Could World War II have been won without the United States?

Today in 1886 – Dr. John Pemberton brews the first batch of Coca-Cola in a backyard in Atlanta. There’s’ a lot of money to be made in the sale of flavored water.

Today in 1973 – Vietnam War: The last United States combat soldiers leave South Vietnam.

Could World War II have been won without the United States?

One mistake most Americans make when considering World War II is that it was fundamentally a contest between Germany and the western NATO allies, Great Britain and France, until the US became involved.

In point of fact, the greatest enemy and most formidable enemy the Third Reich had was the USSR. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, he struck a hornet’s nest. Stalin’s regime was not entirely ready for a massive waging of warfare with Germany, but with the aid of the US, primarily supplies, military weaponry, and other materiel, including food and clothing, it soon got itself on a balanced footing. The “scorched earth” retreat that Stalin ordered in the western part of the USSR resulted in a straining of German forces during one of the coldest and most brutal winters that the region had seen. The combination of these factors, plus the USSR’s massive number of conscripted troops they could commit to a battle, led to the Germans’ most devastating defeat of the war, at Stalingrad, and the tide turned against them in the East. From that point on, Germany was really defeated.

The war in on the Western front, though, was a different matter. Stalin had agitated for years for the opening of a second front on the European continent, but Churchill’s strategy, strongly supported by the British high command, led the US and allied forces into Africa, first, then into Italy, which was probably not their best move. By 1943, the Italians posed no great military threat, but the way the entire invasion of Sicily and Italy was botched by both the British and Americans provided an opportunity for the Germans, ably led by Kesselring, to stage what amounted to a fighting retreat up the Italian boot, into the northern provinces, and to delay any significant threat to the Reich from the south at all until that front didn’t really matter. The chief value of both the African and Italian campaigns, though, was that it bled German resources drastically. By the end of 1943, German high command estimated that the Wehrmacht was losing, on average, four tanks per hour; whereas, the United States and the Soviet Union were replacing every tank lost with ten new machines almost immediately. Similar estimates applied to artillery, tracked vehicles, trucks, jeeps, and even rifles and machine guns. Germany could not keep pace with such production, and when combined with the irreplaceable loss of troops, as well, the situation moved from dire to hopeless. This was exacerbated by Roosevelt’s surprise announcement at Casa Blanca in early 1943 that nothing less than unconditional surrender would be acceptable by the Allied Forces. Surprising as this was to Churchill and the French, it pleased Stalin who was already committed to arranging that fate for Germany. By the time D-Day at Normandy took place in 1944, though, the Germans were retreating in a big way in the East, retrenching in the West, and as the Allies pressed their way through France and Belgium, the Red Army was advancing steadily into the Reich itself.

Thus, the western Allies suddenly found themselves in a race with the USSR for conquest of Germany proper, as they were no less worried about the spread of Communism across Europe than Hitler had been, and the main goal was to secure as much of Germany for the British, French, and American allies as it was to defeat the Germans ultimately. As it turned out, Stalin got to Berlin first, but the Allies were able to secure portions of the city, itself, as well as much of western Germany, which, of course, was divided after the war.

A second mistake a lot of contemporary Americans make is to forget about the war in the Pacific, which, for most of the US military and government’s money was far more critical to American interests and security. That was a brutal conflict, lengthy and bloody, costly and chancy all across the board. British commonwealth forces from Australia and New Zealand were involved, to be sure; but Japan was perceived as a principal enemy, much moreso than Germany. (Significantly, after the US declared war on Japan in 1941, there was no similar declaration against Germany; the Germans declared war on the US, instead, as they were allied with the Japanese Empire through the Axis agreement. This drew the US into the European conflict directly and caused George Marshall and FDR to agree to accede to Churchill’s demand for a “Europe First” strategy, even though the war in the Pacific was primary in the US peoples’ minds. As the American Navy was seriously damaged at Pearl Harbor, though, time was needed to rebuild it as well as the American naval air arm and long-range bombers in order to provide the ships and planes required to fight an ocean-island based war with a distant and very well-prepared enemy.)

So the question is not really logical. American logistical support was vital to the Allies even before the US entered the war, particularly to Great Britain, and then to the Soviet Union, as well, after Germany invaded the USSR and brought them into the conflict. The war in Europe could probably have been won without US troops, but probably not without US support and logistical supply. The war in the Pacific, though, probably could not have been won without the US’s direct involvement. China and the other allies were not able to defeat the Japanese in any significant way without American industrial might and American troops and airmen. Russia was not at war with Japan until the very end, as they had signed a separate treaty with Japan in 1939. When they did enter the war in 1945, their role was perfunctory, having more to do with the Russo-Chinese borderlands than with the Japanese proper.

So, in a word, no, the Allies could not have defeated the Axis powers without the US, but the US’s role was far more important in terms of industrial supply and other provisions than in terms of fighting troops, in Europe, at least. This is not to say that American troops did not play a significant role in the European Theater of Operations; certainly, the army groups of Americans were a significant factor in pushing the Germans first out of France and Belgium and then on into Germany itself, and Americans took substantial casualties in both ground and air forces during that phase of the war; it is to say that without American logistical supply that the British stood no chance of defeating Germany on their own; they were out of money, out of materials, and, candidly, out of men. French contributions were negligible and, in some historians’ view, through internal squabbling and bickering among commanders, caused more trouble than they were worth.

The answer with regard to the Pacific is moot, since the war there was principally between the US and the Japanese, with China’s role on the mainland confined to China, proper. The defeat of the Japanese Navy at Midway was the seminal battle, complemented with the Battle of the Philippine Sea, as well as the bombing of the Japanese mainland, all of which cemented in the Japanese mind that the US was a far more formidable foe than they anticipated.