My book club just read and discussed William F. Buckley’s Stained Glass: A Blackford Oakes Novel, which Buckley wrote in 1978, two years before the Reagan revolution. The book is sort of a spy novel, but it’s more a rumination on a particular type of political conundrum: When it comes to international politics, should American government do what is morally right, or should it focus its energies on minimizing perceived risks?
In Stained Glass, which is set in 1952 Germany, Buckley presents this conundrum by creating a German politician who wants to kick the Soviets out of the eastern part of Germany. It is clearly the morally right thing to do, because we know that Communism was a great evil, but the Soviets have threatened to use their forces on the ground to attack Germany should the candidate win, raising the possibility of millions of war dead. The question is whether America should do nothing, or if it should assassinate the candidate, despite his being an almost angelically good man. You can read the book to see what choices got made.
It occurred to me that, in real 20th Century history, when Western nations have taken the pragmatic, realpolitik approach to totalitarianism, the consequences have been dire, whether that was ignoring Hitler’s menace, ignoring Stalin’s menace or meddling in Iran. The one time an American took a moral stand — and that would be Reagan’s willingness simply to call out the Soviet Union as a genuinely evil force — the moral position prevailed.
I recognize that every politician is always concerned with doing whatever he can to protect his own citizens, and that this is most obviously done by preserving the peace. I also understand that the possibility of war may seem like an impossibility. In 1938, war-weary, Depression-crushed England seemed impossible to rally — and, anyway, the threat didn’t seem likely to touch English soil. Likewise, after WWII, which Europe devastated, it was ridiculous to imagine mounting yet another full scale war. It seems, though, that a short, sharp skirmish at the beginning, whether in words or deeds, can prevent a festering evil from developing in the first place. The problem with festering evils, of course, is that even though they may not be deadly in the beginning, they are invariably deadly, and on a very large scale, in the end.
UPDATE: Bill Whittle, who has become one of my favorite new media figures, explains why, thanks to our media, we are sometimes incapable of making moral choices.