Obama and Britain in the 1930s, or, Obama Equals Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain — Tabula Rasa

 

One of the endlessly interesting exercises of the last five years has been the serial attempt to find historical parallels to the disaster that is the Obama Administration. Among the most prominent are the bumbling Carter Administration, the cynicism and dishonesty of the Clinton and Nixon Administrations, and the nanny state expansions perpetrated in the Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson Administrations.

I would like to suggest a new analogue, this one based on the Obama Administration’s unerringly consistent fecklessness in foreign policy combined with its attempts to diminish American military power by dramatically cutting military budgets (all while China dramatically expands and Russia continues to think the term “Russian Empire” is not purely historical).

My candidate is Britain in the 1930s. These were the “wilderness years” of Winston Churchill (about whom my admiration knows few bounds). He studied Hitler (going so far as to actually read Mein Kampf) and then watched as Hitler rearmed and began his promised persecution of Jews and his acquisition of adjoining sovereign nations. He saw clearly where all this was heading — and, tragically, was proven right.

In 1936, Churchill gave one of his best speeches — one that combined brilliant rhetoric, sharp, well-directed sarcasm, and complete honesty. It also earned him the disdain of his own party and the nation’s punditry.

As he saw Britain continuing to neglect its defenses, he went to the floor of the Commons on November 12, 1936, and uttered these brilliant words aimed at the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin (his later attacks on Neville Chamberlain were equally strong):

The First Lord of the Admiralty in his speech the other night . . . said, ‘We are always reviewing the position.’ Everything, he assured us is entirely fluid. I am sure that that is true. Anyone can see what the position is. The Government simply cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.

So we go on preparing more months and years – precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britain – for the locusts to eat. They will say to me, ‘A Minister of Supply is not necessary, for all is going well.’ I deny it. ‘The position is satisfactory.’ It is not true. ‘All is proceeding according to plan.’ We know what that means.

These words earned Churchill the title of “warmonger” and worse. So I ask you, is it not the Obama Administration’s policy to be “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent”?

And, in the end, will not the locusts eat, and eat well? I submit that Barack Obama is America’s own version of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. And while we’re at it, has there ever been a greater speechwriter than Winston Churchill?

There are 36 comments.

  1. Inactive

    “…the nanny state expansions perpetrated in the Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Johnson administration.”

    You’re forgetting the damage that Nixon, a Right Progressive, did. The EPA was a Nixon gift, after all…

    • #1
    • March 20, 2014 at 2:20 pm
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  2. Member

    <devil’s advocate mode = on>

    Churchill was arguing for a Minister of Supply, and a strengthening of Britain’s military capabilities, which had dwindled to effectively nil, in the face of an aggressor which had rapidly reindustrialized and had built a military which was far greater than that of Britain.

    Today, the United States spends more on its military than all other countries combined, and Russia has a smaller GDP than Brazil.

    Are the two situations truly analogous?

    <devil’s advocate mode = off>

    • #2
    • March 20, 2014 at 2:31 pm
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  3. Inactive

    Yes, perhaps a better analogy is with the international response to Italy in Abyssinia in 1935. The response to Putin/Mussolini is so weak that it won’t stop their aggression, but the sanctions still have just enough of a sting that Putin/Mussolini will more gladly embrace (?????)/Hitler.

    • #3
    • March 20, 2014 at 3:14 pm
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  4. Coolidge

    They broke the mold with Winston Churchill.

    So glad you posted this. I recently received the PBS 3-part series “Churchill” . . .

    Hope to talk hubby into watching it tonight.

    • #4
    • March 20, 2014 at 3:24 pm
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  5. Member
    tabula rasa Post author

    Misthiocracy: The problem with analogies is that they’re analogies. No two situations are exactly the same, and, of course, there are differences between the things I analogize. But on a broader level, isn’t it true that we are constantly portraying weakness, fecklessness, and incompetence? That smells a lot like Baldwin and Chamberlain. China won’t have its blue-water navy tomorrow, but it’s building one. As I understand it, the number of active U. S. Navy ships is on the decline. I doubt Putin plans to over-run Europe, but we’ve got some pretty loyal allies sitting very close to Russia (e.g., the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Baltic States, among others). For me, the similarities between the Britain of the 1930s and Obama’s America are close enough to make we worry. And when it comes down to it, isn’t Obama’s foreign policy nicely captured by Churchill’s “resolved to be irresolute” line?

    • #5
    • March 20, 2014 at 3:41 pm
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  6. Thatcher

    Tabula! Just when I was going to start organizing a search party.

    It does have that feel of impending… um… not doom, exactly, but what it is is still unclear. Prolonged periods of indecision punctuated by episodes of fecklessness, most likely. It will be interesting to see what kind of response Europe has to this. Angela Merkel at least remembers what is like to grow up under the boot, not that she can do much about it by herself.

    • #6
    • March 20, 2014 at 4:12 pm
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  7. Inactive

    Jonah Goldberg wrote in NR’s 3/24 issue:

    President Obama is a throwback not so much to Marxism but to the old norm of sneering at innovativeness and the bourgeois values.

    Interesting perspective but I wonder if Marxism and a disdain for “innovativeness” and a free market economy might not be one and the same thing?

    • #7
    • March 20, 2014 at 5:15 pm
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  8. Member

    [Obama = Chamberlain] works because [Britain-1930s = USA-21st century] works.

    Britain-1930s was a world empire and a democracy. America-21st is neo-empire (worldwide string of bases, astronomical military budget) and democracy.

    But democracies make very bad empires because the emperor is chosen by electoral politics, which are driven by local and domestic issues filtered through a sieve of emotionalism. How in God’s name are you going to keep a Churchill at the helm under such a system?

    You aren’t. If you want to always have a Churchill, you have to ditch democracy.

    In any case, why should America get involved? We have two corrupt dictatorial countries which each have enough talking points to make legitimate claims for a certain piece of land. You want a Churchill in order to get us involved in that kind of mess? Get us involved in local nationalistic and racialistic passions? In ancient border disputes?

    Neither country is that important to America. True, you answer, but they are important to Europe.

    Ok, and Europe is not able to take care of itself? Maybe not, with nanny America watching over it. Time for nanny to let the kids grow up.

    • #8
    • March 20, 2014 at 8:50 pm
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  9. Moderator

    Matty, I’m trying to follow your comment. In this account, is Britain a democracy?

    Likewise, are you under the impression that Poland was more democratic or less corrupt than Ukraine is today?

    Is the stuff about a country that sent soldiers to fight and bleed in Iraq, whose territorial integrity was guaranteed by America, not being important to America intended to be a conscious evocation of Chamberlain’s “a faraway country about which we know nothing”?

    What “ancient” border dispute is being referred to? Before borders become ancient, do they not have to last longer than a lifetime?

    I can understand the conclusion (the utterly unfounded belief that without American protection of decency, the rest of the world would provide the same service), but I think that that’s the only part of this I could grasp. Perhaps if you fleshed the ideas out a little, rather than packing quite so many concepts into so short a comment?

    • #9
    • March 20, 2014 at 10:12 pm
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  10. Moderator

    I apologize for being predictable in this, but it feels like this post needs a reminder that Churchill was responsible for almost every major progressive lurch in British politics (the destruction of the constitution and the House of Lords, the development of big welfare, an Obamacare like system before WWI, full nationalization after WWII, the massively progressive income tax that America never had, gun control, monolithic state education, large scale government housing, etc. etc. etc.).

    Chamberlain, on the other hand, managed to get a handle on domestic spending (helpful in allowing the Air Force buildup that Chamberlain had already started before 1936, with some opposition from Churchill, and that turned out to be vital for Britain’s survival). Bonar Law, Chamberlain, Baldwin, and McDonald were less competent than Harding/ Coolidge in that they didn’t repeal much of the progressive onslaught, but they did provide a similar breathing space.

    In other words, Obama isn’t Churchill in foreign policy, and I don’t think he’s Chamberlain (who re-armed Britain and took her into war, with the support of the dominions, where Obama disarms and alienates allies), but we should be grateful that Obama isn’t a Churchill domestically.

    • #10
    • March 20, 2014 at 10:43 pm
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  11. Moderator

    Misthiocracy:
    <devil’s advocate mode = on>
    Churchill was arguing for a Minister of Supply, and a strengthening of Britain’s military capabilities, which had dwindled to effectively nil, in the face of an aggressor which had rapidly reindustrialized and had built a military which was far greater than that of Britain.
    Today, the United States spends more on its military than all other countries combined, and Russia has a smaller GDP than Brazil.
    Are the two situations truly analogous?
    <devil’s advocate mode = off>

     Britain spent 2.92% of its GDP on Defense in 1936, increasing to 3.66% the following year. America is currently scheduled to spend 3.58%, and to decrease that the following year. I agree that those numbers are not the same, but they don’t seem so absurdly far apart that it is absurd to see some analogies.
    It is also true that the nature of America’s enemies is different, as is her tolerance for American death (a factor that increases the need for military spending by pushing America towards an unbelievably well trained, educated, and equipped military, an unprecedented level of individual excellence).

    • #11
    • March 20, 2014 at 10:54 pm
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  12. Member

    James Of England: Matty, I’m trying to follow your comment. In this account, is Britain a democracy?

    MATTY: Yes.

    JAMES: Likewise, are you under the impression that Poland was more democratic or less corrupt than Ukraine is today?

    MATTY: No. More or less democratic/corrupt is pretty much irrelevant from a “Vattelian” perspective.

    JAMES: Is the stuff about a country that sent soldiers to fight and bleed in Iraq, … intended to be a conscious evocation of Chamberlain’s “a faraway country about which we know nothing”?

    MATTY: Not exactly, but now that you mention it, you could take it in that direction with no complaints from me.

    JAMES: What “ancient” border dispute is being referred to?

    MATTY: I have two threads of thought going simultaneously, specific and general. Specifically, the borders of Ukraine, Crimea, Russia. Generally, the borders that exist on just about every inhabitable piece of the planet.

    JAMES: Before borders become ancient, do they not have to last longer than a lifetime?

    MATTY: Good implied point. But since the “general” part of my dual thinking goes back, say, ten thousand years, I’m coverned!
    CONTINUED

    • #12
    • March 21, 2014 at 3:00 am
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  13. Member

    CONTINUATION
    James Of England
    :Perhaps if you fleshed the ideas out a little, rather than packing quite so many concepts into so short a comment?

    MATTY: Lol, I’m trying to condense a book into 200 words. Btw, James, you have done a remarkable job of said condensation in #8 and #9. Unlike mine, your condensation actually makes sense. Fascinating and important info, there, and stuff I didn’t know. Seeing as how it’s coming from you, I judge I can trust it’s all true.

    Btw, I’m having no end of trouble with 2.0. On my mini ipad I only get “Gateway Error” even now. On my full ipad, I can’t get in without making a new password each time which is troublesome and doesn’t always work. Now, I’m on my wife’s PC which isn’t always at hand. If I suddenly go silent, that’s the reason. G’ night!

    • #13
    • March 21, 2014 at 3:12 am
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  14. Inactive

    Without denying that there are parallels, there is one enormous difference between Obama and Baldwin, Chamberlain, and Churchill too.

    Even by 1940, the memory of World War I was only 22 years old. Essentially within the living memory of every adult over the age of 30 or so. 

    In the United States we have but small appreciation of how near-apocalyptic WWI was for the European and British Commonwealth countries. It was like Okinawa in WWII, only from the Swiss border to the North Sea (to name just one major theater) for four years.

    In the 30s there were still tens of thousands of horribly maimed and disfigured veterans around and about every day as living reminders of the carnage. There were millions of empty chairs, millions of young women who never married.

    This was all painfully fresh in the minds of Chamberlain, Baldwin, Churchill and the rest. 

    Obama doesn’t have this excuse.

    • #14
    • March 21, 2014 at 4:40 pm
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  15. Member

    @JofE= How can you blame Churchill for post-WWII nationalizations when he was voted out as PM in 1945 or 1946?

    • #15
    • March 21, 2014 at 6:51 pm
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  16. Moderator

    TeamAmerica:
    @JofE= How can you blame Churchill for post-WWII nationalizations when he was voted out as PM in 1945 or 1946?

     Because he set up the Beveridge Report, which designed them, in 1943, and endorsed the report after it had concluded.

    Then, weeks before the election, he changed his mind, and described the NHS as requiring a gestapo to run it. This utterly bizarre reversal resulted in one of the worst election defeats ever suffered by a government in the English speaking world, with Labour going from 154 seats to 393 seats, from a small minority to an overwhelming majority.

    It is true that there were differences between Churchill’s plan and Labour’s; Churchill called for single payer with much of the services being run by private sector providers, much as happens in the modern NHS. Labour called for single payer with few of the services being run by private sector providers.

    Churchill then returned to power in 1951, his only national electoral victory and (even then he lost the popular vote), and passed reforms increasing government housing, pensions, and other benefits, and retaining price controls.

    • #16
    • March 21, 2014 at 7:21 pm
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  17. Inactive

    James:

    Thanks for providing some logical and historically accurate context to the Churchill discussions here which are so often lacking both.

    • #17
    • March 21, 2014 at 8:30 pm
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  18. Inactive

    BTW, I am also having a tough time w log ins and posts on 2.0

    • #18
    • March 21, 2014 at 8:31 pm
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  19. Member

    I did a post a week or so ago titled “Welcome to 1938”. Sadly (for me at least) only the title came through as I created the post on an iOS device. 

    Putins rolling into the Crimea to protect ethnic Russians is analogous to Hitler rolling into the Sudetenland to protect ethnic Germans. Obama is playing the role of Chamberlain and we should expect him to go negotiate with Putin to get us “Peace in our Time”.

    • #19
    • March 22, 2014 at 8:06 am
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  20. Member

    Baldwin’s inaction can be attributed to his recognition the public was opposed to another war. As mentioned, the memory of WWI was fresh in the public’s minds. Baldwin observed that democracies were a few years behind dictatorships in being able to act. I think Condi Rice made a similar comment in regards to why there wasn’t a more forceful action taken against Al Queda before 9-11, there was not support or defensible justification.

    Chamberlain was not anti Britian, maybe a coward.

    Obama fails to grasp foreign affairs in a timely manner in order to be effective. Leading from behind is actually playing catch up. By the time he wants to act, it’s too late. He spent his first term trying to convince the world he and the US were separate, he was good, the US bad. Didn’t convince, merely entertained.

    The British were used to rationing, to be relevant in politics Churchill gave in to popular pressure for a NHS.

    The US was isolationist during the 20’s and 30’s, which may have been a factor in perpetrating Hitler’s ambition and Britian’s timidness.

    • #20
    • March 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm
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  21. Inactive

    Obama is worse than Baldwin and Chamberlain. Obama has their example. They did not.

    • #21
    • March 22, 2014 at 1:56 pm
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  22. Inactive

    http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Peace/2013/01/22/Obama-Peace-in-Our-Time

    http://www.npr.org/2013/01/21/169903155/transcript-barack-obamas-second-inaugural-address

    • #22
    • March 23, 2014 at 10:42 am
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  23. Moderator

    Ralphie:

    The British were used to rationing, to be relevant in politics Churchill gave in to popular pressure for a NHS.

    Britain got used to rationing in part because Churchill kept it so long; France had rationing, too, but they reinstated their cheese industry after the war, and the skills survived. British cheese was formally deregulated in 1954, but effectively restricted long after. The result was that British cheese traditions mostly died out until Thatcherite growth meant that British cheese, like British wine (although somewhat more successfully) was able to flourish once again.

    Churchill wasn’t a conservative who reluctantly adopted progressive measures. When Churchill pushed Lloyd George’s Obamacare mandatory health insurance (as Home Secretary, in 1911), he was not dealing with a public that was used to unfreedom and demanded its extension, but with a public that had hithertoo known only freedom. When he became the President of the Budget League, he was not leading the fight for the largest ever expansion of government just because popular pressure forced his hand, any more than the Americans who run Daily Kos and Planned Parenthood are conservatives engaging in compromise.

    • #23
    • March 23, 2014 at 12:35 pm
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