Talking Points

Is it 1938 — or 2003?

It's 1938 again, and the greatest risk the West faces is not a third world war but appeasement in the face of Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine. No, it's 1964 or 2003, and the U.S. must not again make the mistake of being stampeded into a foolish war like Vietnam or Iraq. Actually, it's 1995, and we have a moral duty to intervene militarily to prevent further slaughter, just as we did in Bosnia. Or it's 2011, and ousting Putin as we did Moammar Gadhafi may lead to chaos and dire unintended consequences. Take your pick. Human beings are wired to make comparisons, and in deciding how to best respond to Putin's invasion of Ukraine, it's natural to fall back on historical analogies. But which moment in history is most relevant? That's tricky business. The choice generally reflects the prior biases and agenda of the chooser, and can thus serve to mislead rather than to illuminate. 

Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, a canny communicator, has been a font of historical analogies. In trying to rally the Western world to do more to aid his country's defense, he evoked the Battle of Britain in a speech to the U.K.'s House of Commons and echoed Winston Churchill's "we shall never surrender" speech. To the U.S. Congress, Zelensky summoned up Pearl Harbor and 9/11. To Israel's Knesset, he spoke of Putin's "final solution" — the extermination of the Ukrainian people. Putin also has evoked World War II in justifying his barbaric assault, telling Russians their soldiers are engaged in a "denazification" program. It is, of course, not 1938, 1964, or 2003, and while the past can inform the present, it cannot tell us with any certainty how to deter or defeat Putin, who, not incidentally, has 6,000 more nuclear weapons than Hitler did. The only clear lesson of history is that 10 or 20 years from now, a sage analyst will declare that some future conflict is "another Ukraine."

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.