America's shabby absence from Russia's V-E Day celebrations

By John C.K. Daly  |  May 14, 2015 at 6:11 PM
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Eager to punish Russia for its Ukrainian policies, the Obama administration, in a demeaning display of petty petulance, sent only the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John F. Tefft, to make an appearance at the May 9 Victory Day celebrations and parade in Moscow's Red Square, despite the United States, Britain and the USSR being allies during World War II.

It was not always thus: In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton was in Moscow on May 9 when the Russian Federation marked V-E Day, and in 2005 then-President George W. Bush also was in Red Square for the victory parade in the effort to put the Cold War that followed World War II behind them.

But if President Barack Obama was busy elsewhere, the event was attended by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, India's President Pranab Mukherjee and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. Britain sent as a consolation prize Winston Churchill's grandson, Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, representing Prime Minister David Cameron.

Soames said, "I am honored to represent the British government at the commemorations in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. We share in this Victory Day, as Britain and Russia stood together with our allies against the Nazis. My grandfather Winston Churchill praised Russia's 'incomparable service to a common cause.' My grandmother Clementine Churchill represented him here in Moscow at the first Victory Day in 1945 after a five-week goodwill tour to Russia as chair of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund. I am therefore delighted to be here 70 years later as the U.K. representative to pay homage to the fallen and to commemorate our shared history and victory."

Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly acknowledged the common cause 75 years ago, remarking, "We are grateful to the people of the United Kingdom and France, and the United States of America for their contribution to this victory."

It may be difficult for history-bereft Americans to understand why it should be that most Russians react so negatively to what they regard as something more than a mere gratuitous American snub, but more of a supreme indignity. It is that current politics have trumped the solidarity and suffering of 75 years ago.

And suffer the peoples of the USSR certainly did from Hitler's murderous onslaught. By the time the war ended after the Red Army captured Berlin, an estimated 27 million Soviet military and civilians were dead, a staggering number, which included as many as 11 million soldiers and which was more than twice the death toll of all Americans, Britons, Commonwealth citizens, French and even Germans killed in the war combined. Soviet casualties were nearly half of the war's estimated 60 million deaths.

In contrast, in the European theater of war, 135,000 American servicemen lost their lives. For every American soldier killed fighting Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died fighting them. Four out of five Nazi soldiers met their death fighting the Red Army on the Eastern Front. Winston Churchill stated, "It was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Wehrmacht."

It is the differing wartime experiences of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that add to this American incomprehension of why May 9 is so important. In contrast to the Soviet Union's experience in World War II, no cities in the United States were besieged like Moscow, Leningrad or Sevastopol, after Pearl Harbor not a single bomb was dropped by an enemy airplane on any of the states, no section of the American populace was enslaved, starved or murdered, and not one village, town or city was completely destroyed or even heard a shot fired in anger. The Atlantic and the Pacific kept our enemies at bay; the Soviet Union in June 1941 was attacked along a 2,000-mile front by more than 3 million troops.

What makes the Obama administration's avoidance of the V-E Day Moscow celebrations even more dispiriting is that it willfully ignores the generally warm relationship between the United States and Russia since America gained independence, with the Cold War proving the exception to this pattern.

While history is not most Americans' strong suit, Russia played an important role in assisting the United States at several critical junctures in its history. During the American Revolution, Russian Empress Catherine the Great not only declined British requests for troops to assist in suppressing the colonists, but insisted that as a neutral nation, Russia had every right to trade with the American colonies.

In early 1780, irritated by Britain's insistence on its right to blockade the entire coastlines of the American colonies and France, Catherine inaugurated the League of Armed Neutrality, declaring that Russia would not recognize blockades of entire coastlines, but only of individual ports, and only if a belligerent's warships were actually present or nearby. The Russian navy subsequently dispatched three squadrons to the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and North Sea to enforce the decree, tying down substantial numbers of Royal Navy warships that otherwise would have been sent to assist in crushing the American Revolution with superior sea power.

In 1863, during the U.S. Civil War, when it increasingly looked likely that both France and Britain were moving toward recognizing the Confederacy, Tsar Alexander II sent naval squadrons to both the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts to show solidarity with Lincoln's beleaguered government. Two years after the war, in 1867, the Russian government sold Alaska to the United States rather than Britain, with whom it had fought the Crimean War 10 years earlier.

In 1917, after the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, Russia and the United States were briefly allies during WW I, until the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 led to worsening relations when the Communists abandoned the war.

The eventual triumph of Lenin's Communists was not a political development viewed favorably in Washington. When I taught Russian history at KSU, students were astounded to learn that in 1918 the United States had sent thousands of troops to both Archangel and Murmansk to overthrow the Communist regime. But if KSU students were unaware of American intervention, it was taught to generations of Soviet schoolchildren.

While diplomatic relations were established between the USSR and United States in 1933, relations between the world's leading capitalist and first socialist state remained coldly formal until December 1941, when the United States joined Britain in providing Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union, reeling under Hitler's Operation Barbarossa.

Both my parents served during World War II -- Lt. Mary Laretta Kennedy in the Navy's SPARs, Lt. Robert Welter Daly in the Coast Guard, seconded to the Navy, doing Atlantic convoy duty. When in 1945 his ship, the USS Poughkeepsie was transferred to the Soviet Navy under Lend-Lease, my father began to teach himself Russian on the long voyage from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal, then across the Pacific to Vladivostok, where the warship was handed over. He was sufficiently startled by the Russians that he met that after the war, he did post-doctoral research at Yale before spending 1949-75 teaching Russian history at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I followed in my father's footsteps, receiving my doctorate in 1986 in Russian and Middle Eastern history from the University of London. And here I must make an important point, since as the Cold War revives, former respected academics such as Dr. Stephen Cohen are being smeared as Putin apologists for disagreeing with what is emerging as a neo-con "party line."

The coldest of the cold warriors during the Cold War were by and large academics, who had intimate knowledge of the terrible sufferings inflicted on not only the peoples of the former Russian empire but those in the Soviet postwar satrapies of Eastern and Central Europe. Few cheered longer and harder when the USSR (thankfully) peacefully imploded in December 1991.

But that knowledge also elicited sympathy for the suffering endured by these populations, not only from Communism but also the cataclysm Hitler inflicted on the Soviet Union, which killed one in every seven Soviet citizens -- not only Russians but Belorusians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Turkmen, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks. The war impacted virtually every family -- making the celebration over the 20th century's most evil and brutal political system a matter of pride for those who suffered, however they might have felt about the Soviet system itself.

This suffering is now not so much dismissed as simply ignored, while hawks in Washington and Brussels assiduously promote NATO expansion eastward into former Soviet republics, then criticize the Putin regime when they protest, or worse, push back.

So Russian actions in Ukraine are merely Russian revanchism, which must be countered by sanctions -- and expanded NATO membership. How better to slap Putin than to deny him Russia's wartime Allies' presence in Moscow?

Such a shabby suborning of history to modern political expediency is unworthy of the United States, a willful distortion of history, and a massive dishonor to the "greatest generation" -- from whatever nation they came forth from to crush fascism.

Dr. John C.K. Daly is a non-resident Senior Scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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