Recently, President Obama angered many Americans by suggesting publicly that Americans temper their criticism of other cultures:
Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.
Much criticism focused upon his equivocating in public just after the horrific video of ISIS torching a Jordanian pilot alive was posted on the Internet. In the aftermath of the flaunting of such barbarism, the president should instead have issued a clarion call for action.
Consider, then, how Barack Obama might have spoken in other major historical junctures. Specifically, let us try to compare what British WWII-era prime minister Winston Churchill said on June 4, 1940, upon the evacuation of British troops from Europe, to what an Obama oration might have sounded like. Let us also compare what then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt said after Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, to what the current Oval Office occupant might have said.
Obama vs. Churchill, 1940: Churchill’s stirring speech came after the successful evacuation of 338,226 Allied troops, mostly British, from Dunkirk, a port on France’s northeast coast. The evacuation came with Nazi troops in hot pursuit. Conducted from May 27 to June 4 and involving more than 800 vessels, from Royal Navy warships to pleasure craft, the daring operation lifted British spirits, in the face of the ominous prospect of a cross-Channel German invasion. Upon completion of the “Miracle at Dunkirk,” the prime minister rose in the House of Commons, and rallied his fellow Brits. Of the Royal Air Force he said, anticipating their aerial heroics in the Battle of Britain soon to come:
When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armored vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past- not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that Every morn brought forth a noble chance,/ And every chance brought forth a noble knight, deserve our gratitude, as do all the brave men who, in so many ways and on so many occasions, are ready, and continue ready to give life and all for their native land.
Of a Nazi invasion, Churchill vowed:
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
How, then, might a prime minister Obama have spoken then?
“Let us all be grateful that our troops safely returned from their latest expedition to the European continent, some 850 years after Christianity launched the first of nine crusades against Islam, serial aggressions that were to continue for a quarter-millennium.
“What British historians like to call The Sceptred Isle has passed through many inglorious episodes in its long, checkered history. Ask the Irish, Scots, Egyptians, Sudanese, Afghans, Chinese and countless others how gentle British imperialism has been. Above all, let us not forget our nearly 200-year rule, which continues to this day, over the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, India. That empire, on which it was said the sun never set, has snuffed countless sunrises in colonized countries around the globe.
“So when we fight on the seas and oceans, remember how we denied dominance of same to others over the centuries; when we fight on the beaches, remember the mess we made in World War I, landing at Gallipoli, and sacrificing our cherished Australian and New Zealand brethren by the many thousands; when we fight in the fields, remember the devastation our troops inflicted on the French at Agincourt in 1415; when we fight in the hills, remember how we fled into the Hindu Kush, only to see the Afghans in 1842 annihilate Lord Elphinstone’s retreating army, a tragedy that could have been avoided; when we fight in the streets, think of us laying siege to Omdurman in 1898, with the last imperial cavalry charge of the British Empire spearheading our 19th century crusade against the sacred faith of the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmed, the rightly-guided one.
“And how can we hold heads high, when recalling the warlike lines penned by Britain’s most celebrated bard in Henry V?
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
“Will we surrender? We must, unless we atone for our sins. Only then can we justify fighting to win. Even then, we must treat our enemies, no matter how evil we may think them, with the same magnanimity that my predecessor Abraham Lincoln called for in his March 4, 1865 Second Inaugural: ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all… ’”
Obama vs. FDR, 1941. Roosevelt was blunt in his two-minute speech on Dec. 8, 1941, to a joint session of Congress:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor…
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message… [I]t contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack…
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory…
… we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us…
With confidence in our armed forces — with the unbounding determination of our People — we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.
How might Obama have spoken then?
“Yesterday, Japan bombed our naval installation at Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack. My administration will take appropriate steps to respond. But we should also use this occasion for a searching examination of our own role in bringing this calamity about.
“We did, after all, embargo oil to Japan. We have been critical of Japan’s conduct of the war in China, without placing same in the historical context of nearly a millennium of conflict. It was Kublai Khan’s twin expeditions in the late 13th century A.D.., which were defeated by typhoons, that saved medieval Japan from foreign domination.
“These expeditions, by the way, came while Christians continued their Crusader wars against peaceful Islam. Asian fear of foreign domination has been part of Japanese foreign policy since Commodore Matthew Perry brutally forced his way into Tokyo Bay in 1853, to pry open Japanese markets to American imperialist commerce.
“So let us be sure that in answering Japan’s overseas contingency operation we do so with a solemn appreciation of history’s lessons, and judge our adversary this time around accordingly.”
Am I being unfair?
Maybe so. But note well that neither Churchill nor FDR mentioned fairness towards the enemies they confronted. We won World War II, prosecuting the conflicts to total victory.
Nor did we quail at allying ourselves with the genocidal regime of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. It would take nearly half a century for us to win the Cold War that Stalin began in 1945, against the West and its free, democratic republics. Without that necessary, if odious, alliance, the Allied powers might well have fallen to the Axis. Our leaders wisely put first things first.
Churchill and FDR today. Now, for an exercise readers are free to try: Reverse the time machine, and instead of catapulting Barack Obama back 75 years in time, bring Churchill and FDR once more to life today.
Attempting to craft words for how either of these estimable statesmen would have responded to the barbarism of ISIS is a fool’s exercise, given their eloquence — a trait the president who spoke to elementary-school students with a teleprompter rarely exhibits. But suffice it to say that both leaders would have understood that a clarion call, not culturally ambivalent equivocation, would have been their public posture, in word and deed, towards radical Islam’s evil.