Americans are divided about U.S. assistance to Ukraine. A legitimate concern for everyone, regardless of what “side” of the issue they’re on, is the long-term ramifications of alternative courses of military action or inaction.
As an economist, I’m well aware of how impossible it is to predict the future with any degree of precision. Foretelling the outcome of a war, and especially its long-term effects, is even more problematic, because war, with its horrific destruction of lives and property, alters the economic landscape more profoundly and more rapidly than any set of economic policies can.
Let’s take a look at the two 20th-century world wars and see if we can draw any lessons that could inform our military policy today.
When President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War I in 1917 (a step opposed by many, if not most Americans), nobody, whether for or against U.S. involvement, could possibly have foreseen two momentous unintended consequences, one involving Germany, the other, Russia.
Knowing that they couldn’t possibly continue to wage a two-front war with the United States having joined the British and the French, the German government sought to extricate itself from the war on its eastern front, i.e., Russia. To accomplish this objective, the Germans fished the exiled Vladimir Lenin out of a Zurich library. They sent him into Russia on a sealed train with $6 million in gold bullion (a huge sum in those days) so that he could organize a Bolshevik revolution and replace the Germans as the Russian government’s primary concern. The ploy succeeded: Russia dropped out of the war.
The long-term impact of the Germans’ “deal with the devil” was incalculably horrific, for Russia, for Germany, and indeed, for the rest of the world. The relentless and remorseless Lenin had his thugs hijacked the democratically elected Russian Duma (parliament) at gunpoint; that marked the birth of the Soviet dictatorship. That dictatorship killed and oppressed tens of millions of its own citizens and held captive nations (including East Germany) under its imperialist thumb, all the while threatening the United States with nuclear destruction.
Not only did U.S. involvement in World War I unwittingly contribute to the rise of the sinister Soviet state, it also gave rise to a malignant monster in Germany. Humiliated by its lopsided defeat—a lopsidedness directly attributable to the American entry into the war—the Germans were ripe for the demagoguery of the maniacal Adolph Hitler. Hitler’s rise to power led to World War II, which had a death toll even higher than World War I, thereby exploding Mr. Wilson’s naïve idealism about a “war to end all wars.” The law of unintended consequences can be merciless.
Just as World War I spawned unforeseen evils, so did World War II. In 1945, as the end of the war was approaching, a minority of Americans (Gen. George Patton being the most prominent) argued that American military forces should drive the Soviet army out of central Europe and back inside its own national borders. Gen. Patton and others believed that if U.S. forces had pushed the Red Army back into the Russian homeland, Stalin’s vicious tyranny probably would have collapsed and been replaced by a more democratic, less militant regime—a regime more focused on improving the lives of Soviet citizens than on global domination.
While on the surface it might have seemed wrong in 1945 to turn against an ally in our war against Germany (an alliance based on circumstantial expediency, not on shared values), enough was known about the Soviet dictatorship to make a moral case for liberating the countries of central and eastern Europe from subjugation to the Soviets.
Of course, that isn’t what happened. Americans who called for pushing the Red Army back into the USSR were denounced as warmongers by some of their fellow Americans. (The derisive term “warmongers” is sometimes used against Americans who favor supporting Ukraine militarily today.) We need to remember that in 1945, Americans were understandably war-weary. The result was the political decision to end the war and abandon millions of Europeans to a dreary, unfree life under Soviet occupation behind what became known as the Iron Curtain.
On the positive side of the ledger, in 1945 the United States gained a much-desired respite from war by agreeing to divide Europe. On the negative side, we had to endure nearly a half-century of Cold War with the Soviets. Among other consequences of not having eliminated the Soviet threat when we were in a position to do so was that the Kremlin lent crucial support to the establishment of Mao’s communist regime in China, Castro’s communist regime in Cuba, and Ho’s communist regime in North Vietnam.
After the dissolution of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991, there was a peaceful interlude, but the recidivist dictatorship of Vladimir Putin has resurrected the aggressive imperialist agenda of the erstwhile Soviet regime. One wonders how much less violence and conflict there would have been in the decades after 1945 had President Harry Truman given Gen. Patton the green light to complete the mission of World War II by defeating Russian militarism and imperialism in addition to having defeated German and Japanese militarism and imperialism.
We will never know how different our world would have been had the United States not gone into World War I, nor how different it would have been had we defeated the last remaining imperialist aggressor in 1945. Sometimes a country pays a huge price for what it chooses to do militarily, and sometimes it pays an enormous price for what it chooses not to do militarily.
Do these lessons apply to Ukraine? Could more active military intervention lead to undesirable consequences? Yes. Could withdrawing military support for Ukraine lead to undesirable consequences? Yes. Which course of action would lead to better consequences on a net basis? You tell me, and then we’ll both know. Ideally, we will do what’s most right morally, most effective strategically, and most advantageous geopolitically, both in the short and long run. At the same time, we must acknowledge that whatever we do or do not do may have repercussions that will persist for a generation or longer.
My prayer is twofold: first, that whoever is calling the shots in the Biden White House be guided by a higher wisdom; second, that we civilians refrain from ripping each other apart over our differences about Ukraine. None of us really knows what the future holds, but whatever it is, we will need to face it together.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.