Strategy from 1700-1945: The Rise of Politics, Economics and General Staffs Part I

The creation and execution of strategy in the Early Modern and Modern period was increasingly dominated by the influence of politicians on the making of military strategy and the development of a bureaucratic military staff system for the planning and conduct of warfare. Underlying both of these trends was the impact of rapidly changing military technology and the industrialization of warfare from 1700-1945, creating vast military forces run by strong nation-states that conducted military operations around the globe. The need to harness the total resources of a country-personnel, technical, industrial and financial, also changed the role of the strategic “genius” from the exclusive realm of the military commander able to win battlefield victories to the political leader that could muster the total effort of his country to create a realistic plan for victory in warfare. The new nature of warfare, particularly the rapid technological change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was unforeseen by Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, but the essential ingredients for successful strategy remained unchanged through the four case studies reviewed-a careful balancing of ends and means, the need to closely tie political objectives with military capability and operational plans, and the careful balancing of the strategic triad, now expanded to the strategic square of Figure 1. The traditional Clausewitz triad must now be squared to show that the material influence on war became just as important as the will of the people or military genius. The need to match ends and means was even more important as mechanized militaries will not only required significantly more resources, but the technical capabilities of armies began to drive military strategies and battlefield operations.
The most important influence during this period was the role of domestic and international politics on the creation and execution of strategy. The need to not only man and equip military forces, but mobilize all aspects of society required far greater political skills than have been seen in previous case studies as nation-states have accumulated greater wealth and population to create military strength. As nationalism became a major force in world politics, particularly in Europe, the successful marshalling and controlling of the “will” of the people to sustain a major war became a significant political challenge for a government. The example of Imperial Germany and its desire to follow the Prussian example of avoiding a long war due to fears of social upheaval is a striking example of how internal political constraints can affect military strategy. The entire ethos of Prussian and, later German military strategy was to fight short, decisive wars to avoid putting too much strain on the social and economic fabric of the home front. When Prussia was successful, as it was in the Wars of German Unification, the military and political goals were well synchronized by the hand of Chancellor Bismarck. When the political and military goals were not synchronized in both World Wars, the German military was unable to achieve the ill-defined and overreaching goals of the Kaiser or Fuhrer.
The role of the political leadership became not only to set realistic political or diplomatic goals for the military to achieve and mobilize a country to provide the means to achieve them, but to question the assumptions and expectations of military planners. The potential for disconnect between political goals and military means, or the tacit acceptance of military operations simply for the purpose of military victory without a realistic political purpose could spell disaster for a nation’s war effort. The lessons of Germany and France in World War I show that politicians needed to be skeptical about their army General’s assumptions about both the relative power of their enemies and the own army’s operational capabilities.
Closely related to the rise in influence of domestic politics, was the new realm of international or coalition politics. As the scale and scope of warfare increased, countries increasingly sought allies to either supplement or strengthen their strategic position. This development meant that strategic planning moved from a matter of purely military self- interest to actually modifying a country’s strategic and operational plans to support an ally. The need to balance a country’s self-interests, internal political dynamics, and an ally’s expectations became a significant responsibility for a political leader.
The case studies on Britain and the United States in World War II demonstrate how political considerations sometimes override military plans for the sake of alliance politics. The debates between Roosevelt, Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the “Germany First” decision, Operation Torch, the role of the Mediterranean Theater, and the timing of the invasion of France demonstrate how military strategies often change to meet the political needs of alliance partnerships. However, in spite these differences, the overall alliance goal of unconditional surrender never waivered, even if the ways and means to achieve this goal were often modified to meet changing circumstances.
Accompanying this rise in the power of nation-states, the Industrial Revolution allowed nations to create large conscript armies, global navies and massive air forces that required not only significant amounts of industrial capacity, but also the ability to control and sustain these forces across a much larger battle space. These massive armies and their rapidly evolving technologies in weapons, transport, and communications presented tremendous challenges to the military commanders which neither Clausewitz nor Sun Tzu had really considered the influence of technology on warfare. Although both philosophers of war considered supplying an army to be important contributor to victory, military technology had been fairly stable during the periods when they wrote their treatises.
However, economic and military power became inexorably intertwined as politicians and generals used diplomacy and warfare to advance both their country’s strategic position and economic strength through the Modern Era. A country’s politicians and generals now had to consider questions of a country’s economic strength and a military’s technological capabilities against likely adversaries when planning wartime strategy. The development of new technologies such as railroads, telegraphs, breech-loading artillery and repeating rifles made it possible to move, sustain, and control these armies across much greater distances and allowed militaries to completely change strategies and operations plans. The entire strategy of Germany in 1914 was built around railroads to quickly mobilize their army to defeat the French and turn east to fight Russia before it could completely mobilize. The direct link between strategic and economic purposes can be seen in Hitler’s strategy before 1939, designed principally to reclaim the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia to provide additional economic resources to continue fueling the Wehrmacht’s expansion.
In order to take advantage of these new technologies and control these massive new armies, standing military bureaucracies and General Staffs were developed during this period, since a single commander could no longer handle both the administrative minutiae and operational planning of military operations around the globe. In addition, as armies became larger and warfare moved onto a global stage, a country could no longer devise strategy and operational plans after a war began. The need to plan and build militaries now took years to complete and each country in the case studies developed nascent General Staffs and War Ministries or Departments to develop standing military plans to deal with a wide variety of threats. The interaction of both politics and economics was crucial with the military bureaucracies, in order to quickly and efficiently mobilize armies, transport them across vast national railroad networks, and execute military plans of increasing complexity. Unfortunately, this planning mindset could be taken to an unhealthy extreme. The German Schliffen plan of World War I was a highly complicated and intricate plan that violated a number of Clausewitz’s principles on the need for simplicity and the ability to adapt to the “friction” of war. Once this plan failed by December 1914, the German General Staff had no real alternative to fight a two-front war of attrition.