‘The World Wars’ combined into an American tale

The History Channel’s “The World Wars” is an American-centric analysis of the two World Wars, looking at them as related events, 30 years of war in a continuous timeline from 1914 to 1945, but failing to provide similar clues to why we are still at war today.

Directed by John Ealer and narrated by Jeremy Renner, this documentary takes a personality driven approach but misses a few personalities.  Mixing dramatic reenactments with actors who aren’t particularly famous, with archival stills and footage and interviews with historians, authors and current and former prominent political figures (e.g. U.S. Senator John McCain, former U.S. general and Secretary of State Colin Powell and former British Prime Minister John Major).

While one might initially  be annoyed that Dan Berkey is playing Douglas MacArthur instead of the Gregory Peck (from the 1977 American biographical war flick “MacArthur”) or that we see Don Hartman as George S. Patton instead of George C. Scott (from the 1970 American biographical movie “Patton”). In this series a choice was made to have the historical figures portrayed by two different actors–a younger version and an older version (e.g. Prescott Hathaway plays a younger version of MacArthur and Matt Dearman plays the young version of Patton). This further weans us away from our prejudicial movie icons and the movies that mixed those cinematic images in our minds.

This is a three-part mini-series divided up into “Trial by Fire,” “A Rising Threat” and “Never Surrender.”  The series opens with a quote from Winston Churchill, “One must regard these 30 years of strife in Europe as part of one story…one story of a 30 years’ war.” We are introduced to Churchill and other figures who will rise to prominence during World War II: Charles De Gaulle, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Hideki Tojo.

World War I began with the assassination (of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and ends with treaty talks that ignore the input of the Japanese delegation and insult the Italians while oppressing the Germans to an extent that almost guarantees the second World War.

Originally divided into three segments, the first is “Trial by Fire” and looks at World War I and how many of the future military leaders for the subsequent World War learned about modern warfare. “A Rising Threat” looks at the desperation of an art student who failed to get into the study program of his choice as he then turns to politics.

“Never Surrender” concludes with the fighting of World War II, but fails to shine a light on certain allies.

The original alliance against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria (Central Powers), was the Triple Entente: the British Empire, the French Republic and the Russian Empire. Japan joined in 1914, a one after the assassination, Italy joined a year later, and the United States joined in 1917.  The Japanese mobilized more personnel than Australia (412, 953), Belgium (267,000) Greece (230,000) and Canada (628,964) with 800,000, but they suffered a much lower percentage of casualties. Their percentage of death was less than 1 percent while the U.S. had 7 percent.

At negotiating table for the Treaty of Versailles were the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan. Russia had negotiated a separate peace treaty. “The World Wars” does note that Italy and Japan were not well treated and the Japanese delegation left. Importantly, this series focuses on the Japanese delegation’s  request for racial equality and how this was impossible because of the general policies that supported empire building.

Great Britain’s Commonwealth began to wonder who put the great in Great Britain. The notion that there was a disregard for the lives of soldiers from different nations but fighting under the British, created disillusionment and eventually national pride in countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Newfoundland (which joined Canada). India and Nigeria were also aware of the fragile hold that the United Kingdom actually had on them and the consideration of race would not be lost on them. Further, a large segment of Ireland would become independent of the United Kingdom (in 1919).  These are important considerations that the mini series doesn’t cover. The U.S. never ratified the Treaty of Versailles.

The Ottoman Empire also had to be dealt with and this wasn’t covered in the Treaty of Versailles, but was dealt with in the Treaty of Sevres. Russia was excluded and the U.S. had withdrawn by the time this treaty was signed (August 1920). The victorious allies involved were  Great Britain, France and Italy. Great Britain and France dominated the terms of the treaty, mostly because they had secretly met three years before and signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Great Britain took over Palestine and Iraq. France was given Syria, Lebanon and South Anatolia. Italy was again marginalized.

While the Treaty of Versailles allowed the crippled Weimar German to run its own economy, the Ottoman Empire lost control of its finances and economy–only France, Italy and Great Britain could be debt bondholders. The treaty didn’t deal with Kurdistan which was divided up into Turkey and Iraq.

In Iraq, Great Britain was allowed generous oil concessions because the Turkish Petroleum Company, later changed to the Iraq Petroleum Company, was British-controlled. This is an important point to remember because Japan was an island nation like Great Britain and to build empire, to support industrialization and be part of the industrial revolution it needed oil.

Egypt was at this time under British occupation since 1882. Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt in 1914, but Egypt declared independence in 1922. The British didn’t withdraw 1956 when it attempted to wage war against Egypt for the Suez Canal, but found the international community did not support continued British control over the canal and backed down.

This explains why the allies met at the Cairo Conference (22-26 November 1943), but it doesn’t explain why this history series ignores this historic meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-dong are not discussed if they are even mentioned at all in this mini-series.

Notably, Stalin didn’t attend the conference because Chiang was there and it would have voided the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941. The Soviet Union was not at war with Japan. China, the U.K. and the U.S. were.

Two days later, Stalin did meet in Tehran with Roosevelt and Churchill and this is covered in the mini series. To today’s viewers the site of the meeting might seem strange, given the modern day animosity of Iran toward the United States, but this is not explained in the mini-series either. Iran had fought against the Russians and the British in their attempts to defeat and colonize in the 1800s. It lost territory in the Russo-Persian and the Anglo-Persian wars. During World War I, the British took over much of Western Iran.

Reza Khan became the shah of Iran in 1921, but following the Anglo-Soviet invasion, he was forced to abdicate in favor of his son who became shah under a British and Soviet controlled state. This established the Persian Corridor, a supply route through Iran and between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Middle East. In 1953, an Anglo-American coup overthrew the popularly elected prime minister of Iran.

The situation in Iran wasn’t unlike what happened in the Philippines. The Spanish-American War might have begun in Cuba, but it extended to the Philippines. The First Philippine Republic was established in 1898, but defeated in the Philippine-American War. The islands had been ceded to the U.S. 1898.

Many of the decisions made by the United States in its policies toward Japan had to do with China. Many of the actions of Japan were a consequence of empire building in a manner similar to another island nation–Great Britain. Oil, without imports from the U.S., where would Japan get its oil?

Perhaps much of the anger toward Americans and the British in the Middle East arises from the carving up of West Asia, North Africa and East Asia by European nations.

Race was an issue in World War II, beyond Hitler’s claim of superiority. To its credit, this mini-series points out one instance–at the Treaty of Versailles, but the importance of equality, is not fully delineated. Japan as a nation was under economic pressure from the unequal treaties it had been forced to sign as was China. This along with extraterritoriality issues contrasting a lack of reciprocity shown in the unequal treatment of its nationals in the countries of its allies, turned public opinion against America and Great Britain.

Race might also be an issue in the Middle East where Arabs and Persians fought against Hitler, but didn’t receive independence. The rise of Chiang Kai-Shek and his eventual flight from the communists under Mao Tse-dong have a place in the history of World War II.  Chiang served in the Imperial Japanese Army and he studied in Moscow. In 1933, he was on the cover of Time Magazine.

With the rise of China into prominence the omission of China as an ally in the World Wars is particularly short-sighted.

“The World Wars” is available as a 2-disc collection (“World War I: The World Changed Them” and “World War II: They Changed the World”) from the History Channel.

You can also try Michael Kloft’s World War II documentaries:





  1. This is a very interesting and informative article.
    But the Anglo-American coup against Mohammed Mosaddegh was in 1953, not 1951 (Eisenhower, not Truman).


    • Thank you for catching my error. I changed 1951 to 1953 and was confused because at first I thought you had a point about the presidents, but realized I hadn’t mentioned either Eisenhower or Truman.


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