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Walter Rodgers

Price of August naps: history's rudest awakenings

Stay alert, stay alive – especially in August, when Washington and much of Europe are on autopilot.

By Walter Rodgers / August 25, 2010



The world sometimes falls asleep in August. And when it wakes in September it sorely rues the nap. Some of the most consequential events in modern Western history happened in August. Yet many people still think “not much happens” this month.

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It’s understandable. Most of Washington, including Congress, is on vacation in August. So is nearly all of Europe. It’s tempting for the centers of power to go on autopilot. And this has sometimes proved to be ruinous.

World War I

In August 1914, people were dancing in the streets in Britain and France, rejoicing that their countries were about to go to war with the Central Powers: Germany and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. France, Britain, and Belgium were taking on the Kaiser’s army on the Western Front. In the east, Germany was invading Russia. The opening battles of World War I, the most disastrous conflict in history to that point, were fought in the eighth month of 1914.

Today, it is inconceivable that Europeans celebrated the outbreak of war. What followed was so catastrophic it reshaped the world for the rest of the century. After the 1918 truce, lasting but 27 years, the world again fell asleep at the switch in August 1939 when Adolf Hitler was mobilizing his army to invade Poland, igniting World War II.

Arguably, even with that “between the wars” truce, the guns of August 1914 did not go silent again until August 1945 when the United States detonated two atomic bombs above the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In retrospect, it seems those 20th-century conflicts evolved into a modern version of a second Hundred Years’ War.

Perhaps presidents and prime ministers should seriously consider taking their vacations in any month except August.

From Kuwait to Al Qaeda

Recall that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, leading to the much broader Persian Gulf War. And it was on Aug. 6, 2001, that President Bush was given a memo that Al Qaeda was determined to attack inside the United States.

While the hijackers made final preparations, Mr. Bush was in Texas, on vacation for almost the entire month. His contact with then CIA Director George Tenet, who was also “on leave” for part of August, was limited at best. And no one in power connected the dots when it was reported later that month that jihadist Zacarias Moussaoui (now serving life in prison for his role in 9/11), had been trying to learn to fly a Boeing 747.

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