Over the past 70 years, who has generally exerted the greatest influence on how America characterizes its enemies? Ironically, the answer rests in why we were fully successful in only one major and lengthy war during that period and failed or stumbled in the others because of this flawed imaging process.
Why did we win World War II and succeed in its aftermath? First, Japan’s attack enraged and unified a nation deeply divided about stumbling into a world war. Second, we had allies. Third, we had a president entering his ninth year of office who was experienced and understood the stakes. Fourth, the United States was protected by two vast oceans. Fifth, American industry was capable of producing the “Arsenal for Democracy.” Sixth, a policy of unconditional surrender meant the allies would have a free hand in the peace once the enemy was defeated. Seventh, we created the Marshall Plan.
And, eighth, Adolf Hitler was the perfect villain. He remains so today.
Hitler was a strutting, diabolical caricature of a real-life monster from his close cropped haircut to his Charlie Chaplin mustache and uniform. And what he did in murdering tens of millions of Russians, East Europeans and Jews was one of history’s greatest outrages and crimes.
In that war, Hitler became the face of the enemy to rally the allies (recall Churchill’s stunning ridicule) and later the poster child for portraying future enemies whether in Vietnam or two wars in Iraq and the Afghan conflict. In this process, Hitlerism morphed into America’s perception of the broader ideological psychological struggle against totalitarianism wherever it existed even if the communist adversary was as opposed to fascism and Hitler as were we.
In Vietnam, the JFK/LBJ administrations characterized the war in part as stopping communist aggression at the Mekong and not the Mississippi. No more Munich’s here. And how frequently has the Munich reference been used before and since?
In the JFK/LBJ view, both the Soviet Union and Red China, bent on world domination much as Hitler had been, had to be blocked and deterred.
The comparisons and references to Hitler then shouldn’t be surprising. World War II had ended only 15 years before John Kennedy came to office. And many politicians at the time had served in World War II, heroically such as George H.W. Bush and George McGovern or in jobs at home such as Ronald Reagan.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein became a perfect Hitler clone but with a bigger mustache. That America supported Iraq during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war made no difference. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait “shall not stand” declared President George H.W. Bush. It did not. And Saddam’s brutal regime including gassing civilians and murdering tens or hundreds of thousands provided moral legitimacy for action a la World War II.
After September 11th, the enemy to some particularly on the American right wing became “Islamo-fascism,” a vile term that managed to slander a great religion while likening Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to Hitlerian evil. Even though George W. Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 was driven by his vision of pacifying the Middle East through bringing democracy to Iraq and then letting it spread, the Hitlerian image was easy to apply given Saddam’s crushing rule.
In Afghanistan, the aim to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida quietly shifted to war against the Taliban whose practices, values and especially treatment of women seemed latter-day versions of Hitler’s despicable racial policies but with a radical Islamic face.
Given these linkages and comparisons, one can wonder if this obsession with Hitler has snuck into America’s national DNA without our knowing. While Americans are generally careful about using the term Nazi too loosely, the thought process is similar.
America is succumbing to this default position with Iran. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with the Republican Guard (Gestapo?) are seen to have imposed a near dictatorial role in which the destruction of the state of Israel remains an explicit aim. That rekindles old nightmares. The connection is self-evident.
So far, China hasn’t been infected by this thinking. Still, as China builds its economic and military strength and sets political stability, i.e. party control, as the No. 1 priority, the temptation to draw Hitlerian analogies will persist.
Too bad there is no inoculation to eliminate this World War II residual and the characterization of most American enemies. As bad as they may be, they aren’t Hitler.
Sixty-five years after his death, America still likes to view its enemies through a Hitlerian lens. Too often, that legacy has led to disaster. Instead, cold realism and harsh objectivity must define our enemies, real and imagined, not some nightmare from long ago.
If not, this will be Hitler’s greatest revenge.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.