It has been repeatedly mentioned that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the largest military operation in Europe since the Second World War. There are many parallels to our time, so it is important to remember what occurred back then so the same mistakes are not made.

The generation that lived through the war and helped defeat Nazi Germany has been known as “The Greatest Generation” because of their self-sacrifice. Although they ended up that way, it was not so back in September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland.

The world was in the middle of the Great Depression that started in 1929. The carnage suffered in World War I still echoed in people’s minds. Thus, there was little appetite for war in European democracies. Also, many of these democracies were weakened by internal strife.  There were movements on the far left such as communism, and fascism on the far right, which were gaining some footholds.  The most successful gains were in Germany and Italy, which became authoritarian entities. In the east was the communist USSR led by Joseph Stalin. Although Stalin and Hitler came from countries that on paper had different ideologies (fascism and communism), they had something else in common: Both were ruthless dictators. Thus, it should not have been a shock when in April 1939, Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact. 

Hitler had made it clear for years that his goal was to bring Germany back to its glory days. He first expanded the army, remilitarized the Rhineland, had the Saar rejoin Germany, went into Austria, and then got the British and French to cave in and make a deal in Munich which led to the conquest of Czechoslovakia. The excuse included that these areas had significant German-speaking populations. 

After the Czech fiasco, Great Britain and France agreed to guarantee to defend Poland if it was attacked. Then Germany created a false narrative to justify their invasion of Poland. Thus, when Poland was attacked, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. However, they did little else because there was lack of desire to go to war over Poland. The irony is that if they had invaded Germany while Germany was fighting Poland, they probably would have ended the war, since Germany had few troops on the western front.

America stayed neutral through the attack of Poland, and the invasions of Norway, Denmark, France, Netherlands, and Belgium in 1940, which led to Germany’s victory of these countries and the attack on Britain. As Germany kept on winning, America’s appetite for getting involved decreased. For example, between September 1 and 6, 1939, a Gallup Poll asked Americans: “If it looks within the next few months as if England and France might be defeated, should the United States declare war on Germany and send our troops abroad?” 42% said yes. A month later, after Poland was defeated, the number went down to 29%. It reached a low of 7% based on a Gallup Poll made between May 18 and 23, 1940. On May 10, 1940, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were invaded. Denmark and Norway had been invaded one month earlier.  Even right after the fall of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, only 35 percent of Americans felt that it was more important to help England win even if it risked us getting into the war than to keep out of the war (Gallup Poll June 27-July 3, 1940). 1940 was an election year, so President Roosevelt, if he wanted to win reelection, had to be careful and make sure America stayed out of the war.

The America First Committee, founded in September 1940, was the most powerful isolationist group in America before the United States entered World War II. At its peak, it had over 800,000 members who wanted to keep America neutral.

The committee consisted of a cross-section of individuals from various backgrounds and political persuasions. They were united in the four following principals:

The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.

No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.

American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.

“Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.

The most famous member of the group was Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and was an American hero. He claimed that “National polls showed that when England and France declared war on Germany, in 1939, less than 10 percent of our population favored a similar course for America.” In 1938, he had received the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Germany per request of Adolf Hitler.

There were also other Americans who praised Hitler or Nazi Germany, such as the Christian Front, the German-American Bund, and Father Charles Coughlin, who had a radio show that reached millions.

The United States had no choice but to go to war, because on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Even after the attack, it was no guarantee that the United States would declare war on Germany, since they had not attacked us. Fortunately, Germany declared war on the United States. 

One mistake that countries, and in particular militaries, sometimes make is that they think they are fighting the last war. The best example was the French in World War II, who were using tactics and plans that they used in World War I. Nevertheless, there are many similarities that can be gleaned from prior situations, which in many respects are comparable to our times. 

Warren S. Hecht is a local attorney. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.