Letter from Twentieth-Century History

Letter from Twentieth-Century History

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Twentieth-Century History
June 14, 2004

The death of former President Ronald Reagan in the same week as the moving sixtieth anniversary commemorations of D-day reminds us how close our civilization came to destruction twice during the twentieth century. If not for the determined and self-sacrificing efforts of U.S. and Allied forces, the Nazi juggernaut might have pushed the world back into a new Dark Age. And if not for the steadfastness of the Free World in the struggle against Communism—expressed so well and, ultimately, triumphantly, by President Reagan—half the world might still be living today behind an Iron Curtain of suppression and totalitarianism.

The key theme of twentieth-century history is the defeat of these two looming threats to liberal democracy, Nazism and Communism, a fact understood by those who rightly view Winston Churchill as among the truly outstanding public figures of the century. In his time many others in high places dismissed Churchill as an alarmist, but he turned out to be remarkably prophetic.

More than any other single individual, Winston Churchill saw the twin threats of the twentieth century emerge, repeatedly sounded the alarm, confronted the naysayers and skeptics, and brilliantly captured the perfect balance between clear-eyed realism and unshakeable optimism in his unmatched rhetoric.

As early as 1932, Churchill warned about Germany's intentions and urged his own country to step up defense expenditures in response:

Now the demand is that Germany should be allowed to rearm. Do not delude yourselves. Do not let His Majesty's Government believe, I am sure they do not believe, that all Germany is asking for is equal status.... This is not what Germany is seeking. All these bands of sturdy Teutonic youths, marching through the streets and roads of Germany with the light of desire in their eyes to suffer for the Fatherland are not looking for status. They are looking for weapons and when they have them believe me they will then ask for the return of lost territories or colonies.

In 1938, after the Anschluss, the Austrian union with Nazi Germany, Churchill spoke in the House of Commons:

For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet wears.... Now is the time at last to rouse the nation. Perhaps it is the last time it can be roused with a chance of preventing war, or with a chance of coming through with victory should our effort to prevent war fail.

And less than six months later, reacting to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's ill-fated meeting in Munich with Hitler, Churchill famously remarked in the House of Commons:

They should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and the terrible words have for the first time being pronounced against the Western democracies: "Thou are weighed in the balance and found wanting." And do not suppose this is the end. This is the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of the bitter cup, which will be proffered to us year by year, unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

Meanwhile, some other highly respected observers had a far less ominous take on Germany and its leadership, reminding us once again that vaunted job titles or academic pedigrees are not necessarily guarantors of uncommon wisdom or, for that matter, even common sense.

(I am indebted to Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, authors of The Experts Speak, for the following six citations.)

While Churchill was sounding the warning of "sturdy Teutonic youth" as early as 1932, the legendary Professor Harold Laski offered a rather different view:

The day when they [the Nazis] were a vital threat is gone.... [I]t is not unlikely that Hitler will end his career as an old man in some Bavarian village who, in the biergarten in the evening, tells his intimates how he nearly overturned the German Reich.... It is comforting to live on the memory of an illusion.

The next year, Walter Lippman, the famed American journalist, noted, after Hitler delivered a speech in the Reichstag denouncing war, that:

[T]he outer world will do well to accept the evidence of German goodwill and seek by all possible means to meet it and to justify it.

And Britain's Daily Express, reacting to Chamberlain's signing of the Munich Pact, confidently declared:

Britain will not be involved in war. There will be no major wars in Europe this year or next year. The Germans will not seize Czechoslovakia. So go about your own business with confidence in the future and fear not.

The next year, Time magazine offered the following assessment of French military strength:

The French army is still the strongest all-around fighting machine in Europe.

In 1940, exactly one day before the Japanese joined the Axis nations, General Douglas MacArthur predicted that "Japan will never join the Axis."

And not to be outdone, on December 4, 1941, Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, stated:

No matter what happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.

Once again with 20-20 foresight, it was Churchill who saw the Cold War evolve, grasping the essential point that Stalin, part of the wartime triumvirate, would turn on London and Washington as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The British leader, even in the heyday of the anti-Nazi alliance, never ignored or underestimated the true nature of Soviet Communism. His words, delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946, defined the new historical era:

From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all of those famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.

His prescient remarks were not universally welcomed. Roy Jenkins, in his magisterial biography of Churchill, described it as "one of the most controversial...speeches of the post-war years." He went on to say about the speech:

[T]he core message was hard and clear. Whether or not it was given that name, a Western alliance was necessary, and there should no longer be any pretence that the leading members of the United Nations stood in an equally close relationship with each other.... In 1946...it was strong meat, not least for the American press.

Jenkins points out that the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Sun, and London Times, among others, were critical of the speech, the Chicago Sun referring to its "poisonous doctrines."

After the ferocity of the Second World War, it was entirely understandable that many in the West hoped for a respite from conflict, but it was not to be, and it fell to Churchill and, later, President Harry Truman to be the bearers of the sobering news.

The example of Winston Churchill has much to teach us today.

As a nation, however, we're not terribly keen on history. We've always defined ourselves as a country hurtling toward the future rather than tethered to the past. From conquering the frontier to exploring space, it's all about the possibilities of tomorrow. Sure, we invoke the past, but it's usually fleeting, mechanical, and superficial.

In many ways, this forward-looking attitude explains the genius of America-our pioneering spirit and can-do approach to life, unwavering optimism, staggering economic growth and development, and unrivaled social mobility. Given the choice, we'd much prefer to make history than study it.

But history, apart from its inherent interest and explanation of how we got to where we are, reveals lessons that we would be ill-advised to ignore. True, history seldom repeats itself in precisely the same form, but then again human nature and the behavior of state and non-state actors don't entirely re-invent themselves in each generation, either.

Take our present situation. In response to the horrific events of September 11, our nation declared a global war on terrorism. But in the ensuing three years things have become quite complicated. The original story line of a nation at peace experiencing unprecedented loss of life from a fanatical terror group has yielded to a multi-dimensional tableau.

We are now witnessing a fierce debate over whether Washington overreached, launched an unnecessary invasion of Iraq, antagonized the Muslim world in the process, alienated many of our traditional friends, and trampled on civil liberties here at home, not to mention in Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo. This debate is necessary and emblematic of a thriving democracy. But, at the same time, it must not be allowed to distract us from the very real threat we as a nation continue to face from our declared enemies.

In a highly partisan era, further accentuated by upcoming U.S. elections, any discussion of these issues runs the serious risk of being interpreted as support for one side or the other. I intend no such thing.

My point is this: What happened on 9/11 was an attack on America and what we stand for as a nation; it would have happened no matter which political party was in power at the time. This may be precisely the right moment to remind ourselves of this one central fact, because, politics and partisanship aside, it could happen again at any time. And there are lessons from last century's history that we would be wise to absorb, most especially the danger of underestimating an emerging global threat or lulling ourselves into a false sense of security.

Voters in November will decide which party is better equipped to handle the national security challenge, and the many other challenges, our country faces. That is as it should be in any democratic society. But no one should believe the terrorist threat against America (or, for that matter, Israel) is linked to a particular party. History has amply demonstrated the opposite.

Let's face reality. We are at war and our resolve as a nation is being tested. At the same time, there are those who would prefer to believe the threat is exaggerated, or it is manufactured, or it derives from our own actions, therefore a change in our own behavior is the antidote. They are profoundly mistaken, I believe.

First, let's call the war by its real name. It's a war against—take your pick—Islamism, Islamo-fascism, jihadism, radical Islam, or militant Islam.

In other words, it's a war against an ideology, fueled by a combustible mix of theology, politics, self-righteousness, and fury, which has an unmistakable and airtight world view and hasn't been shy to express it. Just as we fought Fascism, Nazism, and Communism in the twentieth century, today we are locked in a struggle with yet another variant of totalitarian thinking in possession of "absolute truth." Our semantic effort to cloak the true nature of the struggle by deliberately avoiding naming its source, lest we offend some Muslims, is misguided, if not downright disingenuous.

No, this is not a war on terrorism. It is a war on those who, in the name of their fanatical beliefs, employ terrorism to advance their aims, as well as those who give them succor and sanctuary. Terrorism is their weapon of choice, but if they had potent armies, is there any doubt those would be employed as well? Would we then have to rename the conflict as the "war on terror and armies"?

Second, this war will continue regardless of who is in power in Washington (or Jerusalem).

We need to remind ourselves that, whatever the very real differences among political candidates, to our enemies they are essentially all the same, representatives of "evil" or "illegitimate" regimes.

Radical Islamic forces declared the United States and its overseas interests targets during the Carter era. This continued unabated during the Reagan and Bush eras. And had Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his cohorts succeeded in their goal, one World Trade Center tower would have been entirely destroyed in 1993, which was during President Clinton's first year in office. As it was, during Clinton's two terms in office there were fatal attacks against American targets in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, and Yemen, and foiled attacks in the United States, including plans to destroy significant New York landmarks.

Similarly, in the eyes of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and other groups committed to Israel's destruction—as opposed to those genuinely supportive of a negotiated settlement—it doesn't matter one whit who is in power in Jerusalem and what the prevailing attitude toward the peace process is. They're all the same—Israelis, Zionists, and Jews—and, therefore, they constitute the enemy.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres, committed to the Oslo process, learned this in the run-up to the 1996 elections, when a series of deadly bombings contributed to his defeat. So did Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who spearheaded an intense effort for a two-state solution five years later.

In fact, while much was made of the impact of the 3/11 bombings on the Spanish elections earlier this year, the plain fact of the matter is that terrorists have successfully wielded influence on other elections, including those in Israel.

Third, this war will not come to an end anytime soon. That ought to be painfully obvious.

Given the hydra-headed organizational nature of the enemy, its geographic dispersal, the nature of the weapon of choice—i.e. terrorism—the wide-ranging support structure of mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), front organizations, satellite technology, and the Internet, readily available funds, and the openness of democratic societies, there is no Berlin or Tokyo for us to target, no V-E or V-J day to signal when a formal end to hostilities is declared, and no Iron Curtain to raise or Berlin Wall to demolish as signifying victory.

We in the West have an attention-span problem that will be severely tested. We dare not be found wanting. The stakes are far too high. Bear in mind the path of death and destruction to date. Imagine the frightening possibilities ahead, including the potential use of biological or chemical agents or even, one day, nuclear weapons, which Osama bin Laden has declared must be acquired as a "religious duty." Remember that this enemy insists that its love of death through so-called martyrdom matches our passion for life. In 1997, for instance, bin Laden declared: "Being killed for Allah's cause is a great honor achieved only by the elite of the nation. We love this kind of death for Allah's cause as much as you like to live." And recall that for our adversaries everything and everyone is fair game—the more carnage the better. After all, spreading fear and anxiety is the name of the game. The traditional military field of combat has been extended to include every conceivable civilian venue.

Fourth, a sustained global challenge requires a sustained global response. The United States has unmatched resources, but it needs international cooperation at every level—and the diplomacy to match—to gain and maintain the offensive. At the same time, those countries that believe they can avoid involvement by keeping their heads low or their mouths shut, or by maintaining a certain distance from Washington, are likely to be in for a rude awakening. Some already have.

Fifth, we need to encourage and empower the forces of moderate Islam—and, yes, they most assuredly do exist—to assert themselves more forcefully in the battle for title to their religion. Easier said than done, I fully realize, and, to boot, the line between extremism and moderation is not always easily or neatly drawn. The world of Islam, and the Arab culture in particular, are still so alien, so impenetrable to most outsiders, even after all these years, that we must tread with great caution, avoiding the certitudes that too often have caused us to stumble in the region, yet not with such caution that we effectively paralyze ourselves.

At the same time, there are limits to the role outsiders can play in the struggle for control of a religion which claims the allegiance of one-fifth of the world's population and that forms the majority in dozens of African and Asian nations, plus Albania and Turkey on the European continent, a plurality in Bosnia, and a significant minority in many others.

And sixth, returning to the earlier theme, we need to remind ourselves of relevant twentieth-century history, especially the tendency by some to underestimate threats as they emerge, especially those posed by Hitler and the Third Reich or the Soviet regime.

In both cases, there were examples aplenty of a misreading of intent, failure of imagination, neglect of warning signs, inability to grasp the capacity for evil, childish projection of our values onto others (e.g., "Surely the Soviet Union wants the same thing for its people as we do, so how threatening can they be?"), naiveté, romanticization, self-flagellation, and, of course, appeasement.

History is lived forward, but studied backward. No, the current threat is not identical either to the Second Cold War or the Cold War, but surely the lessons of these two conflicts ought to have some applicability.

The challenge in both was to our way of life, our value system, and our view of global order and stability. It came about not because of any particular policy of ours, but rather because of who we were and what we represented. It was not directed at particular politicians or political parties. In turn, it required not a partisan but the maximum possible unified response. It necessitated an unprecedented demonstration of strength, power, courage, and resolve. In one case, it prompted war on a previously unimaginable scale; in the other, the ever-present threat of war and one daunting test after another, from the Berlin airlift to the Cuban missile crisis to the invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

There was room neither for the wooly-eyed or wobbly, nor the faint of heart or squeamish, much less the prophets of doom and gloom.

So, too, after the Cold War's end, there was a temptation to believe that conflict would not end entirely, perhaps, but henceforth it would take the form of internal and regional battles far from America's shores. Even when we were hit by terrorist attacks in the decade of the 1990s, only a few observers grasped the true nature of the menace, namely, a new global struggle between radical Islam and the world of so-called infidels, led by the United States, and these observers were often derided as shrill or paranoid, even by some Jewish leaders who should have known better. The events of 9/11 drove home the point they were making with a vengeance.

But with the passage of time and the political fractionating of America, we run the risk of diverting our attention or downplaying the threat.

Winston Churchill, where are you now that we need you?

Date: 7/14/2004
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