In doing so, they must strip their policies of the comforting illusions of the past decade and soberly construct a new strategy to deal with that confrontation if they are to turn crisis into opportunity.
When Illusions Die
A previous collapse of a policy that had affected an entire continent for a decade took place in 1939, with the start of World War II. Recalling it is instructive since it bears not only a striking resemblance to the United States’ and Israel’s current predicament, but the ideas and policies which led them both astray can be traced directly to that moment.
World War I ended in a resounding victory for the Allies. A number of factors anchored the new system in peace and stability: the enhanced power of Britain and the entry of American power into continental European politics. America’s entry into the war more than compensated for the removal of Russia from the Allied camp. As longs as both the US and Britain maintained clarity about the utility and influence of their power and confidence in its political underpinnings, their victory would stand and their ideas gradually could secure the entire continent.
Unfortunately, by the late 1920’s neither of these conditions obtained. America truned inward and Britain’s elite were their traditional ideas of cynicism. They failed to see how special were their traditional ideas of freedom, and how dangerous and violent a tyrannical opponent might be. This is cynicism, perhaps even coupled with a romantic attachemnt to authoritarianism, affected not only British policy toward the continent, but also toward its colonies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Finally, Britian’s leaders convinced themselves that the Allies’ victory in World War I changed mankind. It became fashionable to believe that large-scale war in Europe was impossible, and to dismiss the contemplation of strategy as the amusement of regressive minds.
It was not surprising, then, that in the early 1930’s a German leader rose to challenge the hollowed out post World War I system in its entirety and began issuing bellicose threats against the West, Jews and Slavs. ANd it also is not surprising that in such an environment British leaders concluded that Hitler harbored deep antipathy to the Western powers not because of who they are – free nations – and who he was – a totalitarian despot – but because the West had inflicted on Germany a grave injustice. As a result, the two Nevilles, Chamberlain (the Prime Minister) and Hederson (his ambassdor in Berlin) failed to see that Hitler’s assault on the Versailles settlement was not a satiable, diplomatic cry for respect, but an attempt to resume the war and change its verdict by launching a clearly stated strategic assault to reverse the victory that had ended it.
Instead, as Hitler’s threats increased, British leaders entertained a grand fanstasy. They labored under the misconception that large-scale war was universally detested, even by Hitler. All belonged to the camp of peace, but Hitler had his “extremists” to worry about. To avert an unthinkable war and help Hitler keep his “extremists” in check, Hitler’s obvious belligerence had to be ignored, and the “root causes” of resentment assuaged. This required no less than the wholesale reversal of the Versailles Treaty’s terms – including reoccupation of “German” areas, placing them under Hitler’s control, starting with the Rhineland and ending with the Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia. The two Nevilles imagined that to pursue peace, the post-World War I era, having been born in sin, would have to be replaced by a system that took account of German national aspirations. As a result, Britian’s leadership became unwitting accomplices in a strategic assault on their own interests, the inevitable concomitant of the effort to re-settle World War I on terms more favorable for Germany.
After Hitler swallowed the truncated remainder of Czechoslovakia and began preparing for war against Poland, British leaders were seized with the horrific and bewildering realization that not only had they completely misunderstood the sources of Hitler’s behavior, but in their eagerness to come to terms with him they had committed a massive strategic blunder. Allowing Hitler to reoccupy and remilitarized the Rhineland, allowing him to seize Czechoslovakia with its army, technology and geography, guaranteed that the Western powers now would fight a war on unfavorable terms. As Winston Churchill said after Munich: “Mr. Chamberlain had a choice between war and peace with dishonor. He chose dishonor. He shall have war.”
A sobered, grim Britain was forced to prepare for and then fight the very war it so desparately had tried to avoid. It is nearly impossible to overstate the key role Churchill played at this moment. Slicing through the essence of the conflict: desposts are driven by their nature to hate free nations. Hitler’s despotic nature, not unjust Western behavior, led Germany to war. As a result, Churchill mobilized his nation to obliterate Nazi-ism, not contain it as advisors such as Lord Halifax had wanted. Once the politial principle was set – that this was a war between freedom and depotism – Britain and the United States could craft a coherent strategy that in the end changed the political systems of Europe. The West’s leaders and opportunity to profoundly and permanently reshape a continent. Indeed, in the end even Europe’s last greate tyranny, the Soviet Union and its captive empire, would fall.