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A New Period of Consequences

It’s 1936 again.
March 22, 2022
A New Period of Consequences
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the front-line positions of Ukrainian military in Donbass, Ukraine on December 06, 2021. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In June of 2010, Jamie Fly and I wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard. We called it “A Period of Consequences.” We took the title from a couple of sentences from a Winston Churchill speech:

The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.

It is a good phrase and a good way of delineating eras. But what struck me when Jamie suggested the quotation was that the line was not from a speech in late 1938 or 1939, as war in Europe was blooming.

No. The passage is from a speech Churchill gave to the House of Commons on November 12, 1936.

The subject of Churchill’s remarks was that Britain needed a major increase in defense spending. It was then—in November 1936—that Churchill was already lamenting British complacency. It was in 1936 that he deplored the failure to take seriously the threats of the new world in which Britain found itself. It was in 1936 that Churchill tried to urge a new seriousness and willingness to face facts and their challenging consequences.

And even then, in 1936, Churchill acknowledged his surprise that “the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years, and have been transforming our position and the whole outlook of the world.”

He warned that there was no quick solution to the problem Great Britain faced: “We have entered a period in which for more than a year, or a year and a half, the considerable preparations which are now on foot . . . will not . . . yield results which can be effective. . . . It is this lamentable conjunction of events which seems to present the danger of Europe in its most disquieting form.”

Still: “We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.”

This came more than a year before the Anschluss. Almost two years before Munich. Two years before Kristallnacht. Two and half years before the occupation of Prague. Almost three years before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the invasion of Poland.

Well, we are in 1936 again.

We have entered a period of consequences.

And as important as the events of today are, it’s important to keep in mind that we are still in the very early stages of this new era. We haven’t seen most of the consequences, nor have we done most of what we will have to do to come to grips with them.

One hopes we are awakening more quickly than Churchill’s contemporaries. But it’s clear we are not yet fully awake. And it would be a very good thing indeed if we could get ourselves to wake up more quickly, more thoroughly, than Britain did in 1936. Because the years from 1936 to 1939—and of course after 1939—were very bad ones.

If we were to wake up quickly, we’d be coming to grips now with the increases in defense spending that we need—and also with increases and improvements needed for our diplomatic and covert activities.

We’d be getting serious about the overall reorganization of our national security apparatus.

We’d be getting systematic about how to deal with the new world of disinformation that we face both at home and abroad.

We’d be seriously evaluating questions of our economic penetration and dependence on our adversaries.

We’d be focused on the fact that one of our two political parties is incapable of being serious about the threats we face, because the America First strain of thinking which first appeared in Republican politics almost a century ago is reborn and dominant.

And we wouldn’t neglect the fact that our other party is only hesitantly and haltingly coming to grips with the moment. That party—and the nation—lacks, for now, a Harry Truman, a Dean Acheson, or a George Marshall. One hopes that the moment will summon forth such a figure. But such a hope has yet to be fulfilled.

So when I say that it is 1936, I mean that no matter how trying this moment is, the period of great testing lies ahead of us.The immediate crisis is merely the beginning of a series of challenges that we’ll face for quite a while.

And one of the keys to handling the future well is understanding that we’re at the beginning of a new era, not dealing with a temporary or unpleasant interruption in the status quo.

Churchill knew in November of 1936 that he was unlikely to prevail quickly, in the short term. But he nonetheless emphasized that he would “not accept the mood of panic or of despair.”

Nor should we.

We do, after all, have two advantages Churchill did not. One is the experience of the failure of the 1930s, and the contrasting successes of the post-World War II American-led international system. Recent history provides us all kinds of lessons in international relations that were not available to leaders in the 1930s.

Even more important is another lesson staring us in the face: The heroism of the people of Ukraine, and the leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky. All decent people stand today with Ukraine and Zelensky.

Having said that, I wonder if we fully appreciate the heroism of the Ukrainian people and the unpayable debt we owe them for their stand.

Because if President Zelensky had fled, and the government of Ukraine had collapsed or quickly sued for peace, we would now be accommodating the new reality, as we did after 2008 and 2014. Putin would have succeeded. We’d be continuing our drift downward, trusting in “procrastination, half-measures, soothing and baffling expedients, delays.”

There would be no real prospect of an awakening in the United States and Europe were it not for the stand the Ukrainians have made.

We would still be denying the threats we face. We would still be turning away from the urgency of the task we face. We would even, I daresay, still fail to appreciate the preciousness of the freedom and decency we have the obligation—and the honor—to defend.

It is the Ukrainians who have shown us what free men and women can do, and what they are sometimes required to do, in defense of that freedom. It is the Ukrainians who have shown the world that we are in a new period of consequences. It is the Ukrainians who have given us the example of what it means today to fight back against brutality, and to fight for freedom.

Слава Україні! Героям слава!

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.