Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trading with the enemy

One of the more surprising things I've learned in my recent study of the War of 1812 was that, before the war, America was a major supplier of grain to Wellington's army in Portugal and Spain...and that this commerce continued DURING the war, with the approval of both governments. The British kept buying because their Peninsular army needed to eat, and a series of bad harvests in Europe around that time made America the most reliable supplier available. And the Americans kept selling because the government didn't want to turn its farmers against the war by depriving them of a valuable market for their crops. Also, just because they were at war with Britain didn't make them allied with France, and they were perfectly happy to help keep the bulk of Britain's army and its best commander in the field in Europe, fighting someone else. Makes sense, once you understand their reasoning.

However, in reading Adam Hochschild's book on World War I, To End All Wars, I discovered a far more baffling case of trading with the enemy. The British, you see, found themselves short of binoculars for their officers and NCOs, and lacking the capacity to manufacture them quickly, since it wasn't an industry they specialized in. At the same time, the British naval blockade cut the Germans off from their sources of rubber, also an important military commodity by that time. Germany, however, was well set up to make binoculars. So they set up a top-secret trade. Um...Whiskey? Tango? Foxtrot? Actively trading military technology with your direct enemy in a war brutal beyond example?

(Though I can't confirm the truth of the WWI story. Hochschild's research seems thorough to me, but googling turns up nothing but debates over whether it really happened. I hope it didn't, because WWI really doesn't need another level of senselessness. Sure, the War of 1812 was as pointless a conflict as was ever fought, but at least it was relatively small-scale, and the combatant nations have been at peace ever since. As for World War I...well, the British had more casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme than they had regular soldiers in the War of 1812. And we all know how well the Treaty of Versailles worked out...)


  1. I just yesterday read that Goering was selling guns to Republican Spain in 1937-8, while he was also the commander of the Luftwaffe, which sent the Condor Legion to fight for the Nationalists. So--selling guns to people who wanted them to kill HIS OWN GUYS. He mostly shipped them bad guns at inflated prices though.

  2. You must discuss your War of 1812 research with Mr. Richland next time you see him. We have spirited cross-border discussions regarding who won -- apparently they teach history differently in Ontario! Imagine that! (And did you see the NY Times piece that NY is not going to do anything to mark the 200th anniversary?)

    But I digress from the question that brought me to actually post both here and on Facebook - do you have any suggestions about children's books that touch on Wellington, Napoleon, or Waterloo? We've read Victory by Susan Cooper, which is told by one of Nelson's cabin boys. But I can't track down anything about Waterloo that would be good to read to the small people. Do you know anything?

  3. Anna, I really can't think of anything, since it's not something I learned about as a child myself. Most of what I have is nonfiction, and it's kind of a gory subject for the littles.

  4. If you want a really hair-curling read, there's a book, Trading With The Enemy, about all the US firms that did business with Hitler all through the war (whether from pragmatic profit motives or sympathy with the fascist vision).