“The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong timeand with the wrong enemy.” This judgment was famously rendered by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, while testifying before Congress in May 1951. The specific question at hand was whether it was strategically advisable to seek victory in the Korean War by expanding operations into China; but Bradley’s response suggests a general line of inquiry about how a nation can best establish, and change, its strategic priorities.

Strategy is in large part about determining the right place, time, and enemy to fight, or prepare to fight. For great powers in particular, this means placing relatively greater emphasis on some places, times, and enemies than on others, but the strategic calculation typically proves to be a dynamic one. The right war can become the wrong war, and vice versa, sometimes in mid-stream. So-called lesser interests and secondary threats must be accounted for, even as one strives to defend core interests and deal with primary threats. Priorities can change due to alterations in domestic circumstances, strategic conditions, and available resources. Sometimes one does not have a choice. If a great power decides to alter its ranking of interests and threats, it must sequence the shift properly to avoid creating “windows of opportunity” for adversaries, and to prevent the demoralization of its allies. It must also recognize the possibility of unintended consequences. Whether the shift takes place during peacetime, in the midst of a crisis, or during war, also matters.

The Obama Administration’s recent discussion of an American “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region—what officials prefer to term a “strategic rebalancing”—raises all these issues. Pivoting toward something means pivoting away from something else; or, if one prefers, rebalancing involves moving weights from one scale to another. Although the Obama Administration’s proposed addition to the U.S. defense establishment in Asia is relatively modest, the United States clearly intends to signal a change in U.S. strategic priorities and America’s assessment of global interests and threats. The pivot to Asia does not necessarily mean that the United States is abandoning or jeopardizing its commitment to other regions. The Obama Administration has concluded, for instance, that the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan—both of which are said to reflect improvement in strategic conditions in the Middle East and Central Asia, or at least the judgment that the state of affairs there matters less to the United States—will free up resources to meet more pressing needs and exploit new opportunities. The administration also believes that successful diplomacy, for example with Iran, will reduce the demands on the U.S. military and further ease the transition.

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Perhaps the classic case of a strategic pivot in peacetime was that of Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Faced with the growing militarization and the hardening of hostile alliances in Europe and particularly with rising fears of a possible naval race Germany, London decided to refocus its strategic attention on the continent by concentrating its battle fleet in home waters and in the Mediterranean. Even with the planned expansion of the Royal Navy this meant withdrawing capital ships from other regions of the world. London did not propose to abandon the overseas empire as a result of this strategic pivot, however. Britain reached formal and informal understandings with two rising powers, Japan and the United States, which protected its immediate interests in East Asia and the Western Hemisphere.

The great pivot, or strategic rebalancing, worked in the short term. Although Britain was unable to deter the outbreak of war in Europe, the Royal Navy dominated the lines of strategic communication that helped determine the outcome of World War I. The British Empire remained intact and even expanded in the Middle East. In the longer term, however, the pivot cleared the way for Japan to challenge all the Western powers in Asia, in large part because it undermined Britain’s economic and political standing among the indigenous peoples (a trend that was abetted, if only indirectly, by the U.S.’s anti-colonial ideology). The weakening of Britain due to the war prevented London from pivoting back seriously to Asia to shore up its position against the growing threat of Japan.

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The case of Korea cited above is also instructive. In January 1950, six months before the North invaded the South, Secretary of State Dean Acheson publicly remarked that the American defense perimeter in East Asia and the Pacific was based offshore, along an island chain that ran “along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus [and]…to the Philippine Islands.” Acheson implicitly excluded from the defensive perimeter the southern portions of Korea, which American combat forces had occupied after the Japanese surrender in 1945 (and from which they had recently been withdrawn).

Acheson’s strategic logic, which was also that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assumed that in a general war with the Soviet Union, Korea was not of vital strategic interest to the United States. The continent of Asia would not be the primary or decisive theater in a global war, nor would newly-Communist China be the main enemy. The United States would hold the line in the Pacific, defending Japan and the rest of the strategic island chain, while meeting Soviet aggression and defeating the USSR primarily along the European-Mediterranean-Middle Eastern axis through the use of strategic airpower (which, at this time, had to be forward-based primarily in those regions to reach the Soviet Union) and through military counter-offensives that would threaten the Soviet industrial-economic heartland east of the Urals. The Truman Administration sent such signals in order to deter the Soviet Union from general war as well as to reassure key allies who were within the U.S. defense perimeter.

When the Korean War broke out, the Truman Administration judged that Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, must have been operating under the orders, and certainly with the consent, of the Soviet Union and China; and therefore that the North’s attack represented deliberate military aggression by the Communist bloc against the free world. Revisionist historians in the West later advanced the argument that the violence in Korea was actually a civil war between two nationalist factions; that if anyone had provoked war, it was South Korea’s Syngman Rhee; and that the superpowers had been drawn into the war unwillingly and unknowingly by their supposed clients. After 1989, documentary evidence from Communist archives and testimony from former Soviet and Chinese officials (with all the caution that must be given to such sources) indicated that both Stalin and Mao were aware and approved of Kim’s attack on the South, although they approved for very different reasons.

Acheson did not mean to address the possibility that the Soviets and Chinese might use North Korea as a proxy to fight alimited war with ostensibly limited objectives (the reunification of Korea under Communist rule). He did not anticipate that his statement might be taken by the Communist powers as a green light for such an attack. Once the shooting started, U.S. strategic calculations, if not its priorities, shifted rapidly. The Truman Administration concluded that the impending collapse of South Korea would have catastrophic regional and even global implications. To let things stand in Korea would ignore the lesson that the Allies had drawn from the pre-World War II period—that even limited aggression by totalitarian states must be resisted. The fall of Korea would threaten Japan’s shaky political position in the American security system as well as undermine the credibility of the American defense guarantees in other regions. The West Germans, for example, were still outside of the nascent NATO alliance, while their former countrymen were being reorganized as a Soviet puppet state. The new government in Bonn surely could not ignore the fact that a Communist client elsewhere had forcibly reunited a nation and imposed Communist rule, all without effective American resistance.

Even so, the administration did not rethink its basic strategic logic—that the Soviet Union was the principal enemy and that Europe and its flanks were the decisive theater. The United States suspected that the attack in Korea was intended by the Soviets as a strategic diversion. They therefore did not pivot to Asia, in the sense of moving the defense perimeter forward to encompass the mainland of Asia; or expand the objective of the Korean War to punish or overthrow the Chinese Communists. (Some leading American conservatives did favor a pivot to Asia, and “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Nationalists against the mainland.) The United States instead undertook a deliberately limited military holding action in Korea, with the political aim of negotiations that would restore the status quo of a peninsula divided along the 38th parallel. The Truman Administration’s major rearmament efforts were focused on expanding U.S. strategic nuclear offensive and defensive forces and shoring up the conventional defenses of Europe and associated regions. These steps included putting the “O” (organization) into the North Atlantic Treaty, permanently deploying American combat troops to the continent, and bringing Greece and Turkey into NATO.

The momentum of successful military operations, as noted below, often creates an offensive dynamic with unexpected political-strategic repercussions, sometimes welcome, other times not. After the successful landing at Inchon in September 1950, American-led United Nations forces raced towards the Yalu River, and the Truman Administration embraced the goal of a creating a unified, pro-Western Korea. That is a goal the administration would not have set had it anticipated the major Chinese Communist intervention that took place in late 1950. As General Bradley later testified, the United States was not looking to become involved in a major war with China in Asia. Once the Chinese offensive in Korea was fought off, the administration reverted to its original objective, which was to show that limited Communist aggression would and could be resisted successfully.

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Several important new general histories of World War II remind us that, under the pressure of total war, both planned “pivots” and ad hoc shifts in priorities can have unexpected consequences. These works include Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World At War, 19391945; Andrew Roberts’s The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, and Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. What emerges from these histories is the fact that Hitler was a supreme political opportunist rather than a great military strategist. The operational effectiveness of Germany’s coercive diplomacy before the war, and its blitzkrieg tactics in the war’s early stages, masked the strategic incoherence of the Nazi regime. Hitler’s early seizure of the military initiative did shape the basic course of the war and provided Germany with strategic options, including the ability to change priorities and shift forces between theaters, which the other great powers initially lacked. Hitler failed to understand, however, the need to sequence wartime operations properly to reflect changing circumstances. As a result, he wound up uniting the world’s great industrial powers (save Japan) against him.

Given Germany’s precarious geographic position in the center of Europe, Hitler always claimed to understand the need to avoid a two-front war; or, differently put, he desired the ability to focus on one front at a time. His initial wartime strategy reflected this. After Germany gained what it could diplomatically from the Western democracies, Hitler chose to placate the Soviets through the partition of Poland, which was brought about through coordinated military action with Stalin. He also reached a general spheres-of-influence agreement with the Soviets over the rest of Eastern Europe. Hitler then turned massively against France and Britain in an effort to knock them out of the war before pivoting back to settle scores with Stalin and to create his ultimate goal of a German imperium in the East.

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In the event, Germany shattered France but did not eliminate Britain as an active adversary, either through invasion of the British Isles or through negotiations. Here Germany’s sense of strategic priorities broke down. Hitler decided to pivot back to the East because, as Hastings puts it, he didn’t have anything better to do (or at least he couldn’t think of anything better to do). Before doing so, according to conventional strategic analysis, Hitler allowed himself to fritter away time and resources in secondary theaters, the Balkans and the Middle East, which resources should have been conserved for the Russian invasion.

Hastings and Roberts however make the case that after destroying France, Hitler’s best course of action was indeed to pivot away from Britain proper—but to turn to the Middle East, not to Russia, and to concentrate on the destruction of the British Empire first. (Here we enter the slippery slope of historical counterfactuals. The problem with exploring alternative paths is that we are allowed to alter one fact—for example, Hitler decides to focus on the Middle East in 1940-1941 rather than on the Soviet Union—while holding all variables constant, as if they were independent, when in fact they are usually interdependent. That said, the use of counterfactuals is often the best way to try to isolate the strategic decisions and conditions that matter the most.) Germany should have postponed Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) and diverted overwhelming force to drive the British from Egypt, the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq. This would have put Germany in a position to threaten India in conjunction with Japan. As Roberts argues, Hitler could then have waited a year or two to prepare Operation Barbarossa, which now would include an attack from the south as well as from the west. The Germans would have been able to seize the critical oilfields in the Caucasus rapidly, from a distance of a few hundred rather than a thousand miles, while the main German forces drove on to Moscow. In the east, Japan could have solved its strategic dilemma by attacking the Soviet Union instead of the United States, thereby obtaining vital oil from Siberia rather than the Dutch East Indies.

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Hastings concludes that a serious German pivot to the Middle East likely would have succeeded given Britain’s straightened circumstances, the poor performance of British ground forces, and the fact that United States was not then in the war. Instead, with his single-minded focus on Barbarossa, Hitler dribbled forces grudgingly into the Mediterranean, essentially to bail out Mussolini’s inept efforts to create an Italian empire in North Africa (and the Balkans) and to save German prestige once the Wehrmacht was engaged in this theater. Hastings suggests perceptively that the greatest strategic value of such a successful German campaign in the Middle East, setting aside those outlined above, was that it probably would have brought down the Churchill government, and with it the British policy of fighting on. The Americans, in turn, would have lost faith in Britain as a viable ally, just as it had lost faith in France, even if London did not formally settle with the Germans. In this strategic formulation the defeat of Churchill’s leadership should have been the schwerpunkt of the German pivot towards the Middle East.

The defeat of Britain in the Middle East, and the fall of Churchill, may well have rendered moot one of the most important strategic choices made by the United States, that of “Germany first.” Well before America entered World War II, U.S. military planners and leading civilian officials had concluded that Germany, not Japan, represented the most serious threat to American security, by reason of geography and the comparative resources available to the two potential enemies. In the event of war with both allied dictatorships the United States would devote the bulk of its military power to the Atlantic-European theater, while maintaining the strategic defensive against Japan in the Pacific. After the defeat of Germany, the United States would then pivot its forces for a decisive counteroffensive in the Pacific. The strategic concept of Germany first seems rather straightforward, but its implementation proved to be complicated. The following observations necessarily simplify the story (with apologies to World War II aficionados), but suffice it to say that the ebb and flow of the war meant that the relative and absolute commitment of resources between the two major theaters remained in flux. This affected in turn the ability of the United States to achieve its wartime and postwar objectives.

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The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shocked and angered the American public, so much so that a less resolute national leadership might have reconsidered its priorities and pivoted to Asia. The U.S. Navy, for example, might have been ordered to mount a major effort to save the Philippines. Public pressure to focus on the Pacific surely would have grown if Hitler had not vastly simplified President Roosevelt’s position by declaring war on the United States. Even though the United States decided to stay the Germany first course, the rapidity of the Japanese advances threatened to undermine American plans to stabilize a defensive perimeter in the Pacific, from which the future counteroffensive could be launched. Meanwhile, Chinese forces, supplied by the United States, would tie down the bulk of the Japanese Army on the mainland. The security of Hawaii and Australia, both pillars of the American defensive perimeter, seemed in serious jeopardy in the spring and summer of 1942. If they were lost, the costs and time needed to win in the Pacific would increase dramatically. Then, too, the United States did not deploy American ground forces across the Atlantic until late 1942, with a relatively limited invasion of North Africa (the British vetoed American plans to prepare for an emergency cross-Channel invasion to divert German forces if the Soviets appeared on the verge of collapse).

As a result both of unexpected dangers in the Pacific and of temporarily restricted opportunities for active combat in Europe, relatively more U.S. troops, ships, and aircraft were available for the war against Japan than might have been expected from a strict implementation of a Germany first strategy. And once the United States halted the Japanese advance in 1942 and established a workable defensive perimeter the operational momentum of local victories created opportunities for American strategic counteroffensives against overextended Japanese forces. The natural tendency in such circumstances is to reinforce success, and so additional U.S. resources flowed into the Pacific theater (although never as much as the theater commanders desired). The American campaign actually developed into two major offensive thrusts, in the Central as well as in the Southern Pacific, with predictable competing demands for additional resources.

To complicate matters further, whenever British and American military planners disagreed over the proper strategy to employ in Europe, the United States had a trump card to play—the threat to pivot to the Pacific if it did not get its way. Some senior U.S. Navy officers favored doing so, on the merits. Roosevelt, however, a convinced Atlanticist, chose not to press things that far, and the gradual American buildup in the European theater eventually tilted things the president’s way.

In Europe, once the Russian front stabilized, the British and Americans judged it unnecessary and excessively risky to plan a major cross-Channel invasion in 1943. Once more, the United States temporarily had surplus resources (in relative terms) to devote to the Pacific, especially as the American industrial base had ramped up massively. However, as Hastings argues, at some point in the war against Japan it made strategic sense to shut down major amphibious and ground operations against fortified Japanese islands, particularly once the United States had secured locations that brought its bombers and submarines within effective range of Japan. The United States could then have focused on air and naval operations to starve out the Japanese in the home islands and in their isolated garrisons throughout the Pacific. If it proved necessary to mount an invasion of Japan, the occupation of staging points could have waited until the European theater had been closed down successfully and after Japanese defenses were further weakened. This would have meant, for instance, avoiding or postponing the costly invasion of the Philippines and perhaps Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

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But as Hastings points out, battles, once engaged, develop their own reason for being, not only for the commanders involved but also for the peoples at home (think of the symbolism of the bloody Battle of Verdun in World War I). The American public hardly would have understood why the island-hopping campaign had deliberately been brought to a halt while Japan was still actively fighting. Given Douglas MacArthur’s mystique as a brilliant general (vastly overblown, in Hastings’s opinion) and his political influence at home, he probably could not have been denied the opportunity to make good his promise to return to the Philippines, whatever the cost and lack of strategic benefits. Nations need heroes and myths. What does this have to do with the matter of priorities and pivots? In gross material terms, it turned out that the United States had the luxury of conducting simultaneous offensive operations in widely separated geographic regions without having to abandon the Germany first strategy. There were certain critical military assets, however—especially high-quality infantry and landing craft—that were in limited supply in both theaters. In 1944 the United States badly needed those assets in Europe, especially when unexpected opportunities opened up in August-September 1944 to bring about the complete collapse of German defenses in the west. The lead time needed to transfer forces across the vast distances precluded any rapid movement from the Pacific to Europe to take advantage of this opportunity (and local commanders would have objected strenuously in any case).

Hastings acknowledges that even if the United States had enforced the Germany first standard more strenuously, it is hardly a sure thing that this would have made enough of a difference to win the European war before Christmas 1944—while Soviet forces were still hundreds of miles from Berlin, and before Churchill and Roosevelt had reached agreements with Stalin about the disposition of Germany and Eastern Europe. If things had developed that way, however, the post-war configuration of Europe and the shape of the Cold War, if any, may have played out very differently.