Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Anglo-American pacifists, 1918-1939

A problem in relating to dogs is that they have no grasp of logic. If something happens once to them, they generalize that it is sure to happen every time. You would think that people wouldn’t be quite so simplistic, so illogical, and maybe they aren’t, quite. And yet they do generalize, just as a dog does, from inadequate information – from a sampling utterly inadequate to the purpose.

The British were appalled at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, for example. Surely the belligerents in that battle would agree that war, future wars were impossible. “The longest battle in the history of the world was fought at Verdun in 1916, with the greatest density of dead per square yard that has ever been known, and yet there was little to show for it. There, in an area a bit less than four square miles, 650,000 men were killed, wounded, or gassed in a period of ten months, with no significant gain of ground for either side, in an engagement that left both armies in substantially the same position as when they had begun.” (The Independence of Nations, David Fromkin, page 4)

We humans know we are more sophisticated than dogs. We reason that if we feel a certain way, being human, then all humans must feel the same way. After all, we share a “human nature.” “It was reasonable to suppose that the citizens of all of the belligerent countries had learned from their suffering that anything was better than going to war again. It turned out, however, that such was not the case. In the 1920s, while leading Englishmen were writing pacifist tracts on behalf of the League of Nations, disgruntled Germans were reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The victors thought that the war itself had been terrible; but the vanquished thought what was terrible about it was who had won it.” (Ibid page 5)

“Western leaders, such as Neville Chamberlain, in their quest for peace had made things worse rather than better.” (Ibid page 6)

Fromkin, following E. H. Carr and others believes it important to draw a distinction between internal and external politics. The conclusions drawn by Neville Chamberlain were valid for Britain internally. His mistake was in assuming that they were equally valid externally. He based his foreign policy upon that assumption to disastrous results.

Chamberlain, of course, wasn’t alone in this. The U.S. went even further in their repudiation of war. Their very first president had urged them not to get embroiled in foreign wars and a majority resolved to take that precept, especially after the horrors of World War I, more strongly to heart. What was World War One all about? No one could say. It was just one of those things the Europeans did. We were foolish to get involved and should take care that we weren’t caught up in any future such war. We can look back and smile at the naiveté of that “isolationist” sentiment – the American equivalent of British pacifism, but few at the time could see the invalid nature of such feelings and arguments. Yes, the British and Americans were in agreement on this subject, but such agreement was internal to Anglo-American politics. Externally, there was trouble brewing. The Germans did not share this Anglo-American view. They began preparing for war while the British and Americans talked ever more forcefully about peace.

Have we Anglo-Americans learned anything since those naïve interwar years? Maybe a little. We have at least learned that throwing away all our weapons of war is a foolish and dangerous thing. We are not as unprepared for war as we were in the years (1918-1939) between the wars. If anyone were to attack us, we are prepared. We can defend ourselves.

Unfortunately, international politics has become (or remains) complicated. No one is likely to attack us in the way the Germany and Japan attacked us. But we have complicated obligations beyond our borders, and we don’t know with clarity the right time to go to war to solve international difficulties. We went to war in Afghanistan after 9-11. That was considered okay. Then we went war in Iraq. There was divided opinion about that. The Anglo-American official (and initially the majority) view was that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein, but others argued that no, we should have spent more time talking. Talking had been neglected in dealing with Saddam Hussein.

Now we have a new President who is good at talking and he seems bent upon plying his skills in attempting to solve the difficulties presented by North Korea and Iran. It seems unlikely that those nations will begin invading their neighbors as Germany did in 1937. However, they both seem bent upon acquiring nuclear weapons. Can we Anglo-Americans risk allowing these two truculent nations to acquire weapons that can potentially damage our vital interests, and the vital interests of nations we are inextricably committed to?

The current political climate suggests that our leaders will be following in the footsteps of Neville Chamberlain in regard to North Korea and Iran. That is, we will be doing our best to talk them into behaving themselves, but we won’t go to war to make that happen. They speak of “getting tough” with North Korea and Iran. They speak of the nuclear weapons of North Korea and Iran as being “unacceptable.” And yet that is just talk. No action is being proposed – at least no military action.

I don’t have the foresight to declare that we ought to engage in military action against either nation at the present time. Perhaps Ahmadinejad won’t be reelected. Perhaps the next Iranian president will be more amenable to better relations with us. And perhaps Kim il-sun’s son will be less belligerent than his Great-Leader father. Perhaps we can afford to wait. This, despite doubting that we can afford, in terms of our economical wherewithal, to engage in another couple of wars.


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