Professor Victor Davis Hanson spoke about his new book, war, movies and President Donald Trump’s ability to lead with Seth Leibsohn earlier this week. Listen to the audio and read the transcript below.
Seth Leibsohn: Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. The journalist I.F. Stone once wrote, “I am having so much fun I should be arrested.” We are having a lot of fun today and delighted to bring one of the nation’s great, one of the world’s great public intellectuals, dear friend of ours, contributor to American Greatness, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, author of the brand spankin’ new book “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won”, Professor Victor Davis Hanson. Welcome back to the airwaves of Phoenix, Victor.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Seth Leibsohn: Thank you. I want to talk to you a little bit about your book in a moment, but first I want to talk to you about someone else’s book if you don’t mind, and that’s what you wrote about at American Greatness, “Is Trump Really Crazy,” in regard to the book that seems like most of Washington is gonna talk about for about another week and maybe the rest of the country’s about to stop talking about, but it’s Michael Wolff’s book. You had some wonderful writing in there.
I’m gonna quote you to you if I can.
“Wolff’s ogre purportedly sloppily eats Big Macs in bed, golfs more than Obama did, has no hair at all on the top of his head, and at 71 is supposedly functionally illiterate. OK, perhaps someone the last half-century read out loud to Trump the thousands of contracts he signed. But what we wish to know from Wolff is how did his trollish Trump figure out that half the country—the half with the more important Electoral College voice—was concerned about signature issues that either were unknown to or scorned by his far more experienced and better-funded rivals?”
This was kind of the topic of the tiff between Stephen Miller and Jake Tapper, and something Jake Tapper and CNN still doesn’t get, right Professor?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think so. Just from a purely logical point of view, if you’re making the argument that someone who destroyed the ’16 Republican primary really brilliant, experienced candidate, destroyed them in the primary and then took on ‘Clinton Incorporated’ and destroyed her, and you’re saying that he’s either incompetent or he’s naïve or he’s stupid. Then the logic of that would be, “Well, that was all a fluke,” and his first year shows that it was a fluke, because he’s a total failure.
But when you look at the stock market, their GDP, their business growth, their unemployment, or any traditional metric of economic activity, he’s had a very good first year. This is besides Mattis and Gorsuch, McMahon, all the great appointments he’s made, so then the question becomes, “Well, if he’s so stupid, how was he so successful as a politician, and how has he been so successful in a way that a Harvard law graduate, Barack Obama, was not in his first year?” It sort of makes us either say, “It’s all a fluke,” or “It’s all an accident,” or the criteria that Michael Wolff is using are just bogus, or his book is bogus, but the people who appreciate it and fawn over it, their criteria is bogus, but something doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical.
Seth Leibsohn: Something isn’t logical. Added to the list of the illogic is another part of Michael Wolff’s book and pieces, is that he didn’t wanna win. For someone who didn’t want to win, he did an awfully bad job at that.
Victor Davis Hanson: He did, but that is sort of another boomerang. It suggests that somebody who had a lot more money, experience who really wanted to win, like Hillary, couldn’t beat an amateur who didn’t want to win.
Seth Leibsohn: Right.
Victor Davis Hanson: Again, it means that, well, Trump would just like I guess he would say to us, “Well, even when I don’t want something, I’m more successful than the people on the other side.” It doesn’t make sense.
Seth Leibsohn: There was the old line of Irving Kristol: “Smart, smart, stupid.” A lot of these people Washington and elites say are smart and they have the right pedigrees, maybe Hillary Clinton would be in that crowd, Donald Trump is not. He’s part of the vulgar crowd of course, but there is some kind of reevaluation of what constitutes smart in this country now, isn’t there. There’s something about common sense. Something about conservatism.
Victor Davis Hanson: I think there is. I think something’s wrong with this bicoastal elite. Nobody can quite define it yet, but because you’re at Harvard or Stanford or Princeton or you have a particular PhD or a JD, or you’ve been on the Council of Foreign Relations, all of that didn’t really ensure an American Renaissance. We’re 20 trillion dollars in debt. The country’s torn apart by identity politics, the economy did not even reach 3 percent GDP for the first time since World War II under Obama. Something was wrong.
We had geniuses. We had Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers and all these people. And these are the people who are so angry and John Kerry. The more we learn about the Iran deal, the [inaudible] deal, or that Libya bombing, the more disheartening it is these people had all the sterling credentials, but it’s [inaudible] is that they were competent.
Seth Leibsohn: That’s right. Professor Hanson, we’re going into a break. Do you have time for one more segment?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah.
Seth Leibsohn: That would be wonderful. I do want to talk to you a little bit about “The Second World Wars,” your newest book, “How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” and your sense of the “Darkest Hour” if you don’t mind as well. If you wouldn’t mind sharing some of that with us, Chris and I have both seen it recently.
We will be right back with Victor Davis Hanson, author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributor to American Greatness. Be right back.
Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. I’m Seth Leibsohn. He is Chris Buskirk. Delighted to be talking with Victor Davis Hanson. Professor Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a contributor to American Greatness, and the author most recently just out, “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.”
Victor, if I might, on your book, there seems to be, mirabile dictu, this renewed interest in Winston Churchill throughout our culture. Two movies over the past year, “Dunkirk” and of course “Darkest Hour.” Chris and I recently saw “Darkest Hour.” I wonder if you might share any thoughts you had on it.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I generally liked it. It was based on a book by John Lucas, but there was two things, and I kind of wrote a review about it, but there’s two things that kinda bothered me. One, those moments of indecision that Churchill supposedly had about the Halifax suggestions to use Mussolini as a way of negotiating with Hitler after the fall of France or during the fall of France. Both were non-historical, and he never went on a subway and he never was encouraged by the stiff upper lip of the British citizen that he met.
He was a lot more the rock of Gibraltar about not negotiating with Hitler than the movies convey. In the movie, he’s not decrepit, but he’s not robust, and we forget that of all the leaders on both sides, Churchill flew all over the world. Stalin didn’t come to London. Churchill went to Yalta. He went to Moscow. He went to Tehran. Roosevelt did not come to London. Churchill went to the United States. Mussolini never left, basically, Italy.
German generals in the field could look at Churchill through telescopes when he was talking to Montgomery and sigh, “Why doesn’t Hitler do what Churchill’s doing?” He was our brain, so they couldn’t shoot him, but the point I’m making is he got pneumonia. Yes, he took first-generation antibiotics, but he traveled all over the world, so he was a very robust, dynamic person. That’s kind of not conveyed in the movies.
Seth Leibsohn: Right. And the thing you said first, which was the thing I objected … I very much liked the movie. I think it was an acting tour de force, regardless of the accurate or inaccuracies in the portrayal by Gary Oldman, but I too was put off by, and I guess it’s just Hollywood being Hollywood, them not giving him his due on why he wouldn’t negotiate. I think they made him look like a stubborn crank more than someone who had developed a worldview that had come to fore based on something called the Sudetenland. There was a very serious worldview he had here, and I thought they gave it very short shrift.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, I think that’s right, and it wasn’t just that he understood the nature of Nazism, but he understood the way to defeat it momentarily, and he understood that even in the darkest hour, Hitler had no navy, at least in comparison to the British navy, which was still the biggest in the world, and the Luftwaffe was not able to bomb Britain into submission. His basic attitude was one of confidence saying that as bad as it’s going to be, they can’t cut us off in North America and the empire. They can’t invade, and they can’t bomb us, and therefore they’re going to have to do one of two things. They’re either gonna have to settle for a tie, or they’re gonna have to go into Russia. He predicted that.
Seth Leibsohn: Yep.
Victor Davis Hanson: And when they went into Russia, he was delighted because he knew that eventually the United States and Russia would have some of the assets that Hitler would lose. It didn’t mean that he thought that he could invade the European continent alone, Britain, and defeat them, but he was convinced that Hitler could not defeat Britain, and he was right about that.
Seth Leibsohn: We’re talking to Victor Davis Hanson. Victor, enough about everyone else’s books and movies. Let’s talk about yours, “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.” I’m loving it. What I would like, if you don’t mind, for you to tell some of our listeners, the first thing that strikes you in this book is actually the title, “The Second World Wars.” Most people think of it as war. You call it “wars.”
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, that was sort of for two reasons, the plural. One is that there were wars in the air, there was wars on the ground, there was wars under the sea, so what I wanted to do was not do a chronological survey, but just say, “This is the air war. This is the war at sea and this is the submarine war. This is the army and the marine ground combat. This is the war of industry. This is the war of leadership.” And then to try to assess which one was important or relatively important; which was unimportant. Then you look at the decisions that were made; did it matter that Hitler made an intercontinental ballistic missile but not a bomber, and it did a great deal. That was one reason.
The second was to try to convey the idea that World War II really didn’t start as we know it. They knew it as a World War II mid-1941. They were the nine … actually ten separate wars, the Norway war, the Danish war, the Polish war, the French war, the Belgium war, the Luxembourg war, the Holland war, the Greek war, the Yugoslavian war.
But then when he went in … and he’d won all of them except for the Blitz, the bombing of Britain, but when he went into the Soviet Union coupled six months later with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. That became a truly global war, and then the First World War was called the First World War rather than the Great War. The term “Second World War” or “World War II” gained currency for the first time.
Seth Leibsohn: I love … We’ve read on air a long passage from his memoirs about his recollection of the night Pearl Harbor was bombed. I just love that quote of his, “silly people,” about people underestimating the Americans, but how at that point he knew the war was won. Didn’t know how it would be won, he said, but he knew the war was won.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, I think he was a classical historian in a sense. So he just looked at pre-war GDP, population, manpower base, geography, natural resources, and he just concluded that Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo were crazy because they had had a lot of advantage by army and all during the 1930s in attacking by surprise neighbors that were not armed and proximate. And then, all of a sudden, they got themselves into a global war which they started. and they had no ability whatsoever.
They reached Russian industry on the other side of the Urals or Detroit or in the Kaiser’s shipyards for it to bomb London again, yet these countries, because of their air and the huge army of the Soviet Union, the American shipping, they all had an ability to hit Tokyo and Rome. Churchill knew that almost from the beginning.
Seth Leibsohn: Victor, we have about a minute left. What to you is explaining this renewed interest in Churchill? Is it having done so many non-Churchill things for ten years? Is it perhaps American adults getting history because they realize they were misserved in school, like David McCullough learned? What explains this renewed interest do you think?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think there’s two things. One is that Churchill’s view of the West, an unapologetic exceptional West, is starting, for all the multicultural politically correct antitheses, people are starting to see whether you’re in China or whether you’re in Africa and Latin America, that this idea of constitutional government and free market economics, there’s no alternative to it. And then here in the United States, I think after the Obama years, we were starting to go back to the idea that you know what? Cuba’s not our friend. Venezuela’s not our friend. Britain has always been there. They fought with us—
Seth Leibsohn: That’s a good point.
Victor Davis Hanson: In every war that we’ve fought, and there’s a renewed appreciation for Britain.
Seth Leibsohn: Well said. Victor Davis Hanson, the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” Professor Hanson, thanks for your time. Thanks for your energy. Thanks for your brain. I appreciate it.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Seth Leibsohn: You betcha. We’ll talk soon.