Eerie parallels between the appeasement craze in the mid-1930s and today's denunciations of a war on terrorism are striking. Winston S. Churchill clashed with news media for warning of Nazi tyranny and for pitching resolve to meet the Nazi threat. President George W. Bush is skewered by media for the war on terror. Both confronted not only a smug and hostile press, but also a less-than-loyal opposition perhaps concerned more with winning an election than chasing down the bad guys. First things first?
Because the contexts of the two men's times are poles apart, any comparison cannot be literal. Yet Churchill's thrashing by Fleet Street, the British national press, had all the earmarks of what's loosely called Bush-bashing today. It's uncanny.
President Bush battles a press arraigned against him and "his" war. (Just listen to their loaded questions. Ask Helen Thomas.) Bias is forever self-denied, but plainly mars even the best reportage. Liberal pundits pile on, self-indulging in foul motive speculation. "What war?," they imply. "And for what?," asked one, not tongue-in-cheek.
Churchill was not yet prime minister when he took his hits. Simply an outspoken Member of Parliament (MP), he held no other office at the time. His status was equivalent to a United States Senator. Yet nastiness met his pleas for rearmament; a sort of personal animus took over, roughly equivalent of today's hysterical, hateful antiwar chants -- e.g., "Bush lied" and "Blood for Oil!"
Made a pariah, and called vile names (e.g., "war-monger"), Churchill was a lighting rod for the media's pre-war carping. His staunch allies in Parliament today would be labeled "neocons". They too were vilified, nearly demonized as war-loving meanies out to stir up trouble. Nazi threat? You're kidding!
Bush&'s post-9/11 task is analogous to Churchill's mission in the 30s: To make the nation and the Western democracies safe, again -- this time from radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorist thugs hell-bent to kill us. You could look it up -- oh, not in Mein Kampf this time, but in the proclamations of Osama bin Laden. The threat is all laid out, easy to see.
But some of Bush's attackers, same as who savaged Churchill, prefer somehow to believe the current war is a political shell game, a sham; that in spite of nearly 3,000 Americans massacred on 9/11/01, plus hundreds more (USS Cole, Khobar Towers, et al.), that it's only about ideology. Shades of the past, indeed!
Geoffrey Dawson, chief editor of The Times (of London), thought so, too, about Churchill in the mid-1930s. Churchill's arch critic, there is no single equivalent to Dawson in today's largely Bush-loathing, surely liberal American news media, led by the sometimes stridently anti-Bush New York Times and Washington Post, to say nothing of the 7/24 major TV networks such as CBS.
A devotee of Chamberlain-style appeasement, Dawson too indulged in nasty name-calling. Coherent argument was a bridge too far for Dawson who, blinded by bias, lashed at "wild schemer" Churchill for urging Britain to meet the Nazi threat. Nearly all of Fleet Street, and most of academia, followed suit.
Colorful, portly and quotable, the once-Liberal Churchill was the model target for Fleet Street's mean-spirited hubris. Bush's background and Texas accent, his Christianity, his troubled command of English syntax, make him prey also for a myopic press which never did quite figure out Ronald Reagan, either. Silly them!
Dawson labeled Churchill "a daft MP." He libeled him a "blackguard" -- a terribly offensive English slam of that time, meaning "unprincipled scoundrel". Traditional English civility was broached in Fleet Street's attacks, which grew fiercer even as the Nazis flexed their muscles on the Continent.
Bush is maligned also by the American press, to say nothing of the anti-American foreign press, as a war-loving harebrained "cowboy" (also, "unilateralist") out to dominate the world and "occupy" far-off lands, just for machismo fun and Halliburton profits. Quite a surreal spectacle, it's stirred mightily by elite media's constant spin jobs, factual omissions and flat-out fictions.
The late William Manchester (1922-2004) in The Last Lion: Alone: 1932-40 (Little Brown and Company, 1988), reveals Fleet Street's contempt for Churchill. Dawson had lauded Germany's reconstruction after World War I, and its "social accomplishments" under the Third Reich. (Honestly!) Dawson even doctored his Berlin correspondent's dispatches to bathe das Furher in a sympathetic light. Spin had given way to shameless editorial fabrication. Sound familiar to today?
Those who agreed with Churchill drew Dawson's editorial wrath. They were "agitators" he wrote, "saddled by a dismal certainty" of a war with Nazi Germany. He meant Churchill and his band of "alarmists" whom today would be those dreaded "neocons".
Dawson and his Fleet Street colleagues in lockstep scolded Churchill for calling Nazi "incursions" what they were -- acts of naked aggression. As Dawson read it, the Nazis were merely afflicted with a "deep, instinctive fear -- the dread of encirclement." This word was editorialspeak for rearmament, a politically incorrect notion of the times.
The Times under Dawson "...was not the only newspaper in which rogue editors disgraced their craft by distortion or outright suppression of facts," wrote Manchester in the second volume of his planned three-volume biography of Churchill.
His observation rings true today in conservative circles, weary of cheap shots upon a president by media that do not share Bush's views of realities. Unrepentant reporters and anchors are perceived, at least, as delivering a seamless stream of errant slants (e.g., "no evidence" of al-Qaeda in Iraq, no WMDs existed, etc.) when the facts shout otherwise, are spun, or ignored altogether.
So how is the public to know the Real Deal? Cyberspace such as here and now offers relief. E-zines such as this, "blogs" by the thousands, political print journals (National Review and Weekly Standard) are now online (and mostly free!), offering facts untold by Big Media, and all-sided, robust opinion not found in Party organs.
When Dawson called Churchill "shallow" (sound familiar?), no voice on Fleet Street challenged him, except Lord Beaverbook's (Max Aitken's) newspapers which bought most of Churchill's prodigious writings. The rest of Fleet Street embargoed Churchill. He could not even buy BBC radio time; his remarks were feared by producers to be anti-German! (P.S. TV was still in the future).
Yet Churchill did reach his public. Publishing magnate Beaverbook made his writings a staple in his small chain. Churchill wrote over 100 columns in 1937 alone, most warning of the Nazi peril, others of socialism's dangers. A few papers in America picked up them up. Collier's magazine and The Saturday Evening Post also gave ink to his feature-length pieces, which drew irate letters from the German-American Bund and isolationist "America First-ers".
Churchill was mostly magnanimous about his bad press. Bush laughs it off, too, in public at least. Bush points out news is "filtered" about as far as he'll go publicly. About his detractors, Churchill quipped: "I have never heard the opposite of truth stated with greater precision". Churchill was less charitable about US media. To his American Aunt Leonie in New York he wrote, "the essence of American journalism is vulgarity divested of truth"
Shocking even by today's post-Jayson Blair standards, the Times' foreign correspondent in Berlin in the late 1930s "had his dispatches frequently re-written or suppressed by Dawson who, after five years of jumping through Hitler's hoops, merely wondered at the man's [Hitler's] ingratitude" wrote Manchester.
Dawson admitted in a 1937 letter later made public: "I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper [emphasis added] anything that might hurt their [Nazis'] susceptibilities. I can really think of another [news item] that has been printed now for many months past to which they could possibly take exception as unfair comment." A-mazing!
A more unpersuasive apologia for slanting the news, for twisting facts to hoodwink the public, is not to be found anywhere in the Free World. But the shameless Dawson offered it up NOT as a confession, ironically, but as rationale for the huffy treatment he receive from the "misunderstood" Nazi Germany.
After Hitler in 1939 invaded Czechoslovakia, then Poland, the Fleet Street press at last caught on. British intelligentsia conceded, albeit grudgingly at first, the Nazi threat to liberty. (Book burning helped change hearts and minds. So did the exodus from Germany of notables such as Dr. Einstein. And the first flickering nightmare of the Holocaust to come.)
Not Britain's elite media, nor most of its politicians, nor its intelligentsia, awoke the island nation to the Nazi menace. Ordinary people, common citizens did, by informing themselves, and recognizing manifest Nazi perfidy. Shades of the USA today with the war on terrorism? Perhaps.
Churchill in his Second World War: Vol. 1, The Gathering Storm (1948) wrote: "It became apparent to men in pubs, women pushing prams [baby carriages], to greengrocers, lorry drivers, businessmen, shop stewards; to everyone, in short, except the oligarchy in power" what the Nazis were up to.
Churchill's ally and friend, Robert (Lord) Boothby, rebuked Fleet Street's pre-war battles with Churchill and his Tory (conservative) "neocons" in these words:
"Until the awakening which followed [the invasion of] Prague, most of the London press, with the shining exception of The Telegraph, was bright yellow, with editors following Geoffrey Dawson's lead. Fleet Street did everything in its power to help Neville Chamberlain and his wretched Government turn the whole country into yellow."
Manchester concluded in his monumental biography of Churchill:
"Nazi coarseness, anti-Semitism, the Reich's darker underside, were rationalized; time, they [the appeasers] thought "would blur the jagged edges of Nazi Germany" so they sought accommodation with a criminal regime, turned a blind eye to its inequities, and ignored its resort to torture and murder."
Dawson visited his alma mater, All Soul's College at Oxford, during the run-up to World War II. There he met with Professor Rowse, Shakespeare scholar and budding historian. The two men privately discussed Hitler's assault on innocents, liberties, his voracious appetite for lebensraum and power. Pipe flaring, clearly agitated, Dawson turned to Prof. Rowse and asked: "What has this to do with us? It's none of our bloody business!" (Sound familiar?)
Soon it became England's business. World War II was triggered Sept. 1, 1939 by the blitzkrieg of Poland. The death toll over the next six years was nearly 60 million individuals until the end of combat was declared on VE-Day 1945. It had started while an irresolute, misinformed England slept, self-blinded to the Nazi dangers.
Gary Larson is a retired association CEO and former business magazine editor residing in Minnesota. He is not the cartoonist of the same name. Larson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.