Against the backdrop of America’s noble past, hanging Ukraine out to dry is heartbreaking

February 17th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

At the close of World War II, the United States had become by far the dominant world power. How could it not be? Europe had been beaten to a pulp, the same for Russia. Japan had been bombed nearly back to the stone age. China was a nonentity, and India was still a British colony. There was no one else. The U.S. was the last man standing. In addition to the tragically killed and wounded, the worst thing the country had faced was rationing for the war effort. The mainland continental United States was nearly untouched by enemy action during the entire war.

But the physical devastation was so severe in Europe that in May 1947, nearly two years after Victory in Europe Day, Winston Churchill described the continent as “a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”

As the only country with the resources to lead the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war, the United States realized its post-war prominence came with colossal responsibility—and opportunity. In perhaps this nation’s greatest contributions to humanity, it poured money, personnel, and other resources into the most massive rebuilding effort in history. This was one of those rare instances where beneficence exquisitely blended with national self-interest. During the years following the war, America devoted itself to European and Japanese recovery in ways that  should still inspire us today.

  • The U.S. developed the four-year European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) under the leadership of Army General and Secretary of State George C. Marshall¹ to rebuild the infrastructure and rehabilitate the economies of 16 western and southern European countries to allow stable conditions to develop and democratic institutions to survive.  This included Germany, and stands in sharp contrast to the humiliating and draconian measures taken by the victors at the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Stalin wanted similar measures after World War II, but was overruled by the allies who, despite the atrocities committed by Germany, knew it would be folly to repeat the mistakes of Versailles. The Marshall Plan years (1947 – 1951) were the fastest period of growth in European history and led to the Schumann Plan, the Common Market and now the European Union. The Marshall Plan also led directly to the creation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). During the Marshall Plan, the U.S. contributed $17 billion over the four-year period (more than $200 billion in today’s dollars). The Soviet Union and its allies refused to accept any of the aid from the Marshall Plan, because doing so would allow the U.S. to have a degree of  control over the Soviet economies, and the paranoid Joseph Stalin could never allow that;
  • Similarly, in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) and began the work of reconstruction. SCAP dismantled the Japanese Army and banned former military officers from taking roles of political leadership in the new government. To rebuild the Japanese infrastructure and economy, the U.S. invested nearly $3 billion ($20 billion in today’s dollars) in materials, manpower and humanitarian aid between 1947 and 1952. Today, having abandoned its early 20th century bellicosity, Japan is the third largest economy in the world.
  • After the war, although reconstruction was critical for the future, establishing justice for war criminals was central to that time’s present. As in Nürnberg, Germany, where more than 3,000 Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes during the two years following the war, the Allies brought to trial Japanese wartime leaders by convening war crimes trials in Tokyo and at various tribunals sitting outside Japan. Some 5,000 Japanese were found guilty of war crimes.
  • In 1948, Russia initiated the cold war by inhumanely blockading the three western sectors of Berlin, cutting off 2.5 million people from access to electricity, food, coal and other crucial supplies. Beginning 26 June 1948, two days after the blockade was announced, U.S. and British planes carried out the largest air relief operation in history, transporting some 2.3 million tons of supplies into West Berlin on more than 270,000 flights over 11 months. The awesome magnanimity of the Airlift, which cost America $224 million ($2.6 billion in today’s dollars) saved the lives of an untold number of Berliners.

  • In April, 1945, even before the war ended and 12 days following the death of President Roosevelt, the U.S. hosted more than 500 delegates from 51 countries who conferenced for two months in San Francisco to create the framework for what would become the United Nations. In the middle of the conference the delegates gathered in Cathedral Grove of Muir Wood to pay tribute to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A unified America did all that, and more. It demonstrated the greatness of “the American century,” and was a significant and proud moment in our history.

And now, in 2024, 79 years following the end of World War II, what have we become? There have been majestic moments in our history, notably the 5th decade of the 20th century, when national self-interest trumped political self-interest. Is anything resembling that intelligent altruism possible today in our deeply divided country where partisanship is egged on by grandstanding politicians whose only consideration is their own ambition?

At some point, the war in Ukraine will end. Without our childish Congress continuing to provide weapons and ammunition, it will end badly for Ukraine, which has already seen well over 100,000 of its soldiers and civilians killed by the Russian invaders. Unlike in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to bring to justice Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russians responsible for the obvious war crimes unveiled in Bucha in August, 2022. The Russian leaders will never again be able to visit a western country, but they’ll be safe among what passes for friends.

I used to think that our support and the support of the rest of NATO would carry the day. I used to think Ukraine would succeed and expel the invaders. I used to think our next big job would be leading the effort to help Ukrainians rebuild their country, the largest in Europe, with magnificent architecture. I knew it would require an enormous investment in time, money, and skilled workers to restore it to its former beauty. We would need George Marshall-like fortitude to commit ourselves to that effort, and I believed we would make that effort. Americans would do that. And all of Europe would be there to help. This time we would not have to go it alone. I used to believe that. I used to believe we’d have that chance.

But the Mike Johnson-led House of Representatives has thrown cold water all over that. Apparently on the spur of the moment, Johnson decided House members should take two weeks off for a President’s Day recess without attacking, let alone addressing, any of our challenges, especially Ukraine. Now they’re gone and their most notable accomplishment, if you can call it that, has been impeaching the Secretary of Homeland Security after preventing him from getting any of the help and resources he needs to rectify our southern border crisis.

Thus far, Republicans in the House have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even the idea of supporting the administration’s efforts to help Ukraine defend itself — and the rest of Europe, by the way — from the egomaniacal Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore the Soviet Union.

Think about this for a moment. Putin obviously sees the weakness displayed by the House. Consequently, he has thrown even more human wave cannon fodder at the Ukrainian front lines. If Ukraine is forced, as it appears it will be without U.S. aid, to withdraw its troops to new defensive positions, Russia will be ever so much closer to Poland and the Baltics. These countries have invested enormously on their defenses and in aiding Ukraine, but under growing threats from Putin, they will have to cut their aid to Ukraine to protect themselves. Keep in mind Putin spent a large part of his softball interview with Tucker Carlson² attacking Poland as a Nazi state. This is one reason the Poles spend 4% of their GDP on defense.

Thursday’s death (killing?) of the heroic Alexei Navalny in a Russian penal colony somewhere in the Arctic should show everyone, once again, of the Russian leader’s depravity. I am reminded of what Bob Gates said about him. The former CIA Director for George H. W. Bush and Secretary of Defense in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, after a trip to Moscow for a meeting with Putin said, “I came back from my first meeting with Putin and told then-President [George H.W.] Bush, I had looked into Putin’s eyes, and I’d seen a stone-cold killer.”

Perhaps, having heard from their constituents, when our hooky-playing Representatives return from their little vacation their views on providing aid to Ukraine may have changed, but I doubt it. According to a Gallup November 2023 survey, Trump’s Russian-loving rhetoric is resonating with Republicans, 62% of whom said the U.S. is doing too much to help.

Thinking back on a time when America acted nobly after World War II makes this current tragedy all the more heartbreaking. We acted in our self-interest, but it was in Europe’s and Japan’s self-interest, too. History will never stop smiling on what we did then.

Donald Trump, his cult followers, his opportunistic, ambitious, coat-hanging  enablers all say they want to make America great again.

So do I.


¹ Marshall may be the most accomplished statesman and wartime leader in American history. He was armed forces Chief of Staff during World War II, a five-star general (one of only five in history), Secretary of State following the war, where he organized the Marshall Plan, Secretary of Defense during the Korean conflict, Time’s Man of the Year—twice, and, in 1953, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

² Personally, I think Tucker Carlson should just move into Kim Philby’s old apartment in Moscow. He’s probably be quite comfortable.