The biggest guessing game on the planet right now is not who the GOP will pick for their Presidential candidate. I n historic terms that's pretty small-ball stuff. The most burning question (pun intended) right now is; will Israel bomb Iran or not?
History may well hold the answer to that question, and we may not like it much. But it is what it is.
Conventional wisdom is that Israel is just posturing and that the ramifications of bombing Iran are so horrific that all the talk about doing it is just that, talk.
But rewind 72 years. Replace Iran with Nazi Germany. Replace Iran's nuclear threat with the powerful French fleet. Replace Netanyahu with Winston Churchill (yeah I know, Bebe ain't no Churchill, but bear with me.) And what you have is a nearly identical strategic/tactical challenge.
So, boys and girls, into our Way Back Machine for a lesson the realpolitiks of real or perceived "existential threats."
It was the early days of World War II. Churchill was barely into his first month a s a wartime Prime Minister when the Nazis moved on France. Within days it was clear that France would fall. Churchill had already begged Roosevelt for the loan of war ships and been rebuffed.
Roosevelt simply did not believe that Brit ai n would or could fight the Nazis and win. Besides, he faced reelection at a time when the US public was in no mood to get embroiled in another European war. Our own US ambassador to England, Joe Kennedy, advised Roosevelt that the best course of action for Brit ai n was to sign a treaty with the Nazis.
Of course Churchill would have nothing of that. The British still had the strongest navy in the Atlantic, second only maybe to the modern German fleet and a very powerful French fleet coming in third.
You still with me? Hang in there.
With additional warships from the US out of the equation for now, the last thing Brit ai n needed was the powerful French fleet steaming across the channel under Nazi command. Churchill contacted the admiral of the French fleet who assure d him that, should France fall, he would never allow the French fleet to fall into the hands of the Nazis.
At this point it is critical to understand that 72 years ago modern battleships were to warfare then what nuclear weapons are today. A modern battleship in 1940 WAS the Death Star of its time. Together with light cruisers and subs, such a fleet posed a very real, existential threat to the British Isles.
Negotiations ensued. Churchill worked furiously to convince the French to simply sail their entire fleet into British ports and to have French ships at sea join British flotillas in the Mediterranean. The French refused, restating their promise to scuttle their fleet rather than let it fall into German hands.
Churchill faced the same dilemma Netanyahu faces today. Hitler had made it clear that Britain was on his hit list. The US was saying no to getting involved. But the French were assuring Churchill that they would not let the Germans use their fleet to attack Brit ai n - just as the Iranians have been assuring everyone that their nuclear research is strictly for peace uses.
So Churchill had to decide: Should the Nazis get hold of the French fleet those ships would become virtual stepping stones across the channel, a flotilla, backed up by Germany's powerful modern air force, and it would mean the end for Brit ai n.
The British were being asked, just as the Israelis are being asked today, to trust rather than act. If the French did, as they promised, sink their own fleet, all would be well. If not, Brit ai n would fall to the Nazis just as France was about to.
And so, 72 years ago, the world stood at just such a crossroad. And then, as now, one man had to decide a matter so horrific no man should ever have to face such a decision.