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Opinion | Mitch McConnell: We Cannot Repeat the Mistakes of the 1930s

Opinion | Mitch McConnell: We Cannot Repeat the Mistakes of the 1930s


On this day in 1944, the liberation of Western Europe began with immense sacrifice. In a tribute delivered 40 years later from a Normandy cliff, President Ronald Reagan reminded us that “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” were “heroes who helped end a war.” That last detail is worth some reflection because we are in danger of forgetting why it matters.

American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines joined allies and took the fight to the Axis powers not as a first instinct, but as a last resort. They ended a war that the free world’s inaction had left them no choice but to fight.

Generations have taken pride in the triumph of the West’s wartime bravery and ingenuity, from the assembly lines to the front lines. We reflect less often on the fact that the world was plunged into war, and millions of innocents died, because European powers and the United States met the rise of a militant authoritarian with appeasement or naïve neglect in the first place.

We forget how influential isolationists persuaded millions of Americans that the fate of allies and partners mattered little to our own security and prosperity. We gloss over the powerful political forces that downplayed growing danger, resisted providing assistance to allies and partners, and tried to limit America’s ability to defend its national interests.

Of course, Americans heard much less from our disgraced isolationists after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Today, America and our allies face some of the gravest threats to our security since Axis forces marched across Europe and the Pacific. And as these threats grow, some of the same forces that hampered our response in the 1930s have re-emerged.

Germany is now a close ally and trading partner. But it was caught flat-footed by the rise of a new axis of authoritarians made up of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. So, too, were the advanced European powers who once united to defeat the Nazis.

Like the United States, they responded to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014 with wishful thinking. The disrepair of their militaries and defense industrial bases, and their overreliance on foreign energy and technology, were further exposed by Russia’s dramatic escalation in 2022.

By contrast, Japan needed fewer reminders about threats from aggressive neighbors or about the growing links between Russia and China. Increasingly, America’s allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific are taking seriously the urgent requirements of self-defense. Fortunately, in the past two years, some of our European allies have taken overdue steps in the same direction.

Here at home, we face problems of our own. Some vocal corners of the American right are trying to resurrect the discredited brand of prewar isolationism and deny the basic value of the alliance system that has kept the postwar peace. This dangerous proposition rivals the American left’s longstanding allergy to military spending in its potential to make America less safe.

It should not take another catastrophic attack like Pearl Harbor to wake today’s isolationists from the delusion that regional conflicts have no consequences for the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation. With global power comes global interests and global responsibilities.

Nor should President Biden or congressional Democrats require another major conflict to start investing seriously in American hard power.

The president began this year’s State of the Union with a reference to President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 effort to prepare the nation to meet the Axis threat. But until the commander in chief is willing to meaningfully invest in America’s deterrent power, this talk carries little weight.

In 1941, President Roosevelt justified a belated increase in military spending to 5.5 percent of gross domestic product. On the road to victory, that figure would reach 37 percent. Deterring conflict today costs less than fighting it tomorrow.

I was encouraged by the plan laid out last week by my friend, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roger Wicker, which detailed specific actions the president and colleagues in Congress should take to prepare America for long-term strategic competition.

I hope my colleague’s work prompts overdue action to address shortcomings in shipbuilding and the production of long-range munitions and missile defenses. Rebuilding the arsenal of democracy would demonstrate to America’s allies and adversaries alike that our commitment to the stable order of international peace and prosperity is rock-solid.

Nothing else will suffice. Not a desperate pursuit of nuclear diplomacy with Iran, the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism. Not cabinet junkets to Beijing in pursuit of common ground on climate policy. The way to prove that America means what it says is to show what we’re willing to fight for.

Eighty years ago, America and our allies fought because we had to. The forces assembled on the English Channel on June 6, 1944, represented the fruits of many months of feverish planning. And once victory was secure, the United States led the formation of the alliances that have underpinned Western peace and security ever since.

Today, the better part of valor is to build credible defenses before they are necessary and demonstrate American leadership before it is doubted any further.



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