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Road to World War II, The (DVD Review)

16 Oct, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 10/18/11
$49.99 six-DVD set
Not rated.

History buffs will love The Road to World War II, but it may be a little dry for mainstream audiences.

The set collects a 1978 documentary series called “Between the Wars,” composed of 16 episodes hosted by legendary newsman Eric Sevareid and featuring historians and archive footage.

The program is quite thorough in its analysis, with segments broken into easily digestible chapters discussing the political situations in America and Europe that led to war. As a bonus, each disc also includes newsreel footage that relates to the topics of discussion.

The primary thesis of the show is that the aftermath of World War I made a second war almost inevitable, due to botched peacemaking efforts and longstanding political resentments that led to harsh reparations being imposed on a weakened Germany, which only built resentment in the German people that Hitler would later crystallize in his rise to power.

At the center was the Treaty of Versailles, a bitter failure with repercussions still being dealt with today (such as provisions that paved the way for an independent state of Iran). The treaty was negotiated in part by President Woodrow Wilson, who envisioned a League of Nations where the democratized nations of the world could meet to work out their differences. Britain and France thought he was being too lenient on their enemy, and the compromise negated any effectiveness the treaty would be able to achieve.

A harsher punishment would have kept nations such as Germany too suppressed to rebuild in any reasonable time, while a non-punitive treaty might have lessened the resentment later exploited by would-be dictators in their ambition for power.

As Sevareid points out, “The victor can have vengeance or he may have peace but he cannot have both.”

Wilson also misread political attitudes at home. The idea of the League of Nations was opposed by a strange coalition of isolationists, hawks who believed in American exceptionalism, progressives who thought the treaty would enable British and French imperialism, and suffragettes who thought Wilson was ignoring their cause.

Wilson allowed his own ego to block compromise, isolating members of his own cabinet who disagreed with his policies and rejecting even provisions that would require congressional approval for the League of Nations to use American troops. Stumping for the treaty in 1919 soon took its toll on his health, and he suffered a stroke that only made him more intransigent. His efforts were bitterly rebuked as the Senate rejected the treaty and America turned its back on the world.

Without the backing of America, the League of Nations had no teeth, and its efforts to maintain peace were doomed. Movements to disarm were ultimately pointless since nations would divert funds from developing banned ships into new technologies and other weapons that were just as effective if not more so, such as emerging air forces.

These trends were not lost on Japan, which built its own empire in the vacuum of power. As Europe erupted into war over Hitler’s territorial ambitions, the American public was unwilling to intervene. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed Hitler, but knew America would only get involved if it were directly attacked, and the documentary lays out several scenarios that make it seem as if he maneuvered Japan into attacking, leading to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

These are all valuable lessons about the ebb and flow of history, where the truths of cause and effect often can be seen only in the wisdom of hindsight, which is never a guarantee the same mistakes can’t be made again.

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