The Decline and Rebirth of the American Military
November 12, 1918 to December 6, 1941
by Eric Hammel
Because the United States military undertook its first World War II offensive operations in the Pacific within only eight months of Pearl Harbor, most historians and readers of the war’s history depict and perceive the quick transition in 1942 from defensive war to offensive war as a miracle: Poof; here’s your army, here’s your navy, here’s your air force; go thrash the enemy with them. In the narrative Americans have written for themselves, the peace-loving and ill-prepared sleeping giant, the United States, is suddenly struck, out of the blue, by enemies who use her peace-loving ways against her while a mere sprinkling of gallant, dedicated soldiers, sailors, and airmen fight overwhelming odds to barely hold the line against an unremitting backdrop of tearful defeats, especially in the Pacific. Meanwhile, U.S. industry suddenly—instantly—becomes a magical “Arsenal of Democracy” that produces uncountable tanks and ships and guns, not to mention trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen in their legions, fleets, and air armadas that will, in under four years, smash the wiliest and most powerful enemies yet confronted at any time in human history. The appearance of all that stuff and all those battle-ready young men so soon after the surprise attack look exactly like a miracle.
There was no miracle.
Celebrated military historian Eric Hammel’s cool appraisal of the facts reveals that America’s stunning and overwhelming moral response to German and Japanese aggression in the mid and late 1930s, a response that eventually brought a huge portion of the globe within its embrace, was far less a miracle than an inexorable force of nature.
America was a sleeping giant. But the decision to turn the entire force and will of a hard-working, innovative nation to arming for war was not made in the wake of Pearl Harbor. By Pearl Harbor, an alliance of the American government, American industry, and the American military community was already three-fourths the way up the road to complete preparedness, a journey that was begun in mid-November 1938, only a little late.
Here, then, is the largely unknown story of the decline and rebirth of the U.S. military between the last day of World War I and the Pearl Harbor attack. It focuses on the key dilemmas the military services faced in even planning a competent national defense through the late 1930s and hinges on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's crucial "Aircraft Meeting" in November 1938, which got the rearmament ball rolling nearly in time for America's entry into World War II. While it focuses on the military's travails and solutions, The Forge is also a political history centered on national defense issues still in play today.
The Forge was previously published as How America Saved the World.