Everyone knows the old saw about not studying history and being condemned to repeat it. But the parallels between now and pre-WWII are really amazing. So as I wait to hear President Biden’s speech in a few moments, following Russia’s incursion into those two Ukrainian provinces, I have to wonder if we’ve learned.
Let’s roll back the clock:
Following the Great War, the allies imposed extreme reparations on Germany, which crippled the economy and introduced political chaos. From that chaos fascism emerged, leveraging scapegoats and national pride. In secret, and in violation of treaties, Hitler built up an enormous and modern military while downplaying his desire for conquest. Chamberlain caved to Hitler’s “limited” demands, “Wir wünschen nur das Sudetenland,” waving an agreement in the air while promising “peace in our time.” While Hitler rounded up Jews and other “undesirables,” notables in this country, like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, were praising him. Germany then sought a critical relationship with the world’s largest authoritarian regime, Stalin’s Soviet Union, to protect his back, before methodically conquering Europe. Finally, Hitler suddenly turned on his Soviet “friends.” That didn’t prove to be a very good move, as it was really the Soviets who broke the back of Nazi Germany.
Now, to the present situation:
Unlike our wisdom shown in rebuilding Japan and Germany, when we won the Cold War with the Soviet Union we basically patted ourselves on the back and ignored the resulting chaos, economic turmoil and, eventually, the rise of a super-nationalist authoritarian in the person of Putin. His scapegoat was NATO, which didn’t help the matter by surrounding Russia militarily instead of actively engaging. So Putin, again cheating on agreements, modernized and increased his military strength. Despite his invading and taking over parts of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, Trump, and many Republicans, made him into some sort of idol. Forging a pact with the world’s largest authoritarian power, China, to protect him from Western economic sanctions, he’s moving on his own Sudetenland, and I can’t help but wonder if the rest of the sorry script is going to be followed.
Now, having just heard Biden speaking, the prospect of tens of thousands of Ukrainians dying or fleeing as refugees, while we sit right at the NATO border waving a bunch of economic sanctions in the air smacks of the Chamberlain-esque. How are we, as Americans, going to feel when we start to see the gruesome footage? Will he stop at those borders? Putin has apparently hinted at trying to retrieve other former Soviet republics, which are currently NATO members, like Poland and the Baltic states. If we’re willing to fight for them, why are we unwilling to send troops to help defend Ukraine? Does humanity stop at NATO’s borders? What are we gong to do when whatever remains of the legitimate government of Ukraine calls for real help?
From the political point of view, Biden is in a tough spot. He doesn’t want Americans killed in this struggle. No one remembers the 100,000+ people we got out of Afghanistan, just the 13 Americans who died in that effort. But when the slaughter commences in Ukraine, he’ll be equally pilloried for not employing force. I’m an old man. And it’s old men who send young men to war. But unlike Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not a war of choice for us. History should show us that choosing to end it sooner rather than later may be the least costly option.
© 2022, David B Bucher