“The Second World War still holds a magnetic attraction for many of us,” writes British historian P.M.H. Bell. “It dominates the history of the twentieth century … and its fascination seems endless.” There have been, I believe, almost as many books written about it as there have been books about Lincoln and Jesus. Obviously, if there were some way to cram all three subjects into a single volume, you’d have a for-sure bestseller on your hands.
Bell has confined himself to just one of those three, but his new book, “Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War” (Yale University Press) has an unusual twist. The author examines all aspects of the global conflict to come up with turning points, which he defines as events representing “decisive or important change.” That allows him to look beyond the battlefield for something other than magic moments to see how the war’s outcome was most thoroughly affected. Some of his his conclusions may surprise you, others may not.
For instance, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — which drew the United States into the war is a rather obvious choice, as is the Battle of Midway, which heralded the descent of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific. Likewise, the D-Day Landing and the Battle of Normandy played a significant role in the outcome of the war in Western Europe, as did the Battle of Stalingrad in turning back the German tide on the Eastern Front.
But Bell looks at some other matters just as important. Among them the “war of the factories,” the contests for war production in the Allied and Axis nations — which ultimately swung in favor of the Allies (thanks in large part to the United States) and ensured defeat for Germany and Japan — and the Teheran Conference, also in 1943, in which Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met for the first time and issued a proclamation that focused on the total surrender of Germany as the only means of ending the war.
Bell cites the Battle for the North Atlantic in 1943 as a significant contributing factor in Allied success, the defeat of Japan and the dropping of the Atom Bomb, and the fateful Yalta Conference in 1945 in which, Bell argues, Roosevelt and Churchill has little choice but to give in to Stalin’s demands or face a divisiveness in Allied unity that might have prolonged an alrxeady-too-long war.
This is a provocative book. Certainly WWII scholars have much to debate here. Those of us who read history as laymen will likely find some of the author’s observations at variance with out own beliefs. I think the chances are very good, however, that all of us will profit from Bell’s studied conclusions. His book is richly sourced and lucidly written and reminds me once again why the Second World War remains a subject of such inexhaustible exploration. I recommend it highly.