Examining the conversion of J.D. Vance from Trump critic to Trump disciple

July 18th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Eight years ago this month, when Donald Trump was campaigning for the presidency and flying around America on his private jet, the one with “Trump” written in huge, blue letters on its fuselage to make sure everyone knew just who was in it, J.D. Vance, a San Franciscan venture capitalist at the time, wrote a blistering critique for The Atlantic about the man who would ultimately win the 2016 election.

In his Atlantic article, Vance compared Trump and his populist message to the heroin that was killing many in “the small Ohio town where I grew up.”

To every complex problem, he promises a simple solution. He can bring jobs back simply by punishing offshoring companies into submission. As he told a New Hampshire crowd—folks all too familiar with the opioid scourge—he can cure the addiction epidemic by building a Mexican wall and keeping the cartels out. He will spare the United States from humiliation and military defeat with indiscriminate bombing. It doesn’t matter that no credible military leader has endorsed his plan. He never offers details for how these plans will work, because he can’t. Trump’s promises are the needle in America’s collective vein.

Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.

Publicly, he called the Republican presidential candidate an “idiot” and said he was “reprehensible.” Privately, he wrote an associate on Facebook in 2016, “I go back and forth between thinking Trump is a cynical asshole like Nixon who wouldn’t be that bad (and might even prove useful) or that he’s America’s Hitler.”

Back then, Vance believed (or, so he said) people would eventually realize what a charlatan-like con artist Trump really was. He didn’t know when that realization would come, but “[W]hen it does, I hope Americans cast their gaze to those with the most power to address so many of these problems: each other. And then, perhaps the nation will trade the quick high of “Make America Great Again” for real medicine.”

That James David Vance of 2016 left the stage in 2021 to be replaced by the new and improved J.D. Vance, Donald Trump’s Sycophant-in-Chief, his hand-picked vice-presidential nominee, foremost acolyte, and heir apparent. The new J.D. Vance hates the idea of America supporting Ukraine as it tries to save its country from Trump’s buddy, Vladimir Putin. The new J.D. Vance is even farther to the right than Trump himself, advocating for a total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest (but once Donald Trump said he supported continuing to allow access to the abortion pill mifepristone, that became Vance’s position, too). The new J.D. Vance downplays, even excuses, the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters. The new J.D. Vance turned from harsh critic to puppy-loving apostle. The new J.D. Vance is the polar opposite of the old J. D. Vance.

Vance says his turnaround to Trumpism wasn’t a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, but rather a process by which he came to see he was confusing Trump’s “style” for “substance.” “I allowed myself to focus so much on the stylistic element of Trump that I completely ignored the way in which he substantively was offering something very different on foreign policy, on trade, on immigration,” Vance told the New York Times in June.

His explanation seems a bit thin when one considers the 39-year-old Vance’s history. Born in 1984, he grew up in an impoverished home in southern Ohio. He joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq as a combat correspondent for six months in late 2005. Then he became a Marine Public Affairs specialist. Following his military service, and with help from the GI Bill, he got a BA from Ohio State University — in two years — after which he earned his law degree from Yale where he also won a citation-checking job on the Yale Law Journal. After a short stint working at a law firm, he founded a small venture capital firm in San Francisco and, on the side in 2016, wrote the mega-sales Hillbilly Elegy, which was made into a 2020 Netflix movie (25% on Rotten Tomatoes). In 2021, five years after condemning Donald Trump, he had his style versus substance moment, ran for the U.S. Senate, and, with Donald Trump’s endorsement, began representing the citizens of Ohio. Eighteen months later, fully joined to Trump’s hip, he’s the potential heartbeat away guy.

Does this sound like someone who would confuse style for substance?

I used to think the transformation of Elise Stefanik (R-NY) from moderate, level-headed, New York Representative to MAGA chanting, knee bending, ring kissing, Donald Trump devotee had won the gold medal in the Trump conversion Olympiad. Her prize was becoming third in the line for Republican leadership in the House, Liz Cheney’s old position before the MAGA Members threw her out for having the temerity the blame Trump for the January 6th Insurrection.

But not any more. J.D. Vance’s conversion from never-Trumper to ever-Trumper has eclipsed Stefanik’s metamorphosis by a long shot. If Trump wins in November, a national catastrophe looking more and more likely, the heartbeat away guy could become the most powerful person in the world.

And that, friends, is how politics works in 2024 America.

 

 

Project 2025: The wormhole to fascism

July 11th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Led by the right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation, Project 2025, the Presidential Transition Project has given the nation A Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, a massive, 922-page governmental, bureaucratic map laying out in stark, matter-of-fact terms how far-right conservatives plan to steer the next Republican administration. Known simply as Project 2025, the tome brings together 54 conservative organizations who all contributed to the mammoth undertaking, which has taken three years to write, and cost $22 million to produce.

Project 2025 is basically a collection of policy transition proposals from those 54 conservative organizations that outline how, should Trump win the November election, he can vastly remake the federal government to most effectively carry out an extremist agenda.

“It is not enough for conservatives to win elections,” the project’s website states. “If we are going to rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left, we need both a governing agenda and the right people in place, ready to carry this agenda out on day one of the next conservative administration. This is the goal of the 2025 Presidential Transition Project.”

Were Project 2025 to be implemented, we would see the beginnings of fascism in America. I know that sounds alarmist in the extreme, but it may actually be understating the threat.

There are five sections to Project 2025:

  • Taking back the reins of government;
  • The common defense;
  • The general welfare;
  • The economy; and,
  • Independent regulatory agencies.

Throughout these sections, the authors attack and, in many cases, eviscerate, every department of the federal government.

Although organized superbly and well-written throughout, Project 2025 is inaccurate in many areas, completely false in others, and downright scary from beginning to end.

For example, take the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA, a Department with a budget of $325 billion and an employee force of about 484 thousand full time staff, is the largest integrated health care system in America. It boasts 1,321 health care facilities, including 172 Hospital Medical Centers and 1,138 outpatient facilities of varying complexity, providing care to 9.1 million of the country’s 18 million Veterans.

As a veteran, I am interested in the VA, its mission, performance, and in how veterans feel about the care they receive. According to the VA Trust Report for 2023, nearly 90% of Veterans the VA treats trust the VA for their care (based on 560,000 surveys). Additionally, more than 79% of Veterans trust the VA overall, reflecting a 24% increase since 2016, the year before Donald Trump first occupied the White House. And, with the Pact Act of 2022, VA benefits have been expanded for Veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.

However, you’d never know about the VA’s success in treating all those veterans from reading Project 2025. Its author, Brooks D. Tucker, addresses what he perceives as the VA’s shortcomings at the end of Section 3, beginning on Page 641. Tucker, a retired lieutenant colonel and infantry officer in the Marine Corps, served as VA Acting Chief of Staff during most of the Trump Administration. With a degree in English from the University of Maryland, Tucker is also a graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

This Trump Administration alumnus is now Project 2025’s VA point man. In Project 2025, despite the VA Trust Report’s findings, Tucker maintains, without citing any evidence, that Veterans’ trust of the VA is woeful, care is sporadic and unreliable, and veterans do not trust the Department to deliver the high-quality care they need and deserve.

Tucker writes that the Trump Administration handed the Biden Administration an outstanding medical machine, which has mostly floundered since 2021. He writes:

There also is growing concern in Congress and the veteran community that the VA is poorly managing and in some cases disregarding provisions of the VA MISSION [Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks] Act of 2018 that codify broad access for veterans to non-VA health care providers. Efforts to expand disability benefits to large populations without adequate planning have caused an erosion of veterans’ trust in the VA enterprise.

The Mission Act of 2018 is the legislation that allows veterans to receive care in what’s called “community care” settings. That is, outside of the VA system. After its passage, the VA began setting up Community Care Networks (CCNs) of providers. There are now more than 300,000 of them. The Mission Act is popular among veterans, especially those living in areas where VA treatment is hard to access. It is so popular that a 2022 analysis by the National Institutes of Health found “wait times increased sharply at VA facilities that did and did not implement CCNs, regardless of rural/urban or Primary Care HPSA status, suggesting community care demand likely overwhelmed VA resources…”

The Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute fears the Mission Act is the first step on the road to privatizing the VA.

Brooks Tucker, the Heritage Foundation, and Project 2025 offer recommendations to improve what they consider the VA’s abysmal performance. At least two these two are concerning:

  • Rescind all delegations of authority promulgated by the VA under the prior
    Administration.
  • Transfer all career SES (Senior Executive Service) out of PA/PAS-designated positions (advisors to the President) on the first day and ensure political control of the VA.

These two recommendations run hand in glove with Project 2025’s goal of politicizing upper level governmental SES positions by placing them directly under the authority of the President. This is the infamous Schedule F, which could have terminated about 50,000 experienced governmental employees by removing their civil service protections, essentially turning them into at-will employees, thereby allowing the President to to quickly staff the positions with true loyalists. It was developed in the final weeks of the Trump Administration and rescinded in the first week of the Biden Administration. Project 2025 buries its massive reboot on page 80. Note the final two sentences:

Frustrated with these activities by top career executives, the Trump Administration issued Executive Order 1395724 to make career professionals in positions that are not normally subject to change as a result of a presidential transition but who discharge significant duties and exercise significant discretion in formulating and implementing executive branch policy and programs an exception to the competitive hiring rules and examinations for career positions under a new Schedule F. It ordered the Director of OPM and agency heads to set procedures to prepare lists of such confidential, policy-determining, policymaking, or policy-advocating positions and prepare procedures to create exceptions from civil service rules when careerists hold such positions, from which they can relocate back to the regular civil service after such service. The order was subsequently reversed by President Biden at the demand of the civil service associations and unions. It should be reinstated, but SES responsibility should come first.

I have only lightly touched the surface of Project 2025 in this letter. With 922 pages, it’s hard to do much more. In subsequent Letters I will dig deeper, beginning with Project 2025’s call for the abolition of the Department of Education.

Before closing, two final points are in order. First, Project 2025 is the work of 54 authors, most of whom had senior positions in the Trump Administration, many in the White House itself, such as Russ Vought, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Stephen Miller, Senior Advisor for Policy and Trump’s Director of Speechwriting. Second, fearing his former minions might have gone too far, last week Trump wrote on social media, “I know nothing about Project 2025. I have no idea who is behind it. I disagree with some of the things they’re saying and some of the things they’re saying are absolutely ridiculous and abysmal.”

Without knowing anything about Project 2025, he seems to know what’s in it. And, even though he and Stephen Miller were joined at the hip in their anti-immigrant war, he now seems to not know him.

Which leads me to offer this observation: Donald Trump is congenitally incapable of telling the truth. Even when faced with no reason to lie, he will lie anyway. That, coupled with his existential need for sycophantic loyalists, mirrors the Germany of the 1930s. History rhymes again.

It was Vladimir Lenin who said, “When one demands nothing but obedience, one will get nothing but obedient fools.”

A momentous day as we once again battle for the soul of our nation

July 4th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

The year was 1763. Britain had just defeated France in the Seven Years War, what we in America call the French and Indian War. During the war, the British national debt had nearly doubled, going from £72 million to more than £130 million. Its budget had risen tenfold from £14.5 million to £145 million.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the war and gave Britain triumph over France ceded to Britain all of Canada and the great trans-Allegheny plains in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, which were populated by indigenous native tribes and more than 8,000 French-Canadian Catholics. Not  completely expelled from the continent, the French still held Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi, from which the British feared they might stage a comeback.

To defend this territory the British thought they would need a force of about 10,000 soldiers. How to pay for this expense became the question of the day.

The logical answer was to raise revenue from the colonies, revenue that would contribute to their defense. How to raise the needed revenue? Taxation, of course.

Since 1732, when Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister, Britain had tried, often in vain, to tax the Americans as a means of providing revenue to the Crown. This came to a head in 1760 when Parliament Passed the Writs of Assistance, which were search warrants allowing tax collectors to enter any home, business or sailing ship to look for contraband. Because the British Navigation Act forbade the colonists from  manufacturing anything, “even a horseshoe nail,” they had taken to smuggling forbidden items out of the country to Caribbean and European ports, which diminished British tax revenue in the Americas to the paltry sum of £1,800 pounds in the late 1750s.

The Writs of Assistance were the first of many British attempts to suck money out of her American colonies. James Otis, a lawyer whom John Adams considered America’s finest orator, challenged the Writs in 1761. The trial was held at the Old Boston Statehouse. His argument lasted five hours, and during it he uttered the phrase which was to become the American slogan leading up to the Revolution: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Otis lost his case, but the Writs were ineffective. In subsequent years, Britain tried the Cider Tax, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and more, all of which led to greater and greater resentment throughout the colonies.

I bring this up to make two points.

First, and this may surprise you, from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 until the firing of “the shot heard round the world” in Lexington, Massachusetts, the British never sent a single Minister to America to investigate the profound discontent of the colonists. During that entire 12-year period, British leaders consumed themselves in factionalism and internal, petty squabbles, while America slipped away. The colonists had non-voting, non-speaking representatives in Parliament, but they were ignored, and the Crown had appointed governors in each of the colonies, but they had little power back in Britain.  No one of any serious standing ever crossed the sea to analyze anything. This pattern continued throughout the entirety of the Revolution. Britain sent generals, but never a statesman. And as a result, King George lost his colonies.

This was a vivid example of a great power, arguably the greatest in the world at the time, acting resolutely against its best interests.

Second, today, the 4th of July, we celebrate the day on which American colonists — British subjects all — told King George, his Parliament, and the rest of the world that they had had enough. They threw the gauntlet down, and, against tremendous odds, went to war to gain their freedom, to gain our freedom. And when it was all over, they created the world’s first lasting democracy, copied since then over and over again. It’s true that Grecian democracy in Athens and the Roman Republic attempted versions of democracy, but each was short-lived and each failed. Ours has not, at least, not yet.

This is not the natural way governments have operated over time. Since the Kings of Sumeria walked the earth millennia ago, autocracy has been the norm — until us. Since that fateful July 4th, 248 years ago today, we have repeatedly succeeded in turning back the autocratic aims of would-be demagogues and wanna-be fascists. We the people have never failed to reject their hate-filled lies, eventually sending all of them to sit on history’s trash heap. The battles have been hard, but Americans have always — eventually — chosen truth over lies, right over wrong.

We are now engaged in another battle for the soul of the nation. Our political leaders are in disarray and confused about the future, much as their forebears were when they gathered in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, out of which — eventually — came unity and the Declaration of Independence.

Regardless of how you feel about the America of today, I hope you’re able to celebrate the tremendous achievement of our nation’s founders when they struck out on a new, democratic course by pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to create a new nation, dedicated to freedom and equality.

For my part, tonight, as we always do on this momentous day, my family and I will sit down to watch the magnificent musical, 1776, with lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, which avoids myth to get at the truth. It is always inspiring.

Happy 4th of July!

Debate fallout: Does frailty and truth beat demagoguery and lies?

July 2nd, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Robert Anderson’s 1968 play I Never Sang For My Father tells the story of a widowed college professor who feels dominated by his aging father, yet still has regrets about his plan to leave him behind when he remarries and moves to California. He and his father have a tortured relationship.

When I was a young man in my 30s, a highly-respected community theatre company, in a moment of insanity, cast me to play the father, someone about 40 years older than I was at the time. For inspiration, I could have watched the movie starring Melvyn Douglas as the father (for which he won the 1971 Academy Award for best actor), but, instead, I watched my grandfather, who was the right age. I noticed his steps were slow and rather short. His arms swung little as he walked. He talked in a wispy sort of voice, not at all resonant. But, at the same time, he had all his wits and, a retired Chief of Police for a good sized city, he was also chairman of the local draft board where every Monday night he and a group of other older men would meet to determine the fate of younger men. It was the Vietnam era.

Last Thursday, as I watched Joe Biden take the stage in his debate with Donald Trump, I thought of my grandfather. Same short, slow-step  walk, same small arm swing, same wispy voice. But there was a difference — President Joe Biden seemed inarticulate, and even incoherent at times. He got better as the debate went on, but the first 45 minutes were catastrophic. Even painful.

About 15 feet away from him stood 78-year-old Donald Trump, a picture of brutal, domineering  vigor. The contrast was astonishing. After the debate, Biden’s team, the surrogates whose job it had been to polish the presidential apple after he had laid waste to I’ll-be-dictator-for-a-day Trump, left after 40 minutes. Trump’s team would still be there if CNN, the host of the debate, had let them.

It only took minutes after the debate for the world’s punditry to lower the boom. Nick Kristof scooped them all when his column went up four-and-a-half minutes after the two combatants left the stage. He resolutely urged Biden to drop out of the race — now. That started the avalanche. Two of Biden’s “friends,” Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, waxing eloquent about what a good and decent man Joe Biden is, and what a great president he’s been, called in no uncertain terms for him to fold his tent and leave the battle. That must have hurt. Then came the editorial boards of both the Washington Post and the New York Times. In fact, by early the next morning, it was impossible to find anyone in Pundit world who hadn’t written about what a disaster the night had been and hadn’t strongly urged Biden to quit the field.

Biden had such a rough night, his opponent, the “I will be your retribution” Maga Man in Chief, got off Scott free. This, despite his Gatling gun torrent of lies. With CNN and its moderators having decided their job was to ask questions, not challenge those lies, it took a full day before any fact checking actually happened, just long enough for nobody to notice.

But just for the record, Trump lied about the economy during his presidency, claiming he created “the best economy in history,” when in fact he created 1.2 million fewer new jobs in his first three years than Barack Obama did in his final three years. He lied about veterans care, saying he passed the Veterans Choice act — when that measure passed under Obama in 2014. Trump claimed crime is skyrocketing, murder in particular, when, in fact, crime peaked in Trump’s final year in the White House and has been declining ever since.  The homicide rate is at one of its lowest points in decades, and immigrants, the people Trump loves to demean as “vermin and rapists,” overall, are less prone to commit crimes than native-born U.S. citizens. And this is true all over America, especially in the big, blue cities Trump constantly excoriates. Trump insisted he had done nothing wrong in his handling of the violent Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. He even repeated his same old abortion lies, saying, “Everybody, without exception ― Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives ― everybody wanted” to overturn Roe v. Wade, and he invented an outrageous claim about Democrats pushing abortion “in the ninth month and even after birth.”  You would think something that outrageous would have gotten some kind of pushback from moderators Jake Tapper or Dana Bash. It did not.

If you read the transcript, and I realize few will, you see all of Biden’s problems, but, more important, you see his strengths and Trump’s craziness. The transcript provides a very different picture of Biden. Substantively, he ably and forcefully made the case that Trump should not be allowed back in the Oval Office.

If we examine the transcript, we see that Biden, despite his vocal problems and his occasional stammering, landed solid blows. The trouble is that his successes came in the second half of the debate when many had tuned out. But let’s look at it anyway.

On his age: “I spent half my career being criticized being the youngest person in politics. I was the second-youngest person ever elected to the United States Senate. And now I’m the oldest. This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent. I think that just look at the record. Look what I’ve done. Look how I’ve turned around the horrible situation he left me.”

On Trump’s character: “He is legally and morally compromised. He is a convicted felon, and had sex with an adult movie actress while his wife was pregnant. He accosted E. Jean Carroll in a department store dressing room. It is no answer that Hunter Biden is also a convicted felon. Hunter Biden is not running for president.”

On Trump’s place in history: “Historians rate Trump the worst president in our 230-year history.”

On NATO: “He wants to get out of NATO. You’re going to stay in NATO or you’re going to pull out of NATO? Our strength lies in our alliances.”

On the Big Lie: “You’re a whiner. When you lost the first time, you continued to appeal and appeal to courts all across the country. Not one single court in America said any of your claims had any merit, state or local, none … if you lose again, you can’t stand the loss. Something snapped in you when you lost the last time.”

There is so much more the transcript reveals that television never could, because we were so distracted by Biden’s apparent frailty.

If you do read the transcript, don’t stop there. Read, if you can stand it, the 900+ page Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s Presidential Transition Project, which lays out in stark relief what a second Trump presidency would be like. But if you like a bit of humor with your authoritarian dogma, watch John Oliver summarize the whole thing, and every word is true.

So far, Joe Biden has steadfastly refused to leave the race. He, his family, and his advisors have circled the wagons and seem determined to remain, fighting all the way to November. However, although polls have yet to show Biden’s debate debacle has affected voters’ views, he is still behind. And, lest we forget, there is another debate scheduled for Tuesday, 10 September. If Biden is still in the race, faltering there would probably guarantee a Trump win. The debate will be hosted by ABC. It would be nice if the moderators and ABC decided to hold the participants to a higher standard of truthfulness.

But that might be too much to ask.

 

June is a significant month in African American history. And it has to do with more than Juneteenth.

June 19th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Today is Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday on 17 June 2021 when President Joe Biden signed into law Juneteenth National Independence Day, making it the 12th federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates 19 June 1865, the date Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and delivered General Order No. 3 announcing the end of legalized slavery in Texas.

Although the war was over with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House two months earlier, Lee’s surrender was ignored in  Texas where many plantation owners refused to acknowledge it and vowed never to “release” their enslaved workers from bondage.

A week before Granger’s arrival, a brigade of the 25th Army Corps, comprised of more than 1,000 African-descendant soldiers, arrived in Galveston and captured the city. They chased the rebel government and the remaining Confederate soldiers into Mexico. The Black soldiers of the 25th Army Corps also spread the word about freedom to the enslaved Texas population.

When General Granger arrived with General Order No. 3, plantation owners were forced to read it to their enslaved men, women and children. Thus was born Juneteenth, which was first celebrated exactly one year after the final freeing of the last slaves in America. Fittingly, in 1980, Texas became the first state to promulgate Juneteenth as a state holiday. Eventually another forty-six followed, ultimately leading to Biden’s 2021 federal holiday promulgation.

I was reminded of this history this morning when I remembered that Donald Trump had, in an instance of impeccable timing, scheduled one of his wild and crazy rallies back in 2020 on Juneteenth. According to the Associated Press, Trump was unaware of Juneteenth, let alone the significance of it to the Black community, when he announced his rally’s date. Consequently, he did not anticipate the blowback he would get. But get it he did. Even from his own supporters.  In a rare instance of backing down, he moved the rally to the next day, the 20th, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Having insulted the Black community with the date, Trump added further insult with the place — Tulsa.

For in African American history, Tulsa has a special place. On another day in June, the 1st June day of 1921, Tulsa was the site of the worst race massacre in American history.

The day before, police had arrested a young black man by the name of Dick Rowland for allegedly attacking a white woman in a Tulsa elevator. Soon after Rowland’s arrest, rumors began to spread about a group of whites planning a lynching party. To protect Rowland, African American World War 1 veterans surrounded the jail holding him. There was a standoff with a mob of whites. Somebody fired a shot, and a firefight ensued. The much larger white mob pushed the black vets all the way to Greenwood, Tulsa’s Black section.

Greenwood was the wealthiest Black neighborhood in the country. Oil had made it rich. Racism was about to destroy it. Over the course of the day, 6,000 homes and businesses and 36 square city blocks were turned to ash. Pilots of two airplanes dropped turpentine bombs on buildings, instantly igniting them. Three hundred African Americans were slaughtered, most thrown into mass graves. Not a soul was ever prosecuted for anything. Then Tulsa, population 100,000, swept it all under the rug. Two generations later nobody knew a thing about it. It was never taught in schools, no books were written, no oral history passed down. It was as if it never happened.

Tulsa’s current mayor, G. T. Bynum, wants to take the rug up to see what’s hiding under it. He’s committed to investigating what happened and determining accountability. He thinks he’s found a couple of the mass graves and is having them excavated. The goal is to at least identify as many victims as possible through DNA analysis.

Bynum also formed the City of Tulsa 1921 Graves Investigation Office, convened experts to help locate, identify and connect people today with those who were lost more than 100 years ago, and established the 1921 Graves Press Room to report on the effort.

In 2021, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, President Biden, in an emotional speech in that city, said  he had “come to fill the silence” about one of the nation’s darkest — and long suppressed — moments of racial violence.

“Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try,” Biden said. “Only with truth can come healing.”

As far as I have been able to document, Donald Trump has yet to say one word in public about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. And what has he said about Juneteenth? Four years ago he denigrated it, saying, ‘nobody had ever heard of it’ before, despite it being celebrated by African Americans for 158 years. This year he has said nothing, although Janiyah Thomas, the Trump campaign’s director of Black media, did issue a statement commemorating the day, saying, “Today, we reflect on how far we [have] come as a nation and remember that light will always triumph over darkness. With President Trump’s leadership, our party will continue to advance the American dream for all people.”

If you believe that, I have some prime, Grade A land in Florida I would like to sell you — just as soon as the tide goes out.

 

Is the friendship between Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas a grave error in judgement, or abject corruption?

June 10th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

From 2017 through 2020, I chaired the Board of what became a $2 billion Massachusetts non-profit health care company (I retired at the end of 2020). I had been a founding Director in 2003. All the company’s revenue came from Medicare and Medicaid.

The Directors were not paid. We did it for the love of the work, which was helping poor, sick people become more healthy, thereby lowering their health care costs. The company did well by doing good.

At one of our meetings, I think it was the one where our CFO reported annual revenue of perhaps $1.6 billion, I suggested to the group that it might be time to begin paying Directors a modest stipend.

There was instant silence. Then our General Counsel said, “Tom, the optics. We can’t take that risk.”

She was right. Upon further discussion and thought, we all agreed that the last thing we needed was to see the name of  the wonderful organization we loved on the front page of the Boston Globe above the fold — in a bad light. Optics.

This stipend discussion came to mind as I thought about the relationship between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.

ProPublica, an investigative journalism enterprise, like a dog with a great big, juicy bone, has, over the last year, uncovered at least 38 instances over nearly three decades of Mr. Crow hosting luxury vacations and events for Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginni, who has distinguished herself as a far-right, extremist backer of Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” insurrectional movement.¹ Crow’s generosity includes trips aboard his Bombardier Global 5000 private jet and his 162-foot super-yacht, as well as stays at resorts most Americans could never afford. Consulting with travel experts, ProPublica estimated if the Thomas couple had to pay for all this themselves, it would cost into the millions. Justice Thomas’s Supreme Court salary is $285,400.

The problem the ProPublica journalists pointed out is that Justice Thomas never reported any of this on his yearly financial disclosure forms he and the other Justices are required to file.

And that is when the fecal matter hit the whirring instrument full on.

Thomas defended himself by saying he followed the Court’s rules in everything he reported. He sought guidance from the Court’s ethics officials. He did nothing wrong.

But last week things got worse when Justice Thomas revealed he had “inadvertently” neglected to report two other extravagant vacations with Mr. Crow.

The reactions to this continuing story have been what you’d expect. Thomas haters had more grist for their mills, and his allies cried foul. And, while I confess to deploring the Justice’s ideological bent, as well as his wife’s extremist leanings, and while to this day I continue to believe Anita Hill, I thought the story could not possibly be as binary as was being portrayed; there must be more there.

And the “there” I was looking for was all about Harlan Crow, the Dallas billionaire who was being made out to be a corrupting influence eating away at Supreme Court decisions. I began to read everything I could about him, and have now come to believe that, although the optics are terrible and two smart people made grave errors in judgement, Harlan Crow is anything but a corrupting influence. I write this because of who Harlan Crow is and has been for his seventy-plus years.

In a May, 2023, interview with The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood shortly after the ProPublica story broke, Crow kept insisting, “that he has little power over the American political scene.” Even with his fantastic wealth, he said he was incapable of preventing the rise of the politicians he most abhors, in particular Donald Trump and his sycophantic MAGA followers in Congress. Harlan Crow, although a decided conservative — old school, through and through — is a committed “Never Trumper,” who has proudly self-diagnosed himself with “Trump derangement syndrome.” He is also a backer of the “No Labels” movement, a quixotic, even foolhardy, attempt to find someone, anyone politically center-right, who could run against both Biden and Trump and who could garner support across party lines. He also supports legal access to abortion.

In an email to Wood, Crow wrote, “Trump is a man without any principles at all. Bernie Sanders has principles; I just think they’re wrong. Trump doesn’t have any.”

And Crow is a strong supporter of U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine. “The Ukrainians’ courage is unique in recent history,” he wrote to Wood. “I believe they’ve earned the right to their own independence.”

Harlan Crow naively believes that a rich man and a Supreme Court justice can just be friends — with, he admits, some benefits only the super wealthy can offer. He sees nothing wrong with that.

Still, he admits his friendship with Thomas is indeed “ironic.” Crow grew up amid a family full of silver spoons. Crow’s father, Trammell, who died in 2009, was at one point described in the press as the largest private landowner in the United States. Clarence Thomas did not see an indoor toilet until late in childhood. Crow believes Thomas’s rise from poverty highly admirable and considers him “a person of the highest character.”

The two most important words in Harlan Crow’s personal lexicon are character and integrity. He staunchly maintains, “I have never, nor would I ever, think about talking about matters that relate to the judiciary with Justice Clarence Thomas. It would be wrong. From my point of view, that is off limits. He and I don’t go there.”

In an interview with Rose Hasham of the Harvard Business School’s Club of Dallas, Rasham asked him a series of rapid-fire questions she had prepared. Here are some of them with Crow’s instant answers.

RH: What do you hope your kids learn from you?
HC: Integrity

RH: What’s something your kids have taught you?
HC: Patience

RH: What would your wife say are your top three strengths?
HC: Creativity, patience, and candor

RH: What is the best real-estate advice that you have received?
HC: Share your success.

RH: What is the secret to making good deals in business?
HC: Make sure the other guy wins.

I come away from this affair thinking two things. First, Harlan Crow, who calls himself “a regular guy,” is a decent, patriotic man of good character who was just looking for a friend, albeit with all the delusional naivete a supremely wealthy person can hold. Second, there is fault here, great fault, and it rests with Clarence Thomas, who, as a Supreme Court Justice, should have realized long ago how this would eventually unfold. Perhaps their relationship, begun more than twenty years ago, began innocently, and perhaps it still is, but, as our General Counsel reminded me when I was about to stray from the path of light, “It’s the optics, Tom. The optics.”

____________________

¹ On March 24th, the Washington Post and CBS News revealed they had obtained copies of twenty-nine text messages between Ginni Thomas and Mark Meadows, the Trump White House chief of staff, in which she militated relentlessly for invalidating the results of the Presidential election, which she described as an “obvious fraud.”

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump: A match made in hell.

June 7th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

James Madison and America’s other Founding Fathers were educated elites who were deeply schooled in the ancient Greek and Roman concept of virtue.

Today, virtue embodies  the idea of personal morality. For the Founders this was not the case. To them, virtue was a critical concept that meant serving the public good. They derived this from their study of the Romans and Greeks as sifted through the lens of the eighteenth century’s Scottish Enlightenment, with a healthy dose of Baron de Montesquieu folded in. At Harvard, William & Mary, and Princeton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Madison studied Tacitus, Cicero and even Xenophon for guidance as they developed into the leaders they became. Each of them understood that virtue was a desired end to everything they did publicly. It was the greatest good for the greatest number. It became their North Star.

The same held true for George Washington, who never had the education the others had, but through experience and the thoughtful analysis of his own character, became the leader Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, for all their education, could never be. It was Washington who, at the age of 14, copied out a small tract of rules to live by, signed his name to it, and called it Rules of Civility. Washington embodied virtue without having had it drilled into him at a college he never attended.

But the Founders recognized that the democratic republic they were creating was susceptible to corrupt ideas and people. That realization is the basis for their fervent belief that for government to function as they had envisioned, they must create a series of checks and balances.

In Federalist 51, James Madison, looking through a glass darkly into the future, emphasized how checks and balances were crucial to offset the self-interest of factions. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he wrote. He concluded that thought with one of his wiser observations, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Which brings us to 2024, Donald Trump’s felony conviction in New York, his nonetheless adoring MAGA cult, Washington’s sycophantic Republican politicians, and the nation’s greatest factional split since the Civil War.

Yet, the Donald Trump the world sees today, the Donald Trump schooled by his profiteering New York City real estate mogul father, the Donald Trump who became the megalomaniacal, narcissistic serial liar, would never have happened were it not for Roy Cohn.

Cohn, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s brilliant hatchet man, was supposed to have been washed up in 1954, after he and the witch-hunting McCarthy imploded in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy drank himself to death in the following two years, and Cohn fled Washington a pariah, his brief career in government service in ruins.

But over the next three decades Cohn reinvented himself as a power broker after returning to his hometown of New York, and he would remain so right up until disbarment and AIDS finally leveled him in 1986.

How did that resurrection happen? It’s true that the right-wing resurgence of the 1980s gave him a late-in-life boost, and his influence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan gained him access to the experimental medication AZT, which was denied most everyone else. As Frank Rich suggested in 2017, Cohn “may have been the only AIDS patient the Reagan White House lifted a finger to help.” But the question of how he both survived and flourished as a Manhattan eminence in the quarter-century between McCarthy and Reagan is curious, indeed.

And Donald Trump was his prime, A#1 protégée.

Cohn thrived throughout a New York second act rife with indictments and scandals that included accusations of multiple bank and securities-law violations, perennial tax evasion, bribery, extortion, and theft. Donald Trump also flourished for decades despite being a shameless lawbreaker, tax evader, liar, racist, bankruptcy aficionado, and hypocrite notorious for his mob connections, transactional sexual promiscuity, and utter disregard for rules, scruples, and morals. Indeed, Trump triumphed despite having all of Cohn’s debits, wartime draft dodging included, but none of his assets — legal cunning, erudition, a sense of humor, brainpower, and loyalty.

What Cohn taught Trump (who didn’t need much teaching) was that raw personal power could be leveraged for his own enrichment, privilege, and celebrity. At Cohn’s urging, Trump sought and won favors from some of the older, more powerful New York Democrats and Republicans who were essential to rising in a “New York City developers world.” With Cohn’s imprimatur, Trump gained easy access to the ostensibly nonpartisan press Establishment as well. Decades later, these same eminences would enjoy Trump’s hospitality at Mar-a-Lago.

And Cohn it was who got Barbara Walters, the journalistic celebrity other journalists called Cohn’s “platonic fiancé,” to put together in 1979 a promotional profile of his shiny young protégé for ABC’s 60 Minutes rival 20/20. Titled “The Man Who Has Everything,” it was, in the Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio’s description, “wealth pornography.” Among other superlatives, it floated the dubious claim (for the 1970s) that “the Trumps are treated like American royalty.”

The truly sad thing to contemplate is that back then none of New York’s elites ever intervened to block or seriously challenge Trump’s path to power. They had plenty of provocation and opportunities to do so. Trump practiced bigotry on a grand scale, was a world-class liar, and ripped off customers, investors, and the city itself. Yet for many among New York’s upper register, there was no horror he could commit that would merit his excommunication. As with Cohn before him, the more outrageously and reprehensibly Trump behaved, the more the top rungs of society were titillated by him. Sound familiar?

So, here we are today. After decades of otherwise decent people doing nothing to stop the Donald Trump runaway train, the nation faces the prospect of Roy Cohn’s mentee, his unguided political missile, blowing to smithereens James Madison’s concept of ambition counteracting ambition. For all his brilliance, Madison, whose entire life was guided by the “virtue” of serving the public good, never saw this coming.

The sad fact is that the cancer now consuming Washington and the nation was incubated not in that city’s notorious “swamp” but in the loftiest Zip Codes of New York City.

 

No one in Israel’s government has a decent vision for “the day after”

May 23rd, 2024 by Tom Lynch

During the first few days after the Hamas 10/7 massacre with its raping, pillaging, plundering, and hostage taking, the world (for the most part) rallied to Israel’s cause, just as it did to ours in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

No one knew what to do. No one knew what the Israelis would do. But everyone knew Israel had to do something in response to the worst day for the Jews of the world since the Holocaust when Auschwitz had patented industrialized murder.

The far right Netanyahu government, deciding its mission was to destroy Hamas down to the last soldier, attempted to do just that. Now, Gaza has been reduced to a rubble reminiscent of the apocalyptic bombing of Dresden and more than 35,000 innocent civilians have been killed; parts of the Gazan Strip are in deep famine, with about 1.1 million people starving, according to the IPC classification; much of the world has turned on Israel; Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has asked ICC judges for arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant and high ranking Hamas leaders for crimes against humanity (which the Biden administration decried as “false equivalence”); and Hamas still lives and continues to hold Israeli hostages — a condition that has cracked wide the once unified Israeli public opinion¹. And I won’t even mention the college campus protests that rocked the U.S. over the last few months.

The entire world wants to know when and how this will end — and what will happen on what the world now calls “the day after?”

Clearly, since the massacre of 7 October, the vast majority of Gazans, who had nothing to do with the barbaric slaughter, have been walking through fields of blood. Israelis, initially united in their quest to destroy Hamas, are now not so sure. Seven months following the slaughter, Israel’s IDF says it has eradicated 75% of Hamas’s military capability, but that four battalions remain in Rafah. In traditional warfare, this would constitute victory. But not here. According to David Ignatius, writing this week in the Washington Post, “Hamas appears to have decided not to stand and fight but instead to melt into the population as a guerrilla force. This will be a continuing headache for Israel…”

And then, there are those hostages.

During the attack of 7 October, Hamas took 252 hostages who hailed from more than 40 countries including Israel, America, Thailand, the Philippines, and Uruguay. The following month, the two sides struck a temporary ceasefire agreement that saw 105 civilian hostages released from Hamas captivity, including 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals, and one Filipino. Now, six months later, 125 are still unaccounted for, mostly Israelis,  and 37 are presumed dead, but Israeli and American officials estimate privately that the number of dead hostages could be much higher.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition treat the hostages as unavoidable collateral damage, much like the tens of thousands of Gazan dead.

It is obvious that this is a situation in dire need of a solution, but is there one?

Writing in the Washington Post on 15 May, Loveday Morris, Shira Rubin and Hazem Balousha described a major flaw in Israel’s battle plans:

It was last December when the Israeli military declared victory in the Jabalya refugee camp, saying it had broken Hamas’s grip on its traditional stronghold in the northern Gaza Strip.

“Jabalya is not the Jabalya it used to be,” Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, commander of Division 162, said at the time, adding that “hundreds of terrorists” had been killed and 500 suspects arrested.

Five months later, Israeli forces are back in Jabalya. Ground troops are pushing into the densely packed camp, backed by artillery and airstrikes — one in a string of recent “re-clearing” operations launched by the Israel Defense Forces against Hamas, whose fighters have rapidly regrouped in areas vacated by the IDF.

As one U.S. official told the Post’s Max Boot, “The Israelis are showing how not to do counterinsurgency.”

Someone who does know how to do counterinsurgency is General David Petraeus (now retired), who implemented “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

The surge was highly successful. It worked, because Petaeus and his team changed strategy, which had centered on fighting insurgents and then retiring to a base camp. This was not working. Max Boot reached out to Petraeus about Israel’s strategy, which has pretty much paralleled that of the U.S.’s unsuccessful efforts prior to the surge. Petaeus replied via email, which Boot quoted in his column of 13 May. According to Petraeus, Gaza is:

“vastly more challenging than Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah and Mosul combined, but the correct approach is a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign that features the traditional tasks of Clear (areas of Hamas terrorists), Hold (keep the civilians secure from Hamas reinfiltration), and Build (provide ample humanitarian assistance, restore the basic services to the people, and then rebuild the many damaged and destroyed areas so that the population can return).”

Petraeus believes Israel’s IDF is fine at “clearing,” but absent when it comes to “holding” and “building.”

Israel seems to have no plans at all for rebuilding bombed out Gaza, which is now unlivable. Without such plans, its seven month war may have killed a few thousand Hamas militants and destroyed many miles of Hamas’s tunnels, but it has left a bruised and battered Gazan population out of which will grow new and improved terrorists even more dangerous than the ones they’ll replace. Israel’s current government is totally unequipped to prevent this from happening.

Last week, according to reporter Bar Peleg of Haaretz, right wing Israeli settlers in the West Bank wounded a Palestinian truck driver by hitting him in the head with a stone, believing that his truck, along with another, was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Footage from the scene indicates that the activists stopped the two trucks on Wednesday near the Givat Asaf settlement, unloaded their cargo, deflated their tires, and set them on fire. They left the stoned driver lying in the middle of the road. Police arrived and arrested nobody. IDF soldiers, who have no policing authority in the West Bank and must defer to settler police, tried to give aid to the drivers, but were later attacked by the settlers. The settlers are backed by far right ministers in the government, who are settlers themselves.

These are the people Benjamin Netanyahu has hitched his wagon to.

Right now, the only thing we know for sure about the plan for the day after is that there isn’t one.

____________________

From The Guardian, 13 May: In an Israeli opinion poll published on Channel 11, a public broadcaster, a week before the invasion of Rafah, 47% of those asked supported an end to the war in Gaza in return for the release of the Israeli hostages, while only 32% were against. Even after the Israeli war cabinet unanimously rejected Hamas’s offer – the mainstream media described Hamas’s acceptance of the deal as fraudulent – 41% of those surveyed wanted Israel to accept it, while 44% were against it.

What do college students really think of the war in Gaza and the campus protests?

May 8th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

They’re ambivalent.

College protests against Israel’s war in Gaza are dominating headlines. But only a sliver of students are participating or view it as a top issue, according to a new Generation Lab representative survey of 1,250 college students.

Generation Lab is a data intelligence company studying and measuring attitudes and views of American youth on current issues and policies, such as key social, political, economic, and health trends. The firm works with NBC News, the New York Times, and other leading media organizations.

In the survey released this week, the firm found that college students, on the whole, rank the war in Gaza low on a list of serious issues they care about, with only 13% saying the issue is important to them.

Digging deeper, the survey reveals only a small minority (8%) of them have participated in either side of the protests.

Moreover, three times as many college students blame Hamas for the current situation in Gaza than they do President Biden. Specifically, 34% blame Hamas, while 19% blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 12% blame the Israeli people, and 12% blame Biden.

The survey also found an overwhelming majority (81%) of students support holding protesters accountable, agreeing with the notion that those who destroyed property or vandalized or illegally occupied buildings should be held responsible by their university.

A majority (67%) of the surveyed students also say occupying campus buildings is unacceptable and 58% agree it’s unacceptable to refuse a university’s order to disperse.

The student demonstrations—which have included on-campus encampments and building takeovers—have been met with suspensions, expulsions, arrests, police force and canceled commencement ceremonies.

So far, Columbia University and the University of Southern California have cancelled graduation commencement exercises. A protester disrupted graduation ceremonies at Northeastern University, but the event went on, anyway.

This senior class is the same class that lost its high school graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many will once again get their college diploma by mail, although Columbia plans on holding small ceremonies at each of its four undergraduate schools and 16 graduate schools.

CNN interviewed one of the protesters, a senior, at USC. She was asked about the commencement cancellation, and replied, “A cancelled commencement is a small price to pay for Palestinian freedom.” Given that the Generation Lab survey found the war in Gaza ranked 9th on a list of important issues to college students, this comment seems remarkably hubristic.

The Generation Lab survey has a margin of error is +/- 2.7 percentage points.

Presented without (much) comment

On NBC’s Meet The Press this past Sunday, host Kristen Welker tried seven times to get Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) to say if he would accept the results of the upcoming election if Donald Trump lost. Scott, who is believed to be doing all in his power to become Trump’s running mate and Chief Sycophant, refused to do so. I give Welker points for a good try.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators nearly ended the war three months after it began. This is the story of their failure.

May 3rd, 2024 by Tom Lynch

On 16 April, writing in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko detailed a series of talks between Ukrainian and Russian representatives that took place between early March and late May, 2022, aimed at creating an agreement to end the fighting that had begun with Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The talks involved concessions on both sides.

The world watched what it thought were pro forma talks that were never going to go anywhere. What the world did not know was how close the negotiators came to a deal that would have ended the fighting.

Charap is Distinguished Chair in Russia and Eurasia Policy and a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. Radchenko is Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Europe. These are not lightweights.

Charap and Radchenko argue that a war Putin expected to be a cakewalk was in its first two months proving anything but, especially when its troops were routed on their way to Kyiv and were forced to beat a hasty withdrawal, a withdrawal that did not allow them time to cover up the atrocities they had committed in Bucha and Irpin. Nevertheless, even before that, in mid-March, Putin suddenly became open to talking. He appeared to have abandoned his initial idea of outright regime change in favor of taking whatever he could get through diplomatic negotiation.

At the beginning of the talks, Russia’s two major demands were, first, Ukraine must agree never to join NATO, and, second, it must significantly reduce the size and capability of its armed forces. According to the Ukrainian negotiators, in addition to not being able to defend itself, agreeing to the Russian demands amounted to nothing more than Ukrainian capitulation. For their part, the Ukrainian negotiators insisted on a Russian withdrawal to pre-invasion lines, but showed openness on many other key issues, such as, through negotiations over the next fifteen years resolving the problem of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But things changed on 31 March when Ukrainian troops arrived in Bucha and found the  mutilated, tortured, raped, and executed bodies of about 450 civilians lying in streets and mass graves. President Zelenskyy went to see the carnage himself, the first time he had left Kyiv since the invasion. His revulsion and anger were palpable, and his position hardened.

But the two sides continued talking.

The authors write:

By the end of March 2022, a series of in-person meetings in Belarus and Turkey and virtual engagements over video conference had produced the so-called Istanbul Communiqué, which described a framework for a settlement. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators then began working on the text of a treaty, making substantial progress toward an agreement. But in May, the talks broke off. The war raged on and has since cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides.

The Istanbul Communiqué of 29 March 2022 included ten proposals that Charap and Radchenko write, “would have ended the war and provided Ukraine with multilateral security guarantees, paving the way to its permanent neutrality and, down the road, its membership in the EU.”

Why did the talks fail and, if they had not, what would have been the result?

Given the Ukrainian army’s success in forcing the Russian army’s retreat from around Kyiv and the horrid discoveries in Bucha and Irpin, it would be easy to lay the failure of negotiations there, and they certainly had a great deal to do with it. But it’s more complicated than that, as proven by the two sides continuing to talk for nearly another two months.

Charap and Radchenko list a number of reasons, all logical, for the collapse of the talks:

  1. Ukraine’s early battlefield victories in defeating the Russian Army’s attempt to capture Kyiv, which gave Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy hope for actually winning the war;
  2. The 31 March discovery of Russian atrocities, war crimes really, in Bucha and Irpin that further hardened Ukrainian resolve;
  3. A provision of the agreement requiring Russia to agree to Ukraine’s entrance into the European Union in exchange for Ukraine’s agreement to remain neutral and never join NATO, a provision which Ukraine’s western allies refused to agree to;
  4. The western allies commitment at the time to do all in their power to bring Russia down, both militarily on the battlefield and economically through increasingly onerous sanctions, a position they pressed on President Zelenskyy (who did not need a lot of pressing); and,
  5. The requirement that Ukraine’s western allies guarantee Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, which would have created new commitments for the U.S. and its allies to ensure Ukraine’s security in the event of another Russian attack sometime in the future.

It is that last point, the one about guaranteeing Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, that concerns me. This happened once before, and the guarantee led to and precipitated World War I.

Let me explain by taking you back to the Netherlands, to Belgium, to the 1831 Conference of London, to the 1839 Treaty of London, and, 75 years later, to August 1914.

The Netherlands controlled Belgium from 1815 to 1830. In July of 1830, the Belgians revolted and proclaimed their country an independent kingdom. Fighting, of course, ensued. In 1831 at the Conference of London the major Europeans countries recognized Belgium’s de facto independence. For the rest of the 1830s, the Netherlands and Belgium were sporadically at war.

In 1939, in the Treaty of London, the Five Great Powers — Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom — officially recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium and also pledged to guarantee Belgium’s permanent neutrality. This meant that if any country, including the five Treaty signers, violated Belgium neutrality, the other co-signatories would come to Belgium’s aid.

Despite the Treaty of London, Germany declared war on France and, taking the shortest route, invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914 on its way to Paris (which its armies never reached, just as Putin’s Blitzkrieg never reached Kyiv). That evening, Britain declared war on Germany, because it had pledged to do so 75 years earlier by signing the Treaty of London. Informed by the British ambassador that Britain would go to war with Germany over the latter’s violation of Belgian neutrality as guaranteed by the Treaty of London, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg said he could not believe Britain would do this over a mere “scrap of paper.” But that scrap of paper is what turned a German rematch of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, into World War I, a war which killed an estimated 70–85 million people, about 40 million of whom were civilians.

The pledge of “guaranteed neutrality” is a wickedly heavy responsibility. In this case it would elevate Ukraine to the same standing as NATO countries all governed by NATO’s Article 5, which states that an armed attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states. Essentially, Ukraine, without being a member of NATO, would have the same protection as every NATO member, the same protection Belgium had in 1914.

Would that be in the best interests of the wider international community? I think it would, but would such a deal deter Putin from further aggression?

Western leaders didn’t seem to think it would. Yaroslav Trofimov, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reported that on 9 April 2022, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned up in Kyiv —the first foreign leader to visit after the Russian withdrawal from the capital. He reportedly told President Zelensky that he thought “any deal with Putin was going to be pretty sordid.” Any deal, he recalled saying, “would be some victory for him: if you give him anything, he’ll just keep it, bank it, and then prepare for his next assault.”

I also have a hard time imagining what would happen if, at some distant time, a future Russian leader even more rapacious and power hungry than Vladimir Putin — if that’s possible — were to come to power craving to wrestle Ukraine back into the bosom of mother Russia. In that case, the world might find itself thrown right back to 1914 all over again.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky’s position, which hasn’t changed since he walked through what he called the “genocide” in Bucha and Irpin, is to demand a full withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian lands conquered since 2014, including Crimea, and the prosecution of Russian officials suspected of war crimes.

Considering all of this complexity, when this war ends, and some day it will, if there is to be any negotiated settlement, the signatories would do well to remember the 1839 Treaty of London and its, at the time, unforeseen and tragic, consequences.