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Echoes from the past
Apropos of “Hello America, this is Addis Ababa,” the sixth and final episode of the podcast Rachel Maddow Presents: Déjà News
The sixth and final episode of Rachel Maddow Presents: Déjà News, an amazing podcast created and hosted by Rachel Maddow and Isaac-Davy Aronson, dropped on Monday. It’s called “Hello America, this is Addis Ababa.”
The episode takes us back to October 1935. Italy, led by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, is about to invade Ethiopia, the African Kingdom of Abyssinia. There are only two countries in Africa that are not colonies of one European power or another. And Ethiopia is one of them.
It had been less than 20 years since the end of World War I, since the United States and Europe had been embroiled in that cataclysmic global fight that everyone wanted to be the war to end all wars. In 1935, the desperation to avoid more war was palpable, and there was supposed to be a new system in place to stop it from happening again. There was a new international forum where nations could meet as equals and hash out their differences through words instead of wars. If talking failed, force was an option, but it wouldn’t just be small or weak countries being victimized by big and strong ones. This was a mutual defense organization, and if one member nation, however small, was threatened, the other member nations were pledged to come to its aid. It was called the “League of Nations.”
Both Ethiopia and Italy were members of the League. Ethiopia had pleaded for the League of Nations to do what it was supposed to do. They had pleaded for it to intervene, but the League had done virtually nothing.
Just as today Vladimir Putin keeps asserting that Ukraine truly is, and therefore is destined to be, part of a new Russian empire, so Mussolini had been openly saying that Ethiopia really ought to be part of a new Italian empire. So, now, in the fall of 1935, Italy is on the verge of steaming into that country with a giant, modern, mechanized military. And Ethiopia has nothing of the sort with which to defend itself.
Britain and France, Europe’s two major powers and the de facto leaders of the League, were faced with a host of questions. Should Mussolini be stopped? And if so, what should be done to stop him? And failing that, what would happen to the Abyssinian kingdom and its people? And what would Mussolini’s Italy, or Hitler’s Germany for that matter, do next? Britain prepared its armed forces for the possibility of war.
Britain’s leaders believed in the mutual defense principles of the League of Nations. They said — they pledged — they would not allow a fellow League of Nations member to be invaded. And Britain had a unique lever of power to stop the invasion. Britain controlled the Suez Canal, which Italy needed to move its troops and supplies into position.
So, Britain had the means and the motive to stop Mussolini’s invasion. But the cost of doing it would be high. If it blocked access to the Suez Canal, Italy could see that as an act of war. This would mean that Britain and Italy were at war with each other. Opinion polls showed that everyone was both anti-Italian aggression and anti-war. As British novelist Evelyn Waugh put it, the sympathy for the people of Abyssinia was “deep, cordial, altruistic and absolutely ineffective.”
The French, on the other hand, were so anxious about the Germans, they were perfectly willing to give Italy anything it wanted to keep it in an alliance with Britain and France against Germany. They would do anything to keep Italy happy to avoid war. Britain also would do almost anything to avoid war. And the United States (not a member of the League) was an ocean away practicing studious neutrality.
From the Abyssinian capital of Addis Ababa, that country’s leader, Haile Selassie, was in the midst of basically a worldwide campaign to try to save his country. He didn’t just appeal to the League of Nations and other world leaders. He also appealed directly to the world public.
Scores of foreign correspondents, 170 in total, among them Evelyn Waugh, reporting for the Daily Mail, made their way to the docks at Marseilles, and from there, to Port Said, through the Suez Canal to Djibouti, and then, by rail, across the Ethiopian frontier.
This is from Last Call to the Hotel Imperial by history professor Deborah Cohen (Random House, 2022).
Keeping the correspondents on his side, the Abyssinian emperor Haile Selassie figured, was paramount, for Mussolini’s willingness to slaughter innocents might yet move the League’s powers. With the invasion expected any day, he laid on a banquet at his new palace to welcome the world press. The dinner was a self-consciously Westernized affair, intended to convey the sort of “civilization” that many Europeans and Americans doubted the “natives” possessed. Presiding over the ninety-footlong table, set with gold-engraved place cards, the emperor treated his guests to aperitifs and pâté de foie gras, fricasseed chicken and ham with Madeira sauce, a top-quality sauterne, and ice cream.
As soon as the rains stopped, the bombs started.
The League decided it would hit Italy with limited economic sanctions. 51 states imposed sanctions. As one does.
The problem was those sanctions didn’t include oil. An oil embargo would probably have worked, just like blocking the Italians from the Suez Canal probably would have worked. But in both cases, the European powers worried that these measures were too strong, that Italy would be too upset, that exerting this kind of force against Italy would be enough to set off another huge war between the countries of Europe.
In the end, the League’s members basically decide they cannot do anything. They will not do anything to defend Ethiopia. And so they are scheming to come up with an agreement that Italy might accept. As one does.
In December 1935, British papers break a story that the British and the French have made a secret deal, a deal which is going to give Mussolini half of Haile Selassie’s territory. And then the war will be over.
People are shocked and outraged. So much so that not only do the British and French abandon their secret plan, the whole thing is such a scandal, leading politicians in both countries are forced to resign. Their leaders are embarrassed about not standing up for Ethiopia, their ally, particularly after pledging that they would, but they can’t come up with a way to defend Ethiopia that doesn’t risk a full-blown European war. If an illegal, unjustified, aggressive invasion of an African country would forestall war in Europe, letting Italy devour Abyssinia was not a hard choice for most European leaders.
Says history professor Susan Pedersen: “that’s the old way to solve great power conflict. They solve their disputes by handing territories which will then be full of British subjects but not citizens, or French subjects but not citizens. And I think this is a moment where there’s a great deal of shame about having bought peace at this price.”
Some estimates put civilian deaths from the Italian onslaught on Ethiopia in the hundreds of thousands, from aerial bombardment of villages and hospitals, and mustard gas dropped from planes. While his country is reeling from the assault, Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie tells a correspondent that his country’s resistance is not just about their own survival. “In fighting on until the bitter end,” he says, “I am not only performing my sacred duty to my people, but standing guard in the last citadel of collective security.”
The past echoing the present.
Despite dogged resistance from the outmanned and under-equipped Ethiopians, Italy conquered Abyssinia in about seven months. Forced to flee his country in May 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie made one final appearance at the League of Nations. He described the suffering inflicted on his people by the Italians’ poison gas. He rebuked the League for failing to come to their aid. Prophetically, Selassie warned the League not just of the cost to his nation, but also of the “doom that impends from giving in to fascist aggression.”
Haile Selassie’s warning was indeed prophetic. Within a few years, all of Europe and much of the world would be engulfed in war against Italy and Germany and Japan. With British help, Haile Selassie was returned to power in Ethiopia during World War II, the very war Europe had hoped to avoid by letting Selassie fall, by sacrificing his country.
If you give aggressors an inch, they’ll take a mile. If you make a threat or a promise that you don’t back up, expect no one to ever trust you again.
Rachel’s conclusion: “the story is a pretty clear cautionary tale. If you give aggressors an inch, they’ll take a mile. If you make a threat or a promise that you don’t back up, expect no one to ever trust you again. This whole debacle was certainly the end of the League of Nations. Once the League showed with such humiliating clarity that it couldn’t or wouldn’t do what it promised to do, it never recovered its legitimacy.” (To be clear, with or without quote/unquote marks, most of this post is an edited compilation from the podcast’s transcript.)
Today, Ukraine’s leader says he’ll fight to the very, very end, not just for his own people, but for civilization and for collective security. And even as Ukraine’s allies have offered far, far more help than Ethiopia ever got all those decades ago, Europe and America remain consumed now by questions of how much and what kind of help to give, how to defend this country that’s been attacked while also avoiding a broader conflict. What status should Ukraine have in the modern global order? And what happens if Russia isn’t stopped from invading and taking over this sovereign country?
As much as the U.S. and the rest of our NATO allies stand against Russia and are critical of Russia and are opposing Russia for their invasion of Ukraine, nobody wants to go to war with Russia unless they absolutely have to. Thus this year’s NATO summit ended with an agreement that Ukraine will join NATO someday, eventually, but there is no clear timeline. And that means the tension over Ukraine’s international status remains. If NATO makes clear it will never go to war for Ukraine, Russia may see that as a green light to take what it wants by force. But NATO doesn’t want to go to war with Russia over Ukraine or over anything else. How does NATO defend Ukraine and push Russia back while avoiding escalating into a broader conflict?
In this situation, faced with this dilemma, it might be profitable to recall something Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1950. During World War I, Sri Aurobindo had written The Ideal of Human Unity, which first appeared serially in the Arya between September 1915 and July 1918. The Arya is a philosophical review he brought out between 1914 and 1921. In it he wrote, under a continual deadline, all of the works upon which his reputation as a philosopher, Sanskrit scholar, political scientist and literary critic is based. For six and a half years he produced from scratch the yearly equivalent of two or three full-length books, but working on as many as seven simultaneously. When the second edition of The Ideal of Human Unity was published in 1950 in both India and the US, a Postscript Chapter was added reviewing the book’s conclusions in the light of recent international developments. (In the American edition the Postscript Chapter appeared as an Introduction.) It begins with these words:
At the time when this book was being brought to its close, the first attempt at the foundation of some initial hesitating beginning of the new world-order, which both governments and peoples had begun to envisage as a permanent necessity if there was to be any order in the world at all, was under debate and consideration but had not yet been given a concrete and practical form; but this had to come and eventually a momentous beginning was made. It took the name and appearance of what was called a League of Nations.
To Sri Aurobindo the formation of the League meant “the initiation of a new era in world history.” It was “an initiative which, even if it failed, could not be allowed to remain without a sequel but had to be taken up again until a successful solution has safeguarded the future of mankind, not only against continued disorder and lethal peril but against destructive possibilities which could easily prepare the collapse of civilisation and perhaps eventually something even that could be described as the suicide of the human race. Accordingly, the League of Nations disappeared but was replaced by the United Nations Organisation....”
Right then, in 1950, Sri Aurobindo points out the UN’s Achilles heel:
In the constitution of the U.N.O. an attempt was made ... to escape from [the errors of the League of Nations]; but the attempt was not thoroughgoing and not altogether successful. A strong surviving element of oligarchy remained in the preponderant place assigned to the five great Powers in the Security Council and was clinched by the device of the veto; these were concessions to a sense of realism and the necessity of recognising the actual condition of things and the results of the second great war and could not perhaps have been avoided, but they have done more to create trouble, hamper the action and diminish the success of the new institution than anything else in its make-up or the way of action forced upon it by the world situation or the difficulties of a combined working inherent in its very structure. A too hasty or radical endeavour to get rid of these defects might lead to a crash of the whole edifice; to leave them unmodified prolongs a malaise, an absence of harmony and smooth working and a consequent discredit and a sense of limited and abortive action, cause of the wide-spread feeling of futility and regard of doubt the world at large has begun to cast on this great and necessary institution which was founded with such high hopes and without which world conditions would be infinitely worse and more dangerous, even perhaps irremediable. A third attempt, the substitution of a differently constituted body, could only come if this institution collapsed as the result of a new catastrophe....
Today one might add to the UN’s greatest blunders the automatic transfer to Russia of the USSR’s seat on the UNSC. Anyway, the UN has now proven itself to be as useless as the erstwhile League of Nations.
Writing five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sri Aurobindo was under no illusion regarding the dire possibilities the future holds.
Two stupendous and world-devastating wars have swept over the globe and have been accompanied or followed by revolutions with far-reaching consequences which have altered the political map of the earth and the international balance, the once fairly stable equilibrium of five continents, and changed the whole future. A third still more disastrous war with a prospect of the use of weapons and other scientific means of destruction far more fatal and of wider reach than any ever yet invented, weapons whose far-spread use might bring down civilisation with a crash and whose effects might tend towards something like extermination on a large scale, looms in prospect; the constant apprehension of it weighs upon the mind of the nations and stimulates them towards further preparations for war and creates an atmosphere of prolonged antagonism, if not yet of conflict, extending to what is called “cold war” even in times of peace.
And yet, if a third war does come, “it is likely to precipitate as inevitably [as the second] a further step and perhaps the final outcome of this great world-endeavour” — “the formation of a World-State [whose] most desirable form ... would be a federation of free nationalities in which all subjection or forced inequality and subordination of one to another would have disappeared and, though some might preserve a greater natural influence, all would have an equal status.”
That, once again, is the dilemma which remains to be resolved.
Nature uses such means, apparently opposed and dangerous to her intended purpose, to bring about the fruition of that purpose. As in the practice of the spiritual science and art of Yoga one has to raise up the psychological possibilities which are there in the nature and stand in the way of its spiritual perfection and fulfilment so as to eliminate them, even, it may be, the sleeping possibilities which might arise in future to break the work that has been done, so too Nature acts with the world-forces that meet her on her way, not only calling up those which will assist her but raising too, so as to finish with them, those that she knows to be the normal or even the unavoidable obstacles which cannot but start up to impede her secret will. This one has often seen in the history of mankind; one sees it exampled today with an enormous force commensurable with the magnitude of the thing that has to be done....
This could well have been written today, in 2023.