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Deterrence in 1939*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2011

Alan Alexandroff
Cornell University
Richard Rosecrance
Cornell University
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Rather than a case where deterrence was not tried, 1939 is a case where deterrence failed. As such, it has important implications for deterrence theory. Mutual deterrence must operate on roughly the same time perceptions. Britain felt impelled to deter Germany after Prague, but could offer only a long-term deterrent. Germany's short term appeared so favorable that the long-term uncertainties posed by Britain and France failed to restrain her. The experience of 1939 also underlines the importance of political factors, particularly realignment in mutual deterrence. The Russo-German Pact tipped the balance toward war. In the contemporary setting, calculations of time perspectives between the Soviet Union and the United States are important for mutual deterrence, especially in Europe. Changes in the Sino-Soviet split hold further implications for contemporary deterrence.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1977

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1 Taylor, A. J. P., The Origins of the Second World War (2d ed.; Greenwich, Conn.:Fawcett Publications 1961), 114Google Scholar.

2 The basic book here is Fay, Sidney B., The Origins of the World War, 2 vols. (New York:Macmillan 1928Google Scholar and 1930).

3 See particularly Fischer, Fritz, Germany's Aims in the First World War (London:W. W. Norton 1967Google Scholar). For a review of the various positions, see Mommsen, Wolfgang J., “The Debate on German War Aims,” Journal of Contemporary History, 1 (No. 3, 1966), 4772CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mommsen, , “Domestic Factors in German Foreign Policy before 1914,” Central European History, vi (March 1973), 343CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Koch, H. W., ed., The Origins of the First World War: Great Power Rivalry and German War Aims (London:Macmillan 1972Google Scholar).

4 See, among others, Churchill, Winston, The Gathering Storm (Boston:Houghton Mifflin 1948Google Scholar), and Namier, L. B., Diplomatic Prelude, 1938–39 (London:Macmillan 1948Google Scholar).

5 In addition to Taylor's first and second editions (fn. 1), see Louis, W. Roger, ed., The Origins of the Second World War: A. J. P. Taylor and his Critics (New York:John Wiley & Sons 1972Google Scholar), and Robertson, E. M., ed., The Origins of the Second World War: Historical Interpretations (London:Macmillan 1971CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

6 Taylor (fn. 1), 267.

7 This question of allied versus German preparedness in the West is considered in more detail below.

8 In Hart, Liddell, History of the Second World War (New York:G. P. Putnam's Sons 1971), 70Google Scholar, 73.

9 Quoted in Feiling, Keith, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (London:Macmillan 1946), 314Google Scholar.

10 CAB 53/40, Chiefs of Staff [hereafter COS] 747, 25 July 1938.

11 CAB 53/45, COS 843, 20 February 1939.

12 Quoted in Aster, Sidney, 1939: The Making of the Second World War (New York:Simon and Schuster 1973), 31Google Scholar.

13 CAB 53/10, COS 283 MTG, 18 March 1939.

14 Ibid.

15 The alternative of doing nothing has more to commend it in retrospect than was apparent at the time. We know that Germany in fact intended no threat to either Poland or Romania in March. If Germany had moved eastward la.ter, she would have forced Russia willy-nilly into the arms of the West, cementing the very alliance which eluded British grasp in August 1939. From this strong position, a much more effective resistance to Hitler might have been mounted in 1940.

16 Aster (fn. 12), 89.

17 CAB 53/47, COS 870, 28 March 1939.

18 The French particularly misled the Poles concerning the possibility of a Western offensive against Germany if Poland were attacked. General Gamelin told Warsaw in May that in such a contingency the French would open an offensive with ”les gros de ses forces” fifteen days after the beginning of mobilization. Butler, J. R. B., Grand Strategy, II, September 1939-June 1941 (London:H. M. Stationery Office 1959), 55Google Scholar.

19 Even a diversionary attack was not planned. The Chiefs of Staff wrote on 3 June: “So far, therefore, our contacts with the French have not produced the answer to the problem as to how we and they can co-operate effectively in reducing the pressure on Poland if she is attacked. …Unless, therefore, the French are prepared to undertake some effective diversion along the lines indicated in Paragraph 10 [of Report on Anglo-French Action in Support of Poland] at a very early stage of the war, we cannot hope to relieve pressure on land against Poland.” CAB 53/49, COS 905, 3 June 1939.

20 See Liddell Hart (fn. 8), 46.

21 The British Chiefs faced this issue in dealing with the Poles. Since neither they nor the French knew what to do “if Germany attacked Poland in the East and stood on the defensive in the West,” they were not in a position to give assurances to Warsaw. CAB 53/n, COS MT G 294, 10 May 1939.

22 “Minutes of a Conference on May 23, 1939,” No. 433, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945 (London: H. M. Stationery Office 1956), 576Google Scholar.

23 See, among others, Westphal, Siegfried, Heer in Fesseln (Bonn:Athenaum-Verlag 1950), 109Google Scholar–17; Taylor, Telford, Sword and Swastika (New York:Simon and Schuster 1952), 305Google Scholar–09; and Kimche, Jon, The Unfought Battle (London:Weidenfeld and Nicol-son 1968), 8995Google Scholar.

24 Ibid., 89–94.

25 The Anglo-French staff conversations had already made this amply clear. French General Lelong told his British counterparts as early as May 1939, “if Germany decided to remain strictly on the defensive, and if Italy remained neutral, a very thorny problem would be presented to the French and British. The Maginot Line and Siegfried Line faced each other, and France could not seriously attack Germany on land without long preparation. …There could be no question of a hurried attack on the Siegfried Line.” CAB 53/48, COS 900, J. P., May 1939; 13th meeting of British and French staffs.

26 CAB 65/3 W. M. 4 Conclusions; Minute 1, September 4, 1939.

27 Taylor (fn. 23), 308.

28 Speech by the Fiihrer to the Commanders in Chief, August 22, 1939. Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, Series, D, VII, The Last Days of Peace, August 9-September 3, 1939 (Department of State, Washington, D.C. 1956), 201Google Scholar.

29 Ibid., 203.

30 Ibid., 202, 204.

31 Liddell Hart (fn. 8), 12–14.

32 Documents on German Foreign Policy (fn. 28), 202.

33 Quoted in Taylor, Telford, The March of Conquest (New York:Simon and Schuster 1958), 45Google Scholar.

34 Ibid., 47, 52.

35 Taylor's “Second Thoughts” add substance to these contentions. According to Taylor, Hitler “had no idea that he would knock France out of the war when he invaded Belgium and Holland on 10 May 1940. This was a defensive move: to secure the Ruhr from Allied invasion. The conquest of France was an unforeseen bonus” (fn. 1), 277–93; quotation from p. 287.

36 Dulles, John Foster, “The Evolution of Foreign Policy,” Department of State Bulletin, xxx, No. 761, January 25, 1954Google Scholar.

37 Hart, Liddell, Deterrent or Defense? (New York:Praeger 1960), 97Google Scholar.