Dark Parallels: The Ukrainian War in Historical Perspective
War, perhaps more than any other human endeavour, brings with it historical memories and comparisons. In its haze, discerning its meaning and direction is inherently difficult. The whole realm of warfare, so to speak, is shrouded in lies. It is only later that we have much chance to discern the real truth.
The war in Ukraine awakens many memories, but the most dramatic is a comparison between American foreign policy today and the outlook that prevailed in the United States in the two years before American entry into the First and Second World Wars. President Biden’s policy is all-out economic warfare against Russia, with a strict red line against actual US military involvement. It recalls certain vital conjunctures in American history.
It recalls in the first place Woodrow Wilson’s call for a League of Nations in 1916 and 1917, when he was still determined to stay out of the European war. In his “great statementBefore the League to Enforce Peace on May 27, 1916, Wilson declared that America would join after the war in a new association of nations to keep the peace. The United States, in effect, would guarantee a future peace agreement.
This position is similar to President Biden’s policy of inviting Ukraine to join NATO at a later date, but without committing US military power here and now. The allies responded to Wilson’s posture in the same way as the Ukrainians did in the current crisis: “Hello, Uncle Sam, there happens to be a war going on right now, raising the issue of aggression in the crudest terms, so don’t tell us what you will do later. Tell us what you are ready to do now.
In 1916 Wilson dreaded giving pledges to the British, who urged him to throw America’s weight behind a reasonable settlement. He always wanted to stay out of the European war. The Germans, when they unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, forced Wilson’s hand. Before he went to war, however, Wilson’s policy reflected the same odd combination of “no, we are not intervening now, but yes, at a later date we will guarantee everything” that we have seen, l year before Putin’s war, in Biden’s policy toward NATO expansion.
Another nice parallel to Biden’s politics is the stance taken by Franklin Roosevelt in the two years before the United States entered World War II. Unfailing aid to allies, non-involvement in the war. These basic parameters were followed until December 7, 1941.
These two examples, forgotten preludes to America’s entry into the two world wars, are disturbing because they suggest that one thing leads to another. They teach that the fervent desire to stay out of war can succumb over time to what Jefferson called “the chapter of accidents.” We are just in the first week of the new world being born, not fully aware of all the collapsing dominoes to follow. We all think about what the second week will bring, but the dreaded question is what the second year will bring. Clio, the poor girl, is no longer sure these days of her pronouns but would still like to say, with Cassandre: You are in great danger, sir.
As part of my quest in progress To curry favor with the neoconservatives, I would also like to draw attention to another disturbing comparison: Hitler’s decision on December 11, 1941, to declare war on the United States. The terms of the Triple Alliance binding Germany to Japan and Italy were defensive; Hitler was under no obligation to return to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When he declared war, it was an immense relief for the Roosevelt administration, which immediately telegraphed, with the joy of having been conquered by a dark seducer: “Me too! It will be war!
American war planners knew in 1941 that Germany was the overriding threat, but American public opinion had for two years resided in the same anomalous state that we find in Ukrainian politics today. Now it’s full economic sanctions and no American force in the fray. At the time, it was all about helping the allies, while staying out of the war. Even in November 1941, despite an ongoing near-war with German U-Boats in the North Atlantic, polls showed that 70% of the public still wanted to stay away.
Nobody knew it at the time, but Hitler had made the decision on his own. He did not consult anyone, he did. Sound familiar? Rhythm neoconservatives i think there are huge mistakes in viewing putin as a hitler, mainly because he views himself as an anti-hitler, but it has to be said that russian decision making over the past two months looks a bit like The Fuhrer‘s. Did the Russian elite lie that the idea of a full scale Russian invasion was a US fantasy, that there was no way Putin would do something so stupid , that these projections reflected a grand conspiracy by the usual suspects? No, I don’t think they were. I don’t think Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saw it coming; that Russia Deputy Minister at the United Nations saw it coming; that the oligarchs saw it coming; that most Russians saw it coming.
To the extent that they saw it coming, as they started to towards the end, I think they feared it more than welcomed it. It’s one more item in the index of corporate madness, this big surprise Putin wreaked on his people, because the reason those characters didn’t see it coming was that she had the just look incoherent and crazy on his face. We will denazify Ukraine, but not occupy it. We will crush all resistance, but not kill civilians. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but we’ll win the war and get through it.
Putin made some scathing criticisms of the US Iraq war in 2003, but on the fanciful quotient of “total victory, no occupation”, his war in Ukraine would seem to share the twisted expectations that accompanied the US war in Iraq. If, in the unlikely event, he turns out to be a genius rather than an idiot – he knows Ukraine far better than the Americans knew Iraq – that is unlikely to change the conclusion he has made. a crime.
We cannot know the extent of Ukraine’s resistance. Either way, it will show once again that what an occupying army does is fundamentally a function of the challenge it faces. All victorious armies, says Clausewitz, would prefer the enemy to put up no resistance; when it does, previous intentions evaporate. The invader finds himself doing all sorts of heinous things he didn’t intend, but the press of necessity (the alternative loses) seems to command.
Similar pressures will be exerted on American foreign policy makers. After being humiliated, there is a limit to the humiliation you are willing to endure. Once you’ve shown that your word isn’t your bond, you face great pressure to show that it is. Speaking of historical parallels, something like this logic reigned in the chancelleries of Europe on the eve of the August Canons in 1914. Everyone was operating under the cloud of not having previously supported their allies with the resolve that they demanded. This, along with the “use it or lose it” thinking by the military staffs, gave great impetus to the ensuing conflagration.
These two factors are in play today. A war in the Pacific, for example, would immediately highlight the need to strike Chinese bases before China strikes American bases and aircraft carriers. English historian AJP Taylor called the 1914 dynamic “war by calendarfocusing on precise timetables for the mobilization of the German army, but the inexorable constraint was the imperative to destroy the enemy before he annihilates you. This is an inherent but extremely explosive aspect of America’s global military engagements. Without quite announcing it, the United States has created a doomsday machine, with built-in escalation features, on America’s jagged geopolitical borders.
Of these different historical parallels, the two that should hold our attention the most are the American postures in 1916-1917 and 1940-1941. At both times, a gigantic gap appeared between what Americans wanted for the world and what they were actually prepared to do. Fix Europe’s war system, but don’t go to war, Wilson said in 1916 and early 1917. Defeat the Axis, Franklin Roosevelt said in 1940 and 1941, but stay out of war . The logic of events meant that the gap would somehow be closed. As it is, it has been closed in the traditional way. The United States entered the war.
One of the great pleasures of historical study is that it allows students to reject the silly and desolate world in which they live and instead enter the realm of lost civilizations which contain episodes of effort and of exceptional human accomplishments. John Hale, the sublime historian of Renaissance Europe, wrote that Renaissance scholars, with all the great texts of antiquity now at their disposal, wanted to live in that time, not their time. They found in this vanished world possessions of far greater interest to them than they found in their own. “Everything there was to do, in philosophical speculation, political action, or cultural achievement, seemed to have been done, and done with supreme vigor and achievement, among a people whose history had not only the clarity of distance in time, but the fullness of a complete cycle, from darkness across world empire to barbaric chaos.
We will one day have our historians charting the descent of world empire into barbaric chaos, but they are unlikely to remember our days obsessed with statesman role models, in case they still use this word. Instead, they will find at the beginning of the 21st century the unhealthy reeks of all the old sins, especially the bitter ethnic hatreds which since time immemorial have thrown human beings into the pit. Our greatness caused our fall, it will be said; it was a marvel lasted so long. Truly exceptional foundations the americans forgot and then abandoned the ideas and principles which have made them a people to be admired and copied. They entered the Old World to reform it but were then swallowed up and shattered by its enmities.
David C. Hendrickson is president of the John Quincy Adams Society and author of Republic in Peril: The American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018). His website is davidhendrickson.org.