Who Was Max Werner?

I

In his intellectual history of American grand-strategic thought, Perry Anderson failed to identify a single social democratic US grand-strategist.[1] Neither have other surveys.[2] Is it because the species does not exist? Has it ever existed? Perhaps the nonexistent supply of respected military-strategic experts on the Left is a legacy of anti-Communism as a filter of the discourse until the Soviet capitulation if not much later? Such a thesis has a certain plausibility to it. Perhaps those with the wrong thoughts simply got weeded out before they could be heard in the national policy sphere.[3]

What is clear is that the absence of critical voices made the American national security discourse a veritable monoculture that has been the fountainhead of civilian militarism since its midcentury birth. Like a small, inbred population exhibiting pathologies due to mutational loads (ie high frequencies of harmful genes) the monoculture failed over and over again to weed out awful ideas. It is to this national security discourse that we owe the credulous reception of tall tales about ‘the ruthless conspiracy of the Kremlin’ bent on ‘world domination’ that framed the hegemonic project otherwise known as the Cold War.[4] The discourse was discovered by the Truman administration as it tried various discursive strategies to get Congress to pay for a major military buildup and the Marshall Plan.

To the monoculture we owe too the manifest idiocy of the ‘domino theory’ that sucked the United States into the Vietnam impasse.[5] This was the idea that if the United States did not hold the line in Indochina, Japan, the ‘superdomino’, would fall to Communism. This was an illustration less of strategic insight than Parkinson’s law of national security.[6] Moreover, it was realized very early on, almost as soon as the US military buildup got going, that no discernable US interest could be served by staying the course in Vietnam. Another discursive rigidity was at hand to justify getting deeper into the quagmire. This was the consensus opinion that ‘maintaining credibility’ on the central front (ie Germany) required ‘demonstrating revolve’ on the periphery (including faraway Indochina). The notion is theoretically misguided and finds no support in empirical reality.[7] Yet, it persists.

The road to Iraq also began from the discursive rigidity of the ‘rogue states doctrine’. This complex of ideas emerged from the panic of the late-1980s. How were the American people to be persuaded to garrison the planet after the Soviet capitulation? Recall Powell’s alarm at ‘running out of demons’ with the Soviet capitulation. ‘I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung!’ wailed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.[8] The solution hit upon was to inflate the threat posed by ‘the military sophistication of Third World dictators’. As with the ‘domino theory’ and the ‘ruthless conspiracy of the Kremlin’, the ‘rogue states’ discourse acquired a life of its own with Saddam as the poster child of the rogues’ gallery. So when Bush resolved to oust Saddam he was following the path of least resistance. That Saddam had no role in the attacks on 11 September 2001 was not a major hindrance in an elite foreign policy culture that had long-ago lost sight of realism.[9]

So again did the phantasmagoria of ‘a knockout blow from the air’ that gave decision makers sleepless nights in 1938 and strongly (mis)informed Anglo-American strategic decision-making through the midcentury passage and beyond.[10] Put simply, the Anglo-American way of war after World War I increasingly became an all-in wager on the flying machine. To that we may add the high discourse of Rand’s ‘Megadeath intellectuals’ who theorized how to fight and “win” in a two-sided strategic nuclear war.[11] The defense intellectuals’ obsession with quick-fix, air-atomic and thermonuclear warfare was conditioned by a much longer history of technophilia characteristic of Anglo-Saxon strategic thought that has been documented by David Edgerton.[12]

At any rate, until the onset of systemic instability in the mid-2000s, critical voices in the national security conversation were few and far between.[13] At the same time, Western opinion has increasingly hardened against China. In the United States and Europe, the emerging consensus is that great power security competition is back. As we seek to articulate what an informed social democratic US grand-strategy looks like at the present conjuncture, it is instructive to look at intellectual antecedents. Was there really no one?

II

German prestige was at its peak after the Fall of France in May 1940. The Blitzkrieg legend was only a symptom of Western fear of German military prowess.[14] The United States was positioned to fight a war of ‘hemispheric defense’, serve as ‘the arsenal of democracy’ in the struggle against Germany, and rely on the strategic air weapon for offensive operations. The army needed many more divisions than were funded by the civilian masters just to defend the Philippines from a possible Japanese attack; made likelier in their thinking by civilian militarism. The United States was not planning to raise a continental-style mass army and there were no plans to land one in Europe. The idea of landing a British land army in France again was considered outlandish and dismissed out of hand in London. And in Western perceptions, the Red Army did not stand a real chance against the Wehrmacht either — ‘the Slav’ could not put up a fight against ‘the Teuton’.[15]

In the months leading up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Anglo-Saxon powers expected Germany to defeat the Red Army in short order. Even after it was clear that the Soviet Union may not be at immediate risk of extinction, Stalin’s reassurances were taken with a bit of salt. For years after, until well into 1943, Anglo-American policymakers feared a Soviet capitulation in the form of either an outright defeat or a separate peace. They were thus expecting all of western Eurasia to fall under Hitler’s boot. Yet they had no viable war plan for defeating Germany in that scenario — not without raising hundreds of divisions that the civilians resolutely refused.

The Anglo-Saxon folie à deux — the shared delusion of a decision through strategic air war — repressed the obvious corollary of pessimism about Soviet prospects.[16] To let go of blind faith in ‘a decision from the air’ was to admit that without the Soviets in the fight the German position in Europe would be ‘practically invulnerable’.[17] So the civilian decision not to raise sufficient ground forces risked a German-dominated Europe in perpetuity. Britain may not have been in a position to raise an army to defeat the Germans on its own, but this was obviously not true of the United States. So the question facing the Allies in 1940-1942 was, Was the United States going to accept a Nazi-dominated Europe?

During the winter of 1941-1942, US army, intelligence, and civilian officials become convinced of the supreme importance of Soviet survival to any hope of defeating Germany. In order to ensure that the Soviet Union stayed in the fight, the United States had to place a land army in France as soon as was logistically possible, precisely as Stalin demanded.[18] FDR was finally convinced of the army’s point of view by February 1942. In March he informed Churchill of the plans. By 1 April 1942, the British had been made to sign on to Operation Sledgehammer and Operation Roundup. The former was a contingency plan for landing an army in France in case the Soviet Union tottered within months. The latter war plan was to launch the western front in 1943 after full mobilization.

During the summer of 1942, the British reversed their position. Apparently, there weren’t enough landing craft. Or so the incredulous Americans were told. The British proposed operations in the Mediterranean region instead. Roosevelt was persuaded that the British strategy was a reasonably effective if not a perfect substitute for a cross-channel attack. Neither the Soviets not the army high command were so convinced. Even civilians suspected the British of harboring ulterior motives. As Stimson warned Roosevelt, more than the defeat of Germany, Britain wanted to ‘preserve its empire in the Middle East.’[19]

US army officers scoffed at the ‘peripheral strategy’ proposed by the British. If there was to be no cross-channel attack, and given the threat of the Japanese inciting a ‘race war’ amongst Asians against ‘White civilization,’ Eisenhower and other army officials demanded attacking Japan forthwith instead of ‘dabbling’  in the Mediterranean to shore up Britain’s postwar position.[20] For while the latter was sure to fan Soviet suspicions of British intrigue in the Black Sea region, the former would remove the threat of a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union and free up scores of Red Army divisions for redeployment against Germany.

The debate over world strategy continued to plague the Anglo-American alliance. Army officials were chastened by their loss of influence over US grand-strategy. To them, Roosevelt had come under the spell of the scheming British. They vowed not to be outmaneuvered at the next confrontation.

III

As Americans reconsidered their perceptions of Soviet strength and the desperate world situation in the fall of 1941 and even before, they looked to the only observer who had dissented from the strategic consensus.

Max Werner came to the attention of civilian and military audiences in the English-speaking world with the publication of The Military Strength of the Powers in 1939. As it became increasingly clear over 1939-1943 that all his confident predictions were borne out by subsequent events ‘Werner’s star rose to great heights’ and he was ‘hailed as a prophet’, New York Times noted in his obituary.[21] A ‘good many people are under the impression that he has been pretty much right from the first to the last’, The New Yorker observed on 4 September 1943, later calling him ‘the oracle of Mars’.[22] Or, as Collier’s put it on 2 October 1943, ‘Who but Werner can claim to have foretold the line-up of the war and its progress to date, months before the first shot was fired?’[23] Who was this guy?

Max Werner was born in Ukraine’s capital, Kharkov, on 11 August 1901, to the family of a chemical engineer who named him Aleksandr Mikhailovich Shfrin. His birth certificate was signed by the local rabbi. He got his doctorate in social science when he was just 22 and was immediately appointed professor. Perhaps because he was a committed social democrat, he decided to leave the Soviet Union. He became stateless from the time he fled Russia in 1923.

While in Germany, Werner became involved in the intellectual ferment of the Weimar Republic. He edited a socialist newspaper in Manheim, Volksstinme, and contributed to Berlin’s Die Gesellsshaft, Vienna’s Kampf, and Heidelberg’s Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. As the world situation deteriorated in 1930, he turned his attention to military affairs. ‘Schickelgruber’s gangs hated me most thoroughly,’ Werner told Collier’s, ‘not so much because of my Jewish blood, more for my anti-Hitler writings.’[24] With the Nazi seizure of power, Werner was again on the move.

Escape by night brought Werner and his mother and his aunt to Paris, where for seven years he spent some hours of every weekday in the Bibliothèque du Musée de Guerre at Vincennes, considered the finest military library in the world. … “Not once in seven years did I see a military officer of any nation in the library,” he observes.

“I was considered crazy,” says Werner. “I talked to cabinet ministers in France. I argued with deputies. I corresponded with British leaders. They would not heed my warnings.”

Werner’s archives include an ironic touch in a letter dated May 11, 1939, from a Britisher who is decidedly prominent still. Commenting on his book, The Military Strength of the Powers, this Britisher said, “I think you greatly exaggerate the military strength of both Russia and Germany, particularly the former.”[25]

The unnamed Britisher who was ‘decidedly prominent still’ was, of course, Winston Churchill.[26]

The Germans had a warrant for his arrest after they conquered France so he fled yet again with his mother and aunt, this time to the United States. Arriving in the New York in September 1940, Werner settled into his apartment at 461 Central Park West. He got his immigration visa from the US consulate in Montreal only in 1950, the year before he died; and his mother was undocumented until then as well. Like many Jewish intellectuals fleeing the Nazis, Max Werner’s position in his adopted country was precarious.

IV

Werner’s first book, Le Socialism et le fascisme se disputent l’Europe appeared in 1938; as did a German version, Sozialismus, Krieg und Europa. His second book, Der Anfmarsch Zym Zweiten Weltkrieg, appeared under the pseudonym Max Werner the year after. The same book was published in London, Yugoslavia and Burma as The Military Strength of the Powers the same year.

The extraordinary thing about this book from the perspective of a modern historian is that Werner predicted in advance the very operational details of the Soviet-German war that later would be documented at length by Jonathan House and David Glantz.[27] Not only did he get it right, he got it right for the right reasons. Werner may well have been an even more significant American geopolitical thinker of the twentieth century than Nicholas J. Spykman, the strategist Anderson justly celebrates as the most clear-eyed of his entire survey.

They were contemporaries. Spykman came to grand-strategy from the Olympian tradition of strategic cartography — geopolitics sensu stricto — following in the footsteps of Halford Mackinder.[28] Werner was a student of modern warfare in the tradition of Ivan Bloch.[29] While Spykman’s maps are indispensable to understand the strategic geography of the midcentury struggle and how it was understood in 1942, Werner is indispensable to understand how Stalinism actually defeated Nazism in the greatest armed struggle in history.[30]

‘The military hegemony of the Versailles powers came to an end between 1930 and 1935,’ Werner announced in his magnum opus. ‘Between 1932 and 1939 lie the biggest revolution in military technique and the most violent armament race the world has ever seen.’ Werner argued. ‘The strongest motorized army in the world is now concentrated in Eastern Europe,’ he noted of the Red Army, ‘an army of great mobility, enormous fire-power and simply tremendous breakthrough force.’ Germany’s fateful search for a lightning decision led it inexorably, Werner argued, to what he called ‘time-table war’: a war of aggression where you fix the date of the invasion in advance, arrange your war preparedness to peak at that preset date, and then hurl it all at once at the enemy to seek a quick decision.

Timetable war provided a plausible formula for turning global inferiority into local superiority through the application of the military principle of force concentration on the time axis. Together the offensive possibilities of motorized maneuver and timetable war seemingly held the prospect of a lightning victory. While France and Manchuria admitted such operational solutions to strategic problems, the Soviet Union did not. Werner noted that ‘a war of lightning decision is hypothetically possible only in the narrow territorial limits of the West. In the East the strategy of lightning decision must necessarily fail.’

V

‘Please come immediately your vacation is over,’ said the invite from the wartime predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. ‘You shall be wanted here for an indefinite period on a consultative basis.’[31]  When Werner was hired by the O.S.S. in October 1942, Robinson’s Division at the O.S.S. “Chairborne” was working on a massive six-part strategic analysis of Soviet military potential. He was cited in that study as a military expert, the only scholar to have been cited by the division on military affairs. He was also the only civilian to have been hired by the O.S.S. specifically for military expertise. Werner was also the only civilian to have been invited to write for Military Review, the prestigious journal of the US General Staff School.[32] Initially, the O.S.S. wanted him to work exclusively with them under an oath of silence. But seeing the contribution he could make to informing the American public about the war, he was encouraged to write free-lance.[33] It is not clear if he continued to consult with US intelligence. He wrote for the New Republic, New York Compass, Kansas City Star and the San Francisco Chronicle. His syndicated column, “The Course of the War,” was carried by more than 90 papers. He would remain an important voice in the national security conversation until he succumbed to a heart attack in 1951.

Werner counseled that the Soviet Union would stay in the fight if the United States entered the war against Germany. He strongly advised launching a western front in a joint offensive with the Soviet Union. More generally, he advised a ‘strategy of coalition warfare’ and a US grand-strategy of a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union. For with German power vanquished, the Soviet Union was sure to emerge from the war as the dominant military power in Eurasia as army officials had already realized in the winter of 1941-1942. The alternative to raising a continental-style mass army was thus to establish good working relations with the Soviets.

He found sympathetic ears among the civilian analysts at the O.S.S. Their study of the Soviet Union at war had already prepared Robinson’s Division for Werner’s message. By the winter of 1942-1943, it has become clear that the Soviet Union would prevail against Germany. A modus vivendi with the Soviet Union became the idée fixe of Robinson’s Division. As the civilian intelligence analysts recommended later in October 1943, ‘given the measure of Russia’s power revealed in this war,’ there was no question that the Soviets had to be given ‘a coordinate place in a three-power scheme of world control’.[34]

The most important implication of these observations was that a cross-channel attack had to be launched sooner rather than later. Not because the Soviet Union was at risk of capitulation. No one now expected the Soviets to abandon the struggle at short notice. The issue now was not Soviet weakness but Soviet strength. For even if the Soviets could be trusted, with the Red Army in a position to overrun Europe, they would enjoy enormous leverage against the Western Allies. So a cross-channel attack was also crucial to the Western bargaining position in the negotiations then underway over ‘the three-power scheme of world control’.

While the O.S.S. developed its position, Werner was back in New York working on a new book. Attack Can Win in ’43 argued that the time had come to finish the job in Europe. A cross-channel attack coordinated with a Soviet offensive in the east would force the Germans to fight a two-front war. Even if the Allies did not reach Berlin by December, he argued, a military decision against Germany was within reach before the end of the year. And by relieving the Soviets, a western front would go a long way towards reaching a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile the peripheral campaign in North Africa that the British had forced on the Americans continued to drag on for months. It was in this context that the Americans reopened the question of a cross-channel attack with the British. Donovan sent Robinson to attend the secret Quebec conference in August 1943 where he impressed key decisionmakers with his analysis. It was here that Roosevelt finally prevailed upon Churchill to commit to a cross-channel attack no later than the summer of 1944.


[1] Anderson, Perry. American foreign policy and its thinkers. Verso Books, 2015. We follow Anderson in distinguishing between the discourses of US grand-strategy and academic realism. Our ‘allegations’ do not apply to the latter. Thirty-three doyens — including self-proclaimed offensive realists John J. Mearsheimer and Randall L. Schweller — published an advertisement in the New York Times on 26 September 2002 saying, ‘military force should be used only when it advances U.S. national interests. War with Iraq does not meet this standard.’ The editors placed the ad on page A29 next to Ken Pollack’s Op-Ed, “Why Iraq Can’t be Deterred”.

[2] Eg, Makers of Modern Strategy.

[3] This is one of the assumptions of the Chomsky-Herman model of the political economy of American mass media. See Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. Random House, 2010.

[4] On the Cold War as a hegemonic project of the United States see Stephanson, Anders. “Cold War Degree Zero.” In Isaac, Joel, and Duncan Bell, eds. Uncertain empire: American history and the idea of the Cold War. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[5] Slater, Jerome. “The domino theory and international politics: The case of Vietnam.” Security Studies 3, no. 2 (1993): 186-224.

[6] Karl Deutsch noted that “a nation’s feeling of insecurity expands directly with its power” which is “a kind of Parkinson’s law of national security.” Parkinson’s original formulation was a dig on bureaucracy: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

[7] For the authoritative treatment see Press, Daryl Grayson. Calculating credibility: How leaders assess military threats. Cornell University Press, 2005.

[8] Powell quoted in Kaysen, Carl, Robert S. McNamara, and George W. Rathjens. “Nuclear weapons after the Cold War.” Foreign Affairs, 70 (1990): 95. ‘Rogue states’ is the one that stuck. Isomorphic formulations included ‘backlash states’ (Lake) and ‘weapon states’ (Krauthammer). See Lorna S. Jaffe, The Development of the Base Force 1989–1992, Joint History Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (July 1993) pp.9–11; Michael Klare, Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America’s Search for a New Foreign Policy (NY: Hill and Wang 1995) pp.12–16.

[9] See an extended argument see Farooqui, Anusar. “Saddam Must Go”. Unpublished, 2014.

[10] See, in particular, Sherry, Michael S. The rise of American air power: The creation of Armageddon. Yale University Press, 1987. Over-reliance on the air weapon and technophilia more generally continue to plague US grand-strategy.

[11] “The Megadeath intellectuals.” New York Review of Books, 14 November 1963.

[12] Edgerton, David. England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines. Penguin UK, 2013; and Edgerton, David. Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[13] On the unraveling of the high neoliberal discourse that is still underway see Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a decade of financial crises changed the world. Penguin, 2018.

[14] Frieser, Karl-Heinz. The Blitzkrieg Legend. Naval Institute Press, 2013.

[15] High racialism played an extraordinary role through the midcentury century passage. German population policy was of course strongly informed by racial anthropology. Earlier, Chamberlain had vetoed a triple alliance that would’ve deterred Hitler because, as he explained in a letter to his sister, ‘I put as little value on Russian military capacity as I believe the Germans do.’ Above all, the catastrophic failure of Western intelligence on the eve of the German invasion reveals the hold of Germanic supremacism on the Western mind at midcentury.

[16] De Seversky, Alexander P. Victory through air power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942.

[17] As army intelligence put it. Quoted in Stoler, Mark A. Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and US Strategy in World War II. UNC Press Books, 2003.

[18] Allies and Adversaries, p. 71-83.

[19] Allies and Adversaries, p. 89. For a full discussion of American attempts to persuade the British of a cross-channel attack in 1942-1943, see p. 109-118.

[20] Ibid, p. 81, 112, 117.

[21] “MAX WERNER DIES; MILITARY ANALYST; Commentator for Papers Here Had Written Several Books on Theories of War Camps.” New York Times. 9 January 1951, p. 26.

[22] “Werner.” New Yorker. 4 September 1943, p. 12. “The Oracles of Mars.” New Yorker. 21 October 1950, p. 117.

[23] “War Prophet.” Collier’s. 2 October 1943, p. 21, continued on p. 63.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Winston Churchill to Max Werner, 11 May 1939. Max Werner Papers.

[27] Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, 2015.

[28] Spykman, Nicholas J. America’s strategy in world politics: the United States and the balance of power. Routledge, 2017. Cf. Mackinder, Halford John. “The geographical pivot of history.” Royal Geographical Society, 1904.

[29] Werner, Max. The military strength of the powers. London, Gollansz, 1939. Cf. Ivan Bloch. The Future of War in Its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations: Is War Now Impossible? Doubleday & McClure Company, 1899.

[30] There is no longer any disagreement in German historiography that Anglo-Saxon contribution to the defeat of the Wehrmacht was minor. Put bluntly, the Soviet Union defeated Germany. See Farooqui, Anusar. “Western perceptions of Soviet strength during the Soviet-German War”. Unpublished, 2017. And although the Americans managed to destroy a lot of Japanese cities, it was Zhukov’s encirclement of the Kwantung army in the largest operational maneuver of all time that actually undermined the army faction in Tokyo and thereby precipitated Japanese surrender. See the extraordinary detective work in Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the surrender of Japan. Harvard University Press, 2009.

[31] David Zablodowsky to Max Werner, 7 October 1942. Werner Papers.

[32] Colonel F.M. Barrows to Max Werner, 10 February 1943. Werner Papers.

[33] David Zablodowsky to Max Werner, 20 October 1942. Werner Papers.

[34] O.S.S./State Department Intelligence and Research Reports, Reel 1, Report 1. October 1943. Microform.

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