Paul Krugman needs a history lesson on Russia and Ukraine

Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist who usually writes on economics. He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008.  He attended the best schools (Yale and MIT) and taught economics at Stanford and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.  He has authored 20 books and thousands of columns.  He is, of course, liberal.  And judging by a recent column on the Biden administration's response to the Russia-Ukraine War, he needs a history lesson.

The column, which appeared in the Times on April 28, is titled "America, Again the Arsenal of Democracy."  Krugman claims that time is on Ukraine's side in the war with Russia and that "the balance of power seems set to keep shifting in Ukraine's favor."  Had he been alive in 1812 as Moscow burned after being invaded by Napoleon's Grand Army, he could have written a similar column predicting the collapse of the Russian army.  Had he been alive in the summer of 1941, as the German armies appeared poised to swiftly conquer the Russians, he might have confidently predicted a German victory (as many writers did).

Russian soldiers have been underrated before.  And war in what author Timothy Snyder has called the "Bloodlands" has always been a nasty, messy, brutal, unpredictable affair.  Russian soldiers don't give up easily.

But Krugman's need for a history lesson is greater when he takes to flights of fancy in characterizing President Joe Biden's arming of Ukraine as arguably doing "more to defend freedom, in substantive ways that go beyond mere words, than any president since Harry Truman."  There are several things wrong with that statement.  First, Harry Truman's record in defending freedom is mixed at best.  Just ask the 1.4 billion Chinese people who have suffered and continue to suffer under communist rule since the Chinese Communist Party gained power there on Truman's watch.  Just ask the people of North Korea, who had been briefly liberated from communist rule by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's armies until the United States settled for a draw in the Korean War — again on Truman's watch.  Just ask the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, whose road to communist rule began on Truman's watch.  Truman deserves credit for defending freedom in Western Europe, but his supporters tend to forget or ignore his dismal record in Asia.

Second, Krugman has skipped over a certain Republican president (no surprise there) named Ronald Reagan, whose policies in the 1980s brought down the Berlin Wall and liberated Eastern and Central Europe from communist rule.  Krugman mentions Reagan's "tear down this wall" remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, as well as John Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" remarks, but dismisses these as nothing more than rhetoric.  He is right about Kennedy, but Reagan's speech was the culmination of a successful strategy to undermine Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and elsewhere that had been laid out in national security directives as early as in 1982.  Krugman should read the late liberal historian John Patrick Diggin's great book Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, in which Diggins calls Reagan one of the three great liberating presidents in U.S. history (Lincoln and FDR are the two others, according to Diggins).

And Krugman should be mindful of one more historical fact.  The things he is praising Biden for doing — arming Ukraine, signing "Lend-Lease" laws, and being the "arsenal of democracy" — were the lead-up to U.S. direct involvement in the Second World War.  Only time will tell whether Biden deserves credit for arming the victorious Ukrainian forces or deserves blame for edging us closer to a wider European war and possibly a world war against a nuclear-armed power.

Image via Public Domain Pictures.

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