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Why study history and WW2

LAURENCE REES: Why should anybody bother to study history and this period in particular?

TAMI BIDDLE: Because you can go back and you can see how people behave under pressure and you can see what pressure and tension does to decision making. You can see the people who managed to rise above it and you then get the chance to study how it was that they managed to rise above it, and how it was that they managed to keep themselves together and how they stayed focused on what was really important. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading a lot of documents with respect to the Supreme Command and Eisenhower’s role in the war, and there’s a tremendous amount of infighting amongst the Anglo-American Generals and the planners and the strategists and everybody’s got their own idea of what’s going to be best. And that really could have deteriorated in a way that would have made fighting a war systematically and effectively and efficiently very, very difficult.

I think Eisenhower did us all a great service in managing to stay above all that, insisting that we get along, and that we keep our eye on the ball and that we manage to overcome national prejudices, Anglo-American friction and stay above it and fight, and keep the fight focused on the fact that we’re fighting the enemy and we’re not fighting amongst ourselves. To see a man doing that in the middle of the war and to look at his language and look at his letters and look at the admonitions and the encouragement that he’s sending out to the people around him to stay focused, telling them to keep their eye on the ball and not to allow these frictions to impede our ability to fight this war effectively and efficiently; you can step back and learn quite a lot from that. You can learn from the language that he used, the attitude he assumed and the ability to find commonalities in the people that he was working with and bring them together.

I think you can see a certain magisterial quality in someone like Churchill who rises to the occasion, and even if his plans and strategies and ideas on any given day weren’t always brilliant, he was playing a tremendously important role as kind of a moral anchor of the Anglo-American effort. He kept everyone motivated to stay in the fight and he kept, by his personal bravery and by his personal ability to stay focused and motivated, in a position where he could inspire other people, and that’s what leadership is really all about. He had people look at him and say, you know what, if he can keep it together and he can inspire us and he can give speeches like that we’re going to be able to do that too. Seeing people rise to that in the midst of crisis is not only inspiring but it teaches you the characteristics and the qualities that you need to prevail in very difficult times. And if you’re teaching people about decision making in peacetime it puts a beam of light on these qualities that these individuals had.

Or you’re able to look at the system and say, you know, how is it that we took lots and lots of people who were civilians, who were businessmen and put them in roles where they were functioning essentially in the military, and taking effective business models and having it work to the achievement of a war economy that by 1943-44 has really got a head of steam and is really functioning pretty well, and is able to take on the Wehrmacht and is able to take on a Germany that has now expanded and has drawn in the great resources of Central Europe. We can do this because our economy is up and running, we’re able to set up a bureaucracy that can run a war economy, that can run a war, that can mobilize people, that can build airplanes and build tanks and create leaders and create everything from staff sergeants and corporals all the way up to five star generals and have them do their role pretty well. You see how all of that is functioning under the most dire circumstances and then that gives you a lot of clues about what it is in the system that really did work. What were the systemic qualities? Was it the business model, was it the motivation? I think Richard Overy does this brilliantly in his book  'Why The Allies Won', where he takes a chapter by chapter analysis of economics and morale and he talks about what things worked. And I think it’s a fantastic study of how we were able to build on the resources we had, not only the human resources but the material resources, and combine them in a way that allowed us to get out of a tremendously dangerous moment in time.

So when you’re living in a dangerous world and you’re thinking, well - what if we have to do that again - being able to go back and see how people did it in the past is reassuring. It is reassuring to know that it wasn’t perfect and there were lots of mistakes made and there were false starts and that there were moments when everyone was going, my God, we might not pull it off. And after the second Schweinfurt raid it looked like the wheels were going to come off the whole Anglo-American bomber offensive. For a moment there it looked like it might not go forward. But we kind of brought it together and came up with some ideas, implemented them, had a secure industrial base back in America that could build lots of fighters and sent them over, and relied on that and kind of came back like a Phoenix rising up from the ashes once again. I think it’s being able to look at that and take confidence and inspiration from that and say, you know, as many mistakes as we made, and as many false starts as we had, we still found a way to some answers that got us back to a position where in 1945 we could start over again and try to create something better.

That effort in and of itself wasn’t perfect as all human efforts aren’t, and it didn’t certainly liberate the people behind the Iron Curtain who suffered for a very long time, but we saw a period of peace in Europe. We saw the establishment of a lot of good things including international laws that have helped us, international institutions that have helped us. We saw the creation of a kind of international constitutional system that had a lot going for it, and has given us a lot of advantages and a lot of ways in which we’ve been able to live prosperous and relatively peaceful lives compared to the early part of the 20th Century. So out of our mistakes we can create something better.