Author Archives: Lynne Olson

AMERICA FIRST: A BAD IDEA THEN — AND NOW

Donald Trump has made “America First” his clarion call. That phrase was the centerpiece of his campaign, and he doubled down on it in his inaugural address, declaring, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First.”

As Trump is well aware, America First was the name of a notorious organization that crusaded for America’s isolationism in World War II. In his channeling of that group, our new president aims to turn the United States into Fortress America, closing its borders, walling it off from the rest of the world, and focusing entirely on its own self-interest — as he defines it.

The U.S., of course, was hardly the only nation to put its own interest first in the years before World War II. For the sake of peace — its own peace — Great Britain stood quietly by as Hitler began his march to war. So did France. Smaller European countries, like Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, also refused to get involved, relying on their neutrality to keep them safe. Catastrophe was the result, as one by one, Hitler picked these countries off, leaving Britain as the only European nation holding out against the Nazis.

Belatedly, Britain and Europe did join forces during the war, thanks to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who invited the leaders and military forces of seven occupied European nations to take refuge in London in the summer of 1940. Together, the British and Europeans formed a partnership that ended up making a significant contribution to the Allied victory.

During their long stay in London, the exiled Europeans worked and socialized together in ways that would never have been possible before. The horror of their countries’ invasion and occupation had disabused them of the belief in every country for itself, and they began to explore the possibility of banding together to prevent such a conflagration from happening again. Those discussions planted the seeds for the postwar campaign for European unification — an extraordinary effort that helped lead to more than half a century of peace and prosperity for western Europe.

In a stunning reversal from its prewar isolationism, the United States went to great lengths in the late 1940s to help Europe achieve military and economic security. As a founding partner of NATO, we became a permanent force in maintaining peace in Europe; through the multi-billion-dollar Marshall Plan, we helped jump-start the economic recovery of a war-devastated continent.

If Trump had been around then, he would have labeled President Truman and his administration as fools for squandering America’s wealth on foreigners. In Trump’s view, foreign aid and alliances are a zero-sum game: they win, we lose. In fact, such military and economic support was indisputably in America’s self interest: by helping to stabilize Europe and other allies, our own security and economy were strengthened as well.

Now, under Trump, we are going back in time, “embarking,” as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has noted, “upon insularity and smallness.” Although I usually don’t agree with Krauthammer’s views, I think he’s spot on when he says, “Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.”

Queen Wilhelmina: “A Bold and Noble Woman”

Queen WilhelminaAs a little girl, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had taken to heart the declared aim of her English governess to make “a bold and noble woman out of you.” From childhood, Wilhelmina’s dream had been to perform “great deeds,” like those of her famed royal ancestors, including William of Orange, the king of Holland and England who had successfully defended both countries against the French in the late seventeenth century.

Before Hitler launched his May 1940 blitzkrieg against the Netherlands, he instructed the commander of his airborne troops to seize Wilhelmina immediately but to treat her with great respect, including presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. Unfortunately for the Fuhrer, his efforts to capture and then woo her were doomed from the start.

Although her mother, husband and son-in-law were all German, the feisty, outspoken Wilhelmina had for years denigrated Hitler and his followers as “those bandits” and declared that “anyone who threatens the interests of my people and country is my personal enemy.” After the German invasion, she wanted to remain in Holland and fight on with her troops but was persuaded by her fellow monarch, Britain’s George VI, to come to London.
Yet, as it happened, Wilhelmina did indeed fulfill her childhood dream of performing “great deeds” like her illustrious forbears. Hers, however, were achieved not on the battlefield but during her London exile. In a never-to-be repeated moment, a modern monarch of the Netherlands was given the chance to exercise real leadership, and Wilhelmina made the most of it.

In the course of the war, she stopped her defeatist government from capitulating to the Germans, kept her country in the fight, and inspired and united her people through her fiery anti-German broadcasts over the BBC. A joke made the rounds in Holland that Wilhelmina’s young granddaughters were forbidden to listen to her on the radio because she used such foul language when she talked about the Nazis.
Throughout the conflict, Wilhelmina had been deeply worried about her people’s reaction to her escape from the Netherlands in 1940. Her concern proved groundless: when she returned in 1945, the Dutch turned out by the tens of thousands to welcome her home. “War brought Queen Wilhelmina a sense of comradeship with her people that she had never known,” Time magazine wrote. “They respected her before. They loved her now.”

King Haakon Fights Back

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One of the many pleasures of writing Last Hope Island was exploring the lives of its large cast of characters, from royals and generals  to spies and saboteurs. I was particularly intrigued by the two kings — Haakon of Norway and Leopold of Belgium — and one queen — Wilhelmina of the Netherlands — who play major roles in the story.  I’ll write a bit about each of them on this blog, beginning with the intrepid king of Norway.

Shortly after midnight on April 9, 1940, King Haakon was asleep in his palace in Oslo when he was awakened by his aide-de-camp  and told that Germany had invaded Norway. Less than two days later, the 67-year-old king was on the run from Nazi troops ordered by Hitler to track him down and kill him. There were two causes for Hitler’s rage: Haakon’s refusal to capitulate to Germany and his call to Norwegians to resist the invaders with all their might.

Queen Wilhelmina and King Leopold would soon have to make a similar choice of whether to give in or to resist Germany, but I found Haakon’s story to be particularly fascinating. For one thing, he was not Norwegian by birth. He was the second son of the crown prince of Denmark and until he became king of Norway, had barely set foot in that country. His maternal grandfather happened to be the king of Sweden and Norway, and when the people of Norway declared their independence from Sweden in 1905, they announced they would welcome a junior member of the Swedish royal family as their king to lessen the chance of Sweden’s opposition to their rebellion. The obvious choice, Haakon (known as Carl then), strongly resisted the idea of taking the throne but finally gave in after strong pressure from his family and his father-in-law, King Edward VII of Britain.

Even though he grew to love Norway, he often felt like an outsider. Many Norwegian officials scorned the monarchy as a useless relic of a bygone age and believed it should have no influence in either foreign or domestic matters.  When Haakon warned about the threat of Hitler in the 1930s and urged the government to strengthen Norway’s shockingly weak defenses, the country’s political leaders paid him no attention.

All that changed, however, after the German invasion. When several government ministers argued that Norway’s situation  was hopeless and that the government should negotiate for peace, Haakon declared that he would abdicate if that happened. His unequivocal stand ended all talk of capitulation and prompted Hitler’s order for Haakon’s killing. For the next three weeks, the king and members of the government, in cars painted white for camouflage, fled north, into the wild, mountainous landscape of northern Norway. Ceaselessly tracking them, the Germans bombed and strafed every place they were thought to be. In one village, Haakon and his party narrowly escaped death when six German dive-bombers dropped incendiary bombs and raked the village with gunfire.

Norway, meanwhile, put up a fierce but hopeless fight against the flood of German troops pouring into the country.  On June 5, 1940, two months after the invasion began,  the king and government leaders made the agonizing decision to leave Norway and escape to Britain to continue the fight. It was the worst moment of Haakon’s life. Before boarding the British battleship sent by his nephew, King George VI, to evacuate him and his ministers, he  said in a broken whisper: “I am so afraid of the Norwegian people’s judgment.”

As events would soon prove, he had no reason to worry.