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Book Review: Cry Havoc How the Arms Race Drove the World To War 1931-1941

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Maiolo, Joseph. Cry Havoc How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931 – 1941. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Did the arms race lead to totalitarianism and war?

The causes of World War II have been addressed by a number of writers and ascribe to a number of positions. Some focus on the political “big man” school and focus on the national leadership such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, etc. Others focus on political , economic, and diplomatic history starting with the end of World War I, and usually center the causes on either economics leading to dictatorial, expansionist regimes, or the failure of democratic nations to take an early interventionist policy.

Lately, however, there have been new approaches seeking to go outside of these traditional boundaries. Nial Fergusson, for example, in his The War of the World, places WWII well outside the the traditional 1930s or even 1919 genesis, and argues for the placement within a 1905-1953 context where WWII becomes one in a series of East vs West conflicts. Other academics focusing on one theater of the war like Gerald Horne for example, examine closely the role of race and clash of cultures in the Asian theater as the foundation for the flash points.

Enter Joseph Maiolo and his Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War 1931-1941. Maiolo sets the clock in 1931, at the beginning of the Soviet 5 year economic plan that ramped up Soviet military might. Maiolo posits that this initial domino fall would not only make it feasible to put militarism front and center to support similar competing military industrial production all leading nations, but in the process, subvert political freedoms and rights of the populations.


We can do without butter, but not without guns, because butter could not help us if we were attacked one day.” - Joseph Goebells as quoted on page 159.

Maiolo argues that the choice of “butter or guns” seems to have been the main theme of all powers in the 1930s, and one that eventually led to war . His 473 page work narrates the effects of competing arms races had on the societies and neighbors for the next decade, leading to the conflict of WWII, or at least facilitating it’s initiation and character in Europe.

Like most authors in the English language, Maiolo does his best in a WWII study when dealing with the European and American powers. The information formerly unknown from the Soviet Union sheds light on what otherwise would have been a dark spot in WWII studies, and argues for the inter-relationship of nations in the war in some causes and effects that have otherwise gone un-examined. It broadens the study of WWII to Russia in the 1930s, and when combined with other pioneering works dealing with Soviet prewar involvement such as Michael Walkers The 1929 Sino Soviet War, David Glantz Stumbling Colossus The Red Army on the Eve of World War, or Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War, presents a far more detailed picture and how the Soviet Union was far from a passive observer in the years leading up to the global conflict.

Cry Havoc starts with the Soviet 5 year plan, but seems to both back off the initial insinuation that it actually began the arms race both by a qualification and then lack of attention. Citing the disagreement between Stalin and his more militaristic generals such as Tukhachevsky, and using doctrine as a means to check unbridled armament production, Maiolo seems to try and soften the Soviet arms build up that he just introduced, yet repeating in other parts of the text the fact that it was the largest in the world for many years.


The majority of the book focuses on Italy, Germany, and England, with the US, Japan, and Soviet Union in a kind of supporting case study role. Maiolo argues convincingly how accelerated and artificially inflated arms production during the period created great pressures to restrict the rights of the citizens to support the “total war” concept. Italy and Germany, argues Maiolo, succumbed to this pressure (the Soviet Union was already there), and Japan joined in as well, while England was the hardest pressed to fight against such drives (succumbing only partially in 1940 with total mobilization of the state), but was able through herculean effort and focus, to retain the citizens rights (in England only).

The case study comparing and contrasting England and Italy is the real heart of Cry Havoc, as not only the most details presented by Maiolo, but through Italy, we can see how a one time ally, gradually was isolated, and then through re-alignment caused not only by geopolitical pressures from the outside, but economic political structural pressures from the inside, shifted into a position where the Axis alignment was seen as favorable by it’s leadership.

Cry Havoc also brings to the fore the economic Wunderkinds of every nation that allowed the massive industrial revolutions in armaments production to be ramped up and implemented in support of the respective nations total war concepts. The marrying of military theory with the national industrial capacity is a lessons learned opportunity for current strategic planners and theorists to take to heart, and Maiolo does an excellent job of highlighting the men behind the scenes and the marrying of theory, production, politics, and economics that each nation had to wrestle with.


The two major downfalls of the book, aside from inattention to the Soviet buildup and deployments in Asia prior to the Nomonhon battle in 1939, is the lack of focus on FDRs armaments buildup during the 1930s prior to the war clouds in Europe, and the Asian theater, particularly Japan.

It is these that should be examined to give an illustration of how Miaolo (and to be fair many other WWII generalists), can excel in European analysis yet falter when dealing with pre war Asia and the US in Asia.

For example, on page 305 Cry Havoc claims that FDR only started arming due to the Japanese rejection of the Naval Limitations treaty. “Japan’s rejection of naval arms control justified upgrading the fleet, especially with job creation money: the New Deal alone helped build two aircraft carriers, four cruisers, nineteen destroyers, and four submarines. In July 1935 he ordered planning to start on new battleships.”

This is a clever slight of hand that obscures the facts that FDR began naval re-armament BEFORE the Japanese rejected the treaty. He also omits the dates in construction in the above passage and only includes a July 1935 date which tricks the reader into thinking the buildup was after the Japanese rejection in January 1935. However a quick look at the facts shows how Miaolo is either intentionally creating a false narrative, or was uncharacteristically sloppy in his research on American armament timelines.

All of the following occurred BEFORE the January 1935 nullification of Naval limitations by the Japanese:

1. March 4, 1933; from the double motive of aiding national defense and stimulating industry, decided to build up to the top limit. The administration under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) provided the Navy a $237 million for warship construction. of 20 destroyers, four submarines, four light cruisers, and two aircraft carriers that Miaolo mentioned, but conveniently left out the date and placed it immediately following the Japanese rejection claim.

2. March 27, 1934; the Carl Vinson at the behest of FDR introduces and gets passed the Vinson Trammel Act, which authorized the navy to construct 102 new warships over the next eight years. (1)

65 destroyers, 30 submarines, one aircraft carrier, and 1184 naval airplanes, to be started over the next three years. The act included the provision that alternate ships be built in navy yards, and it mandated that government arsenals provide the necessary ordnance. The bill also approved building the six cruisers still remaining from the 1929 program: four for 1935 and two for 1936.

By 1934, 15 new cruisers and one aircraft carrier - the USS Ranger - had been commissioned but, under the Five-Year Program, had not been provided aircraft complements. These unsatisfied requirements totaled over 200 aircraft, and the Vinson-Trammell Navy Act authorized the immediate expansion of the aircraft inventory to accommodate these demands.

In addition to this inexplicable omission in his book, Maiolo fails to include details that the Japanese had not rejected limitations per se, only the ratio that Washington promoted (France was also wanting to buck the Naval limitations treaty proposals), and stated that Japan would re enter negotiations but only on equal footing. The US failed to provide any new initiatives with Japan on Naval limitations after that on an equitable basis.

Despite the glaring lack of key information in the timeline within the United States, that would actually re-enforce his overall supposition that arms races led to conflict and totalitarian methods, Cry Havoc nevertheless remains an excellent insight into a new way to view the road to war, and a much needed intellectual contribution to WW2 Studies, as well as modern conflict resolution.

(1) Of particular interest are items in the US National Archives surrounding both the Naval armament increase of the Vinson Trammel Act of 1934, as well as the opposition to it from groups in the US believing that it would provoke Japan and lead to an arms race and war.

The very theory to which Miolo believes, and yet omission of the positioning of the Vinson Trammel Act sets a bias in his presentation that seems to try and either whitewash or absolve the United States of active participation in the arms race he is presenting until much later when Nazi Germany and Japan become a clear and present danger in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The records indicate FDR was far more involved than Miolo has allowed in his narrative. From the National Archives (House Records: Chapter 4. Records of the Armed Services Committee and It’s Predecissors, Committee on Naval Affairs, 1822-1946, Jurisdiction and History, 4.74 URL:

“Peace groups insisted that Congress observe the limits on naval armaments established by agreements negotiated at various international conferences. Such demands began before World War I, but naval treaties concluded at Washington, DC and London, England, in 1922, and 1930 respectively, and the Geneva Conference of 1932 elicited the bulk of the petitions (63A-H21.12, 67A-H16.2, 71A-H13.1). In 1934, several national religious organizations, particularly the Council of the Churches of Christ, unsuccessfully opposed the passage of the Vinson-Trammel bill that authorized a 5-year building and replacement program of more than 100 ships. In 1935, fleet exercises in the western Pacific prompted protests from church groups in Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York, that considered the maneuvers to be threats to world peace since they might provoke Japan (74A-H12.2).”

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