Having read Churchill’s The Gathering Storm for the third or fourth time, it strikes me as frighteningly inauspicious, and not only for the United States today. Churchill was a leading proponent of stopping Hitler before stopping him would involve the massive devastation inflicted on much of the world when World War II eventually came. He noted:
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.
Far worse horrors and miseries are now, decades later, easily possible. The world has changed dramatically and we are now in an exponential age. Now, we have little more than “Churchillian resolution in the face of untrammeled cow flatulence” and the horrors of global warming; this seems a misplaced priority. History remains important — perhaps to a greater extent than ever before.
There are those who dilute the conception of what happened in and was done by Nazi Germany by drawing analogies to far less malign events. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles recently said the following in reference to Arizona’s new immigration law: “I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques.” Ironically, he went on to say, “Let’s not allow fearful and ill-informed rhetoric to shape public policy.” We have also declared war on obesity and possibly acne.
One petty example of the problem facing England was the 1933 Oxford resolution, which stated that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” This attitude (perhaps understandable not very many years following the end of World War I) and its all too adequate representation of the pacifist mood then pervasive in the country caused Churchill to write:
Mussolini, like Hitler, regarded Britannia as a frightened, flabby old woman, who at worst would only bluster and was, anyhow, incapable of making war.
Britain and France were both weary and reluctant to do much of anything about Hitler until too long after he had conquered territory which, had there been any showing of willingness to use force against his depredations, he would not have attempted. At the Nuremberg trials:
Colonel Eger, representing Czechoslovakia, asked [German] Marshal Keitel: “Would the Reich have attacked Czechoslovakia in 1938 if the Western Powers had stood by Prague?
Marshal Keitel answered: “Certainly not. We were not strong enough militarily. The object of Munich [i.e., reaching an agreement at Munich] was to get Russia out of Europe, to gain time, and to complete the German armaments.”
The Treaty of Versailles imposed grave and unreasonable burdens on a defeated Germany, and Hitler rose to power at least in part due to German resentment and his genius in taking full advantage of it. President Wilson’s League of Nations was toothless and impotent, and its objections to such things as Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia had no effect except, perhaps, to make it the butt of jokes. Would things have been different had the United States joined the League of Nations? I doubt it, but it is impossible to know. Churchill observed:
[T]he Americans merely shrugged their shoulders, so that in a few years they had to pour out the blood and treasures of the New World to save themselves from mortal danger.