One Hollywood marriage was so disastrous that when she (Ethel Merman) wrote her autobiography, she left the chapter about her marriage to him (Ernest Borgnine) completely blank!
Pretend I’m doing that now to President Obama’s speech of Friday, Feb. 28, about Russian troop movements against Ukraine. I was wildly excited when I heard he was going to speak. I could see no reason for him to speak at all except to interrupt his Niagara of flaccid, empty, even cowardly foreign policy speeches and get rough, tough and real for a change. What a loser! This was the most flaccid, empty and cowardly ever. Forget it. Pretend this is all blank space until now!
Two conflicting battle cries are clashing across historic steppes like those where the mighty armies of Napoleon and Hitler met their doom. The Russian cry tells us “Russia without Ukraine is a nation. Russia with Ukraine is an empire.” The Ukrainians respond, “Better a bean in freedom than a cake in slavery.”
On some instinctive level, the world realizes why Vladimir Putin’s actions must not stand, but the world has a hard time putting it into words. Can you imagine driving through a Southern town today and seeing the slave market open and back in business? Russia’s given us something akin. The geopolitical yuppie would say, “Dear me. Cross-border invasions are so … so 20th century!” It’s hard to pry certain nations and people away from the past. When Stalin lay dying in a Moscow hospital in 1953 the doctors put live leeches on his veins. It had been a century since even Russian medicine used leeches, but Stalin was a country boy from the deep south, Soviet Georgia, and they still believed in leech-treatment.
Even more outmoded than invasions are empires. America can be proud to be the first to get the hint and obey the drift. After winning World War II and expending much blood and treasure liberating the Philippines, we ended their colony status, set them free and wished them well.
Winston Churchill may well have said in anger after that war, “I have not become the king’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire!” Nice try, Winnie. You’re still my favorite, but you showed you could spin with Obama and the best of them. That’s exactly what you did! India (part of which later became Pakistan), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, half of sub-Saharan Africa and all those persistent red splotches and dots on the map indicating British ownership were soon to be free countries. And it no more indicated British defeat than a falling curtain at the end of a performance indicates a failed show. Colonialism was over. All that varied was the reaction of the colonial powers, which ranged from America’s generosity clear over to Holland’s total war against the independence forces of Indonesia.
France did its best, with American help, to hang onto its empire, giving us the bloody futility of Algeria and Morocco and, for Americans, a vastly worse experience in French Indo-China (Vietnam). The Dutch wryly joke that, after victory over Japan, “Peace broke out!” The heroic Dutch fought fiercely for Indonesia, but their 400-year rule was undone by World War II. For four centuries the Dutch spoke to their Indonesian servants in Dutch or “Market-Malay.” The servants were sometimes obliged to reply in High Javanese. It ended with Japan’s surrender.
Remember “the Belgian Congo”? Or remember when Portugal was in the rare position of fighting to hold a colony within a British colony? On the west coast of India, the little Portuguese holding of Goa surrendered to India in 1961. They relinquished their African colonies of Angola and Mozambique in 1975.
The Danish Empire! Don’t laugh. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Denmark had the largest – really the only – empire left. Though Iceland slipped away free while Denmark was under Nazi occupation in 1944, Denmark still held the Faroe Islands halfway between Iceland and Norway and the huge island of Greenland. Both “possessions” are so watered-down with autonomies, that fact is useful mainly to enliven dull dinner parties.
The Russian Empire was rare, in that it was contiguous. The czars limited their colonial conquests to land that bordered theirs. That’s why, on the map, it doesn’t look like an empire. It looks like one huge country the size of the moon.
Ukraine was given its present territory in 1954. More importantly, Ukraine was given guarantees by Russia and America that its territory would not be touched if it turned its nuclear arsenals over to Russia. Ukraine did its part.
Now Putin is trying to bring colonialism back by snatching the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Who knows if they’ll stop there?
Can you imagine British troops invading India today? Or French troops invading Vietnam, Dutch troops invading Indonesia? Can you explain the difference between any of those adventures and what Putin is doing in Ukraine?
Move, Putin, move! History is trying to get through and you’re blocking the way.
You’re an attractive man, Vladimir. But history has consumed more attractive men, with and without their gym clothes.
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