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World War II analogies are about as useful today as carrier pigeons

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Will you join my new club? It’s going to be called the Society for Abolishing World War II Analogies.

Members must pledge never to call anyone “the new Hitler.” They may not dismiss peace proposals as “another Munich” or justify attacks on other countries as efforts to prevent “another Pearl Harbor.” Most important, they must recognize that wars usually end with messy compromise, not total victory.

Americans love hearing about World War II. The stream of books, movies, comics, video games, and other flashbacks to that conflict seems endless. That’s because World War II presents the United States as we want to see it: a liberating force that uses mighty power to win total victory over evil.

Very few wars, however, conclude with triumphant parades. Most end with half-decent accords shaped over the remains of devastated nations and masses of dead, wounded, and traumatized human beings. To avoid facing that reality when we launch wars, we reach instinctively back to the example of World War II. It’s the gift that never stops giving.

Hitler is that war’s central archetype. For a time he was reviled as a uniquely evil and perverted demon. These days, it’s almost normal to hear President Vladimir Putin of Russia compared to Hitler. He’s hardly alone. A quick Internet search produces an impressive list of leaders whose enemies have called them “another Hitler” or “the new Hitler.” Among them are Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and both of the Ayatollahs who have been supreme leaders in Iran. Foreign heads of state have at various times described presidents Nixon, Johnson, Reagan, and George W. Bush as equivalent to Hitler.

None of those leaders, however, sent armies to conquer an entire continent. None systematically murdered millions of innocent civilians. There is no “new Hitler.” The phrase has undeniable emotional power, but the more we use it, the more we normalize Hitler.

Even more self-defeating is the assertion that diplomacy is useless because it is just “another Munich.” This refers to the infamous 1938 summit between Hitler and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain. Chamberlain said afterward that he trusted Hitler’s promise not to take more territory and to seek “peace for our time.” That was a fateful error. It is often seen, however, not as the misjudgment of one man at one moment, but as proof that negotiation often amounts to appeasement.

In 1954, Senator William Knowland warned President Eisenhower that compromising with the enemy in Vietnam would amount to a “far Eastern Munich.” A decade later, President Johnson said he had to continue sending troops to Vietnam “because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.” When war broke out in Georgia in 2008, a group of European intellectuals published a manifesto warning that if the West did not intervene, the result would be “a new Munich.” Senator Ted Cruz called the 2015 Iran nuclear deal “the worst betrayal since Munich.” When President Biden said he would not send US troops to fight in Ukraine, he was accused of “channeling his inner Neville Chamberlain, searching for ways to appease Putin.”

Even more famous than the cry “Remember Munich!” is “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Recalling the shock of that attack and honoring its victims makes sense. Using Pearl Harbor as an excuse to arm ourselves to the teeth, however, invites precisely the unlimited military buildup that strikes fear in others and could make war more possible. Want more money for cyber weapons? Warn against “a cyber Pearl Harbor.” Like the idea of militarizing space? Warn that if we don’t, we risk “a space Pearl Harbor.”

Perhaps most pernicious of all World War II analogies is the chimera of absolute victory. Even Eisenhower, one of the victorious generals of World War II, knew that it rarely happens. After winning the presidency in 1952, he was urged to break the cease-fire in Korea and send American soldiers to fight until the entire peninsula was won. Instead, he settled for an ugly compromise that accepted Communist rule over half of it.

The last big victory parade in the United States came after the Iraq invasion. After that parade, though, the war continued to rage, killing thousands of Americans and many more Iraqis. Most wars are aimed at securing enough battlefield advantage to have a good bargaining position at the negotiating table. Those now being waged in Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen will eventually end with compromise. There and elsewhere, total victory and total defeat are fantasies that push nations toward endless wars.

Members of my Society for Abolishing World War II Analogies would study past wars in search of guidance for today. We’d start with the Thirty Years’ War and World War I, then on to Korea, Vietnam, South Africa vs. Angola, Iran vs. Iraq, and United States vs. Afghanistan. Those were wars of attrition that began without an understanding of how long they would last or how devastating they would be. They teach lessons that are urgently relevant today. World War II does not.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.