There is no shortage of companies extant today that trace their lineage into an Axis past. Most of Japan’s major zaibatsu made it through the MacArthur era, albeit modernized in ownership and management. Fiat made fighter planes for Mussolini yet remains Italy’s most blue-chip industrial enterprise. And Krupp, the most infamous of the “merchants of death,” exists today as part of European heavy industry giant Thyssen-Krupp.
Volkswagen is arguably the most visible of these Fascio-capitalist legacies.
I have spent my career working with companies and their reputations, and I have come to understand that history is not destiny: success is rarely permanent, failures need not be fatal, and a founder’s foibles can be expunged. But a company’s skeletons, however well closeted, are brutally difficult to bury because heritage becomes woven into culture in ways that are often variable and unpredictable.
VW is a fascinating case study, a legacy of National Socialism that has been over the past seventy years alternately beloved and reviled outside of Germany. It would be hard to argue that the company has risen above its past.
What will forever plague the firm – and others like it – is the degree to which the ideology that birthed lies dormant within the company’s cultural fabric. One would hope that, like Ford, VW can remain cleansed of the ugliness in its past even as the past echoes through modern Europe. But the burden of assuring as much remains an obligation of the firm’s leadership.
“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”
This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?
Old “Electric Brain”
Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?
Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.
Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.
The Smartest Man in the Navy
Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.
And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.
Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.
N.B.: Ray Spruance spent his final years living in California, and passed away in Monterey in 1969.
Following my review of a small library about Russia’s fight against Germany in World War II in The Peking Review, a reader introduced to me Victor Suvorov’s provocative Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? In this book, the author debunks the accepted idea that Hitler was the primary instigator of the war, suggesting instead that it was mostly Stalin’s fault.
The author sets himself against a mass of historical evidence and analysis in his work, and in so doing opens himself to accusations of being an apologist for Hitler. But Suvorov is not that kind of revisionist: his goal is not to exonerate the Austrian Corporal or the Nazis, but to prove that the accepted Soviet/Russian narrative about the war is wrong.
Much has been done to uncover the crimes of Nazism and find the butchers who perpetrated atrocities in its name. This work must be continued and stepped up. But while unmasking fascists, one must also expose the Soviet communists who encouraged the Nazis to commit their crimes, so that they could avail themselves of the results of these crimes.
The task would seem almost impossible given that Soviet historians had 44 years after the war to alter the historical record and eliminate any countervailing evidence. Suvorov manages to make an argument that is interesting to those of us who still puzzle over Stalin’s tactical idiocy in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa. Believing that the whole show was a Stalin set piece, even down to the sacrifice of tens of millions of Soviet lives, offers a rationale that seems to reconcile Stalin’s early bumbling with the Red Army‘s victories during the last 30 months of the war.
What is more, Suvorov is no longer alone in the effort to make Stalin a co-culprit in World War II. Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Bloodlands is a reminder that both Hitler and Stalin engaged in political killings and mass-murders of their own citizens and those of the lands they conquered.
Unfortunately, Suvorov’s book (and indeed much of his other work, including his Inside the Soviet Army) comes across rather less than an academic study and more as a political treatise against Soviet communism. When the book was written in the late 1980s, there was a receptive audience for such works. Today, Suvorov’s tone and approach seems rather quaint (although, I would argue, not as anachronistic as it may seem, given events in Russia.)
Stripping away that foible, though, Suvorov at least opens the door to further academic examination of his points. There seems a vast field for historians to sow in probing the degree to which initial Soviet defeats were calculated by Stalin to secure his own power and provide an opening for Soviet domination of Europe.
“You can’t even make a movie critical of America practically, unless you do it in a very lighthearted way,” Stone says. The ‘70s were “a time where people were re-examining — what were we doing in Vietnam? But that hasn’t happened (since). What are we doing in Iraq? What are we doing in Afghanistan? There’s just no questioning in movies.”
Reading this quote, offered by the director upon the release of Snowden, one was left with the unmistakable impression that Oliver Stone was already making excuses for what would rank as one of his most egregious box-office flops, almost – but not quite as bad – as Heaven and Earth.
I was tempted upon reading this to ask Mr. Stone whether he is familiar with the vast corpus of documentary work that is scathingly critical of America? Or, indeed, whether he has heard of films like Lions for Lambs, Syriana, In the Valley of Elah, Margin Call, The Big Short, or Redacted, all of which were critical of the nation’s faults without descending into the cauldron of angry demagogic revisionism that is Mr. Stone’s customary swimming pool.
Regardless of whether it is hyperbole, ignorance, egregious self-promotion, or studied disinformation, Mr. Stone’s comment reflects poorly upon him and his exceedingly narrow world-view. Such a tunneled perspective in an auteur is only a problem when it is a reflected in his work. Unfortunately, given Mr. Stone’s choices of subject matter – recent American political history – this is indeed a problem.
Oliver Stone is no documentarian, and he has made clear his willingness to interpret historical events through the prism of his political beliefs. As Snowden drips its way into our living rooms, it is worth remembering that what Stone creates is works of interpretive fiction, not histories with dramatic license, and that in the end, his cause is not so much to reveal truth as it is the promotion of Oliver Stone.