Jaw-jaw vs. war-war: Here we go again

Jaw-jaw vs. war-war: Here we go again

Because we were traveling at the end of May, we DVRed the History Channel’s miniseries The World Wars. The first episode, Trial By Fire, introduced some of the main players in World War II, showed their roles in World War I, and how The Great War influenced the run-up to, and conduct of, WW II.

The second episode, A Rising Threat, describes the period between the Wars, ending with the Battle of Britain and the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor. It focused on the personages introduced in the first episode and introduced some figures who played pivotal roles in World War II: Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo. There was one significant person in this period who, in Broadway terminology, would be called a “featured performer”: Neville Chamberlain, whose polices led to Britain’s precarious position prior to Hitler launching the Blitz on London.

As I watched, I found myself doing a running commentary on the actions and inactions of Chamberlain and Franklin Roosevelt. My most common comment was “Just like today.”

I knew I sound like a broken record every time I quote George Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” as well as Robert Heinlein’s cautionary “A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future.”

I am afraid the United States is on the road Heinlein warned about.

Here are a few decisions of Roosevelt and Chamberlain that put the world on the road to war.

The New Deal cost more money that was available on civilian projects, negatively impacting the funds available for defense. You may be familiar with the macroeconomics model of “guns or butter.” Between 1932 and 1934, Roosevelt slashed the annual military budget by $221 million ($3.8 trillion in today’s dollars), or 30 percent, and cut veterans’ benefits by 40 percent. This led to a famous confrontation with Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. At the onset of World War II, America had an army slightly smaller than that of Portugal, ranking 16th in the world. That unwillingness to fund defense led both Hitler and the Japanese to believe they could make war on the United States with impunity.

In February, the Obama administration announced it would cut the Army to its pre-WWII size. We have seen the effects the Roosevelt military budget reductions had on Hitler and Tojo. Will Obama’s cuts have the same effect on today’s adversaries in Russia, China, and various radical Islamist movements like Al Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

Roosevelt didn’t want to be drawn into a war. Thus, he did not respond to Churchill’s entreaties prior to the onset and the early days of WWII. He also turned a blind eye towards Japan’s advances in China and elsewhere. He had to be told by an aide that the United States was the source of oil for the Japanese war machine. He ordered an embargo.

Japan eyed Indonesia as a replacement source of oil, but the road to Borneo led through a U.S. territory, the Philippines. Tojo had to end the U.S. Pacific presence. You know how that played out in Bataan, Corregidor, and Pearl Harbor.

A similar story was playing out in England. Churchill, a hawk who accurately forecast the results of appeasing Hitler, was in disgrace. During the first war, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he ordered the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. After his resignation, he spent much of his career trying to rehabilitate himself. Thus, his warnings about Hitler did not have a receptive audience.

Like Roosevelt, Chamberlain cut the military budget to enhance civilian expenditures. Chamberlain had a strong faith in settling conflicts could be settled by negotiation. (It appears Obama shares this trait.) When Hitler started his military advances, he found that the only British opposition came in the form of words. He had the full measure of Chamberlain for which he was rewarded in Munich. 

Chamberlain, to stave off criticism, reappointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. The invasions of Poland and France followed. Reluctantly, Chamberlain declared war on Germany and soon after resigned, leaving Churchill as prime minister.

The outmanned and outgunned British were thrown off the continent at Dunkirk. Hitler, sensing a weak foe, ordered the Blitz on England. If it wasn’t for Churchill’s brilliance in recreating the RAF, Germany would have beaten England.

This episode demonstrates that inaction and negotiation, coupled with a weakened military, does not stave off conflict when the adversary is determined to destroy or permanently damage you. Our adversaries know this. Does Washington?

As Churchill upbraided Chamberlain on his return from Munich, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

Our leaders face the same choice today. Will they learn from history and choose wisely?

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