The other week, I drove from New York City to Kansas. With the events in Ukraine the trip became a probe into middle America’s outlook on war.
Yes, the accidental encounter with the man and woman in the street does not amount to an opinion poll and most of times it won’t reveal any deeper wisdoms. But what polling has sprouted on the Ukraine war does not yield a lot if clarity. A quick google search for “poll Ukraine war US” produces “most Americans want US to do more to stop Russia”, “Americans broadly support Ukraine no-fly zone” and “majority in US want diplomacy, not war”. And the endless stream of “expert” opinionating, op-ed-ing and punditery really just confirms what Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer described as “high degree of cluelessness” (that was on the day the Swiss government distanced itself from the Russia sanctions of the rest of the world, only to join a few days later). So, I take the liberty to generalize a little bit what I learned and got to hear in the last week of February on my road trip to the heartland, from New York City down to West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri to Kansas City. The upshot is that “middle America” does not show an appetite for waging war, that the political split between Trumpism and the rest includes the outlook on the situation in Ukraine and that the old tenet of “politics ends at the water’s edge” is no longer valid. Despite the assertions of President Biden, the United States are not of one mind what should be done if push comes to shove and the Zarevich in Moscow decides that he is somehow attacked by someone from NATO. This, as we know (and is way too simply put by TV-punditry), is the neuralgic point of the Ukraine situation. If the war spills over on NATO territory, “the west” will be implied, step by step up the escalation ladder. Exactly when this would be the case is a matter of definition, on both sides. President Biden’s remark about a possibly tolerable «minor incursion» (he talked about Russia’s in Ukraine) was met with scorn and ridicule, but he was right.
On the way to Matewan WV, site of the heaviest armed conflict between mine workers who tried to unionize and armed forces of both the state and the coal companies, I met two guys selling ammunition on the roadside. It was on the day Putin had recognized two breakaway regions of the Donbass as “sovereign” and I asked them whether they were afraid that a war would break out. “I hope not”, said the first one. “I don’t want no war”. And the second one added: “That’s what they want, war. Then Congress approves all the money they want, half of it ending in their pocket.” He most certainly did not use “they” in the way of the woke who avoid assigning gender identity. West Virginia is one of the “reddest” (Republican) states in America, Donald Trump won here twice with landslide margins. Over in Matewan, coffeeshop owner Keith Gibson, a walking encyclopedia both on the violent 19th century feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys and the massacres involving miners and their foes, said: Certainly, Putin is not afraid of Biden. This would not have happened under Trump. This is a phrase I heard several times. In Kansas City, Mary, a young optical shop attendant told me: I did not like Trump, you know. But this war – I think it would not have happened under Trump. Nor would Afghanistan have happened.”. Asked why she thought so, she said: “He was, like, you know he would have threatened them really, really strongly. They would have known more what they get into if they start a war.”
The idea that President Biden is “weak” and let the escalation of the Ukraine situation into a larger war happen, is trumpeted by Trump (he called Putin a “genius” for taking the Donbass) and nurtured from the Republican party. Former Vice-President Pence declared in a TV interview, that the outbreak of war confirmed “the historic truth that weakness arouses evil”. Biden’s going along with the German-Russian Nordstream 2 Pipeline (now shelved), the reopening of nuclear negotiations with Iran and the botched withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan were “signals” of weakness and “created the conditions that emboldened our adversaries in the world, including Putin and Russia, to do exactly what they’re doing today”, Pence said. He stated that “now, more than ever, we need to send a clear message of American strength.”
Problem is that the “clear message” thing is blurred, particularly on the right side of the American aisle. Take Tucker Carlson, the idiot savant on Fox, the Trump-toting TV giant and quite a number of right-wing little-leaguers in his wake. Until recently, their take was that the war has nothing to do with US interests and they lay the blame on the doorstep of Washington: “Biden’s war.” Only a few hours before Putin launched his military invasion, Carlson took a page from Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam-War playbook. I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong, no Vietcong ever called me nigger, Ali said when he refused to serve in the US military. Carlson, also a man who never wore a uniform, riffed it like this:
“Since the day Donald Trump became President, Democrats in Washington told you have a patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making Fentanyl?”
As a second, Carlson served up J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for Senate in Ohio who called the “obsession” with Ukraine a “major distraction from the actual problems we have here at home,” referring to the drug abuse. “The leading cause of death in this country among 18–45-year-olds is Mexican Fentanyl coming across our border” said Vance. “We would be better served if we declared the Mexican cartels a terrorist organization, focused on them and let Ukraine and Russia figure out what is Russia and Ukraine’s business”. Based on US style handling of “terrorism” in the past, it is safe to assume that one or the other incursion into Mexican territory would be ok with the Vances of this world if business could be taken care of that way.
Improbably enough, the mecca of the “peace through strength” school of thought is the middle of nowhere in America’s Midwest. On 5 Mar 1946, Winston Churchill gave the “Green Foundation lecture” at Westminster College in Fulton/MO, a not too significant institution of higher learning about twenty miles out of Missoru’s capital Jefferson City. In his “Sinews of Peace” speech Churchill coined the phrase of the “iron curtain” falling over Eastern Europe and asked “the English-speaking people” to steel themselves against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had begin to suppress all alternatives to communist government in the areas liberated by the Red Army.
When he was invited to speak at the unlikely venue, Churchill was a private man, not long ago ousted as Prime Minister by the Labour Party. The invitation came about because the College President had a friend in the White House, and Churchill accepted because President Truman added a handwritten note: This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. If you come, I will introduce you. So, Churchill and the President rode a train from Washington, D.C. to Missouri, 24 hours filled with Poker, banter, and Whisky drinking (when asked which customs he did not like about America, Churchill said “You stop drinking with your meals”). Both men knew that the speech would make waves. To the college, Churchill had announced “a political pronouncement of considerable importance”. And he delivered. “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory,” Churchill told his listeners. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Behind was “the Soviet sphere,” where “all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.” This was strong stuff at the time, for the end of World War II was not a year old and the Soviet Union still an ally. Churchill showed respect for “Marshal Stalin” and goodwill towards Russia. “We understand the Russian need to be secure on her western frontiers by the removal of all possibility of German aggression,” he said. “We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world.” But he warned that the Soviet Union wanted “the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines,” and this was to be prevented. Eyes-closing, sitting out or appeasement would not do, Churchill said: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” However, his military answer was not in arming the nations under threat. Churchill put his stock in international cooperation and the newly founded United Nations. He demanded “strict adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter” and “an international armed force” in the hands of the UN (a project, the Egyptian UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali attempted after the Cold War and was torpedoed by the Clinton Administration). At the core of all of it should be the “special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States” and – Churchill was an imperialist and an Anglo-Saxon racist – “the whole strength of the English-speaking world.” Based on this, a “grand pacification of Europe” and “a good understanding on all points with Russia” should be achieved.
Tough crafted as an attempt to hold the Soviet Union at bay but offering her a seat at the table, Churchill’s speech was considered an end point of the World War camaraderie between Moscow and its allies in the West and the beginning of a rivalry which quickly turned into a cold war. Major cold-war leaders came to speak in Fulton, where a “National Churchill Museum” was built with the stones of a bombed-out London church. Ronald Reagan spoke here, Margaret Thatcher, Gerald Ford, Gorge Bush (the Elder), Lech Walesa, Michail Gorbatschow. Churchills text became part of anti-communist scripture, with the focus less on the B-side of “good understanding on all points with Russia” part and hitting heavily on “strength”, all the way to the madness of “mutually assured destruction” by atomic bombs, manifold. Churchill became something like a housegod for those on the political right. He routinely came up in the top ten when conservative politicians were asked for role models.
Now? The war in Ukraine has split what calls itself “conservative” in America. By now most everybody condemns Russia’s invasion, and many support the embargoes and the arming of the resistance. But words are cheap, and the Republican support is laced with scorn for Biden who is attacked as “too weak” because he launched the punishment after Russia committed the crime and not before. And there is a deeper rift. Former President Donald Trump positioned himself from the beginning on the side of Putin (“genius”) followed by his former Secretary of State and the Tucker Carlsons. They have left the old cold-war-consensus and the even older American tenet, that political differences “stop at the water’s edge,” particularly in war times. There are some Republicans daring to openly distance themselves from Trump’s Putinism, and it remains to be seen to what extent the war weakens the former Caudillo’s grip on the Republican Party. But a new kind of isolationism is taking shape, maybe beyond the party lines and very much like the American isolationism of the 1930s which had a lot of understanding for the autocrats of the time, Hitler and Mussolini. The Trumpists profess admiration for Putin’s strongman style, they accept the Russian claim to Ukraine and its quasi-racist or ethno-imperialist legitimation (“protection” of Russian speakers), and they show an inclination to trace Ukraine’s trending towards Western Europe to manipulations out of Washington or subversion by “fascists.”
I visited the National Churchill Museum on the last February on Saturday, on the third day of the war. On duty is Timothy, a history major, and we started talking war. Don behind us joined the conversation. He is a second timer, coming back tp Fulton because he is worried about the war and looking for some guidance.
How do you view the war in Ukraine?
Timothy: This is too broad a question.
OK, What do you think of Donald Trump taking the side of Putin?
Timothy: This is also complicated. I try to separate the actual words from the underlying factors. See, we here in the US were told to fear Russians for a long time. This seeped into the population, my parents think like that, that’s what they heard during the cold war. Trump tried to break these concepts. He talked to Putin, talked to North Korea, and he was attacked for this.
But supporting Putin in this war goes a bit farther, does it not?
Timothy: We don’t know what Putin wants.
Don: we sure know what he wants. He wants to bring Ukraine under his power.
Are you afraid of the war.? It could escalate to the nuclear dimension .
Don: What I am really afraid of is that Russia and China will make some kind of an alliance. That would be the big one.
What should be done?
Don: Sanctions. And more support for the Ukrainians.
Timothy: What I do not want is American boots on Ukrainian soil. Twenty years of Afghanistan is enough. We need a break.
Don: I think it’s unbelievable that thirty years after the cold war we are back to fighting, making war, all what I thought we had left behind.
Timothy: There will always be fighting. Talking, eating, and fighting are the three main urges in human existence.
Timothy: Ok, four.
Inside, you can the lectern, the letters exchanged, the photos of the open motorcade making the way from Jefferson City to the college (no trace of what Truman said in introducing Churchill), and all 48 sheets of Churchill’s text, with stenographed edits. On a wall film excerpts of the speech are running.
Don turns away from the screen and says: “You gotta come here and see this. Listening to this is actually creeping you out.”
On the way to Kansas, I listen to the radio. My usual station of preference, National Public Radio, has grown unsupportable, an endless stream of gooey interviews of people in Kiev, Cherson, Lviv, by really, really sensitive hosts in Washington, D.C. gets to your nerves, not the answers which are short, precise, matter-of-fact, but the compassion of the hosts, all women, letting it all out and oozing through the loudspeaker like thick honey. I have AM 1060 on, “agro talk” about the commodity exchange in Chicago. Grain and animal prices are rattled down in breathtaking speed (“march hogs down, April hogs further down…”). A commodity trading consultant is interviewed. He notes that the Donbass area in Ukraine and Russia, the first battlefield, produces 20 percent of the global soy and 30 percent of the global wheat trade. Surely, the war will affect these markets. The consultant says that Egypt will be the first to feel pain, as most of its grain comes from the embattled area.
The last stop on my trip was the Front Ranch Bar in Kansas City. Two men loudly discussed the war, talking about the stock market, the effects on “the economy”, the perspective of a nuclear war. “I am not that worried about the nuclear dimension”, one of the men said. “What I’m concerned is that the Security Council might fall apart”.
I almost spilled my drink. If a guy in a bar in Kansas City talks about the UN Security Council, the world must have changed.