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History's lessons for Ukraine
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Most American presidents are reluctant warriors. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the onset of the Civil War in the passive voice in his Second Inaugural Address. ("And the war came.")
Woodrow Wilson waited until the escalation of German submarine warfare before committing to World War I, nearly three years after the conflict commenced in Europe. And Franklin Roosevelt did not enter World War II until two years after it began -- and then not until Pearl Harbor.
By now you  have probably ascertained this is a column about the terrible choices Obama faces as Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles and thrusts Ukraine -- once known as the bread basket of Central Europe, critically defined as the largest country completely within the borders of Europe -- into crisis.
The lessons are difficult to discern:
-- The Sudetenland. The similarities with Hitler's aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1938 are obvious: claims of repressed nationality and phony grievances in a land contiguous to the aggressor.
But for all his venality and brutality, and perhaps his greed and expansionism, if Putin harbors a genocidal impulse, it is far less apparent than that of Hitler, whose views on the elimination of Jews and others were clear to all in 1925, and apparent to the sharp-eyed as early as 1923.
Potential lesson: While Hitler sought Lebensraum, or elbow room, beyond his borders, Putin seeks to assert his primacy in an area regarded for more than a century as part of his country's sphere of influence -- a subtle but important difference.
-- The rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. There are fateful and frightening similarities between those two uprisings behind the Iron Curtain and the determination of free Ukraine to retain its independence from Russia. But the outcomes in 1956 and 1968 are sobering, even bitter. The United States talked bravely about its support for the Budapest rebels and Radio Free Europe stirred the insurgents, but ultimately the United States failed to provide military support. The situation a dozen years later in Prague was little different.
Potential lesson: Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939 after the violation of the borders of Poland. But France shared a border with the aggressor state and Britain was within easy air-striking distance.
The U.S. didn't intervene in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in part because of the distance and in part because of worries by Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, that armed assistance would be ineffectual but provocative.
In his memoir, Eisenhower said he was haunted about what he might have done had Hungary "been accessible by sea or through the territory of allies, who might have agreed to react positively to any attempt to help prevent the tragic fate of the Hungarian people."
Note: Ukraine is 5,000 miles from the United States at a time when the nation is war-weary and chary of international involvement.
On at least this we can agree: There is no euphoria here. Only bad options.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).