Posted by Lawrence W. White MD
In the time leading up to Pearl Harbor, the large and influential America First movement, led by Charles Lindberg, and an assortment of anti-Jewish figures, isolationist Republicans, and figures from both the right and the left, including Norman Thomas, Gore Vidal, Potter Stewart and Walt Disney, declared that hostilities in some far-off place were none of our business, and certainly not worth the loss of American life. The underlying assumption, never stated, was that American lives were worth more than the lives of those affected by the onslaught of aggressive war by the Axis powers. Thus the lives of the Chinese in Nanking, the Poles in Warsaw, the Dutch in Rotterdam, the Brits in London, and of course the Jews all over Europe, were not worth risking American lives to save. The movement ended less than two years after it started with the Japanese attack on Hawaii.
What have we learned since then? The expression "Never Again" has a worthy pedigree. It was coined by Rabbi Meir Kahane and referred to the Shoah. It has also been used to refer to the Armenian Genocide and to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And of course, many Israelis quote this expression in their determination to avoid reliance for their security on any other power
Yet we have really learned nothing. Since the time of "America First", we have avoided intervening against the most egregious instances of genocide. Are American lives really more important than those of Bosnian Muslims, or the Tutsis of Rwanda, or the Czechs or Hungarians revolting against tyranny during the Cold War, or those we abandoned in Viet Nam in 1975, or the Cambodians murdered on the killing fields, or the Shiites who rebelled against Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War?
With all these other instances, it may be comforting to know that the abandonment of the Jews during the Nazi period was not personal. As they say in the Mafia, it was just business. It was simply part of the general approach to "realpolitik" foreign policy, in which our involvement is dictated by (and only by) our own narrow interest, without regard to morality or legality. Yet, as Jews, we are acutely aware of what it means to be on the wrong side of “Its not my problem”.
I take no position on American involvement in Iraq. Yet I am troubled by the consequences of a pull-out and what that means for those left behind. Recently the AP reported that “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use it’s military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.” Why am I uncomfortable with this? Could it have something to do with the memory of an earlier time when the prevention of genocide against Jews in Europe was not considered “a good enough reason” to commit American power?
While Senator Obama’s plea for non-involvement is generally considered to be a legitimate point of view, it is troubling in its implication that American lives are more valuable than the lives of non-Americans. Is this really the sort of foreign policy that we want? Fortunately, we have had examples of doing otherwise. President Clinton, who failed to intervene in Rwanda, did in fact intervene in Kosovo.
Many Americans decry the ongoing murder of black Africans in Darfur by the Arab government ruling Sudan. The Sudan, a totalitarian fundamentalist Muslim state that permits slavery, is engaged in supporting genocide against blacks in Darfur. We all insist (rightly in my opinion) that more be done to stop the genocide. The UN, for all the usual reasons, will not do anything. Would these same Americans who call for more action in Darfur, Americans who are unquestionably humanitarian, support the only measure that could make a difference? I am speaking of a military attack by American soldiers on the Junjaweed killers, the Arab militias supported by the government who have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Black Africans. And would such support continue after the first Americans to be killed return in flag-draped coffins?
A minority of Americans believe that our involvement in Iraq is beneficial to the citizens of that beleagured country, perhaps preventing a genocidal war at the expense of American lives. The jury is still out as to the best course to follow in Iraq. But anyone who truly believes in "Never Again" must ask whether or not this applies to the citizens of Iraq who face disaster in the wake of an American pull-out. The larger question is whether Iraq is another Viet Nam from which we must extricate ourselves. Or is it another Munich, in which surrender will embolden our adversaries, and increase the chances that we will still have to fight a larger war, as we eventually fought against Hitler.
We are also faced with the stated intent to commit a second Holocaust. The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, presents a genocidal double whammy. He promises the destruction of Israel, and is feverishly working toward nuclear weapons capability. The US has the ability to destroy the Iranian nuclear production facilities, but once again, the voices of “realpolitik” urge restraint. Will America stop Ahmadinejad, or this again an instance of “it’s not my problem”?
It seems that supporters of "realpolitik" do not believe in "Never Again". For these people, "Never Again" is a slogan of those who don’t understand what a realistic foreign policy looks like. So do we ever really learn from history, or is each generation "doomed to repeat" the tragic lessons of the past? Except this time, the nuclear-tipped lesson may be more swift and lethal, not permitting time to correct our errors of judgment.
Our choices are not simply between war and peace. In 1938, Winston Churchill, in responding to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, told the English Parliament “You have been given the choice between war and dishonor. You have chosen dishonor, and you will have war!” As Churchill might have said today, if in our eagerness for peace, we consider the mass murder of Israeli or Iraqi citizens to be “not our problem”, we will surely end up with war, and it will become very much our problem.