Thursday evening’s stunning White House announcement that President Donald Trump will meet sometime in the near future with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un to head off a nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula reminds me of the wisdom of the late United Kingdom prime minister Winston Churchill.
Churchill understood the horrors of war – the unpredictability of conflicts that can spread like wildfire, engulfing civilians as well as the military. The young Churchill found himself a prisoner of war in the 1899-1902 Boer War between the British and Dutch settlers in South Africa. His harrowing escape from the prison camp, which he wrote about, helped establish Churchill as a keen observer of war and its costs.
Fifteen years later, Churchill was in the government as Lord of the Admiralty and miscalculated the enemy’s strength at Gallipoli, ordering the British navy into a foolish assault on the Turks in that World War l disaster. Churchill’s errors in that debacle cost him his position.
By the late 1930s, Churchill witnessed the gathering storm of World War II. His warnings in Parliament, however, about the threat of a re-militarized Germany went unheeded and in 1939 Great Britain found itself in yet another world war. Assuming the prime minister’s office in 1940, it would be Churchill’s duty to rescue 300,000 troops at Dunkirk and reach out to our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to save the British Empire from the Nazis.
Churchill and Roosevelt mapped strategy at eight conferences: Argentia, Washington, D.C., Casablanca, Quebec, Cairo, Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam (with the new American president, Harry Truman). The leaders discussed American aid for the British and, by the time of Pearl Harbor, a united front against Germany’s Adolph Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and the Japanese military.
Even when the democracies found themselves in an unnatural alliance with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, they continued to seek common ground at these conferences.
After having been a participant and chronicler of wars for more than four decades, Winston Churchill fully grasped what was at stake: the best plans and the most noble intentions can become, along with people and treasure, casualties of war. The unexpected always happens in wars, and there have been few short ones.
Churchill explained it this way: “It is better to jaw-jaw instead of war-war.” Talking, even with enemies, is preferable to stumbling headfirst into a holocaust. That’s why Trump’s conference with Kim is a Churchillian moment, an opportunity to “jaw-jaw” in hopes of preventing the inferno of a nuclear “war-war.”
Eddie Lee is professor of history at Winthrop University and the mayor of the City of York.