The Turning Point of World War II
I was reading An Army at Dawn, the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s brilliant Liberation Trilogy, when I noticed that Dwight Eisenhower, the American commander, Charles DeGaulle, and Harold Macmillan were all in North Africa at the same time working on the same project; the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Twenty-five hundred miles north-east from the allied Algiers headquarters as the crow flies, the Battle of Stalingrad was happening simultaneously. One of the Army Generals at Stalingrad was Nikita Khrushchev.
In other words, these two battle fronts: North Africa and Stalingrad from November 1942 – May 1943 produced the four men who would be the leaders of their own countries at the same time, from January, 1959 when De Gaulle returned to power in France, until January 21, 1961, when Eisenhower left the Oval Office to John F. Kennedy. And these four countries: the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union ran the world in those years. Macmillan was the only one who was not a general, although he was an officer.
In other words, the Operation Torch to Stalingrad front was the pivotal point of World War II. Before Torch and Stalingrad, the allies were losing the war. These two battles were the turning point. This realization led me to read first the War Diaries 1939-1945 of Harold Macmillan and then his memoir of the interwar years, The Winds of Change. Neither of these books is easy reading, although they are both extremely well-written.
Harold Macmillan is probably underrated by history because of the ignominious way his regime came to an end, in the Profumo scandal; and the fact that Britain was being eclipsed by the United States and Russia as a global power during his administration. However, the Winds of Change is the best book ever written for understanding the roots of World War II.
Macmillan, the scion of the eponymous publishing house, was a wounded combat veteran of World War I and served in the House of Commons almost continuously from 1924 to 1964. Britain was the one global power between the two world wars, given that the United States refused to join the League of Nations and was mired in isolationist sentiment.
So Britain, given its empire, was the only country with a global political perspective on international affairs. Harold Macmillan was the consummate insider. The one further fact that makes Macmillan’s memoirs unimpeachable, is that his mother was an American. She was born in Spencer, Indiana and set out on her own at the age of 19 after the death of her first husband. So, Macmillan apportions blame fairly, having a sympathetic perspective on America as well as Britain. Winds of Change is a great and important book, and although it is fifty years old, it has frighteningly contemporary relevance.