Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Santorum's History Lesson: "It's not OK."

Rick Santorum certainly is not squandering his moment in the spotlight.

Over the last week or so, he seems almost to be going out of his way to say things that make many voters ask incredulously: "He said what?!" There are a lot of them to choose from, but I'll stick to the "today is much like when we ignored Hitler" story.

Recently, Santorum told a crowd in Georgia that Republican voters need to wake up to the dangers of our times:
Your country needs you. It's not as clear a challenge. Obviously World War II was pretty obvious. At some point, they knew. But remember, the greatest generation for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness. America sat from 1940 when France fell to December of '41 and did almost nothing... We’re a hopeful people. We think, well, you know it’ll get better. Yeah, he's a nice guy, it won't be near as bad as what we think. This will be OK. Maybe he's not the best guy, after a while you find out some things about this guy over in Europe who’s not so good of a guy after all. But you know what, why do we need to be involved? We'll just take care of our own problems. We'll just get our families off to work and our kids off to school and we'll be OK. That's sort of the optimistic spirit of America. But sometimes, sometimes it’s not OK. 
Leave aside the reckless and outrageous suggestion that there is any way in which President Obama represents a threat to the United States, much less one commensurate to what Hitler did in Europe.

Santorum clearly does not understand the period of American history he's talking about. I happen to be in the midst of writing a book about precisely this period, and it bears little relation to his simple-minded account.

I suppose one could reasonably say that, since the United States did not become an active belligerent until December 1941, it technically "sat on the sidelines." But the assertion that the U.S. "did almost nothing" between June 1940 and December 1941 is just laughable.

As soon as the war in Europe began, FDR stated what seemed to him to be obvious: "every battle that is fought does affect the American future." He immediately asked Congress to amend the neutrality laws to allow the sale of arms and other goods to Britain and France on a "cash and carry" basis, which it did.

In his next State of the Union address in January 1940, he proposed that Congress increase defense spending, which it did.

After the fall of France, FDR accelerated aid to Great Britain, including giving Churchill 50 old destroyers that he had requested.

When the British could no longer pay cash for the goods they ordered, FDR asked Congress to approve the Lend-Lease Act to allow the United States to provide whatever military aid it could spare for Britain's defense, which it did.

In the fall of 1941, the United States occupied Iceland, patrolled the entire western Atlantic, and convoyed British ships--all to relieve the British Navy so it could better confront Nazi Germany.

One can say--as many have since--that that was not enough. But it wasn't "almost nothing."

Santorum is certainly right when he says Americans are "a hopeful people" with an "optimistic spirit." But who were these Americans who were saying Hitler was "a nice guy" or even just "not so good"?

There were virtually none. Even those opposed to American entry into the war rarely had anything good to say about Hitler. When former president Herbert Hoover, on the very day the war began, called for the U.S. to "keep out of this war," he also made a point of saying: "The whole Nazi system is repugnant to the American people."

The vast majority of Americans, whether they supported all-out aid to Britain or opposed it, were under no illusions about Hitler. They were honestly debating the best way to deal with that threat.

Yes, they were also optimistic. Right up until Pearl Harbor, most Americans--about 70%--still hoped to avoid direct involvement in the war. But roughly the same percentage was determined to insure that Hitler did not win, even if that meant going to war eventually.

There were a few Americans with good things to say about Hitler. They were on the far right fringes of American life, people who praised Hitler as a Christian, as a bulwark against atheistic communism.

One was a woman named Elizabeth Dilling. Raised an Episcopalian, she attended Catholic schools as a girl, and considered becoming an evangelist. She called herself a "super patriot, 100 per center" who believed women should stick to "feminine pursuits." She defended the fascist Francisco Franco in Spain because he was "fighting with Spain's decent element for Christianity" against the Loyalists who destroyed churches "with the same satanic Jewish glee shown in Russia."

According to author Glen Jeansonne, she also had kind words for Hitler, because he too "had done a great deal of good ... and helped Christianity flourish." She said those urging the U.S. to fight Hitler in the war were trying to get Americans to "fight the Jews' battles all over again." Most horrifically she made this prediction, which is practically a paraphrase of Hitler's pre-war threat:
If the Jews succeed in hollering America into war, what happened to Jews in Germany might seem like a kindergarten compared to what they might get in America when the dead bodies start coming home, as Americans are a hotter-tempered people.
One of the more notorious Hitler defenders in the U.S., Gerald L. K. Smith, claimed that the "Jews hated Hitler ... because he was a Christian who believed in the Bible." Smith reprinted one of Hitler's speeches which used Biblical passages to justify his policies toward the Jews, and commented:
What good Christian American can find any fault with the above quotations? Could it be that the same Jew-controlled newspapers that lied to us about Father Coughlin and Gerald Smith failed to tell us the truth about Hitler?
This was a man Republican isolationists called to testify before Congress.

The Americans who said Hitler was "a nice guy" were the same ones who called FDR a "dictator" and called his administration the "Jew Deal." They denied Hitler was any threat to the U.S., but were quite certain that FDR was one--a mortal one. They attacked FDR as "the first Communist president," and said that he was deliberately trying to destroy Christian America.

Martin Dies, a Congressman from Texas, who created the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, noted in 1939 that the "Fascist-Nazi movements in the United States masquerade as Christian patriots."

Yes, these Americans existed. They were not, however, typical. The vast majority of Americans knew Hitler was the real threat, not Franklin Roosevelt. They knew their president--even if they disagreed with him politically--was not trying to ruin the United States. They knew the debate they were having was not an apocalyptic battle between those who were trying to save America and those who wanted to destroy it, but an honest disagreement about how best to defend the country.

But it seems there will always be people who masquerade as Christian patriots, who tear down the president personally, call him a communist, say he believes in a "false theology," and claim he's trying to destroy the country.

You're right, Rick. Sometimes, sometimes, it's not OK.

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