, Salem, MA


May 3, 2014

Shribman: History's uncertain lessons for Ukraine


Potential lesson: Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939 after the violation of the borders of Poland. But France shared a border with the aggressor state and Britain was within easy air-striking distance. (London is 570 miles from Berlin, and Britain’s 1939-era Hawker Tornado flew at 398 mph.)

The United States didn’t intervene in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in part because of the distance and in part because of worries by Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, that armed assistance would be ineffectual but provocative.

In his memoir, Eisenhower said he was haunted about what he might have done had Hungary “been accessible by sea or through the territory of allies, who might have agreed to react positively to any attempt to help prevent the tragic fate of the Hungarian people,” adding: “Sending United States troops alone into Hungary through hostile or neutral territory would have involved us in general war.”

Note: Ukraine is 5,000 miles from the United States at a time when the nation is war-weary and chary of international involvement.

Now, a surprise entry: The Russian Civil War. Few Americans know about the U.S. involvement in this conflict, which raged in the wake of World War I, principally in Russia’s east, from 1918 to 1920. But even generations later, Russians know that British, French and American forces intervened against the Bolshevik Reds and occupied Murmansk and Vladivostok.

These Western nations, assisting the Whites, did not prevail and sowed generations-long resentment against the West that was papered over by the alliance between the Allies and Soviet Russia in World War II but that flares from time to time even now.

Potential lesson: Intervening in what can loosely be regarded as Russian affairs offers few rewards and many perils.

None of this analysis can be the least bit helpful or encouraging to Obama, who faces different but difficult circumstances. Nor will be Burns’ views of the origin of the decades-long struggle between NATO and the Warsaw Pact:

“I have concluded that the decisive turn toward the Cold War came during (World War II), at the very time when Anglo-American-Soviet relations were, on the surface, almost euphoric — indeed, partly because they did seem euphoric.” On at least this we can agree: There is no euphoria here. Only bad options.


North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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