Barack Churchill, 1939

Winston Churchill, well before he became prime minister in May 1940, was busy all through 1939 prompting the British government to prepare for war -- and then, as first lord of the Admiralty, helping to direct it once it broke out. But what if Churchill had been Barack Obama? What would Britain’s foremost opponent of appeasement have been like?

The Munich Agreement

Obama-Churchill might have said something like the following in regards to the 1938 Munich Agreement.

“We live in a complex world and at a challenging time. And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions, but all of them require British leadership. If we stay patient and determined, then we will, in fact, meet these challenges. The Munich Agreement is a comprehensive government agreement.  It is the first that actually constrains Nazi Germany from further aggression, and one whose provisions are transparent and enforceable. It is a sober and judicious way to preclude war and to bring Germany back into the family of nations and to become a credible regional power, while allowing the German people to express their legitimate aspirations.”

“Obviously, the last twenty years of ostracizing Germany has not worked. So it’s time for some creative reset diplomacy, and a reengagement to get out of the rut of the last two decades.  I don’t believe, as did former British officials, in snubbing supposed enemies, but rather in engaging and talking with them. Lots of you in the American newspaper business keep expecting us, like some American baseball team, to hit home runs. Well, we’re perfectly happy to hit singles and doubles like this agreement.”

“Finally, the relationship between Germany and Western Europe includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also a long history of conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Germans, and a shaky peace in which German-speaking majorities were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity led many Germans to view the West as hostile to the traditions of German culture. Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Germans. The attacks of 1939 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians have led some in my country to view Germany as inevitably hostile not only to Britain and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust. So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

“How can we in good conscience justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?”

The Dismemberment of Czechoslovakia

“I don’t think we could characterize Hitler’s absorption of Czechoslovakia as anything but stupid. He seems to be in some sort of macho shtick, acting the sort of bored classroom cut-up that we all knew in high school. Goose-stepping around and flashing a stiff-arm salute are not my idea of leadership, much less sending in the jack-booted automatons and some dive-bombers.”

“I mean that’s just not smart. That’s stupid. And Hitler will soon find out what it means to turn off most of the members of the international community, the League of Nations, and the Western democracies. Germany has had enough internal problems without taking on others. Make no mistake about it: We will soon see Hitler regret what he has got himself into. And we certainly can beef up sanctions and perhaps even consider a number of no-fly zones over his neighbors. Hitler is punching well above his weight class. As for the Czechs, Czechoslovakia’s future will be in the hands of its people. And as for those Germans who reject peace, they’re making common cause with our own British warmongers.  Right now we do not want a disproportionate response from either side.”

On Leadership

“Some in the British media are really fooled by Hitler.  I don’t think he and his Nazi buddies are getting away with much of anything. Annexing most of Czechoslovakia and now invading Poland are hardly wise moves, much less are they conducive to international progress. Notice again that Nazi Germany is even more roundly denounced by most of the global community. In point of fact, understand that it is simply not in Hitler’s interest to flex his muscles, and he will soon see how easily he will become bogged down and overextended. In contrast, we here in Britain are still leading the international community in joint accords, hoping to revive the stalled naval limitations treaties to reduce arms expenditure, trying to update and revise the Versailles Treaty, and as well leading the world in transitioning train and ship transportation, from reliant on dirty coal, to less-polluting oil. What the world needs now are more vaccinations, not bombs. I think all that fits my definition of a true leader far better than banging around Czechoslovakia and Poland like some bull in a china shop. And certainly what we do not need is some disproportionate response that initiates a cycle of violence on both sides. We need to tamp down the rhetoric.”

On Red Lines

“I’m not kidding and I do not bluff: We’ve made it very clear to Herr Hitler that after Czechoslovakia and Poland, should he next turn westward in 1940, now that would be a real game changer. A red line for us British is we start seeing a whole bunch of panzers moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.  So let me be perfectly clear: Hitler would find himself with lots of opposition if he were to cross the  French border. Over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the momentum of global fascism. We've built strong European security forces. The goal that I set -- to defeat fascism and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is now within our reach.”

On the Need for Respect for German Culture

“My job to the German-speaking world is to communicate that the British are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. My team has also made it perfectly clear that Britain is not and never will be at war with the German people. Germany has given the world a rich culture that has enlightened us and deserves our respect, with everything from breakthroughs in undersea navigation to stratospheric ballistics. When we were struggling with basic science, Germany in contrast offered the world high-quality metallurgy, sophisticated optics, and advanced petrochemicals and insecticides. Germany and Austria are the embryos of Marx, Freud, and the Frankfurt School, and we deeply honor and appreciate those achievements that I must say in many areas outpace our own.”

“I’d also like to remind my fellow British subjects not to climb on their moral high horses. While Britain was forcibly colonizing the poor in Asia and Africa, and conducted genocide abroad, Germany in comparison had left a very small colonial imprint. It had no record of exploitation in the Americas and was not much of an overseas imperial nation. Its factories burn a lot less coal than do ours. So it might be wise for us to look inward a bit and calibrate the wages of our own imperialism. Germany does not rule India. It does not dictate to so-called dominions of subordinate states. It has no record of trafficking in and transporting slaves. There is no longer any such thing as a Germany monarchy.”

“So before we cast stones against the German government, it might be first wise to ensure that we do not do so from glass houses. Germany is a nation of peace. Great Britain will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made. Our country still struggles with the legacies of segregation, and the past treatment of those in India. Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future.”

On Hyping the Threat

“The analogy we use around London sometimes for Hitler’s bunch, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Yankee uniforms that doesn’t make them Babe Ruth.  It think too often we get caught up in a time warp, as if 1914 is now calling to ask for its foreign policy back. Has anyone heard that the Great War is over? And it’s not like Germany is still some existential threat or something, much less Britain’s chief enemy.”

“Remember that going into France in 1914 caused a whole lot of problems for Britain of the sort we certainly don’t want to repeat. And as far as the threat of the Nazi U-boat fleet and our ability to meet it, the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities. And so when I sit down with the Admiralty, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure that our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home. And over the long term, in order for us to compete with Germany and others, we've also got to make sure, though, that we're taking -- taking care of business here at home. If we don't have the best education system in the world, if we don't continue to put money into research and technology that will allow us to create great businesses here in the Great Britain, that's how we lose the competition.”

Who knows? A Barack Churchill might have been able to talk Hitler back out of World War II.

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