Searching for some personal perspective and philosophical grounding on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine—especially, as I prepare for a couple of speaking appearances next month in Brussels and Oxford, England—I dug into the Writing Boots archive and found this, written in 2014 on the Russian invasion of Crimea. It’s titled, “Letter from Chicago’s Ukrainian Village: Why Are You Agog That Russia Would Take a Chunk Out of Ukraine?”
“Dad, were people just dumber back in the old days?” —David R. Murray, age 6
After the last 1,000 years of European history, it’s astonishing how Americans continue to be astonished at national aggression.
Why are we?
I think it’s because we generationally assume that Western history ended when the Berlin Wall came down and everything after that exists in some post-historical denouement where what happens isn’t necessarily terrific, but at least it’s not at all connected to all that horrible stuff we learned in history class, perpetrated by such unpleasant people as Henry VIII, Cromwell, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin.
People are smarter than that now, because people have Apple computers, and Steven Colbert. (Here it is, your Moment of Zen: Does anybody seriously think the Nazis would have taken over Europe and exterminated six million Jews if they were getting roasted on the Comedy Channel every night? Yes, they would have had an easier time of it, because our outrage would have been released nightly, in little puffs of laughter.)
In short, we think history is old school.
So when something happens that does sound like an echo of all that old history … well, let’s just say we prefer to focus on a missing airliner in Malaysia. Now that’s the kind of random-ass, disconnected current event that we can get our minds around!
We need to wake up, grow up, read up and buck up—and realize that Russia is indeed taking over part of another sovereign nation and that we’re either going to do something about it or we’re not, and there are consequences in either case. Historical consequences.
Yeah, man. Like, history history.
Now, I have heard a few whispers that suggest I might get involved in some arguments in Europe or U.K. with people who object to U.S. involvement in Ukraine. And as the son of a World War II veteran (who set out to write a history of that war on a typewriter when I was in third grade) all I can think of is Neville Chamberlain over there and the America First-ers over here. “Hitler said to Lindy, do your very worst,” Woody Guthrie sang. “And Lindy started an outfit that he called America First!”
In one issue of Vital Speeches from early 1941, I found two speeches arguing against United States’ involvement in European wars. (Which I also noted in Writing Boots.) God, were they dumb!
“They have been fighting in Europe for 2,000 years or more,” said Kansas Senator Arthur Capper in a radio address, “and probably they will fight for the next 10,000 years, for that is their philosophy—fighting is their philosophy.”
That fatuous sentiment is less embarrassing than the better-articulated argument for staying out of the war by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the then young and powerful president of the University of Chicago.
“We Are Drifting Into Suicide,” was the title of Hutchins’ speech, also delivered over radio, on Jan. 23, 1941, when President Roosevelt was desperately tying to pass the Lend-Lease Act. Hutchins’ central argument was that the United States did not have democracy down well enough to go imposing it on other nations by intervening in the war. Hutchins listed human rights violations and democratic imperfections in America that “leave us a good deal short of that level of excellence which entitles us to convert the world by force of arms. … We Americans have hardly begun to understand and practice the ideals that we are urged to force on others.”
He called for a “new moral order in America,” concluded that refining American democracy was the first order of business, and warned that people calling for European intervention were “turning aside the true path to freedom because it is easier to blame Hitler for our troubles than to fight for democracy at home. As Hitler made the Jews his scapegoat, so we are making Hitler ours. But Hitler did not spring full-armed from the brow of Satan. He sprang from the materialism and paganism of our times. In the long run we can beat what Hitler stands for only by beating the materialism and paganism that produced him.”
Do any Writing Boots readers have a better argument for our letting Russia stomp Ukraine, and occupy it against its people’s will? I’d love to hear it, because I haven’t heard it yet. And I’d rather not hear it for the first time with a three-Duvel or four-New Castle buzz, on foreign turf.
Cuz if I do, I’ll just text my pub combatants this link, and change the subject to something more pleasant, like climate change.