What would Churchill have done about Saddam Hussein?
Sir Winston Churchill, probably the greatest statesman of the 20th century, sounded an early alarm in the 1930s about the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Churchill demanded toughness by Great Britain and France, but his words were drowned by public cries for "Peace."
Before Hitler's armies were eventually crushed a decade later, an estimated 40 million to 50 million people were killed in the most savage war in history.
Now another dictator, Saddam Hussein, may pose a new kind of threat to world security through terrorism. If Churchill were here, would he support President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, or would he side with French President Jacques Chirac, who opposed a preemptive military attack?
In a recent speech to the nation, Mr. Bush compared the current Iraqi showdown to the 1930s when British and French diplomats backed down in the face of German threats to Czechoslovakia. He said: "In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war."
In several ways, these moments in history are comparable.
Germany, like Iraq, was dominated by a ruthless dictator, Adolf Hitler.
Germany, like Iraq, had been defeated in a war with the Allies (World War I), and had signed a peace treaty that severely limited its military weapons and manpower. Germany, like Iraq, was subject to international weapons inspections, but found ingenious ways to hide its arms. Germany, like Iraq, suffered severe (and perhaps foolish) economic sanctions under a peace treaty that virtually destroyed its middle class.
The public mood around the globe today is also similar to those earlier days. Then, as now, many of the world's people are calling for compromise and peace, not a sharp military confrontation. Yet if Churchill were here, he might see today's cries for peace as weakness.
In his six-volume history that spans 1918 to 1945, Churchill says that President Franklin D. Roosevelt once asked him what he would call the Second World War. Churchill immediately replied: "The Unnecessary War." He explained: "There was never a war more easy to stop." From the time of Germany's defeat in World War I until at least 1934, "German rearmament could have been prevented without the loss of a single life," Churchill wrote.
Instead of firmness, however, the Allies (principally Great Britain, France, and the United States) vacillated. Instead of maintaining their own strength, the Allies voluntarily disarmed. Instead of modernizing their war-fighting abilities, the Allies built washing machines and refrigerators. Instead of increasing their inspections of Germany under terms of the peace treaty, the Allies pulled the Inter-Allied Control Commission out of that nation in 1927.
Even when the final military showdown came in 1939, the Allies hesitated. France, which had seen more than 6 million of its people killed, wounded, and missing in World War I, shuddered at the thought of another bloodbath with the great Teutonic Powers. As Churchill noted, after that first great war, "with one passionate spasm the French people cried, 'Never again!'"
Britain, primarily a sea power, had neither the resources nor the military strength to block the Nazis single-handedly in Europe.
Hitler shrewdly seized just one country at a time as he built up his military forces. First, he fortified his Western border with France. Then he gobbled up Austria without a fight. Czechoslovakia, his next target, fell into his hands when Britain and France betrayed the Czechs.
Only when the Fuehrer launched his blitzkreig, or lightning war, with his newly minted army and air forces did Britain and France finally join the battle. By then it was too late. (Forty-eight hours after Germany attacked Poland, Churchill was elevated to the Cabinet as first lord of the Admiralty).
Churchill, who as a rebellious backbencher in Parliament had watched in horror as his predictions of a revived German militarism came true, is blunt about the weakness that brought about this tragedy.
Throughout the buildup to World War II, he said, "the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous."
There are times in the affairs of nations when moderation can be disastrous. As Churchill put it: "The counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger." He cautioned that "the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull's-eye of disaster."
It is said that words like these from Churchill have influenced the men and women who advise President Bush on foreign and military policy. Certainly it sounds that way when Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, says:
"When democracies wait too long to confront tyranny, more people die."
John Dillin, now retired, was managing news editor and a correspondent for more than 40 years for the Monitor.