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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

When will we ever learn?

Hubby was fortunate enough to sit on the stage with James Michener once, years ago when that greatest historical novelist was the speaker for USF’s graduation. Because everyone talks during the hours-long reading of graduates’ names, Hubby had a chance for a good conversation with this brilliant writer.

As you know, Michener is famous for his tomes of 500-plus pages that emphasize a place as it and its people evolve over time – Hawaii, Chesapeake, and others. His first, of course, was Tales of the South Pacific (1947), based on his experience there in World War II. When Rodgers and Hammerstein made a hit musical based on it, Michener was set for life. But his work remained disciplined and his fictional characters were entirely based on fact, often forgotten facts. He and his lovely Polynesian wife would move to a new setting and live there for several years while he did his research and writing, aiming to bring vivid veracity to the historical details. What a wonderful life that would be!

I had intended to read his Poland (1983) before we went there recently, but couldn’t work it into my schedule. I just finished it and want to share some thoughts. The first seems oddly disconnected until one thinks it though, and it concerns the common attribution of “knee jerk” to Democrats. The thought occurred to me late in the book, in the chapter on World War II, when Poles were complaining that the Americans were too slow in coming to the rescue of German-occupied Europe. Some people who hid in Baltic forests and did the dangerous work of sabotaging the Nazis did, in fact, doubt that the US was sincere in our promise of liberation.

That was understandable because they hid – and went hungry – for long years. Poland was the first place that Germany invaded when Hitler began the war on September 1, 1939. His tanks blitzed across it and the little Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and then turned back west to overcome Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. With help from Mussolini’s Italy, it took the Nazis less than a year to occupy or neutralize all of Europe. By June of 1940, Great Britain stood alone against fascism.

Then Hitler overreached and moved his troops east from Poland and other occupied nations to attack Russia. Had it not been for the tremendous strength that Russians displayed, especially during the long starvation siege of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), the Third Reich that Hitler predicted would last a thousand years would have had a good start.

Meanwhile, Japan was gobbling up China and other Pacific colonies of the Dutch, French, and British, and those Japanese militarists treated civilians with painful cruelty. And yet America did not intervene until Japan bombed us, attacking Hawaii on December 7, 1941. And although German submarines regularly harassed our ships and sailors, we did not declare war on Germany until after Germany declared war on us.

So the Poles who expressed doubts had some basis for their suspicion that we lacked will. By then, they had been living in a brutal occupation for nearly five years, seeing millions of Poles, both Jews and non-Jews, locked up in ghettoes or sent to die as slave workers in German facilities. Jan Buk, one of Michener’s characters, toiled at pushing giant concrete rollers that kept roads smooth for German vehicles – on a diet of 700 calories a day. When these prisoners died of starvation and overwork, new Poles replaced them. Jews were more likely to be sent straight to the gas chambers. Jan Buk spent one horrifying day pushing bodies into trenches, as the Nazis marched 18,000 women and children to the rim of their graves and methodically mowed them down with machine guns.

So back to Democrats and alleged knee-jerkism. While these resistance fighters were holed up in Baltic forests, they could not know that President Franklin Roosevelt was gathering the most massive force the world had ever known. In June 1944, the US, Britain, and other allies – including Poles who had escaped to England -- began invading the strongly fortified German-held territory in northern France, and by July they had taken Paris. By May of the next year, Poland and all of Europe would be free of fascism, and by September, all of the Pacific.

Roosevelt’s critics – and the era’s Republicans never hesitated to criticize him, even in matters of national security – had screamed long and loud that his strategy was all wrong. We should be prioritizing the Pacific, they said, even though that was a naval war, requiring ships to be built after the disaster at Pearl Harbor. We should not share armaments with Russia, critics said, even though that front had much greater need of them. Everything Roosevelt did was wrong, as he was accused of both moving too slowly and of moving too fast. The bottom line, though, is that his strategy was anything but knee-jerk, and it won the war. It’s called looking before leaping, something even animals know.

How much better off we would be if the Bush/Cheney administration had exercised some thoughtful restraint instead of its knee-jerk reaction to 9-11. Instead of thinking it through and acknowledging the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabians, we adopted the Saudis as our allies. None of the hijackers were from Iraq, and tales of its yellow-cake uranium turned out to be just that – tales – but for reasons that made sense only to Houston oilmen, we attacked Iraq. And Iran and Libya and more nations, so that now the entire Middle East is an unexplainable quagmire.

FDR’s go-slow strategy was so much better. By recruiting an army of civilians – including millions of women – to build the needed ships, planes, tanks, and more, we supplied our soldiers and sailors with the equipment they needed for a quick victory. Ultimately this planning and preparing and refusing to jump off the cliff saved lives on both sides. No Knee Jerks, or jerks of any sort.

* * *

Americans have become so inured to warfare in the Middle East that Ukraine was something of a novelty when it recently exploded into violence. I wrote about that last April, especially how we geographically limited Americans didn’t know for sure if it was “The Ukraine” or “Ukrainia” or simply “Ukraine,” which since has become the media standard. I wrote about how may of these people once were called “German-Russians,” as they were the descendants of Germans recruited by Russia’s Catherine the Great, who herself was born German. She wanted these competent farmers to work the area’s fertile steppes, and Ukraine evolved into the breadbasket for Russia about the same time that our Midwestern prairies became the breadbasket for the US.

Despite the fact that they were recruited to this farmland, these and other peasants were not free -- and another thing that Michener’s book reinforced for me is that there was very little difference between serfdom and race-based slavery. I knew this from researching Slavic immigrants for my Foreign and Female (1986), when I read many accounts of people who – as in Central America today – paid smugglers to get them out of their country. The most common method was to hide at the bottom of a wagon and hope that the border guard did not run his saber through the hay or flour or whatever was ostensibly being carried. And that the baby didn’t cry, revealing the would-be immigrants.

The major difference between the two forms of bondage is that serfs were tied to the land, not bought and sold like American slaves were, but peasants in eastern Europe were very much in bondage to the landowner to whom their parents had been bonded. They even needed permission to marry, and Michener wrote of one landowner who enjoyed toying with denying that permission to a loving young couple. Priests also complied with this exploitation of peasants by requiring them to work in church fields or vineyards for certain periods of the year.

They could not own property, and Michener painfully illustrated this early in the book, in a chapter set in the early 13th Century, the era of Genghis Khan. Mongolian horsemen captured Polish peasant Dunuta Buk and her teenage daughter, taking them hundreds of miles east -- but one night Dunuta managed to steal two horses and get back home. Then, of course, she had to surrender the horses to the nobleman who owned her and thus, her property.

That was in 1242, and in 1914, when World War I began, things were pretty much the same. In both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian revolution of 1917, some “soldiers” were sent to war armed with only a wooden club. When that tragedy ended in 1918, the western allies – and primarily our President Woodrow Wilson – broke up the huge empire and liberated its many ethnic groups. One of those was Ukraine, but in his chapter called “Shattered Dreams,” Michener foresaw that Wilson’s idealism was not yet possible. Writing in 1983, he said:

Ukraine would become one of the world’s great tragedies, a land in which the oppressors would allow ten million citizens to starve to death, where the native language would be outlawed, and where all kinds of depredations would be visited upon a distrusted and despised subject people. In despair, in 1939 the Ukrainians would try to side with Hitler in hopes that he might rescue them from a Russian domination, and when this proved a fateful miscalculation, the revenge of the Communist victors would be harsher than ever.

And so it continues, even in 2014, a whole century after the first world war began. When will we ever learn?

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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