Ghosts of the past; Specters of the future
One year ago, we commemorated the beginning of the “War to End All Wars” in 1914. So traumatized were the Great Powers by both the carnage, with millions of lives lost, and the loss of treasure, that they were determined to avoid future worldwide conflicts. Instead, their actions helped precipitate one.
Three years following the 1918 armistice that ended The Great War, the Great Powers met in Washington, D.C., to prevent further development of the most fearsome weapon of war to date, the capital naval warship. The Washington Naval Treaty (the “Five Power Treaty”), signed on Feb. 6, 1922, and effective until Dec. 31, 1936, restricted the building and retention of battleships and aircraft carriers by the United States, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan to a set ratio between the signatory nations. The Treaty’s terms required the United States to destroy several battleships. This was considered to be a great victory in the quest to prevent future war.
But the Treaty did not abate imperial ambitions.
Germany, whose World War I Kriegsmarine fleet had been confiscated by the terms of the November 1918 armistice and Treaty of Versailles, was not included in the Naval Treaty. Following the Nazi subversion of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship, German re-armament included the reconstitution of the German naval fleet, beginning of construction of “pocket battleships” in 1933-1934 and the major battleships, culminating with the Bismarck, 1935-1936, and an aircraft carrier in 1938. Germany re-militarized and reoccupied the Saar and Ruhr in 1936, annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland in October 1938. In an attempt to avert war, internal politics and considerations of expediency of the Western Powers trumped statesmanship.
The Empire of Japan, already involved with Korea and China, renounced the Washington Treaty in 1936 and subsequently invaded China. The “Rape of Nanking” alone, in December 1939, brought death to 40 thousand to 300 thousand people during the massacre. The Japanese Navy possessed 15 fleet carriers and 12 battleships by the beginning of 1941, making it the third most powerful navy in the world. The United States continued its trade of scrap metal and oil with Japan until 1940. Both Germany and the Empire of Japan were able to challenge effectively the British Fleet and the United States Navy.
Inevitably, war came—to Europe in 1939 and, in December 1941, to the United States at Pearl Harbor. Over 60 million people perished in that war, including over 400,000 Americans. Countries were bankrupted, empires were lost, and nations destroyed. The Washington Treaty of 1922, hailed as a means of controlling major offensive weapons and reducing the risk of war, had failed after less than 15 years.
Ninety years later, the United States and the current “Great Powers” have negotiated a multi-national agreement with Iran, a major supporter of regional and worldwide terrorism, whose extra-territorial ambitions are so well known that they do not require further description here, and whose leaders have promised the destruction of the State of Israel. This agreement, to “prevent” Iran from Acquiring the most fearsome weapons of war to date, nuclear weapons, will at best delay the development and acquisition of these weapons for 15 years; at worst, it will facilitate the promulgation of terrorism and early development of nuclear weapons of mass destruction by providing a nuclear umbrella for terrorists and the ability to annihilate civilian populations. We have been told by our leaders that the only alternative to this agreement is war.
My family’s interest in this issue is more than academic. My oldest daughter is an American citizen who lives and works in Tel Aviv with her husband and my granddaughter, a cherubic one-year-old who is also an American citizen. In 2014, a fusillade of 5000 Hamas and Iranian-supplied rockets against Israel’s civilian population centers forced them into bomb shelters.
Over 74 years earlier, fleeing the 1938 Austrian Anschluss, her great-grandparents booked passage on the ill-fated 1939 voyage of the SS St. Louis, which was turned away from Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe on the Eve of World War II. Fortunately, they were able to hide with a French family during the war; most of the SS St. Louis refugees died in concentration camps. Her grandparents fled Europe, one step ahead of the Nazis, to pre-war Palestine. There they later endured bombings of Haifa by the Jordanian war planes, when five Arab armies attempted to “drive the Jews into the sea” during Israel’s 1948 War for Independence.
Good intentions are paving the road to hell. Under this agreement, if war comes in 15 years, it will come not with battleship salvos but with missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. History teaches that agreements such as this one with Iran will more likely lead to war, not prevent it. This agreement only facilitates Iran’s preparation for eventual nuclear war, regional aggression against its neighbors either directly or by terrorist proxy, and Iran’s ultimate goal of the extermination of Jews in Israel. By not remembering history, we are condemning ourselves to repeat it.
As late as 1944, some people of the Allies could still claim, “We did not know” of the atrocities that resulted from that war. Today, we visit the remains of Europe’s concentration camps and Holocaust memorials, some to remember the dead and some to atone for Western Civilization’s collective guilt, because we did not—or chose not—to know, and to ask for forgiveness. But the ghosts of the past, slaughtered men, women, children, and babies cannot forgive; they remain silent.
But now we do know. We know that appeasing aggressor nations only encourages more aggression, and we know that regional aggression can lead to global conflict in which many millions in the future can suffer for our present lack of fortitude. How, then will we apologize to future generations for our willful ignorance of history and present moral cowardice?
Jonathan Greenberg, M.D., J.D., F.A.C.S. Diplomate, American Board of Neurological Surgery, practices in Orlando, Fla.