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Our Test is Here

THE ARRIVAL in the United States of Winston Churchill coincides with bad news. In Libya, Rommel, instead of being routed, as we were led to expect a few weeks ago, has put the British tank forces out of action, captured Tobruk without a struggle, and driven his enemies back on the Egyptian border. Submarine sinkings in the Atlantic, and particularly in the western part of it, instead of coming under control as the comfortable predictions of the navy assured us they would, have markedly increased -- as we write, the radio reports nine sinkings in a single day. In the Crimea, Sevastopol has not yet fallen, but Rusian dispatches make it clear that the Nazis are sparing no effort to talk it, and have already come nearer to doing so than ever before. Meanwhile the Red Army, having lost the initiative, is awaiting heavy blows in other parts of the long front. The Japanese are pressing home their attack in China, and China reports that they are massing for an assault on Siberia.

All this points to the imminent possibility of another well prepared Axis campaign which is capable of dissipating in a few weeks the easy optimism which has grown up in the United States because at last we have got our munitions production rolling and have won a few spectacular naval victories over Japan. Hitler, we have been told, has been pushed into a corner and must risk everything to win this year. From this assumption, and from news of mass bombings in Germany and talk of a western front in Europe in 1942, some of us have jauntily assumed that victory was in sight. Yet the crucial test is just beginning, and the military power of the Axis, far from having lost its great potential, is probably capable of retaining the offensive, and may call forth all our available resources to prevent our opponents from winning positions from which it will be harder than ever to oust them.
The outlines of this campaign, foreseen for many months, are beginning to be drawn. Having made secure their base in North Africa, the Nazis probably intend to thrust through Egypt to Suez. Another arm of the pincers may be extended directly into the Middle East from the Eastern Mediterranean. If Sevastopol can be taken and the Russian Black Sea fleet thus deprived of its base, another assault can be launched into the Caucasus by land and sea, aimed at Baku and eventually at the oil fields of Irak and Iran, Even if the German army does not succeed in gaining these critical oil supplies for itself, it may be able to cut off the Soviet Union's access to them and thus cripple both the mechanized forces of the Red Army and a large part of the energy resources for Russian industry and agriculture. Meanwhile Japan, striking from the east, would divert Russian forces.

Thereafter, any front in Western Europe would not be a second one, but a first one. And Japan, having secured her flank and rear in China, could proceed westward through India, which in the circumstances would probably fall an easy prey, join the Germans in the Middle East and complete the operation of cutting squarely in two. the communications between the eastern and western sections of the United Nations. American power, no doubt correctly estimated and anticipated by the German General Staff, would be bottled up by the largest and most effective submarine campaign in history. Already Hitler is sinking ships faster than we can build them, and we are prevented from coming fully to the aid of our allies across either ocean by lack of ocean transportation. In due time Franco and Petain would be coordinated with the Axis and contribute measurably to an offensive based on western Africa and aimed at keeping us busy in the Western Hemisphere. Even a partial execution of these plans would probably keep us on the defensive for another year and destroy any hope of a short war.

The dangers of underestimating either the enemy’s resourcefulness or his reserves of material are plainly revealed by the Libyan campaign. The British went in this time with a supply of stronger tanks, which would have been sufficient to rout the equipment which Rommel had last year. But, as usual, Rommel was a step ahead of them. He had a new store of heavy guns for which the tanks were no match, and which he held in reserve until after the British thought tey had him in a trap by getting their armored forces between him and his base--except for a gap of nine miles. Then Rommel rushed his guns through this gap sprang the trap in reverse. Though the British had apparently held air superiority, it did not suffice, because they had no force of dive bombers capable of putting tanks and artillery out of action.

Our navy has likewise been unprepared to cope with the new submarine campaign. It conceived its anti-submarine work mainly as getting convoys across the Atlantic, and apparently believed that any attacks in our coastal waters would be merely a diversion aimed at luring our patrol ships from that task. Apparently it forgot that Hitler has this time the metal and shipbuilding resources of a whole continent at his disposal, and innumerable Atlantic harbors for bases. It did not know how large a part of his effort would be employed in destroying our shipping where it was least protected, Although it had, on paper, superlative ships and equipment with which to combat submarines, its standards of perfection were such that it failed to employ the inferior but still useful means which were available or capable of being made quickly available. The result is that Hitler has a long head start on keeping us out of action in the critical year. There is no need to become defeatist because of the reverses that have already been suffered or others that may be in store this summer and fall. But we must at once abandon all easy optimism and self-congratulation on the military power that we have just begun t0 create but are not yet in a position to employ against the enemy where he is doing the important fighting. We must not overlook the part already played by Vichy in getting supplies to Rommel, and the part which may soon be played by both Vichy and fascist Spain in help to the Axis. If, instead of indulging in grandiose dreams of what we shall be able to do sometime when we establish contact with the enemy, we employ every ounce of the strength we have now to prevent him from gaining his immediate objectives, just as if he were already at our gates, we shall have a better chance of being able to bring our full power to bear when it is ready, 

This article appeared in the June  29, 1942