Two wars to defend freedom: exploding an American and a British myth
At the risk of allowing some of these blog entries (I hate that word 'posts', don't you?) to deteriorate into a family mutual admiration society — see an amused comment in Tim Worstall's 'Blogs of the Week' column yesterday — I can't resist recommending a new entry in Owen Barder's blog which looks at the common claim by Americans to have fought two world wars in the defence of freedom and against tyranny, in the light of the actual circumstances (including the dates) surrounding the entry of the United States into those wars. Almost all Europeans, and millions of Asians, unquestionably owe a huge debt of gratitude to the United States and the brave Americans who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives in the cause of the liberation of Europe (and much of Asia and the Pacific) from fascism and aggression, and there's no question that America's role in ultimate victory was absolutely crucial (as indeed was the role of the Soviet Union in the second world war, as Owen points out). But the idea that the US twice came rushing to the rescue of the Europeans out of sympathetic idealism, without regard to America's national interest, does benefit from a little factual scrutiny.
There's a sort of parallel with the claim often made by ageing (and other) British politicians, when they visit Poland or encounter Poles, that Britain went to war in September 1939 to defend Polish freedom and independence against German attack. It's true of course that the immediate trigger for the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany was Hitler's invasion of Poland following British and French guarantees of Poland's integrity. But Poles are not slow to counter British boasts of this kind with the reminder that having declared war on Germany, Britain did virtually nothing to support Poland's spirited but doomed resistance to the German invasion. On that autumn Sunday morning Poles cheered Chamberlain's radio announcement of the declaration of war and scanned the Warsaw skies for the appearance of the Royal Air Force. They cheered again when a squadron of aircraft approached over the horizon. But the cheering stopped abruptly as the planes of the Luftwaffe began to bomb the Polish capital, and the RAF never arrived. Britain certainly lacked the military resources to come physically to Poland's aid at that point, but it remains the case that we failed to honour a promise that we should not have made unless we knew we could keep it. And Poland's independence was not restored until half a century later, after the genuinely heroic struggles of the Polish Solidarity movement and the implosion of Soviet communism under the weight of its own failures and internal contradictions.
Myths like these develop a life of their own, though, if enough people have a need to believe them, so perhaps it's unnecessarily cruel to dip them in the icy water of the facts.
[In Poland 1986-88]