Wishful thinking never won a war. When all seems lost, hope is not a very practical path to victory; defeat after defeat does not necessarily mean things will work out in the end. And, all too often, history is cruel and evil triumphs.
These grim thoughts are brought to mind by the unique, instructive symmetry of events which coil tightly around the generations like a double helix on this May 8. This is the 75th anniversary of the end of the fighting in Europe during World War II, a confrontation where the stakes were nothing less than the Enlightenment values and economic freedoms that had shaped the Western world. Yet, it was a long-running conflict whose outcome, after a dispiriting initial series of miscalculations in the corridors of power and on the battlefields, seemed perilously in doubt.
This also is a day when the community of nations currently are locked in another sort of life-and-death struggle, one no less ominous or threatening. It is a siege against a raging pandemic that threatens to put an end to the familiar, comfortable way of life and concurrent prosperity that has evolved for many people the world over during the 75 years since World War II’s end. And, like the unsteady course of that earlier fight against the determined Fascist powers, this 21st century battle against a virulent unseen enemy also has been undermined by a succession of initial mistakes and false confidences — and, horror of horrors, its final outcome, too, looms very much in doubt.
Therefore it is valuable, I suggest, to focus on the response of nations and their leaders to these two very different, yet similarly dangerous, existential enemies. It is informative to identify the shared missteps; it is, more encouragingly, prescriptive to glean from the past some knowledge that might possibly help lead mankind to a more stable, hopefully victorious future, 75 years from today.
The initial seeds of Germany’s and Japan’s aggression were sown by the Western powers’ devil-may-care attitudes of appeasement and isolationism. After then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain more or less shrugged off Hitler’s aggrandizing territorial ambitions, the war in Europe became inevitable. And when America, for all consequential purposes, paid little mind to the brutal, persistent bombing of Britain, Japan grew confident that the U.S. would respond with a similarly cavalier indulgence if Emperor Hirohito’s armies marched into China, Malaysia and Southeast Asia. There was no formal strategy of deterrence, no institutionalized governmental policies that strongly signaled to the Fascist aggressors that the West was prepared to fight back. There were few existing programs ready to become operational to marshal the vast national resources and economies, to coordinate and encourage the required sacrifices of the citizenry, that would be required if the West was truly intent on resisting.
From this complacency, the opening years of the war were scarred by disheartening defeat after defeat for the Allies. In a brief six weeks, blitzkrieging Wehrmacht troops conquered the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Norway fell, so did Yugoslavia and Greece. In North Africa, at the battle of Tobruk in June 1942, 40,000 Allied troops surrendered to the Germans. In the battle of Malaya and Singapore, another 130,000 Allied soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese; Burma was lost. In the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, German troops stormed from Poland to the gates of Moscow. And Pearl Harbor was targeted with a haunting, terrible wickedness in a surprise attack.
Today, the initial gallop across the globe of this novel coronavirus has been similarly fueled by flawed national strategies, staggering instances of governmental unpreparedness, and populations that could not find the will to tolerate the personal sacrifices necessary to prevent the infectious spread of the virus. It is a sordid international saga measured out in hundreds of thousands of deaths (and still counting) that could have been prevented.
Consider just a few of the unforgivable disasters: What if China had taken forceful preemptive actions when the virus was first discovered last December, and then shared its concern and knowledge with the world? What if U.S. public health and disease control agencies had taken advantage of the time after it first became aware that the highly contagious virus was jumping from country to country, in order to establish widespread national testing facilities using existing tests rather than insisting on developing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention test that proved flawed? And what if, as the lethality of the COVID-19 virus became apparent, people had come to their senses, realized that life couldn’t continue as previously lived, and practiced a common-sense social distancing, rather than carrying on obliviously from Milan to London to the spring break beaches of Florida?
In WWII, spurred by strong, empathetic leaders and the raw courage and bold sacrifices of soldiers and citizens, the tide finally was turned. Britain’s Winston Churchill proclaimed that the government “shall not hesitate to take every step — even the most drastic — to call forth from our people the last ounce and inch of effort of which they are capable.” And the British people responded with valor — as did our own nation’s people when FDR, a president of great personal courage and firmness of purpose, led a once reluctant America into a war to preserve the values that inspired the republic’s creation.
Today, governmental responses have been more haphazard and erratic. After hesitation and squandered time, there has, however, been success at staunching the spread — “flattening the curve” is the operational jargon — of the disease. But in the U.S., for sad example, the war against the virus, as President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE’s succession of flabbergasting nightly briefings demonstrated to a slack-jawed nation, has been a continuation of a battle waged largely for political reasons. The primary logic guiding all his absurd or patently false pronouncements has been his own reelection.
Which leads this brief comparative discussion to a most unsettling possibility: The war in Europe ended with the unconditional surrender of the Nazis — while the U.S. fight against the coronavirus, at least as things stand now, will come to its end simply because the president has declared it’s over and that it’s time for the nation to get back to the business of taking care of its business.
The problem — or, I fear, tragedy — that looms, however, is that the virus will treat the president’s self-interested nonchalance as fake news (and fake science, to boot) and continue aggressively on its calamitous, murderous course. This war, I am afraid, is far from over.
Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His most recent, “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies,” was published in 2018. His next, “Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin,” will be published June 2 by HarperCollins.