Official’s in Washington are gushing over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his appeal last week to a joint session of Congress – claiming it rivals Winston Churchill’s speech on December 26, 1941 – thanking America for entering WWII. Ukraine’s cause is just, but WWIII this is not.
To be undiplomatically blunt, Zelenskyy is not Churchill. Ukraine is not Greater Europe. Putin is not Hitler. America has not been attacked, no Pearl Harbor, no parallel attack on American interests, nor NATO country, or even Greater Europe.
To say such a thing is anathema, an invitation to broad mockery, but reality matters – as does historical perspective. Ukraine 2022 is not Great Britain 1941. Distinctions are significant, as are flow-down policy implications.
Mr. Zelenskyy is a hearty soul, courageous, convicted, and worth hearing. His message was – having listened to his speech – heartfelt, earnest, alive with desperation, back against the wall, young and vital warrior, easy in fatigues, his country unjustly invaded.
The right response from America is what we have offered – support for his nation, defensive and proportionate, moral and material, aligned with his quest for restored sovereignty. But there, in fairness, it should end.
Many peoples around the globe crave liberty, suffer injustice, are put upon, invaded nationally, regionally, partially, and personally. Because we – Americans – believe in the cause of liberty, we speak up for them, do what we can, offer humanitarian and military aid. We do that for those afflicted, and to deter powerful nations from overrunning those in harm’s way, like Taiwan.
But history is not recorded to be distorted. It is not written down, meticulously kept by historians to be summoned in bits and pieces, lofted in support of this or that convenient moment, or neatly fitted into a carefully crafted false narrative – so that some political outcome appears necessary.
In December 1941, the United States was brutally, unexpectedly, immorally attacked by the Japanese empire, an event quickly followed by a declaration of war against the United States by Nazi Germany’s leader, Adolph Hitler – who had overrun much of Europe.
Americans were not in the line of fire; we had been fired upon, thousands of young men and women killed, warships destroyed, forced to take a stand. What had been a divided public, many praying to avoid war, suddenly came together. No sunlight between us, we knew our duty.
By the time Churchill addressed Americans in a joint session, reminding us of his American mother, the unadulterated evil of our enemies, and the justice in our joint cause – we were at war.
Moreover, the war we were “at” was one of survival, ours, Greater Europe’s, the Far East – the entire world. Hitler was not an immoral autocrat with limited ambitions, but a demonic figure in global history, whom we now know was systematically, racially, and religiously exterminating whole peoples, author of civilian horrors beyond description and battlefield massacres unrivalled in modern history.
In short, the world was already at war, the stakes existential, and the plea by Churchill – whose country was the last remaining bulwark against Nazi domination of Europe – was visceral. All of Europe vanished forever, or the United States stepped into the breach.
The enormity of that moment cannot be overstated – and should not be misapplied. The United States mobilized 16 million young men, 350,000 young women – and we went to war. We did that in places like Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and thousands of battlefields – where we buried 450,000 young Americans, brought home millions wounded.
When the United States goes to war – we go with one purpose, one unmitigated, uncompromised, and ultimately undiluted purpose, to win. That is the only way to enter a war, and we do that with enormous reluctance, for obvious reasons.
All this brings me back to the difference between Churchill and Zelenskyy, Europe in 1941 and Ukraine in 2022, Hitler’s Nazi machine and Putin’s pathetic, post-Soviet, devastating but doomed ambitions.
In short, we should always side with those who fight for freedom and have always endeavored to do so. When serving as Assistant Secretary of State to Colin Powell, my job deposited me in countless places – in all of which, the people drew inspiration from America.
These places were far flung, but America’s commitment to supporting – along with our allies – freedom wherever people’s longed for it, was clear, unequivocal, undoubted, and un-stumbling.
In the days of Reagan, these places included the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and communist dominated countries; in the days of Powell at State, they included people seeking freedom and security in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Laos, and countless other nations; my days were spent there, and we did not flinch.
But support for freedom does not mean going to war unnecessarily, risking blood and treasure without basis, or spending Americans into a hole for the satisfaction of a cause. Ukraine is a complex, war torn, historically corrupt, and ethnically vexed place.
The nation deserves respect, sovereignty, and relief from Putin’s immoral war, but that does not mean the United States should be putting ourselves on a war footing, preparing for a Europe-wide battlefront, up-funding Ukraine past present commitments.
Empathy comes easily to Americans, and that is a strength. But this is not 1941, Ukraine is not Greater Europe, Putin is not Hitler, and – for all his youthful energy and ideals, courage and convictions – Zelenskyy is not Churchill. Historical perspective tends to produce caution, and it should here. America is a beacon, but unless we make a mistake, WWIII is not upon us.
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