Wisdom from Winston Churchill for a dangerous age.
Historical analogies should always be used with care. Events of many years ago involving different statesmen and countries contending with different issues and circumstances can, at best, shed some light on current events. That being said, the current push for a Nuclear Deal with Iran bears an eerie and troubling resemblance to the Western powers’ efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to ignore and then to accommodate German rearmament. What better place to shed some light on this circumstance than volume one of Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War, The Gathering Storm.
The theme of The Gathering Storm was “How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.” Churchill recounted how well-meaning statesmen, with a genuine and understandable fear of war and its destructiveness, pursued popular arms control policies designed to maintain peace, but which instead helped create the conditions that led to war.
A key component of the Versailles peace agreement that ended the First World War was German disarmament. Churchill called this the “one solid security for peace.” The arms control regime in place after the First World War involved the Inter-Allied Control Commission and the League of Nations. Churchill wrote that to effectively enforce German disarmament it would be necessary for the Western powers to remain sufficiently armed themselves and “to enforce with tireless vigilance and authority” the disarmament provisions of the Versailles Treaty.
German evasions of the disarmament provisions imposed by the allied powers began in the early 1920s, long before Hitler and the Nazis came to power. An expanded officer corps was created under the guise of staffing civilian departments in Berlin. Soldiers were secretly trained in numbers that exceeded treaty limits. The nucleus of an air corps was hidden in various civilian agencies, and large numbers of German citizens were encouraged to participate in “commercial” flying. Naval restrictions were similarly evaded. “U-boats were illicitly built and their officers and men trained in other countries.” Civilian factories were designed for “speedy conversion to war.” Churchill noted that “every form of deception” was used by the Germans to circumvent treaty rules and restrictions, all under the watchful eye of allied arms control agencies. Meanwhile, Churchill noted, “the virtues of disarmament were extolled in the House of Commons by all parties.”
When the Nazis came to power they continued this subterfuge until Hitler felt confident enough in German strength and Western timidity to openly violate key provisions of the treaty. All the while, Churchill in speech after speech in the House of Commons revealed grave facts about German rearmament that British leaders and most of the world chose to ignore.
Today, the Western powers, led by the United States, are pinning their hopes for peace on an arms control deal with Iran, a regime every bit as aggressive and evil as Hitler’s. Hitler’s racial ideology led him to pursue policies—the extermination of the Jews and the murder or enslavement of Slavic peoples—that were inexplicable to Western minds despite the fact that Hitler had announced his plans in Mein Kampf. The Iranian Mullahs have likewise been open about their goals of destroying the Jewish state, converting or killing infidels, and establishing a worldwide caliphate based on a religious-political ideology that is also seemingly inexplicable to Western minds. Arms control did not work with Hitler and it will not work with Iran.
But the arms control delusion persists. It is based on, in Churchill’s words, “[d]elight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, [and] genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundations . . .”
The much-touted Nuclear Deal with Iran is in reality only a “framework” for a deal. The devil will be in the details. But even the Western interpretation of the framework would leave in place the foundations of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and as Churchill noted about the arms control arrangements in the 1920s and 1930s, “[t]he opportunities for concealment, camouflage, and . . . evasion are numerous and varied.”
Our desire for a deal with Iran—any deal—is of a piece with our pullout from Iraq, lessening influence in Afghanistan, miscalculations in Libya and Yemen, fumbling response to events in Egypt, and our unwillingness to recognize the religious and ideological roots of our enemies in the Middle East. Churchill’s unforgettable description of British leaders in the 1930s rings all too true today: “So they go on in strange paradox . . . resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years . . . for the locusts to eat.”
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. He is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics. He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Diplomat, the Claremont Review of Books, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
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