The World After the World War

Written by: Gerhard L. Weinberg


We live today in a world that grew out of World War II. When I worked for fourteen years on a history of that war, a question that often puzzled me was that of the aims of the leaders of the major participants. What sort of world were they aiming for? One of the issues that clearly fascinated most of them was that of colonial empires. Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle hoped to expand, not merely restore, the colonial empires of Britain and France. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini expected to secure large colonial empires in Africa, while Tojo Hideki expected not only control of a majority of Asia but also Australia, Alaska, Central America and much of South America.

What might Fidel Castro think of Cuba being in the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” and being rescued from that fate by the Yankees? It would all turn out so differently, and Joseph Stalin’s empire has vanished, but how did World War II leaders envision the future during the conflict on the assumption that their side won? And what measures did they take to reach their goals? In the book Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders I tried to find the answers to this puzzle. Curiously enough, Franklin Roosevelt, the leader of the major country drawn into the war last, would not live to see the world turn more in the direction he preferred than any of the others, while Chiang Kai-shek, who led his country in war longer than anyone else, was obliged to flee mainland China soon after victory. Predicting the outcomes of wars is a very difficult and confusing matter.

Continue reading for an excerpt from Visions of Victory.


During World War II the leaders of the major belligerents concentrated their attention and their energies on the immediate requirements of the fighting; but not only did they from time to time give some thought to the postwar world that might emerge at the end of the war – assuming that their side won – but also the very decisions they made were frequently affected by the hopes and aspirations they entertained about that future. The war was, after all, not fought because countries had large armed forces and did not know what to do with them. The belligerents fought for aims, however vaguely defined; and even those who found themselves attacked, and hence involved in hostilities against their own prior preference, either already had or developed concepts of what the postwar world should be like when the fighting ended.

The course of events, the changing fortunes of battle, the entrance or departure of powers from the conflict, and revisions in the understanding of events would from time to time produce changes in perceptions of a desirable future. These changes could in turn influence policies and military deployments and allocations and in other ways affect the course of hostilities. While the public in each country might have a variety of views and aspirations, fears and hopes, about the future, the focus of this study is on the leaders of eight major belligerents. Because of the short periods of time that they led their countries during the war, Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, Koiso Kuniaki, and Suzuki Kantaro will not be discussed. The subjects of scrutiny are, in order, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Tojo Hideki on the Axis side, Chiang Kai-shek, Joseph Stalin,Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Franklin Roosevelt on the Allied side. The leaders of the countries that took the initiative in starting the war are placed first, in the sequence in which they came to be involved in open hostilities, followed by the Allied leaders in the sequence in which they came to be involved.

In each case an effort based on the often fragmentary evidence is made to show what the hopes and ambitions of each of these major actors were, and also whether and why and in which direction their views appear to have changed during the war. In many cases there will necessarily be a speculative element in the presentation; and not only might alternative readings of the currently available evidence be possible, but also new evidence may yet come to light. It is, however, worthwhile to look beyond the course of hostilities and to examine the aspirations of those in charge of the main belligerents. This procedure will assist us in understanding the choices and decisions those leaders made at the time and also provides some basis for assessing the extent to which the subsequent course of events was affected by their decisions. It will hopefully also help to show how developments during as well as after the war came to confound their hopes or conform to their expectations.

In examining the thinking and planning of these leaders, the reader who knows how the war developed and especially how it ended must always be extremely careful not to project that knowledge backwards. At the time, the men who led their nations in the greatest war ever fought had their hopes as well as military plans that might lead to the realization of those hopes; but however clear their understanding of the current situation in the conflict, they had no way of knowing for certain how it would all come out. It is fair to say that each had a substantial degree of confidence in an outcome that would be favorable to the country that he was leading. Hitler was not prepared to admit that Germany was about to be defeated until the late spring of 1945. Mussolini started to have serious doubts by the end of 1942 and therefore began to urge his German associate to make a separate peace with the Soviet Union. Tojo may well have had doubts about the outcome of the war at some point before his dismissal over the Japanese defeat in the Marianas in July 1944. Whatever disastrous defeats Britain suffered, Churchill was always confident that victory would come, however many years it might take. The prior experience of England in the wars against Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon of France, and also in WorldWar I affected a man who was very conscious of history – and had written much history himself. De Gaulle was similarly confident that sooner or later victory for the Allies would include a France freed from German control and restored in full glory to the status of a major power in the world.

Stalin, during the fall of 1941, again in 1942 and well into 1943, was probably the one leader on the Allied side who at times had doubts and fears about the possibility of defeat or at least such exhaustion as to weaken his country in the trials that he was certain lay ahead. The example of Lenin’s willingness to make enormous concessions to Germany in order to retain control of the bulk of the country in early 1918 was always there for him. It was concern about the possibility of loss of control in the first part of the war on the Eastern Front – together with the subsequent realization, after the German recovery following the great Soviet victory at Stalingrad, that the road to Berlin would be a terribly costly one – that inclined Stalin alone to give serious thought to a compromise peace with Germany, a possibility that Hitler invariably rejected.

Chiang Kai-shek, after the rejection of any mediated peace by the Japanese government in early 1938, was determined to fight the Japanese invaders until they tired of an endless conflict. After December 1941 he was sure that American participation in the war against Japan in effect guaranteed victory. Roosevelt was always certain that the Allies could and would crush the Axis powers and was no more dissuaded from this view by the early major American defeats than was Churchill. Whatever the confidence or lack of it, whatever the timing of changed perspectives, all the leaders on both sides knew that until the last shot was fired, the clash of arms, the solidity of the home front, and the elements of uncertainty and contingency would dominate events.

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: Gerhard L. Weinberg


Latest Comments

Have your say!