Price of August naps: history's rudest awakenings

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

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.

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.

Had top officials been engaged and sharper that August, the 9/11 attacks might have been prevented, and perhaps today America wouldn’t be bogged down in Southwest Asia in what is now the longest war in US history.

Soviet vacations

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev surely must wish he’d never taken his vacation in August 1991.

For months, there were signs all about him that the course he set for the Soviet Union was destined to end in a train wreck for the man who, more than any other, was responsible for hastening the end of the cold war. A cabal of hard-line Communists placed one of the most dynamic leaders of the 20th century under house arrest while the Soviet Union teetered on the brink.

The attempted coup that finished Gorbachev politically left us with one of the great unanswered questions of recent times: “What would Russia look like today had Gorbachev, the reformer, been allowed to engineer a peaceful transition from the dictatorship of Stalin’s Communist Party to an orderly democracy or Chinese-style capitalism?”

News executives, especially, should ban all August vacations. As a junior reporter for ABC TV in London in the early 1980s, I was delighted when more-senior correspondents took August vacations. I would get sent to Moscow on the “just in case” assignment, just in case something happened in the soporific eighth month. Happen, it did.

On Aug. 30, 1983, a Boeing 747 took off from JFK Airport in New York on a fateful flight with 269 passengers and crew. After refueling in Anchorage, Korean Airlines Flight 007 flew on through Alaskan airspace and then out over the Pacific. It strayed over the Soviet Kamchatka Peninsula before later returning to international airspace where a pursuing Soviet war plane blasted it out of the air.

To this day, I suspect that had this not occurred in August, when much of the top Soviet leadership was on vacation, a wiser, cooler head than Gen.Valery Kamenski might not have OK’d an act of mass murder.

President Reagan exploited the tragedy to excoriate the Soviet Union, which he hated, calling the incident “an act of barbarism.”

It was one of the most volatile moments of the cold war. True, Moscow lied about KAL 007, but the Reagan administration shamelessly used this tragedy to reinforce the president’s own virulently anti-Soviet agenda. Reagan did not need to indict 270 million Soviet citizens for what was a huge and tragic August screw-up.

Soldiers are admonished to “Stay alert, stay alive,” to which we should add the phrase, “especially in August.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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