Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Britain facing Germany in May 1940: One modern version of the Melian dialogue

By "Jeff" Best Defense guest historian I fully appreciate the dialogue between the Athenian elite and the Melian elite. I am sure that among the Melians there must have been contention as to what choice to make. In 400 BC, as in our time, an elite in the name of the people always makes such decisions for ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

By "Jeff"

Best Defense guest historian

I fully appreciate the dialogue between the Athenian elite and the Melian elite. I am sure that among the Melians there must have been contention as to what choice to make. In 400 BC, as in our time, an elite in the name of the people always makes such decisions for better or worse.

By "Jeff"

Best Defense guest historian

I fully appreciate the dialogue between the Athenian elite and the Melian elite. I am sure that among the Melians there must have been contention as to what choice to make. In 400 BC, as in our time, an elite in the name of the people always makes such decisions for better or worse.

A modern parallel existed in May of 1940 in Great Britain. With her armies being shattered on the continent and her key ally in the final stages of her death throes, Britain faced a choice very much like that of Melos.

The choice was no less stark than that faced by Melos. The enemy was a great power, with the momentum of victory behind it. It was utterly ruthless. Britain could have cut a deal with the looming threat — a deal eagerly sought by Hitler — and opted out of harm’s way with little loss but of reputation and humiliation.

Many of the British elite who were led by Halifax and the Foreign Office were looking for such a peace treaty but Winston Churchill, understanding the nature of his foe, outmaneuvered the Halifax faction and accepted the challenge from Hitler come what may. This choice amounted to the key strategic decision of the 20th century. Churchill’s leadership resulted in a decision that showed a willingness to risk all to preserve western civilization from Nazi barbarism.

This choice in my view was anchored in realism. Churchill and his Parliamentary allies possessed a hardboiled realism that fully appreciated the consequences of defeat but also the possibilities (as remote as they seemed at the time) of victory in the end.

Halifax’s approach, in contrast, was seemingly realistic on the surface but in fact was not, because it failed to appreciate the nature of the opponent. Any deal arranged with the Nazis could only be temporary, because of the innate predatory nature of the Nazi regime and its cold-blooded ideology. Churchill, a historian, intuitively understood this important fact.

I find this parallel with the experience of the Melians very compelling. Had the Melians had a great power ally (Sparta), perhaps their choice may have become heroically successful rather than heroically doomed. As it was there was no deliverer off in the distance whose interests were served by a living Melos.

"Jeff" is an amateur military historian and financial executive retired after thirty years with Merrill Lynch.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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