We need to learn from FDR’s WWII mistake

The world seemed surprised when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in 1938. More surprised when he invaded Poland in 1939 and flabbergasted when he marched into the Soviet Union in 1941. Never underestimate the ambitions of an evil tyrant.

Perhaps the West thought Vladimir Putin was bluffing about invading Ukraine. If so, the U.S. and its NATO allies are lousy poker players. History tells us that the only deterrent to evil despots is strength. This is the nature of bullies. Why the Biden administration, and President Biden himself on more than one occasion, told the world, including Putin, that he would not use American force in defense of Ukraine was as baffling as it was irresponsible. Force and the threat of force are two different things.

It is certainly understandable why we would want to do everything possible to stay out of a shooting war with Russia. But saying so out loud amounted to a calligraphed invitation to Putin to move forward. Even as Ukrainians were dying and fleeing the country, the U.S. and its allies still felt the need to reemphasize their commitment to military passivity.

“We are not going to move into Ukraine, either on the ground or in the airspace,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this month in Brussels. “We understand the desperation but also believe if we did that we’d end up in something that could end up in a full-fledged war in Europe involving many more countries.”

On March 16, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky begged President Biden to be the “leader of the world.” It’s a shame he had to ask. Biden responded to Zelensky’s impassioned plea with an additional $800 million in aid, including weaponry, and by calling Putin a “war criminal.” Biden continues to pass on Zelensky’s ask for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone and fighter jets.

We’ve apparently learned nothing from history. The West took a similar posture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which resulted in “a full-fledged war in Europe involving many more countries.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, knowing the American public didn’t have the appetite for another foreign war, made a political calculation to stay out of it, even while Great Britain was being bombed into oblivion. Prime Minister Winston Churchill begged Roosevelt for help, but to no avail. Roosevelt sent material but stayed out of the fight, until Pearl Harbor forced his hand.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Putin would have invaded Ukraine had Biden or our allies taken a harder rhetorical line. He may have. But it’s difficult to imagine that Putin wouldn’t at least have had some pause if he feared reprisal from the West. Putin saw an opening and he swung hard. He isn’t stupid. Nor do I believe, as some have suggested, he’s crazy or detached from reality. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s already told the world why he’s doing it. Let’s not let him off the hook by medicalizing his bad behavior.

If you believe media reports and the U.S. State Department, it’s possible that Putin underestimated both his military wherewithal and the Ukrainians willingness to fight. If that is true, one could make an argument that if the Russian military is in disarray, Putin would be far less inclined to tangle with the U.S. and its NATO allies, even if we took a more aggressive posture in helping Ukraine defend itself.

The humane thing to do is to help a sovereign nation defend itself against an invader who, if victorious, will only feel emboldened to initiate further aggression. Andrei Kozyrev, former Russian foreign minister, said this week that Putin’s ambitions include all of Eastern Europe, with intent to “attack, to pressure, to intimidate other countries, including members of NATO.” In response, the first thing the U.S. and NATO should do is believe him.

Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. You can reach him at manieri2@gmail.com.