In the spring of 1940, a British army in France failed to stop the Germans. The consequences were horrifying, the failure abject.
On its face, this is a subject for military history; but the military-historical counterfactual never seems to turn on the fighting, where the crucial question (the BEF's decision to abandon the line and retreat on an evacuation point) is treated as beyond discussion. Instead, it focusses on David Low's point. The conclusion often drawn is that, had Britain spent more on machines in the 1930s (or perhaps, for much longer than that), things would have been different. It's all quite strained. If you had a car, you wouldn't have missed your flight. Martin Wiener, Correlli Barnett, Winston Churchill and your Dad all have explanations for why you don't have a car, but they're not very helpful for catching the next flight unless they come with a $30,000 cheque.
I disagree. There is a much less strained counterfactual than the idea that Britain could have been, oh, say, six years "more advanced" than it was, had public school boys been forced to do maths instead of Latin. The fact is that the 10 infantry divisions of the BEF were scheduled to be joined by its first armoured division in the third week of May, and that an entire fourth infantry corps was to come over in June. The Battle of France was a near enough thing that these additional forces would probably have been enough to change its outcome. You wouldn't have missed the train if the power outage hadn't knocked out your alarm clock. Set your phone's alarm next time, and you're set.
So forget fancy analogies and drive by sneers, and drill down, with laser-like focus, on one, simple fact. The BEF may have been as little as one month late in getting enough troops into the line to change the course of history. This is, mind you, ten months after a parade in London described by The Economist as featuring 28,000 marching representatives of the two million men and women who had so far volunteered for national service in the defence of the United Kingdom. It sure looks as though Britain had built up quite the war machine even before the fighting started.
But, on the one hand, two million. On the other, short four divisions. It seems to me that the gap between these two numbers is worth exploring.
Why did Neville Chamberlain not set his phone alarm? What were his reasons? I ask this because Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1923 and again from 1931 to 1937, and Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, was more than any other individual the face of an era described by Harvard economist, Alvin Hansen, as one of "secular stagnation." The connection here may not be obvious, but Hansen himself claimed that the "secular stagnation" thesis was just another name for Keynes' "underemployment equilibrium." We broke out of that equilibrium during World War II. The best explanation for that just is WWII, and the question we should all be asking is whether we can have the outcomes without the consequences. The buildup to World War II gives us perhaps the best taste of what WWII would look like without the fighting. (There is also the interesting question of whether and when the impetus of the WWII faded away.)
So the questions are:
-How big was the actual 1937--39 build up. How real is the "two million"?
-What data do we have about the immediate consequences of this buildup?
-How did this buildup fall short of what was needed?
-How do any failures identified reflect back on the persistence of "secular stagnation"?
Four questions, two economic, two military, all worth exploring. (I guess I've telegraphed my answer to the question of whether the one-time impetus of World War II "faded away." It's here, if you're into ghost towns.)