Thomas Sowell

History does not literally repeat itself, but sometimes it comes awfully close. Iraq is not the first dangerous dictatorship that international agreements tried to keep disarmed. Nor is it the first where that effort failed.

Back in the 1930s, Germany's military forces were limited by a ban on conscription, by limitations on the number and kinds of weapons it could have, and by a requirement that it station no troops in its own industrialized Rhineland. These requirements were in the treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War.

Demilitarizing the Rhineland was perhaps the crucial provision of these international restrictions.

Germany's population and industrial might, together with its strong military traditions and its aggressive policies which had brought on the First World War, made it the most dangerous nation on the continent of Europe. But it could not attack any other nation when its own industrial heartland was undefended and therefore could be quickly seized by French troops, who were just across the Rhine.

Like Saddam Hussein today, Hitler at first pretended to go along with these restrictions, all the while clandestinely building up his military forces. However, this was clandestine only in the sense that the general public did not know about it. British intelligence was well aware of what he was doing and kept the Prime Minister informed.

The real question was whether Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wanted to be the one to break the bad news to the British public or whether he would keep quiet, get re-elected, and pass the problem on to his successors -- as Bill Clinton would do in a later era. Baldwin did a Clinton.

In later years, Stanley Baldwin tried to justify his inaction:

"Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming, and that we must rearm, does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment? I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain."

But this was not just Baldwin's failure or that of his Conservative Party. The Liberal Party in 1935 demanded "clear proof" of a need for rearmament against the Nazis, much as many in politics and the media today are demanding "clear proof" of a need to act against Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile the Labour Party was advocating disarmament and innumerable groups were promoting international agreements and diplomatic exchanges as a substitute for military power. Diplomatic agreements and arms limitations treaties proliferated throughout the whole period between the two World Wars.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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