PAUL M. KENNEDY: The Engineers of Victory Friday, April 20, 2012 7:30PM, Elfers Hall, Eastman Music Center, The Hotchkiss School.


Paul M. Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth professor of British history at Yale University. Author of 19 books including The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, The Parliament of Man, and soon to be released The Engineers of Victory.

Who really won World War II? Was it Roosevelt or Churchill or Marshall or Eisenhower? It was none of the above according to British historian Paul Kennedy. They may have drafted the grand alliances or formulated the master strategies, but it was thousands of men and women assigned specific tasks who had to solve the problems of an incredibly complex worldwide endeavor and make feasible the efforts of millions of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen. They weren’t the inventors of new weapons or systems. They were tinkerers. Like Steve Jobs in the modern era they had the imagination, vision and flexibility to learn from their mistakes and increase the value of existing technology to unheard of levels.

Because of their build up of military power in the 1930s the Axis powers gained stunning successes in the early years of the war. The Allies may have had greater resources, but when they convened the Casablanca conference in January 1943 the Allies faced enormous challenges. However, in the next 17 months the tides were turned in the greatest conflict known to human history. What Kennedy examines is how those successes were engineered and by whom. “In this sense,” he says “engineers” are not strictly meant here as people possessing a B.Sc. or Ph.D. in Engineering (although the founder of the Seabees, Admiral Ben Moreell, and the inventor of the mine-detector, Josef Kosacki, certainly did), but as those falling into the Webster Dictionary’s wider definition: “a person who carries through an enterprise through skillful or artful contrivance”.

Most of us have read about or seen movies about the breaking of the Enigma Code or the inspiration for the bouncing dam buster bombs or the creation of unusual tanks that could push through coastal minefields, barbed wire or hedgerows. But Kennedy says we have rarely stepped back and understood how their work surfaced, was cultivated or how these various eccentric pieces of the jigsaw-puzzle fitted into the whole. Think about the enormity of the tasks they faced. How to move millions of soldiers across oceans, how to plan five simultaneous landings on D-Day or create a powerful radar system that could be inserted in the nose of a long-range patrol aircraft and turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic.

This is the story Kennedy tells of how small groups of individuals and institutions, both civilian and military, succeeded in achieving victory in the critical middle years of the war. It is about what the military-operational problems were and who the problem solvers were, how they got things done and why their work constitutes an important field of study.