Strategy Applied: Gen. Albert Wedemeyer and the Victory Plan of 1941

I am sometimes distraught by how long it’s taking me to write my MS thesis. Considering that Albert Wedemeyer devised the U.S. Army’s World War II grand strategy, unit structure, equipment requirements, and general concept of operations, all in a period of about three months, that sentiment is probably justified. A monograph by Charles Kirkpatrick recounts how Wedemeyer accomplished this, providing a nice case study on how strategy is formulated in the real world.

In 1941, the War Plans Division was tasked with calculating the nation’s total manufacturing requirements for the coming war. The assignment was given to then-Major (later General) Albert Wedemeyer, who had an office, a small staff, and about ninety days to complete the job. After pondering the question for a time, Wedemeyer realized that his mission was much more complicated than first thought:

In order to deduce the nation’s ultimate production requirements, Wedemeyer concluded that the essential first task was to compute the size of the Army and Air Corps that the War Department would have to arm and equip. Size and composition of forces were functions of mission, however, and no one could estimate the size of military forces required without knowing the missions they would be ordered to execute. Missions depended upon military strategy, and in order to know the military strategy, Wedemeyer had first to know the national objective in the event of war … Wedemeyer therefore established for himself a series of questions to answer in order to accomplish his task:

1. What is the national objective of the United States?

2. What military strategy will be devised to accomplish the national objective?

3. What military forces must be raised in order to execute that military strategy?

4. How will those military forces be constituted, equipped, and trained?

America being America, the first question was the most difficult to answer. Even in 1941, the U.S. had no idea what its national objective was:

To his surprise, Wedemeyer ascertained that the government seemed to have no mechanism whatever for considering such paramount national policy problems or for answering them systemically. To Wedemeyer, it appeared that few men in Washington were even conscious of the fact that “supreme issues of war and peace required thorough analysis in the top echelons of the national government.” Government planning was short-term planning, aimed at accomplishing immediate goals, of which the ad hoc executive decision on the destroyers-for-bases deal was typical. Long-range planning to determine war goals for a peace favorable to the national interests of the United States seemed to be no one’s task. In 1941, few American leaders looked beyond the problem of militarily defeating future enemies [for better or worse, not much has changed since then]. (p. 61-62)

After some inconclusive interviews with U.S. foreign policy officials, including Henry Stimson, Wedemeyer came up with this mission statement: “to eliminate totalitarianism from Europe and, in the process, to be an ally of Great Britain; further, to deny the Japanese undisputed control of the western Pacific.” (p. 63)

The following question of military strategy identified Germany as the enemy to defeat first, but U.S. options were constrained by the issue of timing. In 1941, U.S. war planners were deathly afraid that Russian resistance would soon collapse, leaving Germany in control of Mackinder’s Eurasian “heartland.” If that happened, Germany would require about two years to stabilize and exploit its conquests and reconstitute its military capabilities for an invasion of the British Isles. Because the U.S. would require almost as much time to fully mobilize, Wedemeyer had to assume the worst case scenario of America continuing the war against Germany alone.

The first priority was to gain control of the oceans, the only way that U.S. power could be projected outside the hemisphere: “Without the ability to transport military formations in security and to maintain the lines of supply needed to keep them in action, all other propositions became meaningless.” (p. 74) A powerful navy and a substantial merchant fleet were prerequisites.

Next was air superiority, which would be a critical force multiplier against the superb German military, and would allow strategic bombardment to reduce the enemy’s industrial capacity and undermine the fabric of his society. Conscious of air power’s limitations, Wedemeyer understood it as necessary but not sufficient condition for victory; though unable to win the war by itself, air superiority would degrade the German army’s ability to maneuver on the European battlefield.

Finally, the U.S. required a network of encircling forward bases close to the European theater from which to launch operations against Germany. The specific details of these operations was outside the mandate of Wedemeyer’s study, but he had no illusions concerning what would deliver final victory, writing that “we must prepare to fight Germany by actually coming to grips with and defeating her ground forces and definitely breaking her will to combat.” (p.64)

…Wedemeyer saw that the United States and the Allies had to weaken the enemy by overextending and dispersing his armies. Concentration of forces brought victory. If the Allies could so threaten the Axis that it had to send reinforcements in many directions, then the eventual decisive attack would inevitably succeed, because the enemy could meet it with only a portion of his total strength. Attacks on enemy supplies of fuel and matériel and, most particularly, his transportation net, contributed to this end. Deterioration of the enemy’s national will on the home front might result from propaganda, subversion, deprivation of a reasonable standard of living, destruction of the fabric of the enemy’s society, and the chaos and public disorder that accompany such domestic conditions. Strategic bombing, planners expected, would attack the German national will just as it attacked the German industry and economy. Civilian and economic chaos would, in turn, diminish the effectiveness of the German military forces.

In sum, the United States had to adopt a military strategy that placed the bulk of American combat forces in contact with the enemy in the European theater. In order to accomplish this, the United States had to build and maintain armed forces capable of controlling the sea lanes of communications in two oceans; to fight a major land, sea, and air war in one theater; and to be sufficiently strong to deter war in the other. (p. 76-77)

Having defined the U.S. national objective, and the  general strategy to serve that objective, Wedemeyer moved on to the question of the ground forces that would be required. Critical to this was the number of men that the nation could mobilize without weakening its industrial capacity or undermining the cohesion of society itself:

Wedemeyer turned to historical examples of mobilization for precedents and closeted himself in the Library of Congress, where he studied all of the major wars since the time of Gustavus Adolphus. In the course of his survey, he discovered that roughly 10 percent of the total population of any nation could be taken into the armed forces without doing serious harm to the economy and social life of the nation.        (p. 78)

Thus, Wedemeyer calculated that the U.S. could put 12-14 million men under arms. From there, he moved on to detailed planning concerning the structure of the army. Even with tens of millions of men under arms, the US and Great Britain could not achieve the 2-1 numerical superiority that was traditionally considered a requirement for successful offensive operations. But by then the Army had long understood that mass alone does not deliver victory, but rather, mass at the critical place and time. A numerically inferior force could achieve this through maneuver and firepower, armor in particular being the instrumental platform. Analysis of German blitzkriegs in Poland, France, and Russia left Wedemeyer with no doubt as to the nature of the coming war. Thus, he designed an army that was heavily mechanized and composed of small, compact divisions that were in turn built from standardized regiments that could be easily shifted from one division to another without snarling command arrangements or logistics:

Ultimately, American divisions would fight in the high intensity European theater, where only armored and mechanized units had real offensive utility. Fewer of those units would suffice, if their value, in turn, were multiplied by powerful tactical air forces. Organizational economy could be gained by building divisions of different types and capabilities out of standard tactical units. To meet the threat of strong enemy armored forces and air forces, which WPD planners expected to be even more powerful by 1943, divisions required massive antitank, antiaircraft artillery, and field artillery reserves for support. Highly mobile logistical and service units sustained the divisions in battle. Finally, a smaller division, vastly greater in firepower than the old square division, was the more efficient tactical tool on a modern, fast-paced battlefield. (p. 90-91)

Wedemeyer believed “that the enemy can be defeated without creating the numerical superiority” traditionally required for success in battle. They key to victory lay in building efficient forces and using them effectively to achieve local force superiority. His basic plan involved creating powerful armored and mechanized task forces that could exploit this local superiority to strike violently and swiftly from well-prepared European bases to defeat the Germans in detail. Firepower, mobility, and air power would make up for manpower shortages. (p. 92)

The number of divisions that the Wedemeyer had to work with was estimated based on the manpower that would be available to ground forces after the Navy, Army Air Corps, and support units were properly manned. The remainder from a total manpower pool of 12 million allowed for 215 divisions, which Wedemeyer allocated into five different field armies, three tasked with offensive operations, and two functioning as the nation’s strategic reserve. More specific deployments were determined according to the larger war plan, with critical territories in the western hemisphere and both oceans receiving permanent garrisons.

Wedemeyer’s report was incorporated into a larger document that became known as the Victory Program. Of course, not all of its precepts were implemented by the United States; as the old cliché goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy (or with U.S. politicians). But it was an important point of departure for U.S. planning in the early years of the war, and it filled a strategy vacuum that had existed in a nation that retained strong isolationist sentiments.

What I find most interesting is the systematic – almost mechanical – process that he used to write the plan. Some subjective decisions were involved, but for the most part, Wedemeyer’s strategizing  required very little art; he could almost be likened to a computer searching for a solution to a mathematical equation, though with human controls that ensured a product of vastly higher quality than the “systems analysis” of the 1960s. Thus, Wedemeyer could be regarded as an archetype American strategist; a master of the physical variables of war, who applied men and metal to problems that had a more intangible origin, but achieved victory all the same [at least in this case].