Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Locust Years

Bevin Alexander on page 103 of How America got it Right discusses some of the matters that have interested me in the past and some that are currently interesting us. I’ll quote a bit from Alexander and comment below:

“Winston Churchill called the 1930s ‘the locust years,’ an apt and eloquent phrase. He was referring to the terrible losses, mistakes, and failures that devoured all hope of peace during that tragic decade. The words came from the Old Testament book of Joel, which described a period of calamity in ancient Israel as ‘the years that the locust hath eaten.’ When today we look back on those sad times leading up to World War II, we are dismayed at the inability of well-intentioned people to see what should have been plainly evident – that Germany, Italy, and Japan were bent on aggression of the most ferocious and destructive kind, and that they had to be stopped.

“Whole libraries have been written trying to explain why the leaders of the Western democracies appeased the dictators and allowed the crimes to happen – fear of another bloodletting like the first world war; belief in the peaceful intentions of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and the Japanese militarists; paralysis caused by the Great Depression that began in 1929; the wish that a pact ‘outlawing war’ would actually be obeyed; and, among Americans especially, the hope that the murders would occur in places far away, and that we could remain safe and unaffected behind our oceans.

“The decade of the 1930s stands out as the longest and most sustained period of willful blindness in American history. During those years our leaders refused to accept either reality or the duty that bound them to protect their nation and their civilization. During the entire reach from the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 to the German defeat of France in the spring of 1940, America did not get it right, and we and the world suffered immeasurable harm because of it. It is no consolation that the other democracies did no better than we did, for if America had stood up resolutely, the weaker and more timid democracies would have been emboldened, and the world could have avoided the most terrible war in its history. The 1930s should serve as a cautionary tale to guide our future conduct – if we allow some aggression to get by, it almost certainly will grow into more aggression.

“Today we tend to look back on the sellout of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in 1938 as the worst and most disgraceful failure of the decade. But in fact this appeasement of Hitler was by no means the most horrible of the atrocities we allowed to happen. We let Japan take over Manchuria and north China and murder hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese civilians in Shanghai, Nanjing, and other cities. We did nothing when Mussolini’s Italy bombed villages in harmless Ethiopia in 1935-36. We took no action when Hitler rearmed Germany in 1934-35 and remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, both in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, and we stood idly by when he annexed Austria in 1939.”


A: I’ve been in discussions in the past about whether there was anything anyone could have done to prevent Hitler’s rise to power. There was a time when, I argued, France and Britain could have stopped Hitler. Polly thought the U.S. should have come to Britain’s aid sooner. Alexander is more in Polly’s camp than mine. I have argued that we were in an isolationist frame of mind at the time and therefore could not have helped anyone. Alexander doesn’t excuse us for that. We should have been wiser, we should have gotten it right but didn’t.

B: Alexander says that we should have stopped Japan as well. Polly is still angry that Japan never apologized for the Rape of Nanking (spelled “Nanjing” by Alexander) and Alexander blames the U.S. for not stopping the Japanese militarists. Perhaps the U.S. should apologize for not stopping the Rape of Nanking. [I’m being sarcastic, not believing we can or should feel guilty for the evil acts of others.]

C: While it is true that we drew back like the Japanese cartoon and pulled the covers over our head after WWI, Alexander points out that we had at that time the most powerful Navy in the World. It is true that we preserved it (after WWI) in order to protect our isolationism from all those crazy foreigners killing each other over there, but we should have known better. We should have known that Japan had militaristic ambitions that we would have to deal with eventually and many lives could be saved if we had been wiser, including the lives lost at Nanking.

D: I squirm a little over Alexander’s anachronistic analyses. I tend to think in terms of what we could have done given our isolationistic predisposition. Alexander thinks in terms of what we should have done and doesn’t make any allowance for our isolationism. Isolationism was wrong and he wants us to learn just how wrong it was so we don’t make that sort of mistake again.

E: Should we act quickly to avoid more “locust years” by preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Should we act against the Russian Autocracy as it strives to restore as much of its empire as possible? No one else is in a position to do very much against these threats at the present time, but Alexander says no one else was in a position to oppose the Germans, Italians, and Japanese in the 30s. Yes, Britain and France were over there in Europe and had militaries, but WWI had made them timid. WWI, he points out, had not made the U.S. timid. The fog of war made Iraq more difficult than some of us anticipated, but did it make us timid?

Lawrence Helm

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