Commentary Magazine


Topic: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

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There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

The executive director of the “realist” Center for the National Interest think tank is clearly opposed to Western sanctions on Russia. Instead, he says, the U.S. should be offering the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin some carrots along with the threat of a stick or two. He worries that that the constant attacks on Russian policy combined with President Obama’s lack of credibility will not only not deter Putin from more adventurism; he thinks it might actually impel Moscow to do the unthinkable and launch invasions of former Soviet republics that are today NATO allies of the U.S. like the Baltic states.

Saunders is right that no matter what policy the administration pursues, without Russia believing that Obama is serious about stopping them, nothing will work. In that sense, sanctions may well ultimately fail.

But Saunders’ argument that the only applicable precedent for the standoff with Russia today is the failed attempt by the United States to force Japan to cease its campaign of aggression in Asia is completely off the mark.

Saunders is correct that the U.S.-Japan dispute involved miscalculations on both sides. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific would ultimately end in armed conflict. Yet the oil embargo imposed on the Japanese Empire and the seizure of their assets in the U.S. was an attempt to give Tokyo a chance to back down before it was too late. Rather than seizing an opportunity for negotiations that might have provided them with a chance to avoid a suicidal war, Japanese militarists saw the sanctions as a challenge to their legitimacy that must be met with further aggression. Hence, rather than slow down the path to war, the embargo may have speeded it up.

From this, Saunders draws the lesson that great powers can’t be deterred by economic sanctions, only incited to up the ante in a game of international poker. The Japanese wrongly thought Roosevelt was bluffing and believed the U.S. was too materialistic and spiritually weak to wage a war of annihilation against them. Perhaps, similarly, the Russians today believe, not without some justification, that the Obama administration will ultimately back down if push comes to shove. The fear that Iran has the same evaluation of Obama’s character and fortitude makes the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran all the more perilous.

But the analogy with Japan gives Putin and Russia too much credit. Japan was vulnerable to economic sanctions because of its lack of national resources and dependence on oil imports. But it was also an expanding empire with a crack military machine whose hunger for great power status and hemispheric hegemony was such that it could not be stopped by negotiations or bought off. It had been waging an active genocidal war of aggression in China since 1937 and its occupation of Indochina (today’s Vietnam) illustrated its intentions to expand even further. There was never any chance that anything short of war would ever force Japan to give up its Chinese conquests or their dream of Pacific domination.

By contrast, as dangerous as Putin might be, his nation is a shell of a once formidable empire with a ramshackle military that struggled to deal with Chechen rebels and is now flummoxed by the ragtag army opposing them in eastern Ukraine. Though it stole a march on the Ukrainians and seized Crimea with ease, the Russians appear to be in retreat with little sign that they would dare risk a conflict with the West by attacking members of NATO. Putin would like to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. But if the U.S. and its European allies were sufficiently determined to punish Russia—something that is still in doubt even after the atrocity of the shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine by Russian loyalists—Moscow would be put in a difficult spot with little alternative but to back down.

But Saunders, stuck as he is in his realist mindset, seems to miss a broader point about the arc of American foreign policy than just the narrow question of the utility of sanctions. The “proud empire” of Japan that the U.S. sought to deter was an ally of Nazi Germany and already guilty of unimaginable atrocities when sanctions were imposed on them. A U.S. deal that would have left them in possession of China was not an option, even for an American government that would have preferred not to fight. The notion of a reasonable accommodation between the U.S. and Japan was not merely far-fetched but immoral, something that Roosevelt, though hopeful of staying out of the war that had already begun in Europe and Asia, seemed to understand. Just as appeasement of Japan’s ally Germany failed, so, too, would the course of action that Saunders seems to think would have been a good idea.

America’s embrace of sanctions against nations like Japan and Russia is a function of its values and interests, not merely a calculated effort to pursue a great power agenda. Feeding the appetite of nations like Japan and Russia for small nations never works. While some policymakers are too glib about using World War Two-era analogies about the dangers of appeasement, rethinking the virtues of such a discreditable course of action is even more misguided.

Saunders’ fears of a too-forceful use of American economic power is not only misplaced with respect to Russia; the idea that the goal of these confrontations is splitting the difference with aggressors is his real mistake. Offering Japan enough carrots in order to avoid an attack on U.S. territories would have been a disaster. The same is true of any misguided effort to buy off Putin.

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Why Americans Go to War

I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

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I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

But the broader failing of Krugman’s article–amazing for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, is highly intelligent and broadly educated–is that he entirely omits a major reason why countries fight wars: to defend their liberties. Krugman is presumably familiar with the theory of “just war,” but there is no sign of it in his article that assumes that all wars are initiated for one ignoble motive or another. This is perhaps an indication of how far liberalism has come from the fighting faith of its greatest champions–presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They were familiar with war and yet did not dismiss it as nothing more than a crass, self-interested undertaking. Recall Kennedy’s famous inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Or FDR’s D-Day prayer in 1944: “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

America’s brave troopers today fight for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, all the while yearning, as FDR said, “for the end of battle” when they can return home. They are not there to seize natural resources or to pump up a president’s approval ratings–nor, for all of my differences with President Obama, do I believe he has ordered troops into harm’s way for such nefarious purposes. War may be a brutal, ugly business, and one that should never be undertaken lightly; but it is also the essential safeguard of peace and freedom. Presumably Krugman understands that, but his failure to take note if it is nevertheless startling–and telling.

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A Righteous Man and the Imperative to Act

Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

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Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

Born Jan Kozielewski, he used Karski as his nom de guerre when after his escape from Soviet imprisonment (an army officer, he was captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and joined the Polish Home Army. During the course of his activities in the underground, Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit point for the Belzec death camp. In 1942 he brought proof of the reality of the Holocaust to first Britain and then the following year to the United States when, under the sponsorship of the free Polish government in exile, he spread the news of the extermination of the Jews to American leaders including Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he later told the story, in his own writings, Roosevelt was silent when Karski discussed the fate of the Jews, asking questions only about the conditions of horses in Poland. Frankfurter, a Jew, said that while he didn’t question Karski’s honesty, he nevertheless “could not believe him.” Karski was shocked at the Allied leaders’ refusal to act on his knowledge even to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps when that became possible.

This is important because Karski’s reports not only make it abundantly clear that the nature of the Nazi war on the Jews was not a secret to the West but that it was also a matter of public record. Karski published an account of what was going on in Poland in 1944. The idea that no one knew about the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated in 1945 is a myth that was accepted as truth because few, either in positions of power or out of them, wanted to acknowledge that the Allies simply chose to ignore Karski’s accounts or treat them as irrelevant to their wartime mission of defeating Germany.

The question of what could have been done to rescue the Jews of Europe is still a sore point with many rightly pointing out that most of those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators were beyond the help of the Allies. But the minimal attempts to foster rescue, such as the belated and underfunded War Refugee Board, did result in saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. Had Roosevelt’s administration treated the issue as one worth their time, it is simply implausible to assert that more lives could not have been saved.

But even if you don’t want to wade into those bitter historical arguments, Karski’s legacy demands attention. Since the Holocaust occurred, we have seen several instances of genocide. In each one of those cases, whether it was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan, the world once again wrung its collective hands and did nothing until it was too late. Today, Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces have killed more than a hundred thousand people and again the West, and in particular the United States, was unable to find the will to act even when a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons was crossed. Elsewhere, Iran, the leading international state sponsor of terror as well as one of the most vicious anti-Semitic regimes on the planet, plots to build a nuclear weapon. The West’s response is not to ensure that Iran’s plans, which could facilitate another Holocaust, are made impossible but only that they be delayed by a diplomatic process that seems aimed more at creating détente with the ayatollahs than at stopping them.

Jan Karski’s example, as well as the failure of those who chose not to listen to him, stands as a reminder that all the tears wept today about the Holocaust are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action to ensure that contemporary atrocities are not halted or prevented.

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