denied the use of these to Britain. The Anglo-French force could only use Malta, from which only medium bombers could reach Suez, and overcrowded and potentially vulnerable bases on Cyprus. From the outset, it was obvious that the operation would have to depend heavily on carrier-based air power. The force deployed included the fleet carrier HMS Eagle and the light fleet carriers HMS Bulwark and Albion (rushed out of refit) plus the French Arromanches and Lafayette. These carriers provided over 60 per cent of the fighter-bombers for the operation (which proved more effective than the medium bombers), and carrier-based aircraft contributed over 65 per cent of the ground attack sorties. Their involvement was vital to gaining air superiority – even the Air Ministry accepted that Fleet Air Arm aircraft destroyed the majority of enemy aircraft – and to supporting the airborne and amphibious landings and the campaign on land that followed.

This striking vindication of the utility of carrier-based air power caused considerable discomfort to those in the Air Ministry who had devoted so much effort over the previous years to dismissing its utility. (While things have improved hugely in this area since the 1950s, there are still some echoes of this sentiment today: the history timeline on the RAF web site (

says of Suez, ‘RAF Canberra and Valiant bombers flying from Malta and Cyprus, in conjunction with French Air Force aircraft, attack twelve airfields in the Canal Zone. Airfield attacks continued until 4 November, by which time the Egyptian Air Force had been decimated.’ The overlooking of carrier-based aircraft is rather glaring.)

One particularly positive development at Suez was a major innovation in amphibious warfare. In addition to conventional parachute drops and amphibious landings from the sea, the operation saw the first ever helicopter assault, when 45 Commando Royal Marines was landed by a joint helicopter force operating from the converted light carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. This brilliant improvisation by a rather cobbled together force indicated the way forward for amphibious operations.

The Suez experience vindicated the maritime task force concept, with both carrier strike and amphibious forces demonstrating their utility. As a result, the 1957 defence review made presence and limited intervention east of Suez the core role of the Royal Navy. That this review was overseen by Duncan Sandys, the most bitter ministerial critic of naval aviation in the postwar era, makes the result all the more striking. The existing carriers would be retained and modernised, with a new carrier ordered in 1963. Britain’s amphibious forces were strengthened by the conversion of Albion and Bulwark to commando carriers, and by the order of two new amphibious assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid (which would form the core of the amphibious force in the Falklands War).

This new approach, in which maritime task forces acted as a stabilising presence and, if necessary, the spearhead of a joint intervention force, was repeatedly proved during the late-1950s and early 1960s. As the UK now looks once more to expeditionary operations, having escaped the strategic blind alley of continental garrisoning, these lessons of Suez again have relevance.

Image: Three of the five British aircraft carriers involved in the Suez operation. HMS EAGLE leads HMS BULWARK and HMS ALBION.  Courtesy of IWM (A 33601).

Balancing past and present: Edward Mead Earle and Makers of Modern Strategy


This post is based on my article which appears in the most recent issue of The Journal of Military History.

It might be considered that in producing a significant contribution to scholarship, a scholar ensures his or her own reputation. Yet this is not always the case. Edward Mead Earle, Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton for twenty years from 1934, has long languished in obscurity. This is despite the fact that his 1943 edited volume Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler proved to be a seminal text, read by a multitude of scholars – as well as soldiers – in the years following his premature death in 1954. Notable amongst this cohort was Sir Michael Howard, who recounts in his autobiography that when preparing to take a lectureship at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, UK he was advised to read Makers. ‘By following up its references’, he writes, ‘I started to build up a corpus of knowledge […] The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies.’

For decades almost nothing was written about Earle. In recent years, however, this situation has changed. For example, Patrick Porter has noted Earle’s part in bringing the concept of ‘national security’ to the mainstream of public and academic debate, underlining the enlarged concept of strategy that Earle brought to his work. David Ekbladh, meanwhile, has offered a sustained analysis of Earle’s career, arguing that Earle should be considered as an unheralded depression-era pioneer of security studies in the USA.

My own contribution in The Journal of Military History emphasizes Earle’s role as a historian through an investigation into the creation of Makers of Modern Strategy and Earle’s subsequent attempt to work towards a revised second edition of the volume. By focusing on the genesis of Makers, Earle’s concerns as a historian come to the fore. In line with his approach to historical study, the Makers project saw Earle attempt to connect the past to the present in an effort to enhance both military and public understanding of military thought, war and strategy, in the service of the ongoing Second World War and for the future of American power. In short, Earle was keen to turn history to practical use and to engage in contemporary debates using the historical mode of study.

Nevertheless, the book project itself always existed in an uncomfortable space between a settled past and a rapidly changing present. Whilst early efforts towards the volume that would become Makers were more concerned with exploring the foundations of military thought, as the work progressed through 1942 and 1943 the course of the Second World War came to weigh more heavily on the tome. No doubt this served to enhance the appeal of the work, and gave it a degree of contemporary urgency which helped account for the immediate success of the volume, both in a critical and a commercial sense. Yet at the same time, the need to account for the near past also enticed Earle towards revising the book. Earle began to make plans for the second edition as early as 1944, knowing that even in the short time since the book went into production the events of the Second World War had underlined certain deficiencies. These related notably to air and sea power, which had assumed prominent roles in shaping the course of the war, and to which Makers did not fully do justice.

Earle’s attempt to remake Makers failed, however. In part, this was down to bad luck. Some potential contributors were uninterested in the project, for others age and infirmity stood in the way. Meanwhile, for many of the academics previously involved in the project, war service had now become all-consuming. Yet this was not just a question of chance. It seemed that the Second World War had become too big for a scholarly project to handle: events were simply moving too fast. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 only compounded matters. Not only did the advent of the nuclear age broaden the potential scope of any new edition, it even brought into question the future relevance of the Second World War experience. Although Earle still harboured hopes for a second edition as late as 1947, the chances of accomplishing his goal diminished with each passing year. The result was that the original Makers – already outdated in some respects at the time of its publication – remained in print, and indeed in use, with a successor volume only appearing in the mid-1980s.

It might be tempting, then, to view Earle as something of a failure as well. Indeed, even in the early 1940s Earle felt that his own scholarly output was somewhat meagre. Not all academic activity consists in writing, however, and as an organiser, an editor, a speaker and an adviser to military and government, Earle made his mark. Moreover, Makers of Modern Strategy achieved a certain longevity in spite of its flaws. That was no mean feat, and in a sense the magnitude of this achievement was underscored by the difficulties Earle encountered in trying to revise the work. In this manner, the story of Earle’s Makers tells us something about the problems and pitfalls that abound in any attempt to balance past and present in an attempt to capture the changing character of war.


Image: IAS, Princeton. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



Even before the release of the Chilcot Report on 6th July 2016 the reputation of Tony Blair was tarnished by the controversies surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (2003-2009), his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and the flawed decision-making which took the UK into this conflict. One side-effect of Operation Telic is that it has contributed to the retrospective rehabilitation of another former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with particular reference to his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson is now praised for refusing to send British forces to fight in this conflict, and he has been held up as an example that Blair should have followed.

The comparisons between both conflicts and the leaders concerned are superficially attractive. Both involved Labour Prime Ministers who entered office comparatively young (in their late forties), on the back of electoral disaffection with a tired and discredited Conservative government, and both presented themselves as technocrats who were also down with the kids – Wilson gave the Beatles MBEs, Blair invited Noel Gallagher to No.10. Both faced a dilemma when a Texan President asked them to commit British troops to fight as part of a US-led alliance in a foreign conflict, and had to balance the strategic requirement to uphold the ‘special relationship’ with the political consequences of participating in a war condemned as illegitimate and unjust by a swathe of international opinion, not to mention the ranks of the Labour Party and a vocal anti-war movement.

At face value, Wilson made a significant – and, in the view of his latter-day defenders, brave – decision to refuse Lyndon Johnson’s requests for military support. The reality of the historical record is more complex.

Wilson was originally from the left of Labour, although by the time he became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had moved to the centre, and also selected a Shadow Cabinet from the ‘Atlanticist’ right of the party. During his first premiership (October 1964-June 1970) his two Chancellors (James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins), three Foreign Secretaries (Patrick Gordon-Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown) and Defence Secretary (Denis Healey) were right-wingers who were firmly – if not uncritically – pro-American. Nonetheless Wilson preserved his links with the Labour left via Cabinet colleagues like Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, and he was conscious that Vietnam was in issue which could fracture party unity. This became an increasingly greater problem as the war continued, and as the core of hard-left MPs were reinforced by more centrist colleagues who were appalled by the humanitarian suffering caused by the conflict, and feared that US escalation could provoke a disastrous war with China, and possibly the USSR too.

The Prime Minister was in a bind. The USA was not only Britain’s most important alliance partner, but was also providing financial assistance to prevent the devaluation of the pound. However, Wilson feared escalation, and also fretted over the fact that the conflict between the USA and North Vietnam undermined his efforts to promote improved Anglo-Soviet relations. Wilson did also share the humanitarian concerns of many Labour MPs over the war’s death toll, and had a genuine (if inflated) conviction that it was his role to play peacemaker. As a result, the Labour leader presented the Johnson administration with the following compromise.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Britain would not commit a contingent to fight in South Vietnam; officially because the UK was overstretched in the low-level war (or ‘confrontation’) with Indonesia over Borneo, and also because as co-chair of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina it was obliged to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam. But unlike the French President Charles de Gaulle Wilson resisted appeals from Labour backbenchers to condemn US policy in Indochina, offering diplomatic backing for the American war effort, repeatedly declaring that Washington DC was fully justified in supporting the Saigon regime. In essence, British policy on Vietnam was to prove Johnson with all support short of troops.

The Chilcot hearings and the report show that in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was vociferous support – not just in Cabinet but also within the Chiefs of Staff (COS) and also the intelligence services – for a British contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In contrast, Wilson’s compromise over Vietnam was essentially unchallenged in Whitehall. Although Cabinet colleagues like Stewart were prepared to publicly defend US policy, Cabinet Ministers, the Foreign Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the COS alike were  collectively unwilling to commit British soldiers to a fight with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. The British armed forces were after all already overstretched by their NATO commitments, and also the ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) and the fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden and South Arabia (1962-1967).

So even if Cabinet colleagues (notably the ever resentful and occasionally well-lubricated Brown) and Foreign Office diplomats were critical of Wilson’s posturing over peace proposals, the policy of non-involvement was never contested. The UK did find discreet means of assisting the US war effort – soldiers from the British Special Air Service on secondment with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts apparently did see combat in South Vietnam – but the idea of even a token overt commitment to the conflict (the ‘platoon of Highlanders with bagpipes’, as LBJ put it) was never seriously mooted in Whitehall.

Wilson hoped that his compromise would satisfy LBJ and the Labour left. It did neither. Johnson and his officials were privately contemptuous of the British Prime Minister, and regarded his repeated engagement with peace initiatives with ill-concealed scorn. Responding to one request for a summit meeting, LBJ replied (with typical profanity) ‘[we] have got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me’. Meanwhile, Wilson himself faced a barrage of invective and fury from anti-war activists, backbench MPs and press critics which was as vitriolic as that which Blair received forty years later. In April 1965 the satirical journal Private Eye printed a front page cartoon by Gerald Scarfe showing Wilson applying his tongue to Johnson’s rear – an image which makes the more recent renditions of Blair as Bush’s lapdog look tame.  Wilson also faced public displays of hostility which at times descended into violence. After one visit to Cambridge in October 1967 the Prime Minister was mobbed in his car by protesters who called him a ‘right-wing bastard’ and a ‘Vietnam murderer’, and he had to be rescued by police.

Wilson received little if any contemporary praise for keeping British boys out of the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, or for trying to get the US and North Vietnamese to the conference table. Domestic opponents of the war saw him as a hypocrite who facilitated American imperialism and war crimes against a small and weak South-East Asian country. The US President and his inner circle for their part despised him, regarding him as a faithless ally who had failed to come to their aid. This sentiment was expressed by the habitually Anglophile Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, during the last months of Johnson’s presidency, when he shouted at one Times journalist ‘[when] the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!’

After Chilcot, and with the memory of 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, it is difficult to see how Blair could get the same revisionist reappraisal that Wilson received after his death. Nonetheless, any historian who has studied the Prime Minister depicted as the ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ will find it ironic that Wilson is being presented as the model that Blair should have followed with respect to Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war. For in the eyes of his contemporary critics, Wilson was as discredited and as compromised over Vietnam as ‘Bush’s poodle’ is now.

Images: Harold Wilson at a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara  and  Tony Blair at the 50th Munich Security Conference, 31st January 2014; photograph taken by Marc Müller, both via wikimedia commons.

Iraq: not the first British disaster … and it’s unlikely to be the last


After seven years, the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war finally has been released. Its conclusions are an excoriating critique of the limitations in British strategy and policy in 2003. The inquiry has identified a raft of issues: that war was not the last resort and that alternatives to military action were not fully explored; that the public case for war was built on evidence that did not reflect the uncertain nature of the actual intelligence; that the government was woefully unprepared for the post-conflict context; and that, in the end, Britain failed to achieve its key objectives. There may be many consequences. The Chilcot inquiry may reflect, as Sir Martin Gilbert has hoped, ‘an important milestone in government willingness to confront contentious issues’; or it may result in, as Alex Salmond as called for, the beginning of a ‘political reckoning’ for those most associated publicly with Britain’s decision to go to war. But Phillipe Sands, QC, has noted that the inquiry’s crucial role should be to ensure that ‘lessons will be learned that will allow us to make sure it never happens again’. Lessons undoubtedly will be identified, but whether they make another Iraq debacle impossible is more doubtful.

The eminent repeatability of the events of 2003 is evident when one examines two overarching themes identified by the Chilcot enquiry that weave themselves throughout the detail of the government’s decision-making over Iraq. The first is internal in nature, and it concerned the government’s decision-making processes; the second is external, and it was the priority accorded in British calculations to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

In terms of government’s decision-making processes in 2003, Chilcot notes their informality and ad-hoc nature. Cabinet often was informed of decisions rather than debating them. The inquiry identifies, in consequence, that there needed to be a ‘collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or a small group of ministers’ on a number of crucial issues, including the political and legal implications of recourse to military options, and the potential difficulties in the post-conflict situation. In future, Chilcot recommends the creation of ‘a more structured process’ to ‘probe and challenge’ government options. Indeed, in such structures as the National Security Council, Britain already has more refined security policy decision-making mechanisms than existed in 2003. But it is doubtful if such changes would effect any revolutionary improvement in the quality of British strategy-making. The challenge for the Blair government in 2003 was the operation of two pervasive policy influences: uncertainty and beliefs.

There is generally in international relations an enormous gap between what decision-makers actually know as objective fact and what they would need to know to make fully considered, rational decisions. Decision-makers fill this gap with beliefs: beliefs about what it is right to do; beliefs about what will work and what the outcomes will be. Chilcot identifies Blair’s belief that Saddam Hussein was ‘a monster’ and that his regime represented a threat. This was reinforced by a set of ‘ingrained beliefs’ in government that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that he would continue to develop them. Blair needed to make policy decisions but faced such uncertainties as the qualified conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and competing perspectives on the nature of the post-conflict context. Political crises typically short-circuit formal decision-making processes and reduce the size of decision-making groups. Facilitated by the nature of British political system, which accords great informal powers to the Prime Minister, Blair did what many British Prime Ministers before had done, and took the lead in driving foreign policy. From a 2003 perspective, he also had perceived successes in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to support belief in his judgement. Blair has noted in his memoirs that in acting over Iraq he was doing what he believed was ‘right morally and strategically’. In conditions of uncertainty what is believed to make strategic sense often becomes a function of what a decision-maker believes that it is right to do. Tinkering with government decision-making processes cannot eliminate in the future the uncertainty problem; nor eliminate the psychological factors that have such an important bearing on crisis decision-making.

Shaping Blair’s belief in the necessity of action was the second theme: the influence of the United States on British policy considerations. The Chilcot report concludes that the UK’s relationship with the US was ‘a determining factor in the Government’s decisions over Iraq’. This influence is a long-standing theme in British foreign policy. But what the inquiry also illustrates is that, time and again, British influence over US decision-making was minimal. Britain’s shift towards involvement in the Iraq war was influenced powerfully by the Blair government’s belief, as Chilcot notes, that supporting the US over Iraq was necessary in order to sustain cooperation in other areas; and that the UK could best influence US policy towards Iraq ‘from the inside’. But generally, Blair’s government proved unable to exert a decisive influence on the US – indeed, the reverse was true: by prioritising relations with the US, British policy was forced by degrees into alignment with that of the US. As Chilcot illustrates, despite Blair’s post 9/11 commitment that the UK would stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US, he was keen on reigning back the US focus on military options, preferring instead a gradualist approach that would maintain international support and that might at some point look towards regime change. Progressively, however, in attempting to reign the US back, the UK was instead simply dragged forwards. Blair’s long note of 28 July 2003 included the phrase ‘I will be with you, whatever’. This phrase was contained in a missive whose general thrust was a desire to slow the US’ moves to the military option; but it also expressed a general truth about the realities of the British position. The Chilcot inquiry notes that, in 2003, Britain should have adopted a more questioning attitude. But whether, especially post-Brexit, Britain would be in future be more willing to risk a rift in Anglo-American relations is a matter of debate.

The specific issues identified by the Chilcot inquiry are a devastating critique of the Blair government’s handling of the Iraq crisis in 2003. However, it would be unwise to assume that the roots of the problems identified are new or that in the future they won’t be open to repeat. The decision-making difficulties that manifested themselves in 2003 reflect pervasive problems in foreign-policy decision-making relating to uncertainty. Equally, the priority placed upon the ‘special relationship’, and the influence therefore on the UK of US policy priorities, is a long-standing theme that is likely to endure. These factors can generate great policy difficulties but they do not make failure inevitable. For a war fought on questionable legal foundations, for example, see Kosovo in 1999; or for policies driven forward by Prime Ministerial fiat, see the Falklands War in 1982. Blair has argued that his decisions over Iraq were taken ‘in good faith and what I believed to be the best interests of the country’. It is entirely possible that this is true; but, unlike in Kosovo and the Falklands, Blair’s great problem is that Britain lost.

Image: Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi during the G8 Summit in Évian, June 2003, via wikimedia

The role of the capital ship in naval strategy


It is remarkable how often the role of the capital ship in naval warfare is misunderstood or even ignored. Too often it is dismissed as an expensive and vulnerable luxury, which exists only to flatter the egos of Admirals. Such comments display a striking lack of awareness about naval warfare and how it differs from fighting on land – in particular, the different ways in which it contributes to the military and political goals of strategy more broadly. My chapter in the recently published festschrift to Professor John Hattendorf considered this subject, looking in particular at the Royal Navy during the period from the Second World War to the early 1950s.

Not all of the coverage of the recent centenary of the Battle of Jutland displayed a strong grasp of what capital ships were for. One particularly egregious piece in the Times by a retired Army officer even made the remarkable claim that Germany drew lessons from the First World War that led it not to build battleships for the Second, only pocket battleships. It is a little surprising that the good Brigadier is unaware of the Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – or, apparently, of how British strategy countered them.

Up to the Second World War (when it began to broaden with the emergence of the aircraft carrier) the role of the capital ship in naval strategy was the fundamental one of countering the capital ships of the enemy. Doing so would ideally take the form of sinking them but since the enemy often declined to cooperate by giving battle in unfavourable circumstances, it tended to require a blockade to neutralise them – which might in itself help to provoke a series of engagements that would cumulatively have a decisive effect. But countering the enemy fleet was never an end in its own right, or a campaign with solely naval implications; it was a means to the broader objective of securing the ability to use the sea for whatever military, economic or diplomatic purposes that national strategy might require. Neutralising the enemy battlefleet established the conditions for other, smaller and less powerful vessels to perform their respective roles in defending and interdicting trade, and conducting or preventing amphibious operations. The flotilla could not operate without the capital ships.

During the two world wars, the escort vessels protecting merchant shipping against U-boat attack were able to do so only because the Grand Fleet and then the Home Fleet were ensuring that they did not also have to face German capital ships. In the First World War, the lack of a major naval battle after Jutland was itself an indication of the success of the Grand Fleet in achieving its strategic aim; the German High Sea Fleet was prevented both from interfering with British shipping and also, simultaneously, from challenging the British blockade that was strangling Germany’s ability to sustain the war. Operating in the North Sea, or ready in its bases, the Grand Fleet was providing cover for every convoy and merchant ship at sea, as well as for every cruiser enforcing the blockade. It was thereby providing hugely influential, albeit indirect and distant, support for the forces fighting on the continent.

Much the same was true in the Second World War. The struggle to protect shipping was the longest and arguably the most challenging campaign for the Allies, as well as being fundamental to their ability to conduct any other campaign at sea, or on land or in the air. It involved not only defending convoys against U-boats and air attack, but also preventing the powerful German surface fleet from getting out into the Atlantic, where it would overwhelm the escorts. Once again, this key requisite for Allied use of the sea, which was itself the precondition for pretty much anything else they wanted to do (which the Bomber Barons, among others, were wont to overlook), was achieved by capital ships. It was primarily battleships and aircraft carriers working together, the new capital ship team, that countered the powerful German surface fleet. Without them, neither escorts nor land-based aircraft would have been able to make their own enormous and essential contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic.

A debate to be held at a forthcoming history festival on the subject of ‘who sunk the Tirpitz?’ will no doubt be fascinating. However, from the strategic perspective, the question of precisely which RAF squadron finally put this crippled, marginalised warship out of its misery in the closing months of the war is less significant than how it was contained and neutralised over the previous three and a half years. The answer here is, first and foremost, capital ships: Germany perceived the threat from the combination of British battleships and carriers as so serious – understandably, since it had sunk Bismarck – that following a narrow escape by Tirpitz from a Fleet Air Arm strike in March 1942, Hitler prohibited her from going to sea if a British carrier was known to be at large. This key asset subsequently undertook only three more operational sorties. Challenging as the Battle of the Atlantic was, it would have become impossible had Germany’s fast capital ships been able to join in – as demonstrated by the fate of the Britain-to-Russia convoy PQ17: fearing the proximity of a German battleship that would overwhelm the light forces escorting the convoy, it was ordered to scatter, resulting in the merchant ships being picked off by U-boats and air attack.

What applied particularly to the protection of shipping was also true for defence against invasion, and for supporting amphibious operations. It is sometimes suggested that the Royal Navy would have struggled to defend Britain against German invasion in 1940 because of the purported vulnerability of capital ships to air attack. Leaving aside that the Luftwaffe had little ability to attack moving warships in summer 1940, this argument overlooks the fact that the defence would have been conducted by destroyers and other smaller vessels. The role of the capital ships would have been to hold off their German counterparts, creating the space for lighter British forces to wipe out the German transports. When the boot was on the other foot, with Operation Neptune in June 1944, capital ships again had a pivotal role. While several battleships were performing their secondary role of providing fire support for the assault and carriers had a range of roles in direct or indirect support of the operation, the German surface fleet remained a key consideration. It could potentially have put to sea a force including one battleship, two pocket battleships and two heavy cruisers, supported by light cruisers and destroyers. If such a force had steamed for the Channel, it would have been countered by Operation Hermetic, with a force comprising the battleships and cruisers providing fire support off the Normandy beaches. Alternatively, if it had headed for the Atlantic to disrupt shipping, it would have been intercepted by the British Home Fleet, including two fleet carriers and three battleships, based at Scapa Flow. They thereby provided distant cover for the forces conducting the D-Day landings, while also supporting the deception campaign and attacking enemy shipping.

In each of these cases, in both world wars, the activities of destroyers and corvettes protecting shipping, cruisers maintaining an economic blockade, and amphibious vessels conducting a landing, were only possible because of the conditions created by capital ships. This interdependence is apt to be misunderstood, and a false dichotomy drawn between capital ships and smaller warships, because their activities are often separated by far greater distance or time than is the case with land or air operations. The activities of the different components of naval power are closely inter-connected and mutually supporting even though they might be operating half an ocean away from each other or several months apart. Suggesting that escorts or corvettes suffice without the backing of capital ships thereby quite fails to grasp the realities of naval warfare. Commentators who make such arguments would no doubt object to any suggestion that infantry could do without armour, artillery or air support; the error would be much the same – although in land warfare, the different elements of the combined arms team operate in closer proximity both geographically and chronologically. Some critics of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers might ponder this before proposing that the Navy should be limited to some kind of ‘snatch corvette’. No doubt these alone could conduct some useful activities but they could not do all that is required of naval power any more than light infantry alone could accomplish every role in the land environment.

The role of capital ships is often to prevent something unfavourable happening, which makes it easy to overlook their importance. This role has broadened considerably from the Second World War onwards, not least with the strike capability of carriers giving them huge direct impact ashore. However, their key purpose is much the same today as it was in Nelson’s time and in the two world wars: they ensure conditions that permit other naval (and, indeed, land and air) forces to perform their respective roles. Capital ships secure the use of the sea, other forces exploit it.

Image: HMS Invincible returning to Portsmouth after the Falklands War, via wikimedia commons.

1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? ‘Halfway Out of National Danger’: Chiang, Stalin and the Chinese Reaction to Barbarossa

This is the fifth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


Traditionally Chiang Kai-shek has been treated in western historiography as a failure: the man who presided over the epic loss of China. In recent years, however, he has been the subject of more balanced assessments, and nuances have appeared, leaving space for remarks such as this: “Sometimes, Chiang Kai-shek was more farsighted than either Roosevelt or Churchill.” The words belong to his American advisor Owen Lattimore. Are they an exaggeration? A look at Chiang’s reaction to Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, may help the reader decide for themselves.

China had precise advance information about the German plans for an attack. In the spring of 1941, Vasilii Chuikov, a Soviet advisor to the Chinese Army, was warned by General Zhang Chong, the head of Chinese intelligence, that a German assault could be expected in June of that year, or July at the latest. As the date of the German offensive approached, Chiang Kai-shek exhibited almost uncanny premonition. When he was informed of the conclusion of the German-Turkish Non-Aggression Treaty of June 18, 1941, he guessed rightly what Germany was doing. “It will be just a few days before Germany attacks the Soviet Union,” he wrote in his diary the following day.

When Barbarossa did indeed happen, Chiang’s immediate reaction was one of rekindled hope for the future. “Japan can no longer concentrate on defeating China, nor can it any longer assume that by beating China it will reach its objective of dominating East Asia,” he wrote in his diary on June 24. “The combined forces of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union are now containing Japan… This means that China is already halfway out of its national danger”.

The new situation was only of any real advantage to Chiang if the Soviet Union agreed to go to war with Germany’s Axis partner Japan. However, persuading Stalin to do so was a formidable task at a time when the Soviet dictator found himself in a life-and-death struggle with Germany, and could rest reasonably assured that Japan would refrain from attacking from the east, since Moscow and Tokyo had signed a non-aggression treaty in April of that year.

Even so, Chiang tried his best. On July 2, for example, he informed Lauchlin Currie, the chief US representative in Chongqing, of reliable intelligence that Japan had decided to abrogate the non-aggression treaty and shortly afterwards declare war on the Soviet Union. The intention was probably for the United States to pass on the information to the Soviet Union and that in the best-case scenario it would launch a pre-emptive attack against Japan.

The sources suggest that Chiang himself had no expectations of an imminent Japanese assault on the Soviet Union. According to Lattimore, his American advisor, the Chinese leader “was convinced, even in the first week of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, that as the Soviets would eventually defeat the Germans, the Japanese would not honor the Berlin-Tokyo axis and attack Siberia from the east to help the Germans in the west.”

Chiang was exactly right. Only a minority of decision makers in Japan supported the idea of accommodating the German ally by attacking the Soviet Union from the east. Chiang had an advantage few if any of the other Allied leaders had in World War Two. He understood his primary enemy intimately, speaking the Japanese language and having attended military academy in Japan

While the sources suggest that Chiang considered a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union unlikely, they do not say what he thought about the likelihood of a Soviet attack on Japan, but he ought to have known that it was probably not going to happen. After all, every previous attempt at dragging the Soviet Union into the war had failed, even under circumstances that were vastly more advantageous to the Soviet side.

In the fall and winter of 1937, China had tried repeatedly to pull the Soviet Union into the war with Japan, but had been rebuffed every single time, as Stalin had argued intervention would be counterproductive by rallying Japanese society behind the war effort and putting the Soviet Union in the role of the aggressor. In fact, in 1937 the Soviet Union welcomed Japan’s Chinese quagmire, understanding that it weakened the danger Japan posed to its eastern border.

Even though Chiang must have considered a Soviet-Japanese war improbable in 1941, he undertook steps which later historians have interpreted as designed to lure Stalin into action.

His government, located in the wartime capital of Chongqing in China’s interior, decided on July 2 to cut off ties with Germany and Italy. This has been described by historians as aimed a speedily realigning ties with the Soviet Union, while only “ostensibly” being in retaliation for a decision by Berlin and Rome to establish formal ties with the rival pro-Japanese regime in Nanjing, led by Wang Jingwei.

The significance of this move has probably been somewhat overstated in the literature so far. Finland and Denmark are the only two other instances in 1941 of countries that opened formal ties with the Nanjing regime despite existing ties with the Chongqing government. In both Nordic cases, Chiang reacted by severing ties. In other words, this was the normal way of reacting to this type of development.

Moreover, the actual implications of cutting ties with Japan’s European Allies were limited. In the 1930s, Germany had been China’s primary source of foreign weaponry, and German advisors had been deeply involved in attempts to modernize the Chinese Army. As Germany had gradually shifted its sympathies in favor of Japan, the utility of maintaining formal ties with Berlin had been radically diminished, and by the summer of 1941 there was no advantage left in the partnership as far as China was concerned.

At the same time, the German recognition of the rival regime in Nanjing was a direct existential challenge to Chiang. The Japanese-backed government in Nanjing was set up as the legitimate government of all China, and its leaders depicted themselves as the rightful heirs to the Nationalist revolution that had ushered in a modern republic. It was impossible for Chiang’s regime to allow Germany to maintain ties with both Chinas. Breaking off diplomatic relations had little to do with making the Soviet Union happy, and everything to do with maintaining legitimacy.

After the futile appeals for Soviet participation in the war against Japan in 1941 the issue was put on the backburner until the fall of 1943, when Soviet victory over Germany was assured. On the surface, therefore, the appeals to the Soviet Union seemed to be a diplomatic failure. But if one is allowed to speculate a little, Chiang may not have been aiming only for a short-term gain, but also for a longer-term Soviet commitment.

There were other instances where Chiang attempted to exert long-term pressure on potential future Allies. He fought long and tenaciously in Shanghai in 1937, some might say too long, and one theory is he wished to garner sympathy with the American and British public and decision-making elites. In the words of his biographer Jay Taylor, he was “building sympathy for the future”.

So the question is: if appealing to Stalin did not work in the short run, did it work in the long run? While the struggle at Shanghai may have been effective with parts of the political establishment in the United States, the pressure Chiang exerted on the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan made no visible difference to the Soviets. When the Soviet Union finally attacked in August 1945, the Kremlin was motivated by narrow self-interest, not by the accumulated effect of Chiang’s rhetoric over the preceding years.

One can also ask if it was a wise policy to keep bombarding Stalin with requests for intervention in the war. Some Chinese historians tend to think that Chiang’s continued appeals to the Soviet Union to go to war with Japan showed little appreciation of the desperate Soviet struggle with its German enemy and that it caused ties between Chongqing and Moscow to deteriorate.

But to complete the picture, failure must also be measured against the cost one has incurred. And specifically in this case the cost paid by Chiang in the summer of 1941 was limited. His expenditures were in the form of rhetorical support, a fair amount of misinformation, and one concrete move: the end of formal diplomatic ties with Germany. It seems that Chiang’s tactic was to take maximum advantage of the new situation, at a minimum of cost.

How does Chiang emerge from this? We see the outlines of leader who had a clear idea of where the strategic situation was headed, also clearer than most of his compatriots or allies in other countries. From the moment Barbarossa was unleashed, he understood that the end result would be German defeat, and he also predicted rightly that Japan would remain passive rather than launch an assault across the Soviet Union’s eastern borders.

If he had one shortcoming, it was a failure to see the collateral costs of too insistent diplomacy. By repeatedly urging the Russians to intervene against Japan, even at a time when they were fighting for their lives, he came across as being self-centered and insensitive. It’s a mixed picture. Perhaps he should be described as a leader with high IQ but moderate EQ.

Image: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Mr Roosevelt and Mr Churchill in the grounds of Roosevelt’s villa in Cairo, November 1943, via the Imperial War Museum.

1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century? The Will to Win: British Strategy, Propaganda and Public Opinion 1940-1942

This is the third in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


Stephen Badsey PhD MA (Cantab.) FRHistS is Professor of Conflict Studies in the Department of History, Politics and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He was educated at Cambridge University, made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1995, and joined the University of Wolverhampton in 2007. Prof Badsey is an internationally acknowledged specialist on military-media issues since the middle 19th Century, including the uses of propaganda. His other research interests include land and air-land warfare since the start of the 19th Century, military thought since the middle 18th Century, the British Army since the middle 19th Century, and the wars of the British Empire and its successors including counterinsurgency. He has published over 100 books and articles on military and media subjects, including counterfactual history and the portrayal of warfare by films and television. He appears frequently on television and in other media as a historian and commentator.

From the Fall of France to the Second Battle of Alamein, it was apparent to Churchill and the British leadership that both immediate British survival and eventual victory would depend on the political and popular will to continue the war in a period when military victories would be scarce, of which the motivation of British troops in battle was only a part. Between June 1940 and May 1941 a cross-Channel invasion was still possible, and the Blitz was in progress. Thereafter, the British faced a severe crisis in the Battle of the Atlantic; the Japanese threat in the Far East became real with the fall of Singapore; and their sole means of attacking Germany directly, the night bomber offensive, was shown to be largely ineffective. The Royal Navy’s domination of the Mediterranean was severely challenged by Axis airpower, including the debacle on Crete and the siege of Malta, while in the Western Desert, after December 1940 the British Army was dogged by a pattern of unsuccessful attacks and repeated defeats. This was also the first British war in which the concerns of a civilian population about loved ones among the troops sent overseas were reciprocated on a large scale by anxieties among the troops over enemy bombing and submarine attacks on civilians.

It is a neglected aspect of the most radical inter-war British military theories that they were based on an assumption of the extreme vulnerability of the mass of the urban working-class to psychological as much as to physical attack. These theories were the central tenet of air warfare in the form of strategic bombing theories, and in land warfare were extended to include a belief that the morale of a mass conscript army would be fragile when compared to a smaller but professionalised and mechanised military elite, and that a country’s civilian morale could be undermined by propaganda as a preliminary to a military invasion. This military lack of faith in the mass of the people was only one aspect of a larger mistrust held by political and social elites in democracy. The experience of mass propaganda in the First World War, the inter-war rise of the demagogues, the radio as a new form of influencing public opinion, and the growth of commercial advertising, all suggested a mass population, whether in uniform or not, that was vulnerable to propaganda and psychological manipulation. For the British, all these beliefs found their apparent final proof in the almost inexplicable collapse of France in 1940.

The Chamberlain government had at first emphasised security, secrecy, and the concealment of bad news, and its principal concern about the BEF in France was that its morale would be undermined before it got a chance to fight. Despite lacking any surviving First World War records, British propagandists in 1940 had personal experience of being propagandised when younger, and the expansion of the franchise in 1918 and 1928 had given ministers and civil servants a better feel for a mass electorate. The BBC had since 1922 developed a relationship with its radio listeners which gave it a realistic sense of public attitudes. Also, the establishment of Mass Observation in 1937 had shown the value of opinion polling techniques and population sampling.

The British government was also determined to avoid the highly triumphalist style of propaganda used by the Germans. British methods of propaganda rapidly became very close to those of the First World War: the government controlled and censored the content of news, while leaving packaging, commentary and opinion to the existing media outlets: chiefly radio, newspapers, and newsreel films. Measurable public debates did take place during the war on major changes in British strategy, most notably the progressive switch 1940-1943 to night-time city bombing. But these debates took place after the policy had been introduced, and the consequences had been reported and made public. British propaganda campaigns around the Empire were largely bilateral: some Dominion reporters and cameramen worked for their own forces, others as part of an international or imperial fraternity. As in the First World War, the principal British overseas target was the neutrality of the United States. Through a series of Neutrality Acts passed in the late 1930s, the United States had made it illegal for belligerents to conduct propaganda on America soil. The British response to this was a propaganda campaign to influence American opinion that was so sophisticated as to be almost invisible, including the propaganda presentation of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Blitz.

The chief concern remained British civilian morale. From June 1941 onwards the Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, presented to the War Cabinet a monthly report, based on assessments which consistently placed British public morale in the lower half of a 20-point scale, other than for three brief peaks: in summer 1941 when the Blitz ended and the Soviet Union entered the war; at the end of the year with the relief of Tobruk and the entry of the United States; and again in May 1942 at the start of the Gazala battles. In early 1942 these figures were sufficiently worrying for the Ministry of Information to adopt briefly a style of deliberate exhortation. Most British public discontent reflected political and public frustration at a failure to prosecute the war more effectively. The British public were generally more bellicose than their government, providing a mandate for future escalation. This also led the Ministry of Information to conclude that emphasising German war crimes or atrocities as a propaganda motif was unnecessary, so promoting the myth of the early part of the Second World War as a ‘clean war’ for the British.

After the Fall of France the British propaganda approach to victories was usually cautious, prompted by a strong sense that with repeated defeats the British people were not only more bellicose than their government, but also more cynical. However, the progressive shift in the grand strategic balance during early 1942 led to the perceived need for a decisive British victory on land in political and propaganda as well as military terms. The symbolism of the Second Battle of Alamein, very important at the time, was as the last great land battle in the West of the British Empire. But the public response remained cynical and cautious, as Bracken told that War Cabinet, ‘now as suspicious as the ancient Greeks of any exultation that seems to challenge fate’. Nevertheless, after November 1942, Bracken discontinued his monthly reports on public morale, seeing them as no longer needed. Over the next three months public morale and support for the government rose to above 70 per cent, and stayed in that region for the rest of the war.

Image: A War Savings posters around the base of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square. The lions at the base of the Column can also be seen, as can a flock of pigeons, flying overhead. The poster tells citizens ‘It’s up to ‘U’ to buy War Savings’, via the Imperial War Museum.