Watching Darkness Fall in Ukraine
Then, last week, as bombs exploded all over Ukraine, another email sat in my inbox: the funds would soon be deposited in my account. It felt tragic and surreal to be paid for a book about the events leading up to World War II in a country now living through war itself.
A Ukrainian publisher was perhaps prescient last summer in recognizing that while history does not repeat itself, it can rhyme in unexpected ways. But now, I wondered, maybe those who needed to read history more closely resided in the comfort of the West all along. The parallels between Roosevelt’s time and ours are eerie.
My book recounts the decade of the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the struggle between autocracy and democracy. Today, as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people fight to preserve their country, they are engaged in a similar clash with wider implications for the entire free world.
Though at heart an internationalist, Roosevelt never spoke about foreign policy during the 1932 presidential campaign: the economic depression was the only issue on the minds of Americans. Similarly, Joe Biden, a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rarely discussed foreign policy during the 2020 campaign. He and his team understood that while Trump was unpopular, Trumpist isolationism and aversion to all things globalist hung over our country; the coronavirus, unemployment, and Donald Trump’s antics dominated the political season.
Biden had declared his candidacy in 2019 during the same week that Ukrainians, having chased a Russian puppet president from office five years earlier, elected Volodymyr Zelensky their president. But the only reason Ukraine was mentioned at all during the campaign season was Trump’s impeachable attempt to leverage the country for purely personal political gain.
The Roosevelt and Biden administrations both began amid warning signs at home and abroad. The same week Roosevelt was inaugurated president, Nazi legislators in Germany granted Chancellor Adolf Hitler dictatorial power for a term of four years. But the United States was focused squarely on the Great Depression. Indeed, Roosevelt’s inaugural address included not a single word about foreign policy.
But FDR’s early behind-the-scenes moves would matter for the little-discussed crisis building in Europe. Roosevelt appointed William Dodd, a little-known academic from North Carolina, to be his ambassador to Berlin. Soon, Dodd was sending cables to the Department of State, and personal letters to the president warning him that Hitler was murdering his political opponents, re-militarizing, and seeking ultimately to dominate Europe.
What mattered to the nation in that moment had little to do with events overseas. As Putin plotted territorial expansion from Moscow, a violent insurrection in the US Capitol gripped Washington.
Biden’s presidency began much the same way. What mattered to the nation in that moment had little to do with events overseas. As Putin plotted territorial expansion from Moscow, a violent insurrection in the US Capitol gripped Washington. A second impeachment trial of Donald Trump became inevitable. The incoming president’s focus, including in his inaugural address to a socially distanced crowd, along with a “virtual celebration” of his presidency, was on healing the divide at home, not overseas. His grace notes about foreign policy were modest.
One of Biden’s first appointments was the soft-spoken William Burns to be director of the CIA, a career diplomat who was most comfortable as a quiet “backchannel,” so much so that this word became the title of his memoir. In 2021, after visiting Moscow, Burns became convinced that Putin was bent on territorial expansion, and he sounded the alarm about Russia’s designs on Ukraine. Fortunately, the Biden administration had worked diligently since the first day in office to repair our alliances around the world, including inside NATO, an alliance which Trump’s former National Security Advisor feared his boss might actually dismantle were he given a second term in office.
Both Roosevelt and Biden knew the political headwinds they faced at home for interventionism of any kind.
During the 1930s, the US public was decidedly isolationist: It had been little more than a decade since WWI and most Americans wanted the Europeans to settle their ongoing differences on their own. Even after Hitler’s Anschluss absorbed Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Roosevelt felt compelled to emphasize time and again that the United States would not become involved in another European war.
Having only recently extricated the United States from a twenty-year war in Afghanistan, President Biden has been consistent in telling the American people that the United States will not engage militarily with Russia, a nuclear power, in defense of Ukraine.
Roosevelt worried about public figures such as Ambassador Joe Kennedy and renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh, who both advocated for an accommodation with Hitler. In October 1938, Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle by Reich Marshal Hermann Goering on behalf of Hitler. Today, Tucker Carlson spouts a Putin apologia from his perch at Fox News, so much so that Russian propaganda memos to state-controlled media outlets stressed the importance of making Carlson ubiquitous in Russia as proof of American division.
As German tanks rolled toward Paris in June 1940, two million Parisians fled the city, including France’s political leaders. But US Ambassador William Bullitt stayed, cabling Roosevelt, “We have exactly two revolvers in this entire Mission with only 40 bullets.” Ambassador Bullitt is credited with having saved Paris by persuading German generals not to lay waste to the city. President Volodymyr Zelensky told President Biden that notwithstanding approaching Russian tanks he would not vacate Kyiv; he needed “ammunition, not a ride.” The president of Ukraine continues to press Putin for serious negotiations to end the war.
After Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940, he did all he could to provide lend-lease—the provision of planes and ships—to a besieged Winston Churchill in Britain. Only after Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States did Roosevelt, and the nation, resolve to go to war with Nazi Germany. President Biden has made a similar commitment to Ukraine: he will give the Ukrainians virtually everything they need, short of a no-fly zone, to defend their country.
Like most Americans, I feel relatively helpless—hashtags and blue, yellow, and white Ukrainian filters on social media feel like very small gestures while so much is at stake.
Like most Americans, I hope Ukraine will emerge from this unjustified and horrifying invasion of a free and sovereign country, without Putin plunging Europe into a third world war. Like most Americans, I feel relatively helpless—hashtags and blue, yellow, and white Ukrainian filters on social media feel like very small gestures while so much is at stake. And for me personally, it feels wrong to accept money from a publisher in a country where darkness is falling: I donated the funds to the International Rescue Committee, which is resettling Ukrainian children while their parents fight for a cause bigger than any of us. My hope is that the next history book I write will be about their victory and an aftermath of peace and stability in our age as it was, ultimately, for those who defied Hitler.