Tuesday, September 3, 2019

War and Its Children

Today is the 80th anniversary of the British and French Declarations of War against  Germany, Sunday, September 3, 1939, which marked the "official" beginning of World War II in Europe. At a distance of 80 years, the significance of that event for the history of the 20th century still cannot be underestimated. Of course, in a certain sense, the war had already begun almost six months earlier, when Germany had invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, Hitler's first conquest of non-German territory. That definitive shattering of the Munich illusion pushed Britain and France to promise Poland to come to that country's aid if it too were invaded by Germany, an eventuality which became a virtual inevitability after Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world with their "non-Aggression Pact" on August 23, 1939. Free, for now at least, from the danger of that World War I nightmare, a two-front war, Hitler could safely invade Poland and take a gamble on whether those he derisively called "the men of Munich" would actually attempt to stop him. In fact, they didn't really do anything to stop him in Poland, but they did - after an unconscionable two-day delay - duly declare war on Germany and so set out on the road that eventually led somewhat circuitously to V-E Day, a road no one in 1939 could have foreseen.

The calamitous six years that ensued ended up sucking almost the entire human world into the worst war the world had ever experienced. The United States had helped pave the path for war by first unnecessarily intervening in the previous "Great War" of 1914-1918 and then abandoning to its devices the Europe it had gratuitously thus helped disrupt. Once war was declared, the U.S. played at neutrality for over two years until finally forced into action by Pearl Harbor, emerging at the war's end as the world's most dominant and powerful Power and the promoter of a successful civilizational revival in Europe's western half. That accomplishment was clouded, of course, by the "Cold War," which in a sense prolonged the fragility of the post-war settlement for another half century.

That was the world I grew up in, filled with movies and stories and remembrances of those formed by the experience of World War II - "the Greatest Generation," which, of course, included my parents and virtually all the adult authority figures in my world. Their experience - and how they had interpreted their generation's experience - had formed them to oppose subsequent challenges in whatever way seemed to differentiate them from Chamberlain at Munich. Hence the 1948 Berlin Airlift. Hence the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Hence also Vietnam. As one distinguished American historian warned, way too late,  “historical models acquire a life of their own,” and we may become “bewitched by analogy” (Arthur M. Scheslinger, Jr,. War and the American Presidency, Norton, 2004,  p. 123).

None of that, however, detracts from the greatness of the World War II generation's accomplishment, both in saving Europe and the wider world from one of the 20th-century's greatest scourges and then saving Western Europe and much of the world from the other great 20th-century scourge - in the process building durable social and political and economic alliances that have, on balance, served the world well for almost three-quarters of a century. As King George VI said in his famous speech 80 years ago: For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge. 

Photo: Britain's King George VI addressed the British Commonwealth and Empire after war was declared on September 3, 1939, the speech immortalized in the 2010 movie "The King's Speech."

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