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  • Writer's pictureLewis E. Leibowitz


It’s nearing the end of the year—in this particular year, it’s hard to be sorry that we’ll soon turn the page—and time for some reflections.

I read and study a lot of history and I find it helps make sense of the issues we face today and how we address them.

There are two anniversaries that fall this week, and they tie into the importance of international affairs in our personal and economic existence.

The first you will all remember—the U.S. entry into World War II. On December 7, 79 years ago tomorrow, Japanese naval and air forces attacked the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That base was more than 5000 miles from Japan and the attack was a total surprise. Four days later, on December 11, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the United States. The United States was in it to the death. The war started, some historians say, with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. This was followed by Japan’s invasion of China proper in 1937, the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, respectively and the invasion of Poland by Germany in September 1939. That last invasion ended all pretense of peace with the declarations of war by Britain and France (and their colonial empires) on Germany.

Germany conquered France, as well as Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg in 1940. Italy, Romania and Hungary entered the war on the side of Germany too. And the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The world was a dark place. Then, in 1941, it got darker. Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece in April and the Soviet Union in June 1941. Throughout the summer and autumn, the fate of the world hung in the balance. Then the Japanese struck in December, attacking not only Pearl Harbor but the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore and a host of Pacific Islands.

Four years later it was over. Japan had bet its literal existence on being able to hold off the United States, Britain and others—and they had lost. As was often the case, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said it best right after Pearl Harbor: “What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they, and the world, will never forget.”

Another anniversary, December 6, 1917, is less well-remembered. On that date in Halifax Harbour a French merchant ship literally filled with explosives destined for France collided with a Norwegian freighter on its way to New York to pick up relief supplies to aid European war refugees. The collision spilled flammable liquid on the deck of the French ship, which eventually set off the largest man-made explosion in world history, only exceeded by the atomic bomb over Hiroshima in August 1945.

These horrible events in 1917 and 1941 led to responses that I think gives us reason for hope.

World War II was the most destructive conflict in history. Smart people all over the world got to work on why it happened and how to prevent it. One of the major causes of the war was economics—a vengeful peace against the losers of World War I and a Great Depression in the 1930s. The postwar economic order, largely drafted and financed by the United States, created a world trading system that has helped avoid a third world war for 75 years. The Bretton Woods Agreements, creating a global development bank (the World Bank), a financial window for economies in crisis (the International Monetary Fund) and a rules-based trading system (the WTO) has prevented countries from concluding that the world was “rigged” against them. Of course, nuclear weapons helped too (as long as the nuclear “club” is limited to countries that see greater advantage in peaceful competition than conflict). The aftermath of global war, also funded largely by the US, planted the seeds of peaceful competition as well as accusations of trade cheating—but trade disputes beat the heck out of war.

The 1917 tragedy, again a result of hot war, showed America (in particiular Boston) at its best. Within a day of the explosion, the Mayor of Boston organized a relief expedition to Halifax to staff up hospitals. A Boston banker, Abraham Rashefsky, led the effort on the ground, which included medical supplies donated by Harvard’s Medical School. After 8 days, with the Canadian town over the initial shock, Rashefsky stood down and the Canadians took the lead. That handover, as one witness reported, “assumed certain international significance.” It was a watershed in US-Canada relations, replacing the fear of annexation with friendship, that has persisted to this day.

They’ve never forgotten—and neither has Boston. To this day, a magnificent Christmas tree adorns the center of Boston, an annual gift of the grateful citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was, as Rick Blaine (Casablanca) said, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

These two anniveraries give us reason to hope that, out of hardship and tragedy, lasting good can come. A useful thought this year.

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