If you’ve seen the movie “Oppenheimer,” which you should — trust me, it’s gripping even though it’s three hours long and you know how the story ends — you probably noticed several appearances by the physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, who is portrayed in some ways as Oppenheimer’s voice of conscience. I was a bit puzzled when I watched, because I happened to know that Rabi wasn’t a resident at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. But the film was historically accurate: Rabi did visit Los Alamos on occasion, and was present for the Trinity bomb test.
Why wasn’t Rabi at Los Alamos? The film highlights his ethical qualms. But the truth is that he was involved in another secret project applying cutting-edge science to the war effort, M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory, which basically worked on advanced radar. The Rad Lab arguably had an even bigger impact on the course of the war than the Manhattan Project, because it turned microwave technology, originally developed in Britain, into a radar system that German submarines couldn’t detect. This was a major factor in the Allies’ 1943 victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, which secured the sea lanes to Britain; this in turn set the stage first for the decisive defeat of the Luftwaffe in early 1944, and then for D-Day.
There were other crucial scientific efforts too, like the group at Johns Hopkins that developed the proximity fuse, which made antiaircraft guns far more effective because they could bring down a plane without scoring a direct hit.
All of this was made possible not just by America’s economic might but also by its cultural and social openness. At one point in the movie Oppenheimer says that the only reason we might beat the Germans to the bomb is Nazi antisemitism; indeed, America’s war effort was crucially aided by our willingness to take in and make use of the scientific talents of refugees.
If you’re a history buff like me, you find this stuff fascinating in its own right. But it’s also relevant, even now, to American politics — and to the war in Ukraine.
Many people on the U.S. right seem to equate national greatness with military prowess and believe that military prowess is associated with macho posturing. The epitome of this attitude was Ted Cruz’s infamous ad contrasting tough-looking Russian recruits with U.S. recruiting ads that celebrated diversity, and declaring that we were made weak by having a “woke, emasculated” military. And you still hear that sort of thing despite the catastrophic and very recent failures of Russia’s un-woke, un-emasculated army.
This is all, of course, deeply stupid. Wars still require almost unimaginable courage and endurance on the part of combatants. But they haven’t been won by sheer brawn for a long time. They are instead won largely by production capacity — and intellectual creativity.
I’ve read many books about World War II. The book that did the most to change how I thought about the conflict was “How the War Was Won,” by the military historian Phillips P. O’Brien, which begins with this memorable sentence: “There were no decisive battles in World War II.” O’Brien shows that even the bloodiest, most stupendous battles, like the battle of Kursk in 1943, destroyed at most a few weeks’ worth of the losing side’s war production. What decided the war was Allied success in dominating first the seas, then the air — success that depended crucially on intellectuals like Rabi, who didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a warrior, or Alan Turing, who led the code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park but whose gayness would have made him an outcast in the right-wing vision of what America should be.
O’Brien was, as it happens, one of the few prominent military analysts who disagreed with the consensus that Russia would quickly and easily conquer Ukraine, and has been a frequent and insightful commentator on the course of the ongoing war. He believes that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will eventually succeed; I’m not qualified to judge whether he’s right, but I do understand his reasoning.
Here’s how I’d put it: The Ukrainians discovered early on that they couldn’t pull off a blitzkrieg, using armored vehicles to punch a hole in Russia’s defense lines and then racing for the coast. When they tried that, they ran into dense minefields and withering artillery fire. So they reverted to tactics that seem on the surface almost like those of World War I: small-scale (and incredibly brave) infantry attacks that gain at most a few hundred yards at a time.
Under the surface, however — pun not really intended — what’s going on is something like the Battle of the Atlantic. Those infantry assaults force the Russians to respond, exposing their artillery systems in particular to attacks from Ukrainians using superior Western technology, supplemented by local ingenuity.
If this strategy is working — again, a question I’m not competent to answer — Ukraine’s slow gains on the ground aren’t a good indication of what’s really happening. If the optimists are right, the real story is the gradual degradation of the stuff behind Russia’s lines — counter-battery radar, artillery pieces, command centers and so on.
One notable thing about the Battle of the Atlantic is that the denouement was quite sudden. We now know that the Allies were gradually gaining the upper hand for many months before a sudden surge in U-boat losses forced the Germans to abandon their attacks.
Will there be a similar tipping point in Ukraine? I don’t know. But what we do know is that this war, like most modern wars, will be determined more by brains and open-mindedness than by tough-guy posturing.
Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman