History repeating: Chamberlain, or Churchill?


Santayana’s warning to the ill-educated rests, sometimes uneasily, at the opening of this blog — a warning to get history, and get history right.

Presidents in sticky situations have occasionally suggested their domestic critics were less than patriotic.  Some claim the current administration has made this a standard claim against almost all criticism of foreign policy.  In speeches to the American Legion meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George Bush criticized their critics.  (Here’s the transcript of Rumsfeld’s remarks, from Stars & Stripes; here is the transcript of Bush’s remarks from Salt Lake City’s Deseret News.)

Here are Rumsfeld’s words that sent so many to their history books; Rumsfeld said:

It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored. Indeed, in the decades before World War II, a great many argued that the fascist threat was exaggerated or that it was someone else’s problem. Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal clear. It was, as Winston Churchill observed, a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last.

There was a strange innocence about the world. Someone recently recalled one U.S. senator’s reaction in September of 1939 upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland to start World War II. He exclaimed:

“Lord, if only I had talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided!”

I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today — another enemy, a different kind of enemy — has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history’s lessons.

(Someone has already wondered whether Rumsfeld got the quote right, and to what senator it might be blamed; Idaho’s Sen. William Borah is the likely candidate, according to The American Prospect.)

Rumsfeld’s example should get your blood heated up, if not boiling.  Problem is, according to Keith Olberman, part of the example should cut against Rumsfeld:  It was Neville Chamberlain’s government who criticized Winston Churchill as being in error.  Had the government only listened to the dissenters, many lives might have been saved, the war shortened, etc., etc.  Olberman’s opinion is worth reading through to the end, and it’s available at Crooks and Liars.

Sometimes it’s necessary to know more than the history; it’s necessary to know literature, too.  “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” wrote Sir Walter Scott.

Tip o’ the old scrub brush to Pharyngula.

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