Victor Davis Hanson

According to our recently proposed treaty with the Iranian government, Iran keeps much of its nuclear program while agreeing to slow its path to weapons-grade enrichment. The Iranians also get crippling economic sanctions lifted.

The agreement is not like détente-era arms reductions with the Soviets. After all, each superpower in the Cold War had enough nuclear missiles to reduce most of civilization to cinders. One mistake could have ended in Armageddon.

In this supposed win-win deal, America does not have to worry about another costly and unpopular preemptive military action to stop proliferation. Iran keeps its nuclear program. It makes lots of money and can apparently maintain its ongoing support for global Islamic terrorism.

Unfortunately, such pacts of mutual advantage involving dictatorships do not have a good historical pedigree.

They were often proposed in the late 1930s and early 1940s on the eve of, and during, World War II. In early 1939, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin toyed with the idea of boxing in Nazi Germany by joining with democratic France and Britain.

When that gambit did not work out, Stalin suddenly flipped and came to terms with Hitler himself through the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in August 1939. Stalin also later cut a similar deal with his former Japanese enemies in April 1941.

Authoritarians turned on each other just as often as they fooled democracies. They used these pacts to bide their time and never abode by their commitments once they found them no longer convenient. Hitler broke his non-aggression pact in less than two years and invaded the Soviet Union. Only after the European war was nearly won did Stalin turn on Japan and renounce his formerly convenient agreement that had left the British Commonwealth and the United States alone to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.

Dictatorships also used such wink-and-nod agreements in ways that went far beyond the treaties. The point of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was not just to prevent a German-Russian war for a few months. It also turned both tyrannies loose to gang up on Poland and begin World War II.

Russia got a free hand to invade Finland. With his eastern border temporarily quiet, Hitler turned west to attack France and bomb Britain. Once the Japanese signed on with Stalin to secure their own rear in Manchuria and Korea, they simply redirected their war efforts to attack Pearl Harbor and further expand the conflict. With the end of the Nazi threat, Stalin reneged on most of the agreements for postwar Europe that he had entered into with Britain and the United States.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.