Many events are labeled historic or unprecedented. Last evening’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — while not unprecedented — was truly historic. If you haven’t watched it, I encourage you to take the half-hour required to hear it for yourself (beginning at the 35-minute mark).
Historians are comparing it to Churchill’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress on December 26, 1941, shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And the parallels are similar and worth noting. We do not have troops on the ground in Ukraine, as we did in WWII. Yet the building and strengthening of our alliance was very much on Zelenskyy’s mind, as it was on Churchill’s some 81 years ago.
Zelenskyy spoke of America and Ukraine as allies in a global fight against anti-democratic forces. (“Our two nations are allies in the battle.”) He said that the struggle “will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live. Will it be a democracy of Ukrainians and Americans?” And Zelenskyy cautioned that America should “not make the mistake of believing that an ocean will protect America because the world is too interconnected to allow anyone to feel safe.”Robert E. Hubbell
At the end of Churchill’s half-hour speech, notes The Guardian‘s David Smith, “the chief justice gave a “V” for victory sign and one reporter observed: ‘The effect was instantaneous, electric. The cheers swelled into a roar.'”
Cheers turned to roars again for Zelenskyy when, in a nod to Churchill, he declared: “Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender.”
To put Zelenskyy’s address — and the debt we owe to Ukraine for standing up to Russian aggression — in the proper context, I recommend historian Timothy Snyder‘s piece from December 11th entitled Gratitude to Ukraine. Here’s the opening, but I encourage you to read the entire essay:
Debts are awkward, especially debts of gratitude. When we owe others too much, we can find it hard to express our appreciation. If we are not reflective, we might minimize our debt, or simply forget it. If we think highly of ourselves, we might ignore a debt to someone we regard as less important. In the worst case, we can resent the people who have helped us, and portray them in a negative light, just to avoid the feeling that we, too, are vulnerable people who sometimes need a helping hand.
Americans (and many others) owe Ukrainians a huge debt of gratitude for their resistance to Russian aggression. For some mixture of reasons, we have difficulty acknowledging this. To do so, we have to find the words. Seven that might help are: security, freedom, democracy, courage, pluralism, perseverance, and generosity.
A key point for Snyder revolves around how the bravery of Zelenskyy and Ukraine has produced greater security for Americans and the rest of the world.
Perhaps the most important and the most unacknowledged debt is security. Ukrainian resistance to Russia has vastly reduced the chances of major armed conflict elsewhere, and thus significantly reduced the chances of a nuclear war.
For American policymakers and security analysts, it is literally dumbfounding that another country can do so much for our own security, using methods that we ourselves could not have employed. Ukraine has reduced the risk of war with Russia from a posture of simple delf-defense. Ukraine has reduced the threat of a war with China without confronting China, and indeed while pursuing good relations with China. None of that was available to Americans. And yet the consequence is greater security for Americans.
Zelenskyy also invoked American history in his speech, most effectively (if somewhat obscurely for most history-deficient Americans) by comparing the early battlefield success of Ukraine to the Battle of Saratoga, a decisive victory for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. He also quoted the words of President Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, saying that Ukraine would “fight through to absolute victory.” He referenced the Battle of the Bulge and said that “Just as brave American soldiers fought Hitler’s forces during Christmas 1944, so Ukrainian troops are fighting Russia this Christmas.”
Then President Zelenskyy added this poignant reminder of the hardships those who stand up for democracy face in generation after generation.
In two days, we will celebrate Christmas by candlelight. Millions will have no heating or running water as a result of missiles and drone attacks on infrastructure. We do not complain; we do not judge or compare whose life is easier; your well-being is the product of your many struggles and victories. We will go through our war with dignity and success.
Perhaps, most importantly, President Zelenskyy reminded Americans of who we say we are, what that means to the world, and why we must continue fighting for democracy. It was a historic speech that saw both Republican and Democratic members of Congress — united in common purpose — stand up together for dozens of ovations and cheers.
The exceptions on the floor of the House were Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert. Both remained seated, “smirking and whispering while their colleagues applauded.” And that loudest mouthpiece of Russian propaganda — Putin’s useful idiot Tucker Carlson — joined other crazed right-wing pundits in losing it over Zelenskky’s visit, in part because he “wasn’t wearing a suit” and “looked like a strip club manager” (leading one pundit to ask, “How does Tucker Carlson know what a strip club manager wears?”).
Heaven forbid that America stand for democracy, when there’s grift to be made by oligarchs and their friends.
I liked Jacob Rubashkin’s simple retort:
We’re going to continue to have to fight for democracy overseas and at home. That’s the lesson of Ukraine and the lesson of history.
More to come…
NOTE: See also historian Heather Cox Richardson‘s take on President Zelenskyy’s speech, James Fallows’s analysis of the structure and language, as well as my earlier posts Ukraine and the myths of war and It’s not all about us.
Image of field of sunflowers by Claire Holsey Brown