Why Can’t We Learn?
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— It’s almost ironic that as Russian troops have taken over the Crimea, I’ve been reading Winston Churchill’s history of World War II. What superb timing for reading material and good reminders of the lessons history teaches.
Born just months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, I can remember WWII. I vividly recall Father’s buying three little pigs to raise because of meat shortage. One day the pigs were gone and that night there were pork chops for dinner. I couldn’t eat dinner that night as I had dearly loved the three little pigs.
I remember food rationing, too. Once Mother purchased sausage on the black market and I can well recall how strong the taste was and how sick I was after eating it. Mother never bought black market meat again.
A few years ago I visited Normandy and climbed the eroding cliff, now a gentle slope at Omaha Beach where the Allies once landed to free Europe from the Nazis. I saw the ruined German fortresses at the top of the cliff and walked through the American cemeteries. I passed by all those headstones with names of young men from Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, and all the rest. I never realized such an experience would reduce me to a sobbing grandmother having to hold onto my husband’s arm for support.
So, the wars come and go, ever taking the cream of the country and leaving the rest of us to ruminate over the lessons learned, if any. As I have read Churchill’s detailed account of that war, two lessons stand out: Weak nations are taken over by strong nations and aggression can never be appeased.
Great Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, Lord Chamberlain, tried to appease Hitler by agreeing to give him Czechoslovakia, but with the Nazi attack of Poland, it was the end of appeasement. Chamberlain had desperately wanted to avert another war in Europe but, in the end, Great Britain and her Commonwealth finally had to go it alone to stop Hitler.
Yet Hitler kept taking land. When German forces overran France (the sight of old films of Nazis in their shiny boots goose-step marching under the Arc de Triumph still upsets me), most Americans knew we would soon be at war but it was not until Pearl Harbor in 1941 that the U.S. finally joined the effort.
What a terrible war it was. America suffered 405,399 casualties. One would think that the West would remember lessons learned from such sacrifice: weakness and appeasement did not work then against aggression and will not work now.
Churchill’s famous comparison of Nazi aggression was to a giant snake hungry for a goat. He warned when the snake devours the goat he will be happy for a few weeks. But the snake will soon be hungry again. He will be back to devour yet another goat.
Some may argue that goats deserve to be devoured, but I am not of that school. Even goats, weak and defenseless as they are against the writhing muscles of the snake, deserve a chance to live.
So we begin once again. Will the West agree to cede Crimea to Russia? Will this satisfy Putin? Or does Putin dream of returning Mother Russia to post WWII boundaries where the Iron Curtain once divided the East and the West, taking in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and even half of Germany, along with many other territories that had broken free?
Will the West be treated once again to watching independent nations gobbled up, one by one, rather like how Aesop suggested that his crafty fox take the entire clump of grapes . . . not all at one time, but one grape at a time?
Can we do anything about it even if we wanted to? The reality is bitter. There’s not much we can do beyond implementing trade barriers.
In 1963, I stood on shore in Naples, Italy, and saw the American 7th Fleet off shore and anchored in the Mediterranean Sea. The ships rested, a mooring that stretched as far as my eye could see. Each ship was lit from stem to stern with strings of white lights. Every nation that bordered the Mediterranean Sea was safe from attack that night because the U.S. Navy was there.
In those days the U.S. Navy was spread out across every ocean and sea on the globe, but today America is no longer the power it once was or able to patrol all the oceans of the world.
We spent several generations determined to win the Cold War. Will we lose it all over again in just a few years?
Oh, why can’t we learn? Strength is the only guarantee of peace. If we don’t learn from history, we are destined to repeat it.