If you will please allow me to put my old history and political science lecturer cap on again for a post…
By the late summer of 1777 it looked like the self-proclaimed independence of 13 of Great Britain’s North American colonies – calling themselves the United States of America since their declaration announcement on July 4, 1776 – was about over as Britain seemed only months from military victory in its effort to return the areas firmly to British control. U.S. General George Washington had won two small winter victories at Trenton (over surprised Hessians) and at Princeton (over a greatly outnumbered force of surprised British) in late 1776 and early 1777; but those were the only bright spots (and they were pretty minor in the greater scheme of things). Having re-taken New York City in August/September 1776, in late September 1777 the British drove the American Congress and independence forces from their capital, Philadelphia.
The (small minority of) British-supporting American loyalists (or “tories”) had taken to gloating that the year 1777 was to be “the Year of the Three Gallows”: Washington, Sam Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the other rebel leaders would finally be dragged off to London to face the King’s justice and properly hanged.
However, another British army moving from Canada south into New York was met in September and October by Americans led by generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold. Near Saratoga, their mixed force of Continentals (regular army) and local militia swarmed around, cut off, defeated, and captured the 7,000 man invading army in what became by far the biggest American victory to date. That entire British force (about 1/3 of the total British army then in the U.S.) had been erased from the war as completely as if it had stepped into quicksand and sunk without leaving behind a trace.
During 1776-77, in Paris, American negotiators had been trying to seal a French aid agreement with King Louis XVI’s government. The French, however, considered the Americans unreliable and their independence bid looked shaky at best. France was reluctant to “invest” in what could soon be a defeat.
But when news of the huge Saratoga victory, coupled with top U.S. General Washington’s October attack on another British army at Germantown, Pennsylvania (which despite being a repulse demonstrated his troops were far from beaten), reached Paris (it took over a month by sailing ship – no internet in those days), the Americans found their negotiating position changed. Both battles had shown that military aid to the Americans would not be wasted, and that they were absolutely determined and not going to give up. The French concluded that with money and arms’ assistance the Americans could indeed beat the British and keep their unilaterally declared independence. In February 1778, France and the new United States became allies…
Into the 21st century now.
The assertion that “World War III” will start if Ukraine is supported is commonplace among Twitter commenters (who can be ascertained to be actually honest Americans and not disinformation Putinist bots) on the likes of the above – although how not supporting Ukraine and watching the country be subdued by a triumphant Putinist Russia will somehow prevent WWIII regularly goes unaddressed.
They also decry the corruption of some in Ukraine’s government – as if some individuals’ misbehaviors (and it is worth remembering it is other Ukrainians, including journalists – which is a perfect demonstration of freedom of the press in action – who have been revealing it) seeking private gain somehow means an entire people should be crushed under a foreign despot.
Others complain aid money should be devoted to Americans at home – which as an argument might carry much more weight if it were not usually made by those who are politically the same people who term any U.S. government social spending at home as being “socialism.”
There is also this…
…which she – a Belarusian married to a Ukrainian, and both living in the U.S. – above tweeted the other day. And in that she is correct. To have asserted in 1939-40 you did not care whether Nazi Germany or republican France prevailed on the battlefield (“They should just make peace! France is not perfect either!”), and therefore displaying the opinion that there was actually a moral equivalence between that France (its women still did not have the vote, and it was the colonial ruler of Algeria and Morocco, for example) and Nazi Germany (that was already a butchering clearly expansionist terror state horror show ruled by a megalomaniac), would have demonstrated only an indefensible intellectual laziness and moral vacuity… or that you were, well, a Nazi. (Ultimately, Nazi Germany’s victory over France in June proved to be an unmitigated disaster for much of the world. Indeed that Nazi victory was what truly transformed a local European conflict into an existential global one that led to Nazi-run extermination camps, the emboldenment of militarist Japan in its own dreams of far-flung conquest, and, interestingly, the Nazi invasion of the – now former – USSR in 1941, to name just three.)
For nearly a year now, the Ukrainians have more than proven they are willing to fight back and have certainly been doing so. Ukraine is not embroiled in some murky, arguably civil, often guerrilla, war; Ukraine’s outgunned, outnumbered military has stayed in the field conducting a conventional war against a foreign invader that brazenly crossed their shared internationally-recognized frontier. That invader’s aim was clearly to destroy Ukraine’s democratically-elected government (while attempting to justify the effort by spewing all sorts of cockamamie excuses) as the first step toward replacing it with a “puppet” regime, followed by redrawing Ukraine’s international frontier to suit themselves as its conquerer and leaving a smaller Ukraine that would do exactly as decreed by those foreign Putinist conquerors.
We have seen no such utterly shameless war of attempted foreign conquest as straightforward as this one since the Second World War of 1939-45. It is utterly at odds with the United Nations Charter agreed in 1945 that was signed by the USSR and “accepted” and “transferred” in 1992 to the former USSR’s largest component state, Russia, and sought to prevent just such a war happening again. Worst of all, this war is being conducted by that same Russia that is a member of the UN’s Security Council – whose members are most certainly NOT supposed to engage in such behavior.
It is becoming difficult to keep track of the myriad of crimes that the Putinist regime has committed, and continues to commit, in Ukraine. Frankly, Putinist Russia should be at least suspended from the UN Security Council for engaging in an attempted war of conquest that is plainly banned under the UN Charter. But the politics of the UN naturally makes that very difficult to do.
However, I refuse to accept the assertion of some I read that ALL Russians are Putinists. It is likely many are by now merely fearful of speaking out (which is not unreasonable given they face arrest and years in prison for doing so even in a restaurant). Many have also probably fallen victim to being brainwashed by endless lies (as the Putinists control all major media, and any journalist who does not parrot the Putinist official line faces prison).
Early on, we did see clear opposition to the invasion, including from some journalists – which was crushed by the banning of opposition media outlets, and widespread public arrests and imprisonments. Even a state that has temporarily lost its mind and is under the control of effectively a single party dictatorship and cult of personality has numbers of citizens who do not support lunatic policies and would alter them if they could. If Nazi Germany had Hitler and Himmler, it also had a Brandt and a Scholl.
Worth noting is this, too: Most of the Ukrainian refugees who have fled the invasion of their homeland are women, children, and the elderly. That woman and daughter above who now live streets away from us here in Dartmouth, fled from Kyiv, making their way to Moldova, and eventually here, after the daughter’s school was destroyed by a Russian missile – they had wanted to stay, but that her daughter might have been killed had the school been open was the last straw.
Where is her husband? He is, like so many other Ukrainian husbands, fathers, and brothers, still in Ukraine, in uniform, fighting the invader.
They may never see him alive again. The least we comfortable outsiders can do is help such soldiers’ wives and children… and supply those soldiers weapons and what else they need. That woman and her child want to go back to suburban Kyiv eventually. But will there even be a home for them to which to return?
Hopefully, there will be. It was not the world’s aid that “saved” Ukraine in February-May 2022 in particular. In the early days of the invasion, Ukrainians fought back with whatever they could. It was Ukrainians who saved themselves. (Remember when the U.S. reportedly offered shortly after the Putinist invasion began to fly out President Zelenskyy and his family, and he refused to leave? Even if he did not say exactly what one U.S. official said he did, his actual behavior in the weeks after certainly indicated he meant precisely that.)
The Ukrainian military has since the summer even re-taken some of the territory occupied early on by the Putinist invaders – driving them back and humbling them. Ukraine not only did not collapse within days or weeks (as many of us thought could happen a year ago) in early to mid-2022. In fact, Ukraine held on largely due to only its own determination, ingenuity, and military resources – until the first substantive foreign military aid began to appear there in the spring and summer.
By now, it is clear that with ongoing military aid the Ukrainians could even drive the Putinists out of Ukraine entirely.
We aid Ukraine also because there will be a huge price for us to pay if the Putinists win. A Putinist victory will embed Putin’s dictatorship further, undercutting any hope of a sane new Russian leadership appearing (and the world does need a sane Russian government). It also seems likely a Ukrainian defeat will lead to the Putinist dictator of neighboring Belarus – who in 2020 TRULY stole a presidential election to stay in power – seeking a “union” with Russia. The threat would then move to the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Poland, and central Europe. To say nothing of other dictatorships around the world becoming more emboldened.
How will it then be easier to deal with a triumphant Putin?
It is a Putinist victory over Ukraine that seems more likely to lead to a wider conflict arising. Would-be empire-builders since before the dawn of time have almost never stopped until they were stopped. So it is extremely difficult to believe if Putin successfully conquers Ukraine that that would be his last foreign “adventure.”
We should as Americans never forget our ancestors having to go hat in hand between 1776-83 begging for help from “great powers” of that day. To not assist Ukrainians now who have similarly asked (even begged) for our aid, will only make the world a far more dangerous place in the decade to come. Indeed turning our backs on Ukrainians will also show how much we as Americans have forgotten our own “1776” and what it was like to be a small country, alone, and facing an unprovoked onslaught from one of the world’s leading military powers.
An excellent article. I hope it gets distributed widely via reblogs, Twitter feeds, etc.
Just on a historical note re American independence – I studied ‘The American Revolution’ (as it was called here in the UK) as my special subject during my History university degree course a million years ago. I remember our lecturer saying that there was a belief that certain sections of the British administration actually wanted the colonies to break away so that Britain could concentrate on developing another empire to the east (which of course they did after defeat at Yorktown, etc). He said no written evidence had ever been discovered for the theory, but it’s an interesting idea. No?
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Many thanks. It’s just what I think.
I have seen that idea put forward, too – the Americans were deemed hardly worth the trouble; that if they wanted to go, let them go, and Britain could turn elsewhere. I think it may have been chatter after the fact, rather than during the war. I can’t think of anyone during the war outright saying it. George III certainly did not. Neither did Lord North. We do know now that India became much more important to Britain in the 1800s than it was in 1776.
I do also know that little-known in the U.S. is the number of British (although a minority) who supported the Americans in their grievances and hoped to see an equitable settlement and even independence and an end to the war. (Charles James Fox, famously being one.) It was never a war that saw “the British” wanting to grind down the Americans, as Americans are a bit too often (rather lazily) taught in school. But keeping things “simple” is easiest to teach, of course.
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I’m sure quite a few British businessmen realised, as the sheer vastness of the land west of the Appalachians became known, that it would be nigh on impossible to run an empire based around London. It would be inevitable the centre would shift across the Atlantic. Maybe a reason for not pursuing the war too energetically?
When I left university my lecturer suggested I hunt down a book titled ‘For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga’ by Robert Sobel. It was a difficult book to get even then, although only published in 1973, but through my sister’s librarian job I managed to get a copy. It’s an alternate history; what would have happened if Britain had defeated the American rebels. Maybe you know of it?
I’ve often considered writing a novel set in that period, a cliched story no doubt centred around a dashing Redcoat officer stationed in Boston and his romance with the daughter of a Radical. One day…
For my dissertation at university I wrote about the Boston radicals and their machinations in that town to stir up trouble against the British. The ‘Boston Massacre’ and all that. I managed to obtain, again through my sister, one of the only two copies of John Adams’ diaries in the UK library system. After finishing my essay I read his ‘teenage’ entries. One stuck in mind all these years – standing on a hill on a clear Boston night he wondered if there might be other humans on the stars looking our way and thinking the same. It seemed amazing to me that someone that long ago might think that.
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I haven’t heard of that Sobel novel, but the premise is certainly interesting. And I will say your novel idea may not be as cliched as you think. You may want to tackle it… one day.
And most anything written by John Adams was in many ways ahead of its time. (His letters with Abigail are a treasure.) He was quite a character. He also had a tendency to be long-winded (which is a whole other issue, naturally.)
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