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.
None of this had any practical effect, except to lull the Western democracies into inaction while Germany and Japan rapidly built up their military forces.
Hitler began openly violating the restrictions put on Germany, one at a time, allowing him to gauge what reaction there would be among the Western powers and in the League of Nations. Each violation that he got away with led him to try another -- and then another.
The key violation -- without which he would not be able to wage war -- was moving German troops into the Rhineland in 1936, in open defiance of the treaty of Versailles. Both he and his generals knew that the French army was so overwhelmingly more powerful at this point that German troops would not have been able to put up even token resistance if France sent its troops in to oust them.
France did nothing. It was the first of many nothings that France did in a series of crises that led up to World War II.
When Hitler had built up his clandestine forces sufficiently, he simply stopped keeping them secret and confronted the West with enough power that he knew they would not dare to challenge him. The opportunity to stop him was past.
Those who wanted "clear proof" now had it. In just a few years, they would have even clearer proof when the Nazis invaded France and subjugated it in just six weeks -- and then began bombing London, night after night.
While history does not literally repeat itself, sometimes it comes very close.
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