'Embalm, cremate, bury at sea'
The story is told about Winston Churchill, a backbencher in the House of Commons around Munich-time in 1938. During a
debate about defense, Churchill was demanding increased appropriations for air defense, arguing that the Chamberlain
government hadn't appropriated enough to meet the threat of an expanding Luftwaffe. An irate MP shouted out, "How much is
enough?" The future prime minister said the questioner reminded him of the man who received a cable from Brazil informing him
of death of his mother-in-law and requesting instructions. "Embalm, cremate, bury at sea," the man wired back, "take no
It turned out that Churchill's advice was quite timely (however unfriendly it was to mothers-in-law) even though it was
ignored until late in the day. The 1930s was a decade of pacifism and willful blindness to political reality. It was the era of
appeasement, the belief that you could tame the shark by feeding him enough so that his teeth would wear out. Oxford students
were vowing, "I will not fight for king or country." The British Labor Party at its annual convention in 1933 — with Hitler
already in power — voted overwhelmingly for total abolition of the Royal Air Force. Fortunately, the Labor Party was then in
opposition as it continued to be in 1938 when it voted against conscription while Hitler was taking over the Sudetenland. What
Hitler did had been foretold by Hitler himself in his book, "Mein Kampf" and in countless speeches. It was in the post-World
War II years that one heard the rueful pronouncement: "Stalin lied and everybody believed him; Hitler told the truth and nobody
In January 1935, Hitler nullified the arms limitations imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaty. No reaction. In
March 1936, Hitler reoccupied the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles and Locarno treaties. No
reaction. In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria in violation of the Versailles Treaty and his many promises. No reaction. And
then, in March 1939, Hitler marched into Prague and that was the end of democratic Czechoslovakia. Still no reaction The
shark was still hungry. Then came Poland and the unnecessary war.
In "The Gathering Storm," the first of Churchill's six-volume history of the Second World War, he describes in the preface a
conversation with President Roosevelt who wondered aloud what to call the war. "I said at once," writes Churchill, 'The
Unnecessary War' . . . There never was a war more easy to stop than that which had just wrecked what was left of the world
from the previous struggle [World War I]."
Churchill's theme as expounded in that volume's preface reads: "How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom,
carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm." Today, Churchill might write how the European peoples through
their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature — and greed — allowed the wicked Saddam Hussein to rearm and, as Hitler
did, violate the Gulf War treaties.
The Oxford entrance exam on general history once contained this essay question: "The chief practical use of history is to
deliver us from plausible analogies." Yet it is tempting to recall that yesterday's pacifist British Labor Party in its 21st-century
incarnation is today pressing Prime Minister Blair to continue what is — dare I say? — an appeasement policy toward Iraq.
Supporting that policy is Iraq's victim a decade ago, Kuwait, and Turkey and other Arab states who just yesterday were
American allies, under a U.N. banner, in the Gulf War.
Yet we have the final report of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) in 1999, which states that Iraq sought to acquire
weapons of mass destruction, and finally frustrated UNSCOM's disarmament mission. We have Saddam's past record, how in
his retreat from Kuwait he set the oil wells ablaze, his gassing of the Kurds, his eight-year war with Iran, his cruel dictatorship,
his expulsion of U.N. inspectors, his willingness to sacrifice the health and nutrition of Iraqi children — and for what?
We may one day look back at the World Trade Center memorial and then stare at the horrors of a Saddam-ordered
biochemical attack on some American city and ponder the meaning of the words of George Santayana: "Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it."