Is Ron DeSantis Channeling Neville Chamberlain?

by Rafael Medoff

The statement by Florida governor Ron DeSantis that Russia’s war against Ukraine is just a “territorial dispute” and is not “a vital American interest” has set off a firestorm of debate, finger-pointing, and, inevitably, comparisons to the Hitler era. But are the Nazi analogies completely unfounded this time?

The controversy began when Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked possible GOP candidates if they consider “opposing Ukraine in Russia” to be “a vital American national strategic interest.” Carlson is a skeptic of U.S. support for Ukraine and the way he worded the question made it more likely respondents would take his side.

Carlson could have asked simply whether the U.S. should continue supplying weapons to Ukraine. Instead, he added the word ‘vital’— “necessary for the success and continued existence of something,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary; derived from the Latin word for “life.” That left the door open for the candidates, even those who support aid to Ukraine, to say that doing so is not necessary for America’s existence. Gov. DeSantis turned out to be the one who stepped through that open door.

Not only did DeSantis take Carlson’s bait, he compounded matters by mischaracterizing the nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests,” DeSantis said in his written reply, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

The patently erroneous term “territorial dispute” invoked by DeSantis (or his speechwriters) is reminiscent of a blatant misstatement about the Russians  made by President Gerald Ford. In his October 6, 1976 debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, Ford asserted that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” He named Soviet-occupied Poland as an example of a country that supposedly was “independent.”

Ford was widely criticized at the time. DeSantis is now on the receiving end of similarly withering denunciations. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie declared that DeSantis “sounds like Neville Chamberlain talking about when Germany had designs on Czechoslovakia.” Senator Lindsey Graham said, “The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well.” It certainly didn’t end well for the Czechs.

In 1938, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia surrender its western region, known as the Sudetenland, which had a large population of ethnic Germans. The Nazi leader presented the matter as a territorial dispute, not a threat to the existence of Czechoslovakia.

The British and French decided it was not in their vital interest to confront Hitler. So they pressured the Czechs to surrender the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler’s promise not to make any additional demands. The Munich agreement was signed. Chamberlain declared that he had delivered “peace in our time.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said he “rejoiced” that “the outbreak of war has been averted.” Less than six months later, Hitler invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The Russian war against Ukraine is not a dispute over some piece of territory. The Russians never limited their attacks to the Donestk or Luhansk areas in eastern Ukraine; recall that the invasion began with an all-out assault on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Vladimir Putin’s statements that Ukraine should be part of Russia illustrate his goal of conquering the entire country.

The broader problem here is the question of what constitutes a “vital American interest.” Tucker Carlson and other isolationists or fellow-travelers have embraced an extremely narrow definition. And they are far from the first to have adopted such a perspective.

During the Holocaust, President Roosevelt saw no American national interest in taking even minimal steps to interrupt the Nazis’ mass murder of European Jews. In 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advised President Richard Nixon that even “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton refused even to jam radio stations that were inciting the massacres in Rwanda, because he did not perceive any American economic or strategic interest in getting involved.

Note that none of those types of intervention would have involved putting American lives in danger. Bombing the railways to Auschwitz would not have posed any additional risk to American pilots who were already targeting other railways in the vicinity. Putting economic pressure on the Soviet Union or interfering with inciting broadcasts in Rwanda would not have endangered American lives. Neither does sending U.S. weapons to Ukraine.

Most Americans believe that our country should stand for something bigger than the mere pursuit of economic or strategic advantages. Values and ideals stand at the core of the concept of American exceptionalism. A definition of “American interests” so narrow as to exclude interrupting mass murder abroad or assisting U.S. allies against aggression betrays that cherished concept.

(March 2023)