When Churchill was asked to propose a name for what we now call World War II, he suggested a much more tragic title: “The Unnecessary War.” He wrote that concerted action by Europe and the United States—diplomatic pressure backed by military force—on numerous occasions could have destroyed Hitler with ease. But each opportunity was ignored by a world that hoped the danger would disappear by itself. The global failure to confront Japan, which had been in a constant race of belligerent territorial acquisition since their conquest of Taiwan (yes, Taiwan) in 1895, was identical.
On March 7, 1936, Hitler ripped up the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact, and announced that German troops were reoccupying the Rhineland, which under the treaties was a demilitarized buffer zone between Germany and France. The buffer zone was supposed to be a guarantee of peace. William L. Shirer, the great CBS correspondent and pioneer radio reporter, noted in his diary that the German general staff spent the whole morning in white-faced tension: The still-weak German Army had instructions to withdraw from the Rhineland immediately if the French offered any opposition whatsoever. A withdrawal would have been a tremendous setback to Germany, and to Hitler personally. Instead, Europe’s failure to act—when a single French platoon could have chased the Nazis back to their treaty borders—strengthened Germany’s position in Europe. And it strengthened Hitler’s position in Germany even more.
Shirer and his fellow correspondents, as his notes reveal, had an exceptionally clear picture of what Hitler wanted in each case and what his next target would be. Back at home, in France, England, and America, most news agencies and papers wanted to tone down their correspondents’ alarmist rhetoric. The prevailing view was that calling attention to Hitler’s behavior would only upset him and make him less open to negotiation. Everyone tried hard to believe that when Hitler said he’d made his final territorial demands in Europe, this time he really meant it. Even if people had a lingering feeling that they were only fooling themselves, the alternative seemed too horrible to contemplate. And so what could have been a small war—or even earlier, no war at all—eventually became the biggest war in history.
We look back now and wonder how the world possibly could have missed so many warning signs: Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 (inspired by Japan’s withdrawal and the lack of consequences just seven months before). Germany’s open rearmament and occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. The Austrian Anschluss in early 1938, the annexation of the Sudetenland in late 1938, the occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. Who was paying attention? What were we thinking?
Weakness Before Russia and China
But if you ask yourself what we were thinking back then with respect to Germany and Japan, the answer is: Exactly what we’re thinking right now with respect to Russia and China. Namely, that there are probably good reasons for their relatively minor territorial encroachments and massive military buildups, that their intentions are good, or at least understandable from their point of view, and that they’ve gone as far as they can ever go.
Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia shouldn’t worry us. Neither should their occupation of the Crimea and the continuing semi-cold war with Ukraine. And similarly, China’s annexation of the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal and their construction of artificial islands in the South China Seas that are now home to missile and bomber bases shouldn’t worry us. China says the bases are peaceful and calls us liars for pointing out the bombers, so they must be right.
Your international experts have good explanations for why these situations are entirely different from, say, the prelude to a world war, and why you shouldn’t be concerned. China just wants to control the waters surrounding China. Russia just wants to reconstitute little bits of the former Soviet Union. (And what could we expect, when Putin has described the collapse of Soviet Russia as the greatest disaster of the 20th century?) Putin gives speeches calculated to appeal to Western audiences saying all he wants is for Russia to be an equal counterbalance to American power. Which sounds fine to the many of us who don’t remember the good old days when Russia was an equal counterbalance and we were constantly on the verge of global nuclear war.
Suppose that Putin’s ambitions for Russia are not limited to the former Soviet Union, but cover all of Western Europe, just as Hitler’s did. And imagine for a moment that there is no substantial difference between China’s ambitions and Imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” whose ultimate realization would have placed half the world’s population under their control. It shouldn’t take too much imagination. One nation’s path lies to the north and the west, one to the south and the east, and they are back-to-back. A new global war would be imminent when Russia and China form an alliance, or when they arrive at a secret understanding (as did Berlin and Tokyo) that each will leave the other to its own sphere of influence.
Now imagine that you are Putin himself—a dictator, a murderer, an absolutely brilliant strategist. What would be your next move? Probably to invade one of the Baltic states to break up NATO. In theory, an attack on any NATO member should be treated as an attack on all. But if Putin senses that there will be no response, or a half-response reminiscent of the so-called Phony War, he can destroy the major barrier against Russia taking over Eastern Europe one country at a time. And the sad fact is that if we, in America, are not willing to go to war to protect Estonia from Russia—and I suspect most of us are not—then Europe and ultimately the entire West is at risk.
Failures of Imagination
If you were China, the most imaginative thing you could possibly do might be to arrange for a Taiwanese ship to block the Suez Canal. Quite apart from damaging the ship’s owners, you would regard this as practice for a larger coordinated effort which, in the first days of an actual war, would close all major shipping routes, at least for a few days, to cripple global trade and give China the chance to conquer Taiwan as a prelude to invading the Philippines and Japan. As China, you’d have a chance to observe the exact effect on world trade, as well as how long it would take to clear the blockage and get the canal operating again.
The idea of a Chinese clandestine operation blocking the Suez Canal for practice is a complete fantasy for which I have no evidence whatsoever. It is one of many results you can achieve by asking yourself not “How would I act if I were another global power?” but rather, “How would I act if I were another global power that wants to take over the world?” To think that such powers do not exist would be unbelievably arrogant. A country wanting to run the world is no more unusual than a man wanting to run a country.
Being caught up in a war, being taken by surprise, is the result of a failure of imagination. It is a result of the hopeful expectation that a potential enemy will behave the way you’d prefer. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto was an observer at America’s 1937 naval games, in which the U.S. carrier Saratoga launched a successful surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It was such an unusual strategy that the Americans who participated in that exercise never thought it might happen in real life. But Yamamoto, even if he didn’t have the imagination himself, knew a dangerous and original idea when he saw it.
We should prepare for war—Churchill called preparation for war “the sole guarantee of peace.” Instead, Biden touts maternity flight suits. We indulge in ludicrous fantasies of a “fair” military based on the premise that real wars don’t happen anymore. What message does that send enemies who plan to use their armies for actual fighting?
We are headed to war again. We are pointed at war right now. Europe’s greed, and America’s weakness, will bring us there. It may take 20 years. I think it will happen in a little less than a decade. The hour is already late—we have allowed the Chinese navy to grow larger than our own. But there is still time. We can strengthen ourselves. We can confront Russian and Chinese encroachments on international rights and territories now. Or we can immolate and destroy another generation, as a sacrifice to our own self-serving short-sightedness.