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On War Leaders: Stalin, Hitler, and Trump | The Triangle

On War Leaders: Stalin, Hitler, and Trump

How do you wage war? How do you define it? War is usually described as an organized struggle between human populations, but over the past half-century the term has been extended to cover a variety of exercises. Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in the 1960s. Richard Nixon declared his own War on Drugs a decade later. Now we have Donald Trump, who, after assuring us for weeks that COVID-19 was just another flu and nothing much to worry about, showed up on March 18 to declare himself a war president.

A war president has to have a war, but Trump’s crusade doesn’t have a name. His Surgeon General, however, has likened the situation to Pearl Harbor, a conflict indelibly impressed on us by the image of eight sinking battleships. It seems a bit awkward to declare war on a virus, an organism a hundredth the width of a human hair and visible only under a microscopic. How do you beat what you can’t see, especially when you have no weapons?

Nonetheless, no one seems to dispute Trump’s claim that we are indeed at war, a war that could potentially cost us more lives than all the ones we’ve ever fought on conventional battlefields. More exactly, what Trump proclaimed — since anything that happens is always about him — was that he was a war president, the implication being that our country is at war. So, I’d like to take him at his word, and evaluate his performance against two major players in history’s greatest war to date.

In invoking Hitler and Stalin, who fought each other for the majority of World War II, I do not mean to put Donald Trump in their class. Hitler conquered most of Europe and was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. Stalin, with millions of deaths on his own hands, defeated him. I am sure Donald Trump does not want anyone to die. But his response to the COVID-19 crisis has already cost lives, and will cost more still. Mine or yours could be among them. Hence, I feel the comparisons are useful.

Joseph Stalin, unlike Trump, was a prescient man. He lived through World War I, in which millions of Russian lives were lost in a conflict with Germany that ended in a humiliating peace which took years of postwar struggle to undo. Stalin believed that a new war with Germany was inevitable, and that without an all-out effort to industrialize Russia it would be helpless in that war, and the Soviet Union would be destroyed. He undertook an effort to create an infrastructure capable of sustaining a modern army within a decade, whatever the human cost. He succeeded in this, and the cost was terrible. But he thought to gain more time through a non-aggression pact with Hitler, and perhaps to divide Eastern Europe with him as Tsar Alexander I had hoped to do a century before with Napoleon. This was an illusion. Ignoring intelligence pressed on him by Britain and the United States, he was caught unprepared for Hitler’s assault in June 1941. Although the Red Army held after severe initial losses, Russia lost millions of military and civilian lives as a result.

Stalin learned his lesson. Although he kept strategic control of the war, he left operational decisions to his commanders. And he won.

Hitler was discharged from his military service in World War I as a corporal. He believed himself destined for greatness, and his early successes confirmed to him his conviction. He gained control of Germany, the most powerful nation in Europe; annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia through sheer bluster; and, when Poland defied him, conquered virtually all of continental Europe in a matter of months. He had done so with daring and thought himself invincible. Thus he overruled the generals who begged him to withdraw his forces from the doomed siege of Stalingrad. He lost 600,000 men, and, with it, the war.

Donald Trump has to this point made the catastrophic mistakes of both Stalin and Hitler in his “war,” and more. Stalin was caught off guard by Hitler’s attack, his borders unsecured and his army dispersed. He had, though, his “stockpile,” an industrial infrastructure built virtually from scratch and capable of competing with the best of German technology — his tanks were actually better. This capacity, and Russia’s vast spaces, enabled the Red Army to withstand its first shocks and to slowly regain the offensive.

America has no offensive weapons against the novel pathogen COVID-19 and it can only hope to develop effective vaccines as quickly as possible. But its defensive stockpile, from masks and testing kits to ventilators, was woefully inadequate, and precious weeks have been lost to producing and distributing supplies. There is still no effective coordination for this, with state governors left to compete with each other for life-saving necessities on unregulated “markets.” There is no national policy on social distancing; only a president who suggests we all celebrate Easter Sunday in crowded churches, who touts unproven remedies that, wrongly taken, can potentially kill, who undercuts competent scientific authority daily and boasts he knows as much about medicine as anyone, who devotes his time to checking his Facebook ratings and settling political scores. Hitler never screwed up the Eastern front more. The only thing lacking in the chaotic court at the White House is an astrologer, and that is only because Trump knows more about astrology than anyone else, too.

We will survive COVID-19. We will perhaps begin to realize that viral outbreaks and pandemics are going to be more frequent in our crowded and interconnected world, and that only a prepared and coordinated global response can cope with them. We will need a similar response to climate change if we want anything resembling a civilization to survive the next century or two.

First, though, we need to survive Donald Trump.