December 8, 2021
On December 3, the final living World War II “Band of Brothers” officer, Edward Shames, died. Two days later, former U.S. senator, World War II veteran and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole died. The deaths of these World War II heroes prompt us to reflect upon related and momentous events in American and world history.
Just this week, December 7 marked the 80th anniversary of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese warplanes. This attack brought the U.S. officially into World War II against Germany and Japan – an event that would help change the trajectory of the war.
Why take time to remember these events from bygone decades and centuries? Because they’re still applicable today.
At a fundamental level World War II was, for America, a war of competing ideologies: the ideas of oppressive totalitarianism against those of free democracy. After World War II ended with the defeat of German Nazism and Japanese imperialism, the war of ideas continued between the ideas of free democracy represented by the American republic and the ideas of totalitarian oppression represented by Soviet communism – a time known as the Cold War.
While those days are long past, parallel events are occurring today. Decades ago, western liberal democracies debated over how to respond to Hitler’s military aggression. Today, Russia’s military actions and buildup against Ukraine raise questions of how to respond to and contain military aggression from a dictator like Vladimir Putin. And the rise of communist China again pits the ideas of totalitarian oppression against those of free democracy.
The need to contain dictators’ military aggression and to fight rhetorically and otherwise for liberal freedom against totalitarian oppression is nothing new. But we only understand that by taking opportunities to reflect on history – and using lessons from the past to inform present actions. For instance, appeasing military aggression (e.g., international inaction after German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia) can encourage a dictatorship to escalate its aggression.
So as we commemorate the lives of World War II heroes, let’s remember the important events from that momentous period in U.S. and world history. We must learn from those events and historical periods, because they are playing out in different ways in the present day.
And especially when it comes to remembering the events and learning the lessons of World War II, we should remember the words of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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