Poland's Daughter

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The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 23, 1939, was arguably the most important event of the 20th century. Without it, Germany wouldn't have dared invade Poland one week later. Britain and France wouldn't have been obliged to declare war on Germany, and the shrewd Stalin would almost certainly have kept the Red Army at home. So, with any luck at all, 60 million people wouldn't have had their lives cut short, and hundreds of millions would have been spared misery and homelessness. Alas, it wasn't to happen. The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 is another superb history from Roger Moorhouse, most recently the author of Poland 1939, which I reviewed in July. Here, he prepares the groundwork for Armageddon. The cash value of the pact was significant, 800 million German marks, or $5.9 billion in today's dollars, at a time when the world was just recovering from the Great Depression. German weapons and machine tools flowed east, and Russian grain, oil, and minerals came back on trains pulled by the same German locomotives. Then there was Europe itself, which the two despots split evenly between them. Mr Moorhouse is clear that Hitler was desperate for the pact, and that Stalin as usual got the better deal: "with a single evening's negotiation and a single phone call, he had regained almost all of the lands lost by the Russian Empire in the maelstrom of World War I." Poland of course was the first victim, but on June 6, 1940, as German troops marched down the Champs Elysees in Paris, the Red Army occupied the capital of Latvia. In the heart of Europe, only Switzerland remained more or less free.

More than most historians, Mr Moorhouse gives Stalin the benefit of the doubt. Hitler's treachery becomes apparent as 1939 wears on, yet Stalin refuses to mobilize the Red Army for fear he might thereby trigger a German attack. Indeed, Stalin increases the pace of Russian goods bound for Germany, until the rail system could no longer handle the traffic. Nor does Moorhouse portray Stalin as dazed by the blitzkrieg when it does crash upon him on June 22, 1941, as most historians do. And perhaps, in the end, the Hitler-Stalin Pact is what enables the Soviet Union eventually to prevail: "The T-34s and KV heavy tanks ... had rolled off production lines set up largely using imported German machinery -- lathes, cranes, forges, and mills." If I have one quarrel with The Devils' Alliance, it's that I would have liked more detail about these transactions, and especially about the contribution of Russian raw materials to the German army and air force.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World is an odd book. It's well-written, but Sharon Weinberger so dislikes the Vietnam War that not only can't she say anything good about it, she can't say anything good about anyone or anything associated with it. Thus the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (which began as ARPA but has more often been known as DARPA) is mocked for its expensive and supposedly calamitous counterinsurgency projects, some of which were actually very good and still have application today. I wrote last month about how DARPA helped develop the M-16 assault rifle whose descendants still arm the US military and those of many other countries, more than half a century after I saw it in action in the Vietnamese Highlands. I especially snickered at Ms Weinberger's quote from a "nuanced account" by Frances Fitzgerald, whose books are about as nuanced as Donald Trump's tweets. Another oddity is the book's scattershot references to ARPANET, a collection of military, government, and academic computers that evolved into what we know as the internet. (It started with a proto-email that read, in its entirety, "LO". The sender was typing "log-in" when the connection died. From that lone syllable arose Amazon, Netflix, WeChat, Zoom, and all the other conveniences and time-wasters that dominate ours lives in the 21st century. Yet nowhere does Ms Weinberger devote more than a couple of paragraphs to the DARPA project that actually did change the world! For all that, her book is worth reading, and not nearly as dull as you might think.

Osprey, a British company that used to specialize in military aviation handbooks, has quietly turned itself into a mainstream publisher. Thomas Cleaver's I Will Run Wild: The Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to Midway is a handsome hardcover that might have come from HarperCollins or Random House, and unlike new titles from mainstream publishers the Kindle ebook is priced at a considerable discount from the print edition. Like most American historians, the author relies almost entirely on English-language sources -- including, I was pleased to see, my own history of the Flying Tigers. The few Japanese authors in his bibliography are limited to those whose books are available in translation, and they include the rip-off that Martin Caiden did on the Navy ace Saburo Sakai. Mr Cleaver quotes at length from the mass-market paperback of Samurai! with never a hint that it's more of an invention than a translation, and that Sakai earned no royalties from it. Never mind; he's hardly the first to be fooled! And he has done a great job in telling the story of how Japan fulfilled Admiral Yamamoto's promise to "run wild" for six months, and how the US justified his fear that the tide of war would then turn against the Empire. Apart from some excursions into geopolitical history, he does this mostly by focusing on individuals whom he brings to life and regularly returns to. One of his favorites is Erik Shilling of the Flying Tigers. Erik was one of my favorites, too -- indeed, it's thanks to him that I soloed in a Piper Cub at the age of 69. But like Martin Caiden he was a great fabulizer, and it's a pity Mr Cleaver still takes him seriously. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Daniel Ford's books:

Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw) o
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

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Flying Tigers
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