Seventy-Five Years after the Destroyer Deal

The past tells us how to face our threats today.  On September 2, 1940, America transferred fifty old destroyers to Britain during one of the two particularly dangerous periods in the Battle of the North Atlantic.  France had fallen two months earlier, and its navy, the fourth largest in the world, was on the sidelines.  Italy, with the fifth largest navy, had entered the war against Britain, and until the attack on Taranto in November 1940, the Royal Navy was outgunned in the Mediterranean Sea.  Japan, with one of the three great navies, might lurch at any time toward Singapore and Hong Kong and Australia.

The Soviet Union in September 1940 was a slavish lackey of Nazi Germany, providing everything the Germans needed to fight their war, organizing strikes in American armaments factories, rhetorically defending Hitler absolutely and everywhere, denouncing Churchill as a warmonger, and even shipping Nazi anti-Semitic literature in Soviet freighters to Americans.

Britain, along with the Dominion democracies, stood alone.  The RAF in early September 1940 was surviving the Battle of Britain, but not by much.  The British had just been beaten by the Italians in East Africa, closing off the Red Sea, and the British had not yet won their stunning victories over the Italians in North Africa.

Churchill was not asking America to enter the war, but he was asking for the weapons to fight Hitler.  The fifty World War I vintage destroyers we gave Britain had only one real function:  protect convoys across the North Atlantic from U-Boats.  The German goal was not just to deny Britain the goods in the holds of those freighters, but to sink the freighters themselves at a rate faster than we could build.  The fifty old destroyers allowed the British, by a close margin, to stay in the war during the dark months from September 1940 to June 1941.

The lesson for us today ought to be obvious.  Vladimir Putin is seeking to recreate the Russian Empire, beginning with the greatest independent part of that old empire, Ukraine.  The Poles, the Czechs, the Baltic peoples – all those who learned to fear the Russian Bear – are looking to us for help and for confidence.  Yet we still will not arm the Ukrainians, who are willing to fight battles that we may later have to fight ourselves if Russia begins to march again. 

The Kurds, who have lived in Iraq and Syria for centuries, face a particularly brutal appendage of Islamic terrorism, and they need the weapons to fight these battles, which we may someday have to fight ourselves if the Kurds and others in the region are defeated completely.  Yet we do not provide the Kurds weapons.  Instead, we allow the corrupt Iraqi government to control whatever weapons and munitions get to the Kurds.

In recent months we have heard brave words from the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan about the need to confront and defeat Islamic extremism.  These leaders, like Churchill in 1940, are not asking for our soldiers to enter the region and fight the battles that must be fought.  Rather, they are asking for the tools to do the job and for international political support.

The consequence of our failure to arm those who fight our fights is more than just the loss of their material assistance.  Wars, both hot wars and cold wars, are won as much by morale as by military operations.  When we gave Britain fifty destroyers, that told the world in unmistakable terms that we cared who won the war.  Today, when we fail to arm those at the front lines of battles we may have to fight ourselves in the future, we tell the world that we do not care too much who wins and who loses.

We ought to care, however, very much.  Each time we pass up the chance to arm and to encourage those who are willing to resist evil, we raise the chance for wider war and for more militant wickedness in the world.  This is a lesson Americans grasped 75 years ago.  Sadly, we seem to have forgotten it today.