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Allied success in the Cold War led us to this day with Russia

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

It feels like May 1940 again — and that’s a good thing in one sense. During that long-ago spring, the German Army rumbled across the Franco-German border to help slake dictator Adolf Hitler’s thirst for conquest. France capitulated after just six weeks of fighting. The German offensive’s velocity dumbfounded the world. After all, informed opinion regarded France as Europe’s foremost military power. If the French Army gave way that quickly, what force could stand against the Axis?

The lightning-swift triumph of German arms prompted an America with lingering isolationist tendencies to start making ready for war 18 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Getting a head start meant that the armed forces were far better equipped than they otherwise would have been when the nation joined the war. It bolstered the odds of victory while hastening the war’s end.

Most strikingly, after dithering on naval preparedness for most of the 1930s, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940, boosting the U.S. Navy’s combined tonnage by over 70 percent. In effect, lawmakers set in motion the construction of a second, brand-new navy. Once the new warships took to the sea, the navy would have enough hulls to operate a self-sufficient battle fleet in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. No longer would naval commanders be forced to redeploy vessels from one ocean to the other to constitute a superior fleet when trouble loomed along the opposite coast.

Hitler did America a favor by galvanizing opinion in favor of military preparedness. Thanks, Adolf.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have just done the same. Oftentimes it takes a trauma to reorient a society. Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine could impart a political stimulus powerful enough to induce Washington and allied governments to start taking military preparedness seriously once again. Congress might fund the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law last year, rather than compel the Pentagon to shamble along on continuing resolutions that fix budget levels and stifle innovation.

And then lawmakers might get serious about rebuilding and expanding the U.S. armed forces. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, declared recently that the United States needs a 500-ship navy, up from fewer than 300 hulls today. That’s an expansion of Two-Ocean Navy Act proportions. Successive presidential administrations from both parties have gone on record favoring a larger fleet, and yet progress has been glacial at best.

Why? In part because America and its allies are victims of their own success in the Cold War. Winning big has its hazards, chief among them blindness to new geopolitical perils. Historian Andrew Gordon calls this phenomenon the “long calm lee” of victory. He observes that the Royal Navy’s stunning conquest of a Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) left British mariners without a peer adversary until imperial Germany started building a battle fleet of major heft before World War I. With no rival to keep it sharp, the Royal Navy indulged all manner of bad habits, from choreographing fleet movements in excruciating detail to obsessing over immaculate paperwork to demanding unquestioning obedience to orders.

In other words, the high command stifled entrepreneurship — leaving the navy ill-prepared to confront a dynamic, well-armed new challenger, Germany’s High Seas Fleet.

Hence, Gordon’s metaphor of the long calm lee. By that he means a false calm that encourages dangerous illusions. The leeward side of a ship, landmass, or other large object is its downwind side. The object’s bulk blocks the wind, sheltering anyone fortunate enough to be on the leeward side from the elements. Now, winds change and ships maneuver, meaning any lee is temporary. But if, perchance, an individual, institution, or society inhabited a long calm lee, the natural human tendency would be to regard tranquil weather as the normal — and permanent — state of things.

And if the times are forever placid, why prepare for heavy weather?

The long calm lee is neither a peculiarly British nor a peculiarly Royal Navy malady. The victors in the Cold War have been trapped in their own illusory calm for 30 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union. During the 1990s, the prevailing wisdom held that military power was no longer relevant; economics would rule the day in the post-Cold War age. Many argued that geography no longer mattered, owing to economic globalization. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps proclaimed an end to naval history, restructuring themselves as what the leadership called a “fundamentally different naval force” that faced no threat to their rule of the oceans and seas. The services stopped preparing for major battle.

The times were forever placid. Until they weren’t.

If anyone doubted that geopolitical competition and warfare are back, Putin rudely dashed their illusions last week. It remains to be seen whether the invasion of Ukraine applies as electric a jolt to American attitudes as the invasion of France did in 1940. After all, Ukraine lies deep in the recesses of Eurasia, whereas France fronts on the Atlantic and posed immediate and direct threats to shipping and air transit once German forces ensconced themselves at French seaports and airfields. Nor is the shock effect quite what it was back then. Ukraine is not a military power of the first rank, as France was in 1940. Russia clearly outclasses it.

So, it could be that the long calm lee of the Cold War will continue to dull attitudes toward military preparedness despite Russian aggression. One hopes not. But even after the situation quiets in Europe, political and military leaders in Washington and allied capitals must cultivate in themselves a weather-beaten outlook toward martial affairs.

Every false calm ends.

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Tags Aftermath of World War II Allies Cold War Mike Gilday Russian invasion of Ukraine US Navy Vladimir Putin

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