Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Ukraine’s scenes of urban rubble, streams of refugees, and piles of slaughtered civilians redolent of World War II. Continuing masks and lethal lockdown protocols of the Covid plague. Record levels of inflation and gasoline nearly $6 a gallon. Unchecked hordes of illegal immigrants and criminals penetrating our southern border. Mayhem, murder, and brazen theft stalking and defacing our cities.
Amidst these portents of apocalypse, it’s instructive to think of W.B. Yeats’ prescient poem “The Second Coming,” and its lines “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” and to wonder with the poet, “What rough beast, its time come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Such intimations of doom, of course, have been regular episodes in the last hundred years, the “rough beasts” ending up as pretenders. But we can’t rely on the cycles of history to prevent devastating changes in our way of life that will make the previous decades seem like the golden age.
Yeats published his poem in November 1920, when the flawed Versailles settlement of the Great War made optimism for the future difficult. Some knew, moreover, that none of the dysfunctions that had led to war had been corrected. Supreme Allied Commander Marshall Foch prophesized about the Versailles Treaty, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Communism, Nazism, and Fascism arose, and the Great Depression was the crisis these three vicious political religions did not let go to waste.
Throughout the interwar period, the portents of doom appeared in popular novels and “next war” theorists. “Trench reminiscences” proliferated, keeping alive the novel horrors of the war like poison gas, machine-guns, and artillery lobbing monstrous shells as heavy as a ton. The aerial bombing of the war’s last years inspired numerous warnings about the even more devastating possibilities of destruction from the air in the next war. Theorists wrote of a “knockout blow” on a nation’s capital that would decapitate the government and turn the streets into “one vast raving bedlam,” as historian J.F.C. Fuller put it.
This obsession with the “next war” created a “never again” mentality that contributed to the anxiety and low morale of the period, stoked by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who famously said, “The bomber will always get through.” Years later Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would write, “We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare” during the Cold War. All this fear contributed to the mentality of appeasement manifested in Munich.
But the end of times didn’t come. The war that followed was won because the steadfast opponent of appeasement Winston Churchill managed the war, and with his rousing patriotic rhetoric restored confidence and morale by rejecting what he called the “unwarrantable self-abasement” that defined the Thirties.
Another apocalyptic moment occurred in the Seventies. The squandering of the lives of nearly 60,000 American soldiers that followed Congress’s denial of aid to South Vietnam, and the cruel abandonment of our Vietnamese allies, damaged American prestige abroad and emboldened its nuclear rivals like the U.S.S.R. The ginned-up Watergate affair led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, and in a few years the election of Jimmy Carter. Carter’s sermons about America’s “recent mistakes,” his counsel that Americans should not “dwell on remembered glory” but should “recognize its limits,” and his confession that the nation should “simply do its best” and get over its “inordinate fear of communism” all eroded moral and patriotic confidence. Foreign policy now focused on human rights and disarmament, rather than maintaining the country’s deterrent power and military superiority.
Starting in the Fifties, there appeared apocalyptic books and movies, from Jonathon Schell’s The Fate of the Earth and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, to Dr. Strangelove and the televised The Day After Tomorrow. Dystopian post-apocalyptic novels and films proliferated and still permeate movies and science fiction writing. Popular culture fed the anti-nuclear weapons movement, which was also abetted by financial support from the Soviet Union, in an attempt to weaken our military in its containment of a nuclear-armed power.
As the Soviet Union and its proxies boldly rampaged in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, in 1979 Carter was helpless in the face of Khomeini’s Islamic Iranian Revolution. Fifty-one American diplomatic personnel were kidnapped and held hostage for 444 days, just the beginning of Iran’s subsequent 43 years of jihadist assaults and murders of Americans. Stagflation––high inflation and sluggish economic growth–– along with expensive and rationed gasoline created apocalyptic scenes of long lines and fistfights at gas stations.
Once more, a change of leadership cleared away the smog of apocalypse. Ronald Reagan’s campaign theme was “Morning in America,” and he restored the country’s military and deterrent power, along with economic health. This recovery of nerve, epitomized in Reagan’s laconic, “We win, they lose,” culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, a weak and feckless President and his administration have brought on another failure of nerve. A disastrous retreat from Afghanistan damaged our prestige aboard, and surrendered that country and billions of dollars’ worth of armaments to the enemy that had helped execute the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In the current conflict, clumsy and confused diplomacy has combined braggadocios threats with less than adequate military support for Ukraine. And an insane policy of banishing cheap, abundant fossil fuels from our energy resources has made much of Europe a hostage to Russian oil products, making them financers of Putin’s savage war.
So the war grinds on, and the spectacle of brutal carnage dominates our media. No one can say how or when it will end, and what will be the long-term fallout. But one thing is obvious: Putin’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons has contributed to the West’s reticence to provide air power, anti-missile batteries, or heavy artillery to the Ukrainians, ensuring that the war will remain a meat-grinder for months to come.
This state of affairs raises some questions: Can or will there arise a leader like Churchill and Reagan to restore our civilizational nerve and morale? Or, as the presidency of Donald Trump showed, will rabid partisanship, deep-state corruption, and the cognitive elite’s irrational class resentment undermine an effective president who could turn things around? Has our culture deteriorated so deep into boutique fads like transgenderism, “systemic racism,” Critical Race Theory, pronoun etiquette, and apocalyptic “climate change,” and have we the people become so addicted to handouts from the Leviathan Fed, that even a Churchill or a Reagan could not rouse us from our Twitter, Netflix, and Facebook torpor?
Worse yet, the task of recovery from the current crisis is much harder given Putin’s reckless threat to use nuclear weapons. Putin’s signs of mental deterioration and paranoia, and his isolation make such threats more plausible. And neglect of our military budget and nuclear weapon research and development have given Putin an edge. No wonder there’s an air of apocalypse coming from this war.
We may be too far gone, and the cycle back to sanity may never come. Iran and China, emboldened by our timidity in helping Ukraine, will likely indulge in their own aggression, confronting the West with the same dilemma. Yeats’ poem teaches us why: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”