Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last week happened to coincide with my reading of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry S. Truman, our 33rd president. Clearly, Russia has been a problem for a long time.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, left, and his brother and former boxer Wladimir Klitschko, right, speak to the media during a visit to a Ukrainian volunteer recruitment center last month. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

Near the end of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill struggled to convince Josef Stalin to comply with previous agreements about the shape of the postwar world. With his troops deployed in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and elsewhere, Stalin saw expansionist opportunities for the Soviet Union, and he was determined to take advantage of them.

In the late ’40s, President Truman confronted few problems that caused him more anxiety and frustration than the USSR, and few projects took more of his energy than finding ways to prevent its expansion. Truman, a plain-spoken Missourian, said the Russians were “like people from across the tracks whose manners were very bad.”

For the next four decades, world politics revolved around the West’s resistance to the spread of communism and the Soviet Union’s determination to expand its hegemony, especially in Eastern Europe.

An economic interpretation of this conflict sees a battle between communism and free enterprise, but it’s more than that. Roosevelt and Truman recognized that the Soviet system had no tolerance for the things that Americans value most: democracy, free elections, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, self-determination, a right to privacy.

Stalin and the Soviet Union were to be resisted. He was an autocrat who maintained power with coercive secret police, gulags, torture and terror. In the 1930s, Stalin, in an effort to subdue Ukraine, engineered a famine that resulted in the deaths of 4 million Ukrainians.


The U.S. has its faults. We are not perfect. But we were always on the right side of this struggle between democracy and autocracy. Fortunately, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Alas, it is trying to make a comeback, in the person of Vladimir Putin.

In 1946, President Truman said that lasting peace depended on the three great powers – Britain, Russia and the U.S. Further, the great powers “must also have the confidence of the smaller nations. Russia hasn’t the confidence of the small nations, nor has Britain. We have.”

At present the mantle for resistance against autocracy has fallen upon the shoulders of one of those smaller nations, Ukraine. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s young President Volodymyr Zelensky got a rocky introduction to modern American democracy. He can be forgiven if he got the impression that then-President Donald Trump was conditioning military aid to Ukraine on Zelensky’s cooperation in an investigation of one of Trump’s political rivals.

And while Zelensky courageously leads the resistance to Putin, our still-popular ex-president finds so much to admire in Putin that Russian state television is running subtitled clips of him praising the Russian autocrat.

Further, our commitment to democracy does not include a willingness to provide American troops to fight the Russians over Ukraine. In lieu of troops, the U.S. and its European partners are applying increasingly rigorous sanctions. But the sanctions are largely half-measures, applied carefully out of concern for the European and American economies. Few think that sanctions will stop Putin and, indeed, they have not.

So while Ukrainian patriots and heroes are taking to the streets to fight for what we believe in, Biden must gingerly inform Americans that the war in Ukraine may cost us “at the pump.” How many times have we heard that phrase during this crisis?


Still, withholding U.S. troops is probably the right decision at this point. But autocrats like Putin rarely respond to “soft power.” Force is the only language they understand.

War is a great evil, but it’s not the worst evil. Sometimes only force can prevent fear, misery, hunger, torture, genocide, totalitarianism. If history is any guide, pure pacifism is unrealistic. Peace is rarely achieved through diplomacy and sanctions.

The crisis in Ukraine is a test of our commitment and will to maintain democracy. May we show as much resolve as the Ukrainians.

As President Truman put it, “I want peace, and I’m willing to fight for it.”

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