I decided to write this article after receiving an e-mail last night from Newt Gingrich urging me to contact my Congressman and say “NO” to an American attack on Syria…The same night I received an e-mail from “Reader Supported News” (a very left wing e-mail list) suggesting the same. I have spent the last few days immersed in the events of 1938 to 1940– as I am in the midst of writing a digital biography of FDR. The parallels between then and now are striking, and scary. No, Bashar Assad is not Hitler… and the rebels are not a country, like Czechoslovakia or Poland. However, Assad is certainly Hitler-like in his disregard for human life and the list of other parallels to that time period is very strong.
Looking at the late 1930’s, a very similar situation occurred in the United States. As war clouds thickened, Roosevelt tried to get the Neutrality Act repealed (in order to allow the US to sell arms to Great Britain and France.) Roosevelt found himself opposed by two very different groups. The first group was the progressives from his own party. They believed that America had enough problems at home and did not want to get involved in any foreign adventures. They also believed, to a lesser degree, that it was the arms manufacturers that had gotten the U.S. into World War I, and thus we should stay clear of any foreign involvement. The second group who opposed Roosevelt were the traditionally isolationist Republicans, who opposed any U.S. involvement overseas. They believed the United States should have as little involvement as possible with the rest of the world. They thought America should only rely on itself. Roosevelt, who had lost many parts of his coalition as a result of his attempt to pack the Supreme Court, was forced to create a new coalition to support his goals of backing the allies. FDR’s new coalition included internationalist Republicans– like Frank Knox and Henry Stimson, as well as Southern Democrats who had previously abandoned Roosevelt over domestic issues.
History seems to be repeating itself. The same sort of groups who opposed Roosevelt’s actions in 1939/40, oppose potential plans to respond the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. President Obama’s progressive supporters have been the first to speak out against any U.S. intervention. Progressives are making the absurd comparisons President Bush’s insistence that Sadaam Hussein possessed WMD. The progressive Democrats assert that if Obama were to take action against Syria he would be just like President Bush, conveniently ignoring the fact that Assad has in fact used WMD. At the same time, the right, (which has clearly developed a more isolationist wing in the past few years), is saying the same thing about the Arab world as they said about Europe in the 1930’s – “We want nothing to do with your ‘degenerate’ part of the world. A pox on all you houses.” Both the right and left in the 1930’s came together, both seeing the evils of World War I. Albeit from different starting points, both groups wanted nothing to do with Europe. Part of both the right and left have come together in the U.S. today, both seeing the war in Iraq in the same way as their counterparts in the 1930’s saw World War I. and both seeing the Middle East as Europe between the wars.
Thankfully for the world, President Roosevelt (despite all his flaws) clearly recognized the true evil that was Hitler and the new Germany. FDR correctly identified where America’s long-term interests lay. He built a new coalition and shepherded the American people to support his views. I hope President Obama can do the same. However, I fear he is no F.D.R.