Robbins: Arming Ukraine is costly and also our only option
In late 1940, Nazi Germany had successfully subjugated virtually all of Europe in barely a year’s time, and turned its eyes to rolling over England, first by bombing it to smithereens and cutting off its shipping and then by invading it if required. Still recovering from the Great Depression and unpersuaded that Hitler’s aggression was any of our business, Americans were tepid at best about lifting a finger to help the United Kingdom, out of cash and staring defeat in the face, defend itself against the Third Reich. Begging for help from its last and only hope, Prime Minister Winston Churchill implored the United States famously: “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.”
Tens of millions of Americans were unmoved and did not see that what seemed to be Europe’s war threatened the entire world order, and that playing ostrich was no substitute for paying attention to history. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had secured a third term by promising that American sons would not fight overseas again, devised a scheme to help our ally — and a “scheme” is what it was. The Lend-Lease program served first as a “loan” of 50 destroyers to the British, followed by 50 billion dollars — the equivalent of about 700 billion of today’s dollars — worth of aircraft, ships and weapons to our allies to hold off the Germans and ultimately deplete them.
The Lend-Lease legislation passed Congress on a nearly party-line vote, with Republicans bitterly opposed to it. “You can dress this measure up all you please, you can sprinkle it with perfume and pour powder on it, masquerade it in any form you please,” proclaimed Republican Rep. Dewey Short of Missouri, “but it is still foul and it stinks to high heaven. It does not need a doctor, it needs an undertaker.”
Republicans had the better of Roosevelt when it came to flowery, angry rhetoric. It did not take long, however, before Roosevelt was proven decisively correct, and his opponents disastrously wrong. The aid that Roosevelt’s adversaries fought so hard to block was instrumental in the defeat of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, and enabled the world to avoid another global conflict over the four generations since the end of World War II. “We are,” argued Secretary of War Henry Stimson in urging support for Great Britain, “buying our own security,” and he was right. Those who opposed the aid were wrong — very wrong.
On his trip to North America to shore up weakening support for his brave people last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of attempting genocide in Ukraine. Call it what you will: It is the mass slaughter of the Ukrainian people for the purpose of strangling them into submission in order to forcibly bring them under the heel of a murderous despot. “I believe you’re supporting either Ukraine or Russia,” said Zelenskyy. “By weakening the support of Ukraine, you’re reinforcing Russia.”
It really is that simple. And yet the financial costs of maintaining support for Ukraine, coupled with the toll taken by a witches’ brew of pro-Putin proselytizers, MAGA madness and shortsightedness have combined to erode American resolve for doing what Americans need to do if Putin isn’t to enslave Ukrainians and threaten a wider swath of Europe. A CNN poll taken last month found that 55% of Americans believe Congress should cease funding for Ukraine, with 71% of Republicans telling pollsters that America should call it quits.
It doesn’t take a moment’s reflection to appreciate that delivering over 100 billion of American taxpayers’ dollars to a country many of us couldn’t locate on a map two years ago is not politically advantageous to President Joe Biden. This is particularly true at a time when American voters disapprove of his handling of the economy, despite excellent reasons to approve of his performance. All the more proof that what Biden has done and is doing to keep Putin from flattening Ukraine is historic for its courage and leadership. Historians will recognize it as such, even if by the time that history is written many of us won’t be around to read it.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.