Nothing is ever really a surprise. There are always signs, though often even the most perceptive miss them. What is blazingly obvious in hindsight was actually there for all the world to see…it just wasn’t noticed.
Charles DeGaulle was asked shortly after Hitler came to power what France would do if Germany were to attack one of her neighbors. His response was along the lines of, “we shall have a limited or full call up depending on the circumstances and then, peering out from our fortifications, we shall witness the enslavement of Europe.” And that was just so very close because DeGaulle was, indeed, a very perceptive man. But even he missed the obvious – and what should have been obvious to a graduate of Saint-Cyr: there is no such thing as a defensive war. There is victory or there is defeat…and the side which stays in its fortifications loses. DeGaulle’s answer should have been, there will be a German victory parade in Paris.
This is not to condemn DeGaulle – after all, what patriot wishes to envision the destruction of his nation? To admit even to himself that his people are so weak and divided that they will throw up the sponge? He simply couldn’t imagine it – even after the great German breakthrough DeGaulle (and a very few others) were urging that several hundred thousand French troops be evacuated to France’s North African territory (along with as much military equipment as possible) to continue the struggle. To get there, get American aid (which would have been forthcoming) and just keep up the fight until German’s internal weaknesses gave the Allies the upper hand. It could easily have been done – but hardly anyone wanted to do it. They just wanted to surrender as quickly as possible and get back to their corrupt, little lives (the supposed fighting Premier of France was already feathering his nest and looking for a new post as he fled Paris).
But he still should have seen it. 1936 was the year – Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with 3,000 troops. While the Krauts were working ’round the block to build up a military force, the bottom line was that in 1936 the German military was in no ways prepared for war (it wasn’t really in 1939, either; but it was a least vastly better prepared than 3 years previously). The French leadership called in the Generals and said, “expel the Germans”. And the Generals came back and said “we need full mobilization”, which would have taken weeks and cost huge sums of money – when all they needed to do was literally send in what they had at the border and it all would have been over in a couple days. Lots of excuses are made for why the Generals said that but mostly it is explaining it away – they didn’t want to fight. And neither did the civil leadership. So they essentially made a pact of cowardice and did nothing; even though they knew full well that allowing the German army back into the Rhineland posed a mortal threat to France. The reason it had been de-militarized was because there was no way France could match Germany in total military power…a demilitarized Rhineland was France’s shield. And they gave it up. Because they were all corrupt cowards, as would be most starkly shown 4 years later. Anyone really paying attention at that time (and Hitler was) knew that for all intents and purposes, France was removed from the European equation. And the French people were ok with it – because, by and large, they were as corrupt and cowardly as their leaders.
The balloon seems small. So did the Rhineland – most French and Brits were “they were only marching into their own backyard” about it. It was passed off as nothing and can we please just get back to our lives? The balloon seems small. But it was an enemy aircraft which was allowed unfettered access to American airspace and only shot down after its usefulness to the enemy was over. And it does flash into the mind: the Chinese told us not to shoot it down until it was in the Atlantic. How else to explain why it wasn’t shot down when detected over Alaska? And why weren’t we told about it until it was already 650 miles inside US territory? The balloon seems small – but what it foretells might be very large.