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Thursday, December 25

Christmas 1941: Yet in thy dark streets shineth ...

John Batchelor's wonderful introduction to Stanley Weintraub's 2011 book, Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941 featured clips from two of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's most memorable talks to the American nation; one broadcast on the radio the day after the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the other on the occasion of the President's lighting of the White House Christmas tree that year -- with Winston Churchill at his side  (photo above). During that second talk Roosevelt asked rhetorically how during this darkest hour Americans could celebrate Christmas -- and answered the question, in perhaps the most memorable speech given in modern times.   

John urged that people re-read the book once a year around Christmas time, to remember what a threat constitutes.  Well, the podcast of his discussion with the author is a great substitute if the holiday season leaves no time for reading.  

The world Stanley Weintraub describes for John's radio audience, the world as it was in 1941 as the Japanese triumphed, horribly, in region after region while the Germans pounded away at the Russian front, is indeed a good refresher on what evil in full battle regalia looks like.  

The more one knows about the era, the easier it is to understand why to this day it dominates the defense/foreign policy of the Western nations, and still influences the Chinese view of Japan.  In many instances this focus on what I've called the "Ghost of 1939" has had tragic consequences. And yet, listening to the discussion, it struck me that it's less a remembrance of World War Two and more a fogginess on the details of what actually happened that's caused American policymakers in post-war eras to blindly adhere to strategies that should be limited to responding to the kind of situations the Allies faced.

An example is that Roosevelt and Churchill knowingly made a deal with the devil, that being Josef Stalin.  It has been argued that they hadn't needed to give away so much to Stalin but I think this view ignores the time pressure under which the deal was struck.

No such pressure existed for post-war American (and British/European) leaders who made deals with Gulf Sunni leaders espousing a strict interpretation of Islam that is fully as dehumanizing as Nazism.   Yet Western leaders struck the deals on the rationale that harks to the fateful decision by Churchill and Roosevelt to treat Stalin as 'the enemy of my enemy.' 

This conversion into a long-term strategy of a tactic that should only be deployed in the most pressing of wartime circumstances has been disastrous. So perhaps it's Washington policymakers who most need to read Stanley Weintraub's book, or at least listen to his discussion with John Batchelor, to visit in their minds the way things actually were at Christmas, 73 years ago. 

But enough of giving advice that will surely fall on deaf ears.  A nifty companion volume to Weintraub's offering is historian David McCullough's 2010  In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story.  Only 40 pages long, the book is about Winston Churchill's wartime visit to Washington.   From Mark Tooley's review at the American Spectator, the book:
... focuses particularly on the British premier's first hearing of the hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, sung at a Christmas service to which FDR took him. The carol partly echoed some words in Churchill's first radio broadcast to the American people, referring to the "English-speaking world" at Christmas as a "brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace."
Churchill had steamed the Nazi submarine–infested Atlantic to appear in Washington, D.C. on December 22, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor had made Britain and America wartime allies.[...]  During the Christmas Eve tree lighting on the White House south lawn, the Marine Band had performed Joy to the World and the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's The Messiah
On Christmas Day, FDR took Churchill to Foundry Methodist Church, about a mile north of the White House. "I like to sing hymns with the Methodys," FDR had once chirpily explained of his sometime attendance at Foundry, despite his being Episcopalian. 
Various dignitaries joined them, including Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and Vice President Henry Wallace. The minister prayed for "those who are dying on land and sea this Christmas morning." 
Churchill later remembered of the service: "Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe." 
Surprisingly, it was the first time Churchill ever heard O Little Town of Bethlehem, written 75 years earlier by a Philadelphia pastor while visiting the Holy Land during Christmas. 
Memorably, the hymn declares: "Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." 
According to McCullough's book, both FDR and Churchill typically "sang lustily, if not exactly in tune."[...]
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