• Truth and Panic

    In May of 1940, the German Army nearly won the war in Europe.  After invading the low countries, their forces swung left and engaged a joint British and French army.  As German forces swept across Belgium, Belgian resistance collapsed and its king, Leopold, capitulated.  British and French forces were driven onto a sliver of beach in the small port city of Dunkirk.  On those sands, the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force waited for rescue.  In one of the most improbable feats of the war, the British Royal Navy, supplemented by individually owned craft, evacuated more than 338,000 allied forces, including 26,000 French troops from Dunkirk—a total 10 times greater than what most had thought possible.

    Days later, in the House of Commons, Churchill described the rescue.  He praised the valor and the courage of all the British military services.  But he quickly pointed out “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”  In fact, he went on to point out the losses to the British at Dunkirk, including the lives of 30,000 British soldiers.  Britain had lost, said Churchill, as many guns at Dunkirk as the British Army had lost in the German spring offensive in the second battle of the Somme in 1918.  They lost a vast trove of transports, heavy vehicles, and all of their armor.  According to the prime minister, the British Expeditionary Force had received the best equipment the nation could offer to its armed forces—and it was all lost at Dunkirk.  In addition, their Belgian allies were defeated.  France teetered on total collapse.  A German invasion of Britain seemed likely, just as Germany had already invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France.

    In the first week of June 1940, the British people had every right to be panicked.  While their Army had escaped annihilation, their country was in grave peril.  Churchill didn’t sugar coat it.  He vowed to fight on, to “outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”  He vowed to fight in France, on the seas, and in the air.  He said “we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

    Chuchill is one of the great political leaders of a nation at war.  His instinct after Dunkirk wasn’t to control fear, but to underscore the seriousness of the threat by speaking with cold, clear precision about the facts, in order to gird the British public for whatever came next.  It was only in marshalling the power of the masses that Great Britain would prevail.  Churchill knew that—as all great political leaders do—and he spoke to the public with a straight-forwardness that inspired confidence and brought the public to his side.

    A generation later, an American president, John F. Kennedy, faced another existential threat when U.S. intelligence found evidence of Soviet nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them in Cuba.  As the United States declared a quarantine on Cuba and vowed to intercept any vessels approaching the island nation, President Kennedy spoke to the public.  Like Chuchill, he didn’t pull any punches.  “And having now confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence and our decision on a course of action,” the president said, “this Government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.”

    The president went on to describe the deployment of Soviet medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles as well as jet-bombers all capable of delivering nuclear weapons to “most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere.”  Those missiles had to be removed from Cuba.  Kennedy summarized the dangers:

    My fellow citizens, let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead — months in which both our patience and our will will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.

    Great leaders in war and in peace have understood that when they speak plainly and explain the dangers we face collectively as a free people, then our resilience and our strength only grow.  President Trump made a strategic blunder in failing to level with the American people last winter when he knew full-well what the pandemic would test us in ways we never imagined. He said he didn’t want to panic us.  In fact, he underestimated the American people, our ability to face dangers, and the role of a president in crisis.  We didn’t need him to shelter us from difficult truths.  We needed him to share them with us so that together we could respond.  That’s what Churchill did in 1940.  It’s what Kennedy did in 1962.  President Trump failed to lead in 2020, and 200,000 Americans are dead, so far.

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