Saturday, 5 June 2004

The Lessons of History

This is an article I've just written over at The Command Post. It's for a mainly American Audience, but you don't have to be American to get the point.

Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Most readers will at least have some basic idea of what that day was, though it's likely that at least some won't.

A thoughtful and intelligent reader, HullBreach, wrote about a previous historical article :
I'm going to have to poke around a bit, I'd like to learn more about what went on. I remember talking about the time leading up to WW2 in my College history classes, but there was never any king of Anti-war movement mentioned. Only an “uneasyness” about going to war in Europe again. Very interesting.

I wonder if I’ll tell my kids about something like this some day.
That last line makes him perceptive too.

Looking about me, at the many good-intentioned and well-meaning folks who truly do believe that Bush=Hitler, that it's All About Oil, and as Maureen Dowd said in the New York Times :
World War II had such stark moral clarity in history that it’s almost irrelevant in providing lessons about conflict in a grayer time. seems that recent History is something that hasn't been taught all that well. Back at the end of 2002, I talked with a Leftie of my acquaintance who, while reviling George W. Bush as an Evil Moron, saw World War II as an unambiguously moral and just war, that no-one of any sense could possibly have criticised.

It is for these people that I present the following, a re-write of a lengthy response to HullBreach.

Pretend it's 1941.

In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Charles A. Lindbergh claimed that the "three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration". Soon afterwards Gerald Nye argued "that the Jewish people are a large factor in our movement toward war."
Here's a slight re-write so you can gauge the impact of this at the time :
In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Astronaut Neil Armstrong claimed that the "three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the Israelis, the Neocons and the Bush administration". Soon afterwards Senator Edwards argued "that the Likud Neocons are a large factor in our movement toward war."
Strong Stuff. So what was the extent of opposition to any military move against Hitler? What was 1941's ANSWER? It was the America First Committee. Never heard of it? Must have been some radical fringe group, right? You think there's been opposition to a morally dubious and probably illegal Iraq War, compared with wholehearted US support versus Hitler?
From a Charles Lindbergh site :
America First Committee, founded in September 1940, was the most powerful isolationist group in America before the United States entered World War II. It had over 800,000 members, who wanted to keep America neutral.
That's EIGHT HUNDRED THOUSAND members, at time when the USA's population was much less. By today's terms, it would be over a million, and some.

But what about the rest of America? Surely at least 50% of people supported war against the Axis? From the Houghton-Mifflin Companion to American History : Isolationism
But in 1940-1941 many still supported the noninterventionist America First Committee. Isolationists failed to block proposals by the Roosevelt administration to aid victims of Axis aggression with methods short of war. Nonetheless, 80 percent of Americans opposed any declaration of war against the Axis states.
80 PERCENT. You think opposition to the Liberation of Iraq is high, with between 50 and 30 percent against it?

Roosevelt managed to secure a conscription act - the Selective Service and Training Act - on the 16th of September, 1940, at a time when France had just fallen, and it looked like England would soon follow. But a year later, in 1941, with Hitler blitzkrieging Russia but with England saved by the Battle of Britain, it was renewed.... just. From the Washington Times :
In 1941, it wasn't much different. Despite German, Italian and Japanese aggression on three continents, the American public showed no appetite for war. On August 12, 1941, legislation to create the Selective Service to facilitate military conscription was bitterly debated and passed the House by one vote.
One Vote. The difference between the US being able to engage in Operation Torch in Africa and defend Guadalcanal in the Pacific in 1942, and... not.

But surely the Palestinian Flags that appear in every anti-war demonstration show that there's something new, Islamic Americans flocking en masse to criticise Bush the Warmonger? Cries of 'Allahu Ackbar' and 'Down with Bush' echo at each demonstration. And CAIR has how many thousand members? Well imagine if the CAIR-led parades were led by a full EIGHT THOUSAND wearing face-masks and Hezbollah gear. From an article on the German-American Bund :
Actual membership figures for the G - A Bund, are not known with any certainty, but reliable estimates place membership at 25,000 dues paying members, including some 8,000 uniformed Storm Troopers. The G - A Bund carried out active propaganda for its causes, published magazines and brochures, organized demonstrations and maintained a number of youth camps run along the lines of the HITLERJUGEND (Hitler Youth). ...A February 1939 rally of the G - A Bund in Madison Square Garden drew a crowd of 20,000 who consistently booed the American president and chanted the Nazi Heil Hitler. The G - A Bund closely cooperated with the "Christian Front" organized by the antisemitic priest, Father Charles COUGHLIN.
And that leads me to the Michael Moore of 1941, Father Coughlin. But he was far Moore(sic) popular than Michael, even Michael Jackson.
...some observers claimed that Father Coughlin was the second most important political figure in the United States. It was estimated that Coughlin's radio broadcasts were getting an audience of 30 million people. He was also having to employ twenty-six secretaries to deal with the 400,000 letters a week he was receiving from his listeners.
Think about it for a minute. How many Media Superstars, let alone TV political commentators, regularly reach audiences of this size every week today? And how many get such a deluge of letters, many containing donations to the Anti-Bush, Anti-Neocon, Anti-War cause? But surely Father Coughlin was relatively moderate . No Bush-Hating Moonbat. No "it's all about OIL.
Coughlin's opinions became more extreme. In September 1940 he described President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "the world's chief war-monger". The following year he wrote in Social Justice: "Stalin's idea to create world revolution and Hitler's so-called threat to seek world domination are not half as dangerous combined as is the proposal of the current British and American administrations to seize all raw materials in the world. Many people are beginning to wonder who they should fear most - the Roosevelt-Churchill combination or the Hitler-Mussolini combination."
Again, I'll re-write so you get at least a glimpse of what it must have been like at the time.
Moore's opinions became more extreme. In September 2003 he described President George W.Bush as "the world's chief war-monger". The following year he wrote in "Who Stole My Election?": "Bin Laden's idea to create a world Caliphate and Saddam's so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction are not half as dangerous combined as is the proposal of the current British and American administrations to seize all the Oil in the Middle East. Many people are beginning to wonder who they should fear most - the Bush-Blair combination or the Bin Laden-Saddam combination."
Sound all too familiar? As if these words came from yesterday's paper?

After Pearl Harbor, the American People united behind Roosevelt though. As Maureen Dowd said :
Although conservatives compared Saddam to Hitler, America did not have to be persuaded with “actionable” intelligence before confronting Hitler. That dictator was an individual weapon of mass destruction.
..and Congress declared War on Hitler on December 8th. Except they didn't.

Congress only declared war on the Japanese - and astoundingly, the vote wasn't unanimous. Arguably Hitler's greatest mistake was to declare War on the USA on December 11th. It's entirely possible that despite Roosevelt's pressure to go to war against Germany, that the Congress would only have supported a war against Japan.

Because Hitler had no more a part in Pearl Harbor than Saddam had in 9/11. In fact, from the evidence now available, rather less.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

And those who can remember are condemned to teach those who can't. Now there are many, many differences between then and now: for example, the US dead during training for D-Day exceeded the total US killed in Iraq and Afghanistan up to now. (743 were killed by a German torpedo attack on a single day in May 1944). Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them civilians, were killed during the Liberation of France in 1944. And France had less population than Iraq and Afghanistan combined do today.

But as for the Anti-war movement against that 'obvious weapon of mass destruction', Hitler, then there are many striking parallels. The major difference was that in 1941, many Republicans were Anti-war simply because a Democrat was in the White House, rather than the reverse.

UPDATE : And to prove that the problem of history being taught poorly isn't confined to the USA alone, just go visit Sasha Castel for a post on that very subject.

UPDATE : And in Australia, Gareth Parker reports some shocking ignorance about D-day.

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