Paul Kennedy: "It’s my contention that the story of the 'middle people' hasn’t been told"

The Books Interview.

You claim in your new book that the turning point in the Second World War occurred much later than is often argued. Does that put you at odds with the views of many of your colleagues?

It puts me at odds with many works! There’s a colossally stupid kind of claim, which is to say, “Moscow, December 1941, the battle that won the Second World War”. That would have surprised the Americans and the Japanese!

I’m also tilting against a very popular strand of literature that says, “The decisive battle, the decisive intelligence breakthrough” – I’m saying that history is much more complicated than that.

So I’m tilting against a) a historiography that is very populist and makes large claims and b) the notion that, by late 1942, it was downhill all the way for the Allies. I’m saying, “No, there were some really significant problems to be solved.”

You argue that the problem solvers were those you call the “middle people” – engineers rather than strategists, on the one hand, or troops, on the other.

It’s my very strong contention that their story hasn’t been told. When I was writing the book, I kept bumping into characters and organisations I didn’t know about.

For example, trying to find out about someone you’d think would be an American national hero, Ben Moreell, the founder of the Seabees, was so difficult. Weirdly, the best summation of who Moreell was and what he did is in a Wikipedia article by some anonymous buff.

Can we infer from this that you’re sceptical of history that concentrates on the doings of “great men”?

Yes, indeed. Not that I don’t think someone like Churchill wasn’t extraordinary – but I felt that there was too much history of the great man.

Some individuals emerge from the book with their reputations intact – Viscount Alanbrooke, for instance.

He recognised that without Winston, the British war would not be won. So he recognised that there was a great leader, someone who could articulate, lead, have ten ideas a day, eight of which were really awful but two of which were worth considering.

Alanbrooke’s great qualities were the toughness of mind of the Ulsterman, scepticism, a dislike of flashy people and a profound suspicion that if he and the British chiefs didn’t work every day, Winston would do something really stupid. He was very sceptical about trying to invade France as early as 1943; he just didn’t think it was possible.

One of the things you’re trying to do in the book is to explain how the Allies got themselves in a position to win the war, starting from the low ebb of January 1943.

I’m not just interested in trying to explain how you got out of the stasis of late 1942 and early 1943 but also in who did what. It was about developing a culture where the people in the middle levels could be encouraged to innovate and be eccentric. January 1943 is a good starting point. After the political leaders at Casablanca gave out the political statements – “Germany first”, unconditional surrender – there came the statements about what you had to do to achieve success.

How perilous was the situation in January 1943 when Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca?

Churchill always kept an eye on the Atlantic and said it was the battle that had to be won. So he was anxious – especially when the merchant ship losses in February and March 1943 went shooting sky high. The thing about Roosevelt was that he had this innate confidence that once the massive productivity of the American industrial machine was geared up to full strength, then no matter what the setbacks, they were just going to be overcome. So I don’t think he was as worried as his advisers.

Despite claims that the war in the Pacific had turned at Midway and that the war on the eastern front had turned at Stalingrad, you still had some massive challenges facing the Allies.

Paul Kennedy’s “Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

FDR and Churchill at the Casablanca meeting in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496