The New Yorker essay by Dexter Filkins on Samuel Moyn’s new book, Humane, got a lot of attention already, so I want to address only one narrow, but I think important, point: Filkins seems to me to misunderstand the aims of the United States in waging its total wars—or at least, in waging the two I’ve taught in classrooms, the Civil War and World War II.

Filkins says Sherman burned Atlanta because he “believed he was entitled to do anything in pursuit of victory … against an enemy that had begun an unjust war.”

This might be called the “don’t start none, won’t be none,” doctrine, or DSNWBND for short.

While Sherman surely believed the rebels had begun an unjust war, that belief was subsidiary to his, and President Lincoln’s, aims by the latter part of 1864. Rather than exemplifying DSNWBND, Sherman’s decision to burn Atlanta was based chiefly on what we might call the “Stay Down” doctrine (SDD)—that is, he wanted the enemy to acknowledge they were beaten, and surrender. As he wrote in his memoirs,

If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war. I knew, of course, that such a measure woudl be strongly criticised, but made up my mind to do it with the absolute certainty of its justness, and that time would sanction its wisdom.… I knew that the people of the South would read in this measure two important conclusions: one, that we were in earnest; and the other, if they were sincere in their common and popular clamor ’to die in the last ditch,’ then the opportunity would soon come.

Lincoln took a similar view of the subsequent March to the Sea: it served the purpose of demonstrating the battlefield superiority of the United States armed forces. The rebels were incapable of continuing the fight; they should realize it, and surrender. As he wrote Sherman,

Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service [that is, marching to the sea] and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole, [J.B.] Hood’s army, it brings those who sat in darkness to see a great light.

For Sherman and Lincoln, waging total war in Georgia wasn’t about bringing vengeance to an enemy who had begun an unjust war (DSNWBND); it was much colder: it was about showing that the United States could no longer be resisted, and that the rebels simply must surrender (SDD). As Lincoln said, the demonstration that Sherman could divide his forces, beat Hood in the field with one part, and march unresisted to the sea with the other part, should show that the rebel forces were powerless against the United States Army in the field.

The same was true of the demand for unconditional surrender in the Second World War. Roosevelt claimed it was rooted in his, and Churchill’s, understanding of the Civil War. It did have a parallel purpose; the waging of total war in both cases exemplified SDD. But as Marc Gallicchio’s recent and excellent Unconditional notes, the demand for unconditional surrender was really rooted in Roosevelt’s, and his advisors’, reading of more recent history.

In 1942, Roosevelt and his postwar advisory committee concluded they needed to seek unconditional surrender to ensure there would be no next war of German aggression. The Nazis came to power in part on the claim that, because the German army had never been defeated on the battlefield, the German nation had never been beaten. The Treaty of Versailles, they said, represented a betrayal of the German people by their elites (under the influence of Jews and Bolsheviks). This was known as the stab-in-the-back discourse.

Roosevelt’s method of preventing a repetition of that claim was simple: make sure the German people knew, this time, that they were comprehensively beaten. And the same went for the Japanese, he reasoned. Like Lincoln, Roosevelt believed that the demonstration of unquestioned superiority on the battlefield would enable a durable peace. It would not be enough to defeat the Japenese and Germany armies; Japanese and German militarism must be revealed to be fruitless.

In both the U.S. Civil War and in U.S. pursuit of victory in World War II, the tactics of total war were justified not chiefly by the nature of the enemy (DSNWBND) but by the pursuit of a definite victory (SDD), and a durable peace.

Author: Eric Rauchway

Created: 2021-09-13 Mon 13:19