President Obama is driving a badly maintained car with defective brakes, no steering wheel and a stuck accelerator; he can’t see the cliff up ahead because it’s night and the headlights are broken too. He is in trouble. So are the rest of us, even the back seat passengers along for the ride.
Such a situation is not new. Well before the First World War began, the royal families of England, Belgium, Russia and Germany had strong familial relationships and had long exchanged intimate correspondence. Each was privy to the thoughts of each and the various ministers of state had similar information. (A highly readable account of the familial and other relationships is presented in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.) King Edward VII of England died in 1910 and his state funeral was attended by kings, heirs apparent, queens and lower dignitaries representing seventy nations. First among them was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, wearing the uniform of a British field marshal and riding to the right of Britain’s new king, George V. He was also the honorary colonel of the 1st Royal Dragoon, grandson of Queen Victoria (“the grandmother of Europe”) and sixth in succession to the British throne. With such unity, what could possibly go wrong in those simple and easily understood times?
Kaiser Wilhelm had long despised King Edward — “his mother’s brother whom he could neither bully nor impress, whose fat figure cast a shadow between Germany and the sun [...]. ‘You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!’” Above all else, Kaiser William craved great international respect and power for himself and for Germany — and their rightful place in the sun. That did not augur well for the rest of Europe or for Britain.
The Schlieffen Plan for German conquest, beginning with the invasion of fastidiously neutral Belgium, had been completed in 1906. It was continuously and meticulously updated by his successors. Germany’s intentions for the invasion of Belgium as the first move in its quest for domination had hardly been kept secret. The plans were ignored or glossed over, as would be Germany’s intentions, in the years leading up to the world war.
Germany apparently did not much credit the prevailing notion that due to the rise of international business and general prosperity, likely to be destroyed by war, there would be no war at all. The First World War began in 1914, with the long-planned German invasion of Belgium, and ended in 1918 with Germany’s defeat. Despite the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany began to violate the treaty left and right by rearming. Civilian flying clubs were formed to evade the prohibitions on air force development; ships of tonnage expressly prohibited by the treaty were built by Germany while Britain reduced her tonnage in compliance with it.
In 1933, sixteen years after the end of World War I and six years before the start of World War II, the Oxford Union resolved “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” According to Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm, “it was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations.”
Churchill notes that by 1934, German air power exceeded that of Britain and was growing more rapidly. In 1935, Germany announced the advent of compulsory military service. In April of 1935, the members of the League of Nations came out foursquare against treaty violations but made no threat of force should further such violations occur. They occurred frequently. The Treaty of Versailles was in tatters. That mattered little to a still largely pacifist nation, unwilling and unprepared to take the minimal risks then necessary to avoid far greater risks later.
The German plans were ignored or glossed over because they were too horrible to contemplate and did not fit with the prevailing pacifist mood. Then as now, confidence that all would somehow work out for the best was misplaced. In September of 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to great acclaim that he had achieved “peace in our time” through concessions to Germany. He had not achieved peace; he had given Germany yet another year to continue preparing for her adventures, which were to be far more devastating and deadly than had been the First World War. Was Germany a “democracy” in 1938? If Clintonian language may be permitted, a lot depends on what is meant by “democracy.”
Churchill had been a leading proponent of stopping Hitler before massive devastation would be required. As he noted in The Gathering storm:
We must regard as deeply blameworthy before history … [all British parties] during this fatal period. Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation . . . the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist Party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality . . . constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience (emphasis added).
If he ever bothered to read about them, President Obama must think no more highly of Churchill’s warnings than he did of the Churchill bust he returned to the English soon after he ascended to the Oval Office.
As the world explodes today in such places as the Arab lands — problems in Algeria began recently — and as the fuses are being set for explosions in Venezuela, North Korea, China and elsewhere, the United States is preparing to cut military spending while simultaneously introducing “social justice” reforms in the military and preparing to spend funds to get our troops ready to accept those reforms without excessively impairing combat effectiveness. Having already been given an anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama evidently sees no need even to consider preserving the peace in the best way thus far found — being alert while keeping the country strong and ready to defend peace and itself.