Staunton, January 22, 2017 – Much has been made by commentators in both the United States and abroad that President Donald Trump has brought back the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had earlier replaced with one of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
But those who are celebrating or condemning this move as symbolic miss the point: President Trump may have put Churchill’s statue back in a place of honor, but the new president’s approach so far at least channel the ideas not of Britain’s greatest prime minister but rather of his discredited predecessor Nevil Chamberlain.
That is obvious if one considers just five of the many differences between Churchill and the leader of appeasement and the way in which Trump’s approach reflects the attitudes and views of the latter rather than the former:
· Churchill always stressed that Britain should continue to pursue the policy it had for 500 years, supporting the weaker countries on the European continent against the stronger challenger. Chamberlain in contrast believed in making deals with the stronger at the expense of the weaker. Trump wants to deal with Russia more than the countries Russia threatens.
· Churchill believed in the principle of collective security. Before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made this approach impossible, the Conservative leader wanted Britain to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union to guarantee Poland’s security and thus block Hitler’s attack. Chamberlain rejected that idea, preferring to go it alone. Trump on this point again is in Chamberlain’s camp, not Churchill’s.
· Churchill denounced Hitler’s vicious anti-Semitism consistently as something Europe and the world could not tolerate. Chamberlain in contrast said that Hitler’s policies toward the Jews were “a matter of the German leader’s domestic policy” that was of no concern to Britain. Trump’s failure to denounce dictators for attacks on minorities and human rights makes him more like Chamberlain than Churchill.
· Churchill argued in the 1930s that Britain had to spend money building up its military so that it could block Hitler. Chamberlain in contrast wanted to make Britain “great again” – and he used that term – by spending the money instead on domestic needs, even if that left Britain without the tools it needed to deal with Hitler. Trump’s position is again far closer to Chamberlain’s than to Churchill’s.
· And Churchill believed that British foreign policy must be based on the country’s interests rather than on any personal relationship with any particular leader. Chamberlain in contrast believed that the fact that Hitler appeared to genuinely like him justified appeasement and could serve as the basis for a British-German condominium. Trump’s suggestion that his friendship with the Kremlin dictator is a plus again instructive.
Churchill was wrong on many issues: some would say he was wrong on most. But on the key issue of responding to the rise of an aggressive and vicious regime in Europe, he was more right than anyone else. Those who honor him should not be misled by anyone who simply puts up his bust but follows the line of the man whose name has become the symbol of appeasement.