WASHINGTON — Most American presidents are reluctant warriors. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the onset of the Civil War in the passive voice in his Second Inaugural Address. (“And the war came.”) William McKinley “went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance” whether to take the Philippines and “uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Woodrow Wilson waited until the escalation of German submarine warfare before committing to World War I nearly three years after the conflict commenced in Europe. And Franklin Roosevelt did not enter World War II until two years after it began — and then not until Pearl Harbor.
Even seven decades after his death, FDR remains the template against whom succeeding presidents are measured; consider how often, for example, Barack Obama’s governing coalition is compared to Roosevelt’s, or how often bipartisan support of Social Security is compared to one-party support of Obamacare.
And so it is not necessary to delve very deeply into the very best account of Roosevelt at war, James MacGregor Burns’s important 1970 volume “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom,” to discover a classic account of a president in anguish about international conflict. The very first paragraph of Mr. Burns’s preface sets it out for all time:
“The proposition of this work is that Franklin D. Roosevelt as war leader was a deeply divided man — divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision, on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune.”
Mr. Burns went on to explain how these divisions also burdened his advisers and the American people, alternating between the “evangelical moods of idealism, sentimentality, and utopianism of one era and older traditions of national self-regard, protectiveness, and prudence of another.”
By now you surely have ascertained that this is a column about the terrible choices Mr. Obama faces as Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles and thrusts Ukraine — once known as the bread basket of Central Europe, critically defined as the largest country completely within the borders of Europe — into crisis.
And as this crisis deepens — the presence of so many Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders assures that the crisis deepens — Mr. Obama faces critics on the left and right.
But mostly he faces difficult questions and uncertain historical lessons. For this crisis contains parts of the characteristics of both world wars and parts of the characteristics of the Cold War but not enough of any of them to provide sure guideposts in an era where communication is faster than it was in 1920, 1938, 1956 and 1968.
That is because the natural antecedents are more facile than effective and the lessons are difficult to discern:
• The Sudetenland. The similarities with Hitler’s aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1938 are obvious: claims of repressed nationality and phony grievances in a land contiguous to the aggressor.
But for all his venality and brutality, and perhaps his greed and expansionism, if Mr. Putin harbors a genocidal impulse, it is far less apparent than that of Hitler, whose views on the elimination of Jews and others were clear to all as early as 1925, and apparent to the sharp-eyed as early as 1923.
Potential lesson: While Hitler sought Lebensraum, or “elbow room,” beyond his borders, Mr. Putin seeks to assert his primacy in an area regarded for more than a century as part of his country’s sphere of influence — a subtle but important difference.
• The rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. There are fateful and frightening similarities between those two uprisings behind the Iron Curtain and the determination of free Ukraine to retain its independence from Russia. But the outcomes in 1956 and 1968 are sobering, even bitter. The United States talked bravely about its support for the Budapest rebels and Radio Free Europe stirred the insurgents, but ultimately the United States failed to provide military support. The situation a dozen years later in Prague was little different.
Potential lesson: Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939 after the violation of the borders of Poland. But France shared a border with the aggressor state and Britain was within easy air-striking distance. (London is 570 miles from Berlin.)
The United States didn’t intervene in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in part because of the distance and in part because of worries by Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, that armed assistance would be ineffectual but provocative.
In his memoir, Eisenhower said he was haunted about what he might have done had Hungary “been accessible by sea or through the territory of allies who might have agreed to react positively to any attempt to help prevent the tragic fate of the Hungarian people,” adding: “Sending United States troops alone into Hungary through hostile or neutral territory would have involved us in general war.”
Note: Ukraine is 5,000 miles from the United States at a time when the nation is war-weary and chary of international involvement.
• Now, a surprise entry: The Russian Civil War. Few Americans know about the U.S. involvement in this conflict, which raged in the wake of World War I, principally in Russia’s east, from 1918 to 1920. But even generations later, Russians know that British, French and American forces intervened against the Bolshevik Reds and occupied Murmansk and Vladivostok.
These western nations, assisting the Whites, did not prevail and sowed generations-long resentment against the West that was papered over by the alliance between the Allies and Soviet Russia in World War II but that flares from time to time even now.
Potential lesson: Intervening in what can loosely be regarded as Russian affairs offers few rewards and many perils.
None of this analysis can be the least bit helpful or encouraging to Mr. Obama, who faces different but difficult circumstances. Nor will be Mr. Burns’s views of the origin of the decades-long struggle between NATO and the Warsaw Pact: “I have concluded that the decisive turn toward the Cold War came during [World War II], at the very time when Anglo-American-Soviet relations were, on the surface, almost euphoric — indeed, partly because they did seem euphoric.” On at least this we can agree: There is no euphoria here. Only bad options.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).