, Newburyport, MA


May 3, 2014

Letter: History's uncertain lessons for Ukraine


By now you surely have ascertained that this is a column about the terrible choices Obama faces as Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles and thrusts Ukraine — once known as the bread basket of Central Europe, critically defined as the largest country completely within the borders of Europe — into crisis.

And as this crisis deepens — the presence of so many Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders assures that the crisis deepens — Obama faces critics on the left and right.

But mostly he faces difficult questions and uncertain historical lessons. For this crisis contains parts of the characteristics of both World Wars and parts of the characteristics of the Cold War, but not enough of any of them to provide sure guideposts in an era where communication is faster than it was in 1920, 1938, 1956 and 1968.

That is because the natural antecedents are more facile than effective, and the lessons are difficult to discern:

— The Sudetenland. The similarities with Hitler’s aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1938 are obvious: claims of repressed nationality and phony grievances in a land contiguous to the aggressor.

But for all his venality and brutality, and perhaps his greed and expansionism, if Putin harbors a genocidal impulse, it is far less apparent than that of Hitler, whose views on the elimination of Jews and others were clear to all as early as 1925, and apparent to the sharp-eyed as early as 1923.

Potential lesson: While Hitler sought Lebensraum, or elbow room, beyond his borders, Putin seeks to assert his primacy in an area regarded for more than a century as part of his country’s sphere of influence — a subtle but important difference.

— The rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. There are fateful and frightening similarities between those two uprisings behind the Iron Curtain and the determination of free Ukraine to retain its independence from Russia. But the outcomes in 1956 and 1968 are sobering, even bitter. The United States talked bravely about its support for the Budapest rebels and Radio Free Europe stirred the insurgents, but ultimately the United States failed to provide military support. The situation a dozen years later in Prague was little different.

Text Only | Photo Reprints

NDN Video
Joel McHale Interviews Chelsea Goliath Grouper eats shark in one bite US Mission to Rescue Hostages in Syria Failed Reggie Jackson's ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Sicilian hilltop homes on sale for one euro Are Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon Breaking Up? Motorcyclist Sticks Landing This 'Breaking Bad' Reunion is the Most Hilarious Thing You'll See All Day! President Obama talks about who James Foley was Nicki Minaj Unleashes Her 'Anaconda' On the World Watch Helicopter Perform Aerial Ballet Can Buckeyes fill Miller's void? Victoria's Secret Models Prove They're in Fighting Shape How Brian Hoyer Stacks Up With Johnny Manziel Taylor Swift Reveals New Album 1989 is Full-On Pop Crews rescue elderly woman trapped inside flooded minivan Man Poses for New Mugshot Photo Wearing Shirt with Old Mugshot Photo On It Disquieting times for Malaysia's 'fish listeners' Caught On Camera: Johnny Manziel Obscene Gesture Rita Ora Embraces the Ice Bucket Challenge
Special Features
NRA Waterfront Plans