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Paul Greenberg / April 14, 2009

Drifting Toward the Cataract

“We seem to be moving, drifting, steadily, against our will … toward some hideous catastrophe. Everybody wishes to stop it, but they do not know how.” –Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons, April 14, 1937

We seem to be back in the 1930s not just financially but diplomatically. In both finance and diplomacy, the structures holding up the old order shiver, and all sorts of remedies are proposed. Except one: a clear, steady determination to shore up first principles – like freedom, faith, accountability – and a return to the one virtue that sustains all the others: courage.

In 1937, when a backbencher stood up in Commons as time was running out to save the peace, and repeated the same warnings he had been uttering for years, he was about as welcome as Cassandra prophesying doom. She was only a madwoman, they said in Troy. Just as they would say in London that Mr. Churchill was really getting to be a crashing bore.

Surely, said the sophisticates of the time, the world could work something out with Herr Hitler. Why not leave it to the diplomats, to the international community, to some hopeful new leader rather than that old curmudgeon? Defense? It was too much bother. Times were tough. Better to economize and hope for the best. Words cost less than actions.

No wonder words are so cheap; their supply multiplies while their value diminishes. The whole world now expresses wordy concern about North Korea’s latest provocation–firing off a missile that may not have attained orbit around Earth but nevertheless achieved its objective: attention. And attention can be converted into concessions: more economic aid, more food shipments, more power plants….

Pyongyang’s list of demands grows as endless as its arrogance. Which was predictable. Its scare tactics have worked before, and they should work again as a morally disarmed world rushes to (a) denounce North Korea, and (b and more significant) appease it.

Consider the response of the president and commander-in-chief of the world’s supposed superpower. Barack Obama goes to Europe and says the United States should lead the way to nuclear disarmament because we are the only nation that has used a nuclear weapon in war. No need to mention that the use of that horrendous weapon ended one world war and ushered the world into this century without another. Call it peace by terror, for both East and West had atomic weapons but realized that to actually use them would mean The End.

Winston Churchill, as sage in his old age as in his mere 60s, compared this balance of terror to that of two scorpions in a bottle, each aware that, if they stung the other, both would die. But soon the bottle will be full of scorpions as one nation after another moves to acquire The Bomb and the means to deliver it. Or maybe pass it on to some al-Qaida that will deliver it for them – just as Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan spread the blueprints for nuclear weaponry far and wide.

The greater danger facing the world was never in the nukes themselves but in who would have them. Who really objected to the Americans or Soviets or Brits or French or Israelis or even Communist Chinese becoming nuclear powers? Each in their own way wielded nuclear weapons conservatively. Their nukes served as a deterrent – to preserve the balance of power rather than upset it.

In a changed world in which North Korea’s erratic dictatorship, aka the crazy aunt in the attic, fires still another missile over the heads of its neighbors, and Iran’s leader openly proclaims its intention to wipe another country off the map, international protests are about as effective as … well, as they were in the 1930s. If you ever wondered what happened to the old League of Nations, it didn’t actually disappear. It was just reincarnated as a now equally impotent but much wordier and uglier United Nations.

As that Member of Commons warned after Munich, while an English leader and his talk of Peace in Our Time was being cheered by the multitudes: “Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

Some words do indeed carry meaning, even prophecy.


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