The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is about to discuss “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.” I promised that if it was selected, I would share Gene’s story about how he came to write it.
Gene lived a few blocks away from us and would come over for dinner on occasion. One time after enjoying the meal, the talk turned, as it inevitably does, to World War II. Gene told us about the time he was commissioned by Ben Bova to write a story for Analog based on an illustration by Frank Kelly Freas. There was one little problem; the illustration showed Hitler trying to sell a car to Churchill.
Gene agreed to take on the challenge and wrote “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.” The story went on to be nominated for a 1974 Nebula.
Later, Gene asked Bova why he was selected to write the story. Bova said that because of the subject of Freas’ drawing, he was having problems finding someone to agree to do the writing. So Bova got out the directory of SFWA members, started with the A’s, and worked his way down…
Thanks for the podcast, which was enjoyable and thought-provoking as always. I think this might have been the first Wolfe story I read, back when it originally appeared in Analog in 1973 - I was a regular reader of Analof, F&SF, and Worlds of If back then. A lot of the political jokes and historical references went over my 15 year old head, but I remember enjoying it. One of the gags that you probably noticed but didn't have time to comment on is that the journal "All New and Logical, Original Games" to which the narrator is writing is, of course, an acronym for ANALOG. Analog was one of the most "hard SF" pro-technology magazines of the era, especially under John W, Campbell, and would have seemed a good fit for Wolfe, who combined literary skill with a professional knowledge of technology and engineering. But I don't think he actually had many more stories in there - I will have to check the ISFDB to see if he published anything else there. The podcast's comments on the current debate between globalism and protectionism, internationalism and nationalism is spot on. I was curious as to who "Lansbury" was meant to be, and suspect it was George Lansbury, the head of the Labour Party in the 1930s. Lansbury was strongly pacifist and opposed British rearmament in the face of the developing German threat (and in fact advocated for unilateral disarmament for all nations), so it was cheeky of Wolfe to make him the narrator's avid wargaming colleague. Re stephenfrug's comments above, I agree that it always a little disconcerting to see references to Hitler in pop culture, and alternative world stories in particular, that don't reference his antisemitism and the Shoah - but such references would have felt out of place in this story, which has a lighter humorous tone for all its darker humor references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fritz Leiber dealt with this in an interesting alt-history short story, "Catch That Zepellin!" I have a hard time considering Truman's escalation of WWII into our first (and I hope last) nuclear war as a war crime. My father was a young sailor on one of the Navy ships that were preparing for an invasion of the Japanese mainland, after the Navy and Marines had already suffered heart-breaking casualties in the earlier campaigns against Japanese-held territory, and no one expected amphibious and airborne landings in Japan, as well as naval and aircraft attacks, to involve anything less than massive loss of U.S. military personnel and both the military and civilian personnel of Japan. Arguably, it is likely that my dad would have been killed in the planned attack, and so neither I, nor my sisters, nor my children would ever have been born. I appear to owe my existence to the atom bomb.
Great story, fascinating discussion.
What struck me about it, and the story, were basically political points so, trigger warning: politics.
I would like to dissent, slightly, from your discussion of protectionism. I agree that that's a large part of what the story is about, but in real life the politics of it are kind of muddled, and I think your discussion didn't quite untangle it. What's complicated is that the issue of protectionism doesn't line up along right/left lines as do (these days) most politics; there are critics of free trade on both sides, albeit for different reasons. You say that "protecting the worker" sounds leftish, which is true (including in 1973) if you mean workers' rights, but protectionism for economic reasons can be found on the right, largely in a herrenvolk mode, "America First" (the slogan not only of Trump but of the largest right-wing isolationist party before WW2, with strong Nazi sympathies). And I think it further muddles the issue of the 1970s economic slump to talk about it as either we do protectionism or we let the steelbelt rust. The politics are just... more complicated than that. The main issue in the 70s was inflation, which was most fundamentally caused by the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. But it was also the moment when neoliberalism in the Thatcher/Reagan mold began to take over, unions began to be hard hit, etc. There was a lot going on beyond protectionism. (There is a rich & growing body of historical work in this area; on this issue in particular I'd recommend Judith Stein's Pivotal Decade.) Perhaps the best way to put it is that in certain sectors of the right — particularly the social/religious right that Wolfe identified primarily with (and which is ascendant under Trump), as opposed to the free market right, protectionism often stands instead of worker's rights, not as workers rights: it's a business-friendly (at least American-business friendly, and moreso in the 70s, before globalization made business even harder to do under protectionist regimes and parts were made everywhere) that helps workers through trickle-down.
(I have drifted off topic but I want to add one note before moving on: you mention the decline of manufacturing jobs. One might ask why manufacturing was so important specifically. And there are two (complexly interrelated) answers to that. One is that manufacturing jobs are, traditionally, union jobs: they come with good pay, benefits, a dignified life. Often when people miss "manufacturing" what they are missing, without knowing it, is unions. Those unions, of course, were largely destroyed by the neoliberalism just beginning its rise in 1973, and were viciously (and successfully) fought by the right. The other answer is more complex, but it has to do with a particular cultural image of manufacturing which is coded working-class, white and male. Many new jobs — which, if unionized, might be good jobs — are coded non-white and/or female: service jobs, care work, etc. Another reasons unions failed were their internal racism and sexism, which hindered their ability to think about the working class as more than plant manufacturers. (On this, see Jefferson Cowie's superb Stayin' Alive.) A very different sort of conservatism, but one which has linked with religious conservatism in today's politics. Unions, meanwhile, have finally gotten the message on expanding to women and non-whites (non-whites have been in unions for a long time, and in white unions broadly since the CIO in the 1930,s of course, but I'm talking cultural perception here, not reality), but possibly too late. We'll see.)
The other political angle on this story which I want to talk about, and this is one you didn't cover in your discussion, is Hitler. I found the story oddly and slightly disturbingly normalizing of Hitler. It's simply weird for me to see talk of Hitler without any single mention of his antisemitism, which was fundamental to his outlook and politics. (It's in his writings and speeches in the 1920s.) Imagining him as simply a head-of-state seems a bit... whitewashing. The Nuremberg laws were promulgated in 1935; are we to assume they happened in this alternate reality, or not? If not, how are we imagining Hitler not pursuing those policies? It would be easier to swallow if we were shown some altered event that had changed Hitler fundamentally which caused the alternate timeline, but we aren't. Even more, it would be easier for me to imagine a Germany doing the sort of thing Wolfe shows it doing if someone else were leading it. Of course this wouldn't be as fun and striking as this story, which is I assume why Wolfe did it. (Well, that and the origin story in the illustration that Michael Frasca talks about above!) But the result of that genuinely innocent process is a story that reads, to me, oddly and even as a bit disturbing. (While I was listening to the episode I saw a reference to Pat Buchanan's book Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, which sort of suggests to me why the political effect of normalizing Hitler & imagining away the war is disturbing.)
A few more random thoughts:
• The main worries about Japan taking everything over, IMS, were in the 80s. I think Wolfe is being prescient.
• One question that jumped out at me, which you didn't address, was why the USSR and the US were left off of the list of countries assigned to Landsbury early in the story. I suppose this is simply because in real life the US and the USSR entered the war later, but does Wolfe ever mention a mechanism for adding countries to one's side?
• If you're going to point out, via Stalingrad, that the USSR was fighting very differently from the US, you ought to also mention they were doing so under very different conditions: they were invaded by the bulk of the Nazi army, they were nearly conquered, and their losses were unthinkable, far more than any other combatant. Lord knows how the US would react under similar circumstances.
• Also, I don't think it's true that the US ignored Russian crimes after the war. We did during the war, certainly, but the anti-communist atmosphere returned immediately after its end (some historians argue it came back before its end, tracing the use of the atomic bombs to post-war positioning vis-a-vis Russia; I wouldn't go that far, but it was definitely on people's minds). It was a big issue in the 1946 elections.
• I had the same thought that Glenn did, that we live in the board game; but I found Brandon's argument against it convincing.
• While I'm critiquing the politics of the story, I should mention that making the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki an intrusion from beyond the game-world (rather than, say, an innovation (as allowed in the game) which won it) is, while admittedly funny, quite the whitewashing of what was arguably a terrible war crime committed by the U.S.
Although I haven’t had the opportunity to read this story, I greatly enjoyed the podcast. Your discussion about diplomacy makes me think of the naval treaties that were enacted between the world wars. In this era ships, especially battleships, were the super weapons of the day. A number of treaties were signed amongst all of the naval powers of the time to try and limit the number of ships to prevent an arms race. All of these treaties were written in favor of the British and Americans much to the disgust of other powers. The idea that diplomacy is designing the game to win the one race is an apt comparison when the long term consequences are not considered.
The idea of America using its money to rebuild destroyed economies has always been controversial. I believe that the main argument for doing this was to prevent the same economic situations that existed after WW1 that directly led to the rise of Nazism and Facism. Although an argument can be made that these countries economicaly outdid the US, a case can also be made they are our main partners in resisting being overtaken by the emergent Chinese economy.
Wow, that's a great story, and it speaks volumes to Wolfe's ability to win any writing-prompt challenge, because this tale is a real masterpiece of political commentary.