• Marc Johnson

Stop, Think and Ask “What If…”

According to the Financial Times, Michael Gove, a champion of Britain’s exit from the European Union and now a candidate for prime minister, refused during the recent Brexit campaign to name any economists who back exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

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It can be difficult, when watching politics unfold in real time, to identify and see clearly the larger currents and fault lines that define where we are and where we might be headed. This reality – not always being able to comprehend the present – is why history matters and why, regrettably, so many Americans – and Brits apparently – have forgotten lessons from the past.

Americans face an obesity crisis and a epidemic of gun violence, but perhaps just as seriously we face the plague of historical amnesia. Increasingly we cannot connect the dots of the past with the issues of the moment. That can be a fatal disease in a democracy.

Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos


The recent decision by voters in the United Kingdom to abandon more than 40 years of increasing interconnection with Europe, and in the process turning their backs on the last century of European history, and the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump illustrate how we forget our history at our peril. Two striking examples make my case.

Europe in 1940…

Imagine the world, and particularly Europe, in the spring of 1940. Nazi armies have overrun Poland and Norway, invaded the Low Countries and are pressing toward Paris. Hitler’s Panzers and Stuka dive-bombers have terrorized Warsaw, Krakow, Brussels and Antwerp. The Wehrmacht – perhaps the greatest offensive army the world had ever seen – was routing the French army, thought at the time to be the best fighting force in the world, and guns booming on the front lines could be heard at the Eiffel Tower. Would France fight on, resist the awful weight of invasion or would defeatists in the French government and military surrender?

A German tank in France in 1940


The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a Francophile who loved Champagne and the ships of the French Navy among other things, was desperate to keep France in the war – and the French Navy out of German hands – and he embraced an audacious plan to buck up the faltering and besieged government in Paris.

At the suggestion of several French diplomats serving in London – among the group was Jean Monnet, considered the founding father of the European Union, and the junior French General Charles De Gaulle – Churchill pitched to the French Premier Paul Reynaud a “declaration of indissoluble union.

The formal proposal declared, “The two governments declare France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union…every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain and every British subject will become a citizen of France.” Once united the two countries would have a formal association of Parliaments, joint management of defense and finance and a single war cabinet to direct the defense of western Europe. “Its all embracing character,”as one historian has written, “went further than anything before in the history of war-time alliances. Even in the subsequent history of European unity, no Government ever proposed a more radical and far-reaching plan for supernatural integration.”

Astounding.

Winston Churchill


Great Britain and France would, symbolically and practically, become one and fight on against Hitler’s armies. We know how the story turned out. Reynaud could not sell the idea to his government, most members of whom had already indicated a willingness to throw in the towel and surrender. The World War I hero Marshall Henri Petain, who went on to collaborate with the Nazis and was later found guilty of treason, rejected Churchill’s proposal out of hand saying it would be better to become “a Nazi colony” than to unite with Britain. Reynaud resigned as prime minister without a formal vote on the British proposal and later said the failure of Churchill’s idea was the greatest disappointment of his political career.

As for becoming a Nazi colony, France certainly did, to the enduring shame of many who advocated capitulation rather than embrace new and radical thinking. The name of Petain is forever stained, while De Gaulle is celebrated as the greatest Frenchman of the 20th Century.

I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own Brexit takeaway from this little historic tableau from 75 years ago, but one lesson seems clear: when faced with the greatest threat in modern times Winston Churchill was prepared to join his nation’s fate in the most fundamental ways with France, indeed with all of Europe. His imagination was equal to the moment.

Reed Smoot is Smiling…

The presumptive nominee of the Republican for the presidency is, on the other hand, beyond imagination. Donald Trump spent the week, with a few Trumpian deviations, outlining his remarkable views on trade. Reed Smoot must be smiling.

Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time


To the extent that Smoot, an austere apostle of the Mormon Church and a Republican senator from Utah, is remembered at all today it is for being the architect of the 1930 tariff legislation that bears his name. The Smoot-Hawley tariff – Hawley was Willis Hawley, an Oregon lawyer and educator who became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – dramatically increased tariffs, led to a stifling of American exports just as the Great Depression took hold and sparked an international trade war against the United States.

As historian Douglas A. Irwin points out in his history of the tariff legislation, Canada, the largest U.S. trading partner in 1930, immediately retaliated with its own trade sanctions, while other countries formed “preferential trading blocs that discriminated against the United States” shifting world trade away from the U.S.

Saddled with the political, not to mention financial cost of protectionist trade policies after Smoot-Hawley, Republicans generally became “free-traders,” adopting a fundamentally conservative view that goods and services should move freely in the global economy, largely unhindered by artificial controls. Trade wars were to be avoided, exports encouraged and imports not feared. Trump’s approach – a trade war with China and mostly incoherent, but clearly protectionist measures regarding U.S. imports – as much as any policy he proposes, upends long-established Republican orthodoxy and flies in the face of historical experience.

Smoot-Hawley was largely designed to protect American farmers. It didn’t and many voices, including hundreds of economists, warned against its passage. The widely respected columnist Walter Lippmann called the protectionist legislation “a wretched and mischievous product of stupidity and greed.” You wonder if he knew Trump? And one advisor to the Republican president who signed the controversial legislation said, “I almost went down on my knees to beg Herbert Hoover to veto the asinine Hawley-Smoot Tariff. That Act intensified nationalism all over the world.”

America in the Great Depression


Donald Trump’s rhetoric about trade, in addition to doing violence to a deeply held Republican tradition dating to the Great Depression, would almost certainly cost rather than protect American jobs. Other nations would surely retaliate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out this reality in what amounted to a stunning rebuke by American business of the GOP nominee. Even some of those who developed the economic analysis Trump relies upon for his position on trade repudiate his approach. Experts, of course, are so out of fashion, just like facts and history.

Meanwhile, across the pond, after more than 40 years spent embracing European integration the United Kingdom is certain to discover in the days ahead that the cost of isolation from Europe will be great and painful. In both cases – Brexit and Trump – opportunistic politicians, feeding on the fears of worried citizens, peddle fanciful ideas that simply can’t withstand careful evaluation. But, unfortunately our collective historical amnesia leaves us susceptible to the crude charms of charlatans.

Historical analogies are never perfect, of course, but history can help illuminate enduring truths, one being that simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong.

Another lesson taught by history is simply to stop, think and ask “what if”? What if the French government in 1940 had had more courage and imagination? What if Herbert Hoover would have listened to his advisers? What if?

 

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson