Paul Greenberg: The past wasn't so clear when it was the present

Just the other day I learned how clear the issues confronting our policymakers were in the 1930s, when the Japanese were on the march in Asia and Herr Hitler was imposing his New Order on Europe, piece by piece.

Our choices were quite simple back then, according to my valued correspondent, as opposed to the more complicated ones now facing this administration in these more complex times, which demand a more sophisticated approach to foreign affairs. A nuanced approach, to use the current term of art for indecision.

My critic made it clear he was getting tired of my habit of making historical analogies to the 1930s:

"Again you have compared our lack of involvement in the Syrian Civil War to the appeasement of Hitler in the '30s. As a student of history, I find this analogy faulty in the extreme. Doing so, you are comparing things that involved peoples, issues, regions and time periods that were very different. What happened in the '30s was very straightforward. It involved Hitler and his plans for Europe. We and the Gentlemen of Europe didn't realize that we were dealing with a street thug who only respected power and would do anything to further his plans. Negotiations would not work with Hitler and he needed to be driven from power. Churchill realized that, but Chamberlain didn't till it was too late.

"In Syria we have a much more complicated situation. We have religious and secular fighters fighting on both sides. We have a civil war complicated by Sunni strife. We have Islamists, including Hezbollah, supporting both sides. We have the war spilling over into bordering countries. We have Iran and Russia taking advantage of the situation to further their ends. We have Israel who God only knows what they will do. Whom do we support and who is the enemy? In the '30s that was easy to understand. In the Middle East of today, it's not so clear. I think that is why Obama has gone slow on getting involved."

Who knew the issues in the Thirties were so simple and easy to understand, and our choices so clear? And indeed they were -- viewed almost a century later. Time lends perspective. It clears away the hurlyburly of a pressing present and wraps it all up in a neat package called the past. But back then, did all Americans find the choices facing this country so clear?

Did all Americans agree about what was happening in the Spanish Civil War, or what to do about the tide of refugees fleeing for their lives across Europe (Jews in Germany, for instance) just as Syrians are looking for a refuge now?

Talk about Sunnis and Shi'a, Islamists and secularists, dictators and democrats in the Middle East -- which part of the patchwork of nationalities and ideologies in Europe in the 1930s merited our support and which our enmity?

Should we have backed the Finns when they were invaded by the Russians, making them natural allies of Nazi Germany? Or cut them no slack?

Did all Americans agree, even after we were pulled into the Second World War, that we should or should not deal with Vichy France? See the Darlan Affair and the furor over whether General Eisenhower made the right decision in the North African campaign (Operation Torch) when he chose to deal with Admiral Darlan rather than arrest him.

What about Franco's Spain? Should we have accepted his fascist dictatorship or destroyed it?

Should we have supported Communist Russia and, if so, before or after the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed?

Did all Americans back in the 1930s agree that the series of Neutrality Acts passed during that decade to Keep Us Out of War needed to be respected, or that they needed to be repealed? What about the undeclared naval war against Nazi Germany in the North Atlantic, or Lend-Lease, or the destroyers-for-bases deal with the British? Were those prudent or reckless decisions?

And talk about government snooping: Our secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, a true gentleman of the old school and public servant who held high office under six American presidents, shut down this country's secret code-breaking operation because, as he put it, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail."

Does his attitude then remind anyone else of today's foofaraw over the National Security Agency's using Big Data to ferret out threats to this country's security now? (Mr. Stimson soon enough changed his mind, given the dangers America faced in his time.)

I, too, get tired of historical analogies, but what's a columnist to do when they're so striking? Our divisions seem just as sharp in these polarized times, and our leaders just as divided and wavering, as they were in the 1930s.

Here's hoping my critic is appeased, to use a term the Thirties pretty much discredited, and that this explanation finds him in good health -- and certainly in better shape than his simplified history of that decade.

Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor of the The Arkansas Gazette-Democrat.