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What the U.S. Can Teach Ukraine About Misplaced Revenge

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Shore is professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School, Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies, and a National Security Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of, This Is Not Who We Are: America’s Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Close to 3 million Ukrainians have fled – not from Russia, but to it. Since Putin’s war began, more Ukrainians have escaped to Russia than to any other country by a large margin. Having fled the war zone, many of these Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens might not feel safe in Ukraine while anti-Russian animus runs high. This is, of course, what Russian propaganda would have them believe. Many may not even like Putin, but they may fear their neighbors might turn against them, and for good reason.

We have learned of Russian soldiers raping Ukrainian women. We have seen images of missile attacks on homes, hospitals, and schoolyards. We have witnessed the deliberate destruction of infrastructure, leaving innocent Ukrainians shivering in winter. We have many reports of Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children, for what purposes we do not yet fully know. Understandably, when the war eventually ends, the cries for revenge against Russia will be fierce, but they will also be foolish. If we are not careful, they will end up harming the very innocent civilians whose support will be most needed in a post-Putin world.

Americans should understand this dilemma. The U.S. has a long history of turning against minorities during wartime, and Ukraine can learn valuable lessons from America about the dangers of misplaced revenge. During World War I, it was hazardous to have a German accent or a German-sounding name. As the historian Adam Hochschild has uncovered in his magnificent new book, American Midnight, anti-German hatred went far beyond changing the name of Sauerkraut to liberty cabbage. Americans attacked those of obvious German stock, destroying their shops, assaulting them in the streets, and banning both the teaching of German in schools and the speaking of German in public. But the scale of organized, government-sponsored vengeance rose with the Second World War.

Even the most compassionate leaders can be swept up in the tides of vengeance. Eleanor Roosevelt, a paragon of humane government, found herself speaking in favor of the internment of Japanese Americans. In 1942, she delivered a national radio address explaining that some “friendly aliens” would have to suffer for the good of the national interest. Privately she recoiled at the forcing of 120,000 people, most of them citizens, out of their homes and into concentration camps, but she could not publicly oppose her husband’s policy. When it came to two of America’s harshest actions in the war, however, she fully supported them. She endorsed the dropping of both atomic bombs, and she backed the punitive occupation plan for Germany. She, too, was not immune to anti-German sentiments. Her attitude toward Germany might have been more forgiving if she had not been close friends with the man behind the plan to make average Germans suffer.

By the summer of 1944, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was hatching a scheme to punish all Germans for the Nazis’ crimes. The Morgenthau Plan, as it came to be known, aimed to rip up all heavy industry and return Germany to an agrarian state. Without manufacturing, they could not produce the weapons of war. Because the Germans had launched two world wars, the thinking went, it was time to ensure that they never bothered anyone again. The problem was that without heavy industry, large-scale food production would be impossible. Morgenthau’s plan would lead to mass starvation, and everyone in the administration knew it.

Some in government assumed that it was Morgenthau’s Jewishness that was driving his zeal for revenge. The real reason had to do with his direct knowledge of German atrocities. In addition to his taxing duties running the Treasury Department, Morgenthau also headed the secret Rescue Board, an operation he helped to establish with FDR’s approval. It was a junior colleague in Morgenthau’s own department who first uncovered the fact that the State Department was suppressing information about the mass slaughter of Europe’s Jews. The Rescue Board was created in response. Using government funds to bribe ship captains and other officials in Nazi-occupied Europe, the Rescue Board managed to smuggle some 200,000 Jews to safety. Through his work with the Board, Morgenthau was receiving constant reports of Nazi barbarity, at a time when few Americans knew about the Holocaust.

Thanks to pushback from within FDR’s administration, Morgenthau’s plan was softened, but not enough. Official U.S. policy forbade Americans from helping Germany to rebuild its economy. Without that aid, malnutrition, starvation, disease, and mass death marked the first few years of occupation. Tragically, not only did most key officials oppose the vengeful treatment of average Germans, most Americans did, too. Despite the anger over German atrocities, the sight of starving children shown in newsreels weakened demand for revenge. Polls revealed that some 60% of Americans supported food aid to Germany. Former President Herbert Hoover led the charge to feed the hungry. Throughout the worst of the food crisis in 1946 and 1947, he traveled across America giving speeches about the need to eat less to free up surplus grain for shipment overseas. He understood that some still demanded vengeance against their former foes, but Hoover insisted that America had to rise above retaliation. We cannot behave as the Nazis had done, he declared. “We do not want our flag flying over a nation of Buchenwalds,” And at those words, his audience responded with ovations.

Looking back, most Americans came to view their wartime vengeful actions as mistakes. Within just three years, the Marshall Plan undid the cruel occupation policy that Morgenthau had helped establish. Support for the use of nuclear weapons on Japan has steadily fallen since the war. And more than four decades after Japanese internment, President Reagan signed legislation to compensate the surviving victims, calling it a chance to right a grave wrong. Plenty of people recognized the wrong as it was being committed. Too few stood up to stop it. This is the greatest danger of misplaced revenge. It erodes a nation’s conscience as it forces the innocent to suffer.

A just peace would restore to Ukraine all of its lost territory from Russia. Putin and his henchmen must pay for their war of aggression, and those soldiers who committed war crimes must be brought to justice. But the Russian people should not be crippled in a postwar arrangement. Ethnic Russians who return home to Ukraine must be protected from retaliation. There should be reparations, but not so onerous that the Russian economy cannot recover. In a post-Putin world, Russia must be reintegrated into the global economy, and the Russian people must be made stakeholders in a peaceful international order. If we do not find ways of avoiding misplaced revenge, one day a new Putin-like figure, or a worse one, will emerge.

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