Mark Twain reputedly said that “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Whoever said it, it was never so true as the current molasses-pour of the materiel of warfighting for Ukraine. No tanks, then tanks. Still pending: fighter jets that U.S. President Joe Biden worries might stray into Russian airspace. The twain meet in rhyme with 1941’s Lend-Lease Act, and the resistance then to sending planes to Britain.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was as canny as they come as he bent the law and congressional oversight enough to ship “old” planes to defend the old world, despite that America had no plethora of new planes at the time. Beyond Britain, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Lend-Lease aircraft was the Soviet Union. The U.S. sent the Soviets nearly 2,400 Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighters. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev credited Lend-Lease with defeating Germany on the Eastern Front.
The British Eighth Army under Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery employed U.S. planes, guns and tanks when they whipped Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein. Under Lend-Lease, the U.S. shipped more than $50 billion in supplies — equivalent to more than $700 billion today. Most went to Britain, but the Soviet Union received more than $11 billion. The curse of ingratitude.
Since the Vladimir Putin’s invasion, we have sent nearly $25 billion in arms and equipment to Ukraine, with another nearly $20 billion in security assistance. This is far below the run-rate under Lend-Lease and has yet to include any aircraft. Clearly Biden prefers sending things of the earth rather than birds of the sky.
It doesn’t help that Senate neo-isolationists Josh Hawley and Matt Gaetz vehemently oppose arms for Ukraine, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis plays to the Trump base for 2024 and says we should focus instead on China. Governor: We’re concerned with both, but one is at war.
Indeed, if all is unquiet on the western front, across the Pacific the cold war in the East is rapidly warming. DeSantis is right to be concerned — just not at the expense of arms to Ukraine. In the South China Sea, the rhyming with World War II is a gathering storm. The oceans protect us by distance, but naval superiority is crucial. Japan had the advantage in ships at the time of Pearl Harbor, until our planes destroyed Japan’s carrier strength at the Battle of Midway in 1942.
We are a nation whose heart and wallet are often at odds. While the extraordinary valor and terrible suffering of the people of Ukraine tug ha…
China surpassed the U.S. in fleet size in 2020, with about 340 warships. They plan to launch another 60 in the next two years. The island nation of Taiwan is sweating bullets as the PRC builds up atolls in the South China Sea. For reasons I have enumerated in several recent columns — from semiconductors to the looming 100th anniversary of the PRC — Xi Jinping dearly would like to subsume Taiwan as he has Hong Kong. Sea and air power could crush Taiwan by blockade without a boot on the ground. But the U.S. knows boots still matter, if only as a deterrent. A contingent of marines is beefing up our physical presence on Taiwan, as well as on a new marine base on Guam, staging ground for our war in the Pacific in WWII.
The U.S. Navy boasts fewer than 300 warships. Biden is alone among presidents in his outspoken promise to defend Taiwan. Xi is watching carefully what happens in Ukraine. Noises continue from Beijing about supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine; Xi has pledged to support Putin when it comes to “sovereignty and security” — a warning that China has more in common with communist fellow-traveler Russia than with America and our pesky little freedoms. In Xi’s worldview, as with Putin’s, the West is weak and America won’t want to fight on two fronts, proxy or no. Trade economics might continue to make the Chinese ruler cough, but it is a dangerous calculus.
We fought in both directions across the globe in WWII. Both China and Russia exist in their form today, controlled by neither Japan nor Germany, because the U.S. sailed the seas and soared the skies to prevent Hitler and Hirohito from imposing their will on sovereign countries. Today, the script is flipped, with once-besieged China and Russia now the aggressors, a rhyme in reverse. Back then, our isolationism had the upper hand until Roosevelt cleverly upended it.
It took a bravely determined president to venture to Kyiv in wartime. Can you imagine his predecessor doing the same — even to scout a building site for a casino? No point imagining: the arms-starved nation would have been overrun long before. Thank goodness Donald Trump’s strongman pal Putin didn’t move on Ukraine during the Don’s time in office. Likewise, Xi may well be waiting out our 2024 election to see if a neo-isolationist such as DeSantis replaces hawkeyed Joe Biden.
The very future of the dream of democracy might hinge on who next sits in the Oval Office. Chinese takeout, anyone?