A Brief History of Reluctant US Intervention (and a Plea to Change It)

The Slavic deity, Berehynia, believed to be the protector of home on the Independence Monument in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” — Unknown

Between World War I and World War II, America returned to being fairly isolationist and did little to try and prevent Hitler’s rise to power or Imperial Japan’s territorial expansion. In the 1930’s, the US even passed several neutrality laws to keep it from being entangled in future wars. World War II began when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. The US stayed on the sidelines militarily until the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Between the start of World War II and when the US declared war with Japan, Nazi Germany had already annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and conquered Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, and was in an all-out war with Great Britain. President Roosevelt had long seen the need to better support our Allies and prepare for war ourselves. He tried to get the neutrality laws relaxed in order to more directly support Great Britain. He gave one of his most famous fireside chats on the “Great Arsenal of Democracy” in December 1940, a full year before the United States declared war on Japan with the aim of winning public support to send more military aid and support to Great Britain.

FDR’s comments about Nazi Germany, their Evil Axis, and the threats they posed to democracies around the world could have been written about Putin’s autocratic Russia today and its attempts to fracture and divide the US and other democracies against themselves. We know unequivocally that Putin ordered the severest foreign meddling we have ever seen in our sacred democratic elections in 2016, numerous cyberattacks on free market businesses and sovereign government entities, is running a psychological operation campaign on social media against democracies around the world and is starting his own Nazi-like purge of innocent people with the unprovoked invasion of a free and sovereign Ukraine. FDR challenged us then, like we need to be challenged now:

“We well know that we cannot escape danger, or the fear of danger, by crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads.”

We must not allow history to repeat itself, as we know all too well the horrible human toll of World War II including the mass genocide of six million European Jews and at least five million prisoners of war, Slavs, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and others.

Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and I will never forget the speech Canadian General Roméo Dallaire gave at the United States Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference in the late 1990’s. General Dallaire was only a few years removed from his 1993–1994 United Nations mission in Rwanda where he desperately tried to get the world to stop the massive genocide waged by Hutu extremists against the Tutsis and Hutu centrists. Close to a million people were brutally killed. Seven out of every ten Tutsis were murdered. General Dallaire shared a slideshow with us of raw images of the carnage. He showed us photos of men and boys with machetes dismembering their neighbors, piles of bodies clogging the Kagera River and floating to Lake Victoria, and mass graves with too many dead to count. They were shocking, nauseating, visceral images that you cannot unsee once you see them. Holding back tears as he spoke and knowing he could not turn back time, General Dallaire pleaded:

“I could have prevented the deaths of a million innocent people with one battalion of United States Marines.”

I vividly remember American politicians and world leaders, at the beginning of the violence, spending countless days debating whether or not it was actually a genocide in Rwanda, if there were sufficient interests for other countries to get involved, and if we were to call it a genocide, then we would have no choice but to intervene. While all of this spineless quibbling continued a safe distance from the war, hundreds of thousands of people were being slaughtered. In 1998, President Clinton flew to Rwanda and delivered an apology on behalf of the United States and our allies and made a promise to the world to prevent future atrocities or act faster to stop them:

The international community…must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began…We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past…We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere. Indeed, we owe to all the peoples of the world who are at risk because each bloodletting hastens the next as the value of human life is degraded and violence becomes tolerated, the unimaginable becomes more conceivable. We owe to all the people in the world our best efforts to organize ourselves so that we can maximize the chances of preventing these events. And where they cannot be prevented, we can move more quickly to minimize the horror.

Rwanda is a recent reminder to the United States and the world of what happens when we do too little, too late. Holocausts happen when we fail to “minimize the horror.” General Dallaire framed the choice that the free world makes, on whether to sit on the sidelines or get in the arena, as a moral one:

How do we pick and choose where to get involved? Canada and other peacekeeping nations have become accustomed to acting if, and only if, international public opinion will support them — a dangerous path that leads to a moral relativism in which a country risks losing sight of the difference between good and evil, a concept that some players on the international stage view as outmoded. Some governments regard the use of force itself as the greatest evil. Others define “good” as the pursuit of human rights and will opt to employ force when human rights are violated. As the nineties drew to a close and the new millennium dawned with no sign of an end to these ugly little wars, it was as if each troubling conflict we were faced with had to pass the test of whether we could “care” about it or “identify” with the victims before we’d get involved.

More than twenty years later, the US and our NATO allies face a familiar dilemma with Putin’s Russia and their annexing of Ukraine and purging of Ukrainian people. I hope, for the sake of humanity, that we don’t end up having to apologize on the world stage for not helping enough, fast enough. Will we continue to sit around discussing tougher economic sanctions that may end up hurting innocent Russian citizens or will we have the fortitude to support the Ukrainian patriots on the ground attempting to defend their families and their freedom? What will we allow to happen before we do what is necessary to stop the unprovoked annexing of a free nation? What number of innocent Ukrainian civilians, Ukrainian defense forces, and forced-to-fight Russian soldiers must die at the hands of an evil dictator before we deem it worthy of our direct involvement? What country and people are next after Ukraine — Belarus? And after that? We know the human toll that is paid when we sit idly by. The world is watching, and you had better believe that America’s resolve to intervene is being tested. A weak and foot-dragging response from us and Europe will only embolden other dictators to move on claiming resource-rich territories for themselves and annexing sovereign free countries.

Symbolic solidarity only serves to make those of us who feel helpless feel better about ourselves. It is not enough. In our current situation, there are no innocent bystanders. If you are equipped to stand up to evil, to stop bullies, to prevent atrocities — then you have an obligation, a moral duty to act. An act of omission by an able-bodied coalition is as morally corrupt as the perpetrators. And a vote of abstention might as well be a vote in favor of the annexing dictator.

Let’s not turn a blind eye, remain silent, or quibble about semantics any longer when our freedom-loving friends have been unjustly attacked. We must act before it is too little, too late. We must act before it becomes a genocide. True Ukrainian patriots are staying, fighting, and dying as they defend their Capitol of Kiev, their homes, and their way of life. Tougher economic sanctions on Russia are not enough to help Ukrainians fight Russian soldiers right now on the ground. Like President Zelensky said when the US offered to evacuate him, “the fight is here” and “I need more anti-tank ammunition, not a ride.”

Once again, America, history will be our judge. So, what will we do right now to support Ukraine, in the name of democracy and humanity?

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Nate Boaz

Nate Boaz

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Dad, dog lover, Marine veteran, Author, Ex-McKinsey Partner, Ex-Accenture SMD, Harvard MBA, USNA alum.