July 14th, 2024


Happy V-E Day?

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published May 18, 2015

   Happy V-E Day?

"I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath--in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could not have prevented some of these situations from arising...."

--George F. Kennan, "American Diplomacy"

Not since the implacable Stalin stood atop Lenin's tomb to review still another May Day parade has Red Square bristled with such a display of armaments old and new. This celebration of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day last Saturday wasn't just a celebration but a warning: Russia is on the march again.

The scene was reminiscent of the Nuremberg Rallies the Nazis used to stage in the 1930s -- not just to rally Germans to the National Socialist cause but to send a message to the rest of the world. It was all filmed, complete with graphic marching scenes and stirring martial music, by Leni Riefenstahl, who wasn't just a Nazi propagandist but an artist. And the message was unmistakable: This is the wave of the future and nobody better stand in its way.

Not just the past was being celebrated Saturday in Red Square but Russia's current and future conquests. For historical celebrations can be more than historical celebrations. Saturday's in Moscow was designed to put an increasingly intimidated world on notice: The future is Vladimir Putin's and, like Stalin before him, he is displaying his Russian patriotism much as he would another new missile or tank. (The Russians still refer to the Second World War as the Great Patriotic War, overlooking little details that might be inconvenient to recall, like how Stalin and Hitler teamed up to start that global cataclysm by splitting Poland between them.)

There was a time when America, or at least a far-sighted American diplomat named George Kennan, wasn't intimidated by any show of Soviet might. But neither did he panic. Instead, he soberly analyzed "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in an article for Foreign Affairs that has stood the test of time. The shorthand for the American policy he recommended in response to the Soviet threat came to be known as containment. No, he didn't propose going to war with the Soviets, not being the reckless type, but rather that the West, led by a newly awakened United States, "confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world."

It was a lesson Harry Truman soon learned, as a scholar at Stanford named Josef Joffe pointed out the other day. An array of new institutions and worldwide alliances was forged to counter the Soviet threat -- NATO, the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). ... Other presidents, as Professor Joffe noted, have learned the same lesson even if it took them a long, agonizing time to come awake.

Consider the case of Jimmy Carter, whose foreign policy might be summed up as a mix of drift and malaise till he finally heard the alarm bell go off as his inauspicious tenure in the White House drew to a close. The same president who had warned against this country's "inordinate fear of communism" suddenly realized that the fear of Soviet expansionism was not inordinate at all when Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan.

But our current president slumbers on. Joffe describes his response to threats around the world, whether in Eastern Europe, the Far East or the Near East, as "isolationism with drones." Barack Obama seems eager to appease, even cooperate with, the mullahs in Iran. And with various other clear and ever more present dangers to the peace of the world -- from the Kremlin to Beijing -- as he slashes the American defense budget and makes nice with aggressive dictators around the world.

To quote Joffe, our "44th president's learning curve has been flat for six years." What will it take to wake him up? If he ever does. As for George Kennan, he is now only a dimly remembered figure from the past, which means the future for peace and freedom in the world is ominous.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.