World War II and Grand Strategy
An Interview with Andrew Buchanan
Andrew Buchanan talks exclusively to fifteeneightyfour about his new book, American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II, which offers a thorough reinterpretation of the US engagement in this region during the Second World War. Far from being reluctant players, Dr. Buchanan argues instead that Washington had a grand-strategic interest in the region.
In American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II, you challenge the common-held assumption that America was a reluctant partner in World War II, arguing instead that Washington pursued its own grand strategy in the Mediterranean. What led you to pursue these arguments?
My interest in this question grew out of what seemed to me to be a radical disjuncture between the extremely successful outcome of America’s wartime efforts in the Mediterranean and the fact that, as you point out, Washington is almost invariably presented as an unenthusiastic or even unwilling participant in the theatre. It is true that, for their own reasons, American military leaders were reluctant to plunge deeply into the Mediterranean; but it is equally true—and almost never acknowledged—that President Roosevelt had a long-standing interest in this critical region and a drive towards expanding American influence there. And Roosevelt called the shots. So my work centers on grand strategy rather than simply on military strategy. That involves widening the aperture to consider political, diplomatic and economic imperatives and motivations as well as military affairs.
At the end of World War II, the Mediterranean has been seen as an American lake so would it be right to assume then that the Washington strategy was a success? And if so, how can one measure that success?
Yes, I would say that it was extremely successful! The United States emerged from World War II as the predominant power in the Western Mediterranean, and it was well on the road to a similar position in the Eastern Basin. You can trace the development of American influence in every single country—with the partial exception of Yugoslavia—and at intersecting levels of military, political, and economic affairs. During the war, the United States established a sprawling archipelago of military bases stretching from Morocco to Libya and Italy, and in the immediate aftermath it set up the Sixth Fleet as the anchor of its military presence. Political power paralleled military power, seen, for example, in the growing American intervention into Italian politics in support of the Christian Democrats. On the economic front, wartime aid projects allowed American business interests to develop a network of contacts throughout the region—all of which came in very handy when wartime regulations were lifted and there was a return to the (American-dominated) free market.
How did the American grand strategy in the Mediterranean affect Washington’s relationship with the Allied powers and, more specifically, the Anglo-American alliance during World War II?
Washington’s success in the Mediterranean rested in large part on its relationship with its allies, but not necessarily in the ways one might expect.
Washington’s success in the Mediterranean rested in large part on its relationship with its allies, but not necessarily in the ways one might expect. From the point of view of American military leaders, the United States seemed to have been drawn into the war in the Mediterranean largely to uphold Britain’s imperial interests. But in the course of the war, Washington clearly emerged as the “senior partner” in this alliance, using its growing military and economic power to shoulder London aside. As I show in the book, critical crises over military issues—for example the capture of Rome by American forces or the ferocious Anglo-American debate over the invasion of southern France—were rooted in major political divisions. Interestingly, advances in American power were made within the framework of U.S.-Russian agreement, established as plans to divide Europe into postwar spheres of influence took shape at the Tehran conference in November 1943. With the Mediterranean, or at least the Western Mediterranean, clearly assigned to the American sphere, Moscow made sure that the powerful local communist parties under its influence contained the angry popular uprisings that followed years of war, economic dislocation, and fascist rule. Without this assistance, it is hard to see how American forces could have avoided violent confrontations with the popular partisan forces in both Italy and France. This arrangement was critically important to American policymakers; you have to remember that for them the insurrections that had followed World War One in Russia, Germany, and elsewhere, were recent events.
At the end of the war, how far reaching was the American influence in this region, geographically, politically and economically? And for how long did that influence last? What has been the lasting impact of Washington’s strategy in the Mediterranean from 1944 to the Cold War and beyond?
American hegemony in the Mediterranean was consolidated in the immediate postwar period with the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine and the entry of the U.S. into the Greek Civil War in 1947, with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and with the organization of the Sixth Fleet. At the same time American business interests expanded their engagement with countries throughout the region. By the early 1950s the United States was the hegemonic power, and the Mediterranean was indeed an American Lake. Nevertheless—and as in other parts of the world—American hegemony did not long go unchallenged. In the Mediterranean, nationalist revolts shook the Arab world from Morocco to Egypt; during the war Washington had carefully reinforced French colonial rule in North Africa, and that policy now came under increasing pressure. At the same time, the United States was unable to either assimilate or to overthrow the Tito government in Yugoslavia. So there were certainly qualifications to American hegemony; despite them, however, the United States remains the predominant power in the region.
How does this book fit with your wider academic interests and research? Have you got plans for more books in the future?
I have written several articles on aspects of the war in the Mediterranean, including a cultural study of American perceptions of Italianness and their influence on the shaping of occupation policy. In future, I plan to study some aspects of the American occupation of Italy in more detail. Right now, however, I’m working on an entirely different project—it’s a comparative study of conscription and universal military service, and of the relationship between universal (male!) service, concepts of citizenship, and the formation of the nation state.
Describe your book in three words.
I would like to say “absolutely brilliant,” but I think that such judgments are best left to the reader!
What is the first book you remember reading?
I really can’t remember! There was a fine line between being read to by my dad and reading for myself. Either way, it would have been an adventure story—Arthur Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons comes to mind. Or perhaps (rather loosely) historical fiction; I loved Stig of the Dump about a “caveman” who somehow made it into the modern world. I’m sure that it all helped to cultivate an interest in history and a lively historical imagination!
Where do you like to write? Typewriter, word processor or pen?
I live in a small house in upstate New York, between Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. We still have real winters up here, and for several months of the year I work huddled by a woodstove with my laptop on my knees and my books and papers spread out in an arc around my feet. My wife calls it my “nest”! In summer it gets a bit more relaxed—I work at an upstairs desk or, when the bugs aren’t too bad, on a deck overlooking the beautiful Boquet river. My writing process is pretty simple: detailed handwritten notes, writing directly onto the laptop, and then hours of rearranging and polishing. Or noodling around, depending on how you look at it!