A large country with powerful armed forces, led by a brutal and unscrupulous dictator, invades a smaller democratic country. It seems like a flashback to the 1930s and 1940s. But in fact it is the year 2022. How should democratic countries respond to these events?
This was a question which the dictatorships of the interwar years posed directly to the democracies of that era. We can learn a lot from looking with clear eyes at what the democratic response to interwar fascist and Nazi aggression actually was. Let’s look at three particular leaders who responded in different ways to the threat posed above all by Nazi Germany (but also by Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan). The leaders are two British prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Chamberlain’s Resolute Realism
Neville Chamberlain is someone whom the popular imagination always gets spectacularly wrong. In the popular imagination Chamberlain was foolish, cowardly, and weak in his response to the danger of Hitler, above all in his notorious policy of “appeasement” which culminated in the surrender of the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938. In fact, Chamberlain was the direct opposite of his stereotype: He was tough, brave, arrogant, dictatorial in his governing style, yet in many ways a highly competent and clear-sighted politician.
Chamberlain’s policies drew on three main impulses. The first was the widespread revulsion which nearly all Europeans felt to the horrors of the First World War. Chamberlain was determined to avoid a repeat of such horrors, especially as (like most people in the 1930s) he expected the next war to be worse, given the new destructive power of strategic bombing.
The second impulse was a desire to use the resources of the British government for increased social spending. Chamberlain had been a reforming minister of health in the 1920s and wanted to see the government do more to improve the lives of ordinary people. But this was impossible if government had to allocate a large share of resources to military spending. So Chamberlain wanted the military threats to recede so spending on social programs could advance.
Lastly, when it came to foreign affairs, Chamberlain was what today we call a Realist – meaning a politician who tries to put what he or she sees as the national interest first, while completely ignoring moral factors. Chamberlain did not consider it a British interest to get involved in a major war for the defense of small nations in Central or Eastern Europe. As he famously told the British people in a radio address on the eve of the Munich conference: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The Coming War
Chamberlain calculated that if the threat from Nazi Germany could be dispelled, neither Italy nor Japan would dare to threaten British interests on their own. Therefore, he sought a way to reconcile Hitler to the existing international arrangements. Chamberlain preferred to do this through negotiation; but if negotiation were to fail, he had a shrewdly realistic sense of how Britain should fight a war, and what kind of war it could win against Germany. He drew on the ideas of the strategist Basil Liddell Hart to plan a war that would rely on Britain’s economic strength, its strong navy, and increasingly strong air force, and avoid a ruinous ground war on the model of the First World War. Chamberlain thought that by standing on the defensive and relying on sea and air power for two or three years, Britain could weaken the German economy with sanctions and blockade to the point that Hitler’s regime would collapse. He did not want to engage in heavy and premature rearmament, as to do so might damage the economy which was a core source of British strength.
When the Second World War came, Britain mainly fought an air and a naval war, and one of the main ways Britain could have lost would have been if adequate financial support from the United States had not been forthcoming. So it is hard to say there was much wrong with Chamberlain’s strategic appreciation of the situation in 1938 and 1939.
Except for one thing: He did not grasp the systemic implications of Hitler’s growing assault on the democratic order of the post-World War I world. This was part and parcel of his Realist outlook, and it was the point that by 1938 his conservative rival Winston Churchill understood very well.
Churchill’s Clear View
There is a good deal of popular mythology about Winston Churchill also. Churchill was never such a consistent opponent of Nazism as he later liked to claim, nor was his appreciation of Britain’s strategic position anywhere near as acute as Chamberlain’s. But there was one thing that, almost alone among the politicians of the British establishment, Churchill grasped very well. Most senior British politicians saw the threat from Nazi Germany as akin to that of the Kaiser’s Germany, or the France of Napoleon or Louis XIV. Analogies to these past conflicts fill the pages of the British cabinet minutes of that time. Churchill, by contrast, understood that the situation of the 1930s was profoundly different. Of course he is famous for his wartime rhetoric, especially the eloquent and powerful speeches that rallied the British people to defend their island in the summer of 1940. But I contend that the most powerful and important speech he ever gave was his address in the aftermath of the Munich conference, in which he set out clearly how a democratic state should respond to an authoritarian menace.
Speaking in the House of Commons on October 5, 1938, Churchill warned: “Many people, no doubt honestly, believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised, and perhaps fatally endangered, the safety and even the independence of Great Britain and France.” Churchll considered it essential to “consider the character of the Nazi movement and the rule which it implies.” It was one thing to want “cordial relations” with the German people – “Our hearts go out to them.” But with their government “You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality, the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.” A democratic government, in its own interest but also in the interest of maintaining a democratic world, had to contemplate the systemic implications of a large country’s attack on a small democracy – and respond accordingly.
Roosevelt’s Fear for Democracy
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at once the most enigmatic and the most intriguing of American presidents. He kept no diaries, did not live to write a memoir, and always said many different things to many different people, making it all but impossible to reconstruct what he really thought. But the evidence is clear that, to a degree which is seldom credited, he was an extremely acute strategic thinker with an astute awareness of how the world of the 1930s and early 1940s had changed – and what those changes meant for the defense of democracy. And like Winston Churchill, Roosevelt understood the world-systemic implications of threats posed by an aggressive dictatorship.
In the late 1930s. the American Political scientist Harold Lasswell was beginning to develop the concept of the “garrison state.” It is not clear if Roosevelt ever read Lasswell’s work, but he intuited the same problem. The problem was that the United States would not be able to remain a democracy in a world dominated by fascist dictatorships: As a democratic island in a fascist world, it would have to arm and restrict its freedom so that democracy at home would be imperiled or even destroyed as well. To put the point another way, American freedom was indissolubly linked to the freedom of Europe (and to his great credit, Roosevelt was strongly anti-imperialist as well, a point of frequent friction between him and Winston Churchill).
Roosevelt made this problem the main point of his 1939 State of the Union address. “If another form of government can present a united front in its attack on a democracy,” he told the Congress, “that attack must be met by a united democracy.” Could America compete with the dictatorships while still remaining “within our American way of life, within the Bill of Rights, and within the bounds of what is, from our point of view, civilization itself?” Could a democracy face down the Nazi menace, and possibly a total war against that menace, while still remaining a democracy?
The point became particularly acute in the summer of 1940, after the German defeat of France raised the specter of an invasion and subjugation of Great Britain and thus the extinction of all democracy on the European continent. Roosevelt recognized what a threat this scenario would pose to the United States and to the world. But he also led a highly isolationist country whose public opinion would not support armed intervention in the European war. Roosevelt recognized that his challenge was to keep Britain going in a war against Germany without entering that war in a direct military way.
The policy results of his conclusion are famous. In the summer of 1940 there came a deal by which the United States Navy sent 50 old destroyers to Britain in return for 99-year leases on British naval bases in the western hemisphere. In December 1940, as Britain faced financial collapse and an inability to keep paying for supplies from the United States, Roosevelt proposed the Lend-Lease program through which America would supply a vast array of weaponry and other supplies to Britain at no charge. Legislation to enact Lend-Lease passed the Congress with comfortable majorities in March 1941, and the United States Navy even began escorting merchant ships halfway across the ocean to Britain to protect them from German submarines. With all of this, Hitler and the Nazi leadership were acutely aware – no doubt more aware than most Americans – of how closely the United States was coming to formally entering the war. Hitler expected direct American military involvement by 1942 at the latest. In the event, he short-circuited the process by declaring war on the United States in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.
From the Interwar Period to the Present
These three approaches – those of Chamberlain, Churchill, and Roosevelt – can help us think about our present response to the crisis in Ukraine. From a humane standpoint, there is much to be said for Chamberlain’s minimalist and gradualist approach, his willingness to bargain instead of fight, as well as for his acute appreciation of the strategic realities. But we have to temper this by keeping in mind what Churchill and Roosevelt saw in Nazi Germany. Putin’s regime, like Hitler’s, poses a threat to the entire global democratic (or hoped-for democratic) order. As we face home-grown authoritarian challenges in much of the world, not least in the United States, to lose in Ukraine would be a disaster much as losing in Czechoslovakia was a disaster over eighty years ago. If we wish to avoid direct military conflict with Russia, but still save Ukrainian (and world) democracy, then, the only possible response is sanctions to weaken Russia’s war-making power (a la Chamberlain), and Lend-Lease for Ukraine: democracies in Europe, America and elsewhere must do their utmost to get military and other aid to the Ukrainians so that they can hold the line as Britain did in 1940. A Ukrainian collapse would, as FDR saw, only raise the specter of a garrison state for the rest of us.
Benjamin Carter Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY