The British historian A.J.P. Taylor raised a storm when he wrote that World War II became inevitable after a minor Japanese provocation in late 1931 near the Manchurian city of Mukden. Tokyo ordered the planting of a small explosive device near a railway line there, accused Chinese dissidents of responsibility and exploited this deception in order to occupy Manchuria. China, which was stronger than Japan, was too busy with domestic political squabbling and missed the opportunity to put down the Japanese on the spot.
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Others believe the turning point was in 1936, when Adolf Hitler violated the treaties of Versailles and Locarno by invading the Rhineland. German generals warned him of the power of the West, but nothing happened. Soviet Russia and the Western democracies were busy with the Spanish Civil War, which proved to be a training ground for the coming world war, and they did not stop Hitler when he was still relatively weak.
Thus, not only did Nazi Germany seize the Rhineland and its ally, Japan, take control of Manchuria, but war-hungry leaders concluded that the Western and Chinese leaders were “rotten,” their threats empty and their warnings not worthy of heeding. The world yawned in response to the warnings of Winston Churchill and called him a warmonger. Western leaders could not see beyond the present.
Who will be the next Taylor who will write that the missiles that flew Tuesday over Japan and other actions by North Korea are essentially the second Mukden Incident? In contrast to the words of the pre-Israeli independence song, “Gentlemen, history repeats itself,” it’s not so, at least not necessarily. But the political, personal and psychological situations of decision-makers indeed repeat themselves, creating almost identical images.
How is the weakness of the French leadership in the 1930s any different from the current position of South Korea, which is promising in advance to the dictator Kim Jong-un that it will not permit any military action against North Korea? Seoul is giving the despot from Pyongyang a license to kill and in practice to continue his nuclear program.
The ability to stop North Korea without a war depends on the diplomatic credibility of its adversaries. Words (or silence) are the tools of international relations. (The U.S. secretary of state in the 1950s, Dean Acheson, forgot to include South Korea in a speech that listed the nations benefiting from his country’s military umbrella. Experts believe that his error spurred North Korea to launch the Korean War in 1950.) But the most important words, those coming from U.S. President Donald Trump, have lost their significance. Trump declares that the military option is “on the table” and the North Koreans chuckle.
Where is Trump compared to Henry Kissinger, who often said that America did not need to shout to be heard? North Korea is advancing its nuclear weapons program, America is paralyzed, Russia and China are keeping a retail account whose horizon ends in the present and evil regimes have apparently concluded that the four years of the Trump presidency offers a good opportunity to unilaterally change the world map.
For now, the United States has reconciled itself to a situation in which the North Korean ruler is deceiving it, as shortsighted nations gleefully cheer in the background. The United States has got itself to a place that requires tough and credible diktats on Kim Jong-Un. At most it must promise China that when it completes its military mission, which must be short and painful, it will not leave a single American soldier north of the 38th parallel.