Item Listing

Goodwin Offers Historic Perspective on Ukraine

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and bestselling author, drew parallels between the United States’ response to aid Britain in the early years of World War II and the U.S.’s partnership with Ukraine in its war with Russia at the 18th annual Westmont President’s Breakfast March 10.

Westmont President's Breakfast Speaker Doris Kearns Goodwin

President Gayle D. Beebe gave Goodwin, speaker at the 2015 breakfast and 2018 Lead Where You Stand conference, the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in front of about 700 early risers at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.

“The last few times I was here, we were talking about leadership in turbulent times,” she said. “I think each time I've come it’s been more turbulent then the last — and look what we've been through for the last five years.”

President Joe Biden and most of Congress supported sending additional aid to Ukraine at the outset of the war. “But there were worries,” she said. “Would it bring us to a larger war? Would it create problems with China as well as Russia?”

President Gayle D. Beebe and breakfast speaker Doris Kearns Goodwin

There were also questions about other country’s need for Russian oil. “And there were predictions that Ukraine might not last more than a couple of weeks, so we’d be hostages to fortune,” she said. “But if all of this sounds difficult, this is where history comes to the rescue.”

In the spring of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt faced a quickly escalating war with similar problems. Germany had invaded countries in Western Europe with airstrikes, tanks and a new brand of mechanized corporate warfare. Tens of thousands of people were killed and the countries surrendered in one week. “FDR new immediately that he wanted to help,” she says. “But America was not the powerhouse that it is today. It's extraordinary to realize that we were only 18th in military power, we made 17th only when Holland surrendered to Germany.”

Westmont President's Breakfast Chair John Davies
Westmont President's Breakfast Chair John Davies

But by chance, the same day that Germany invaded Western Europe, a new prime minister came into Britain's hands, Winston Churchill. “And how lucky for the world that Churchill and Roosevelt were on the scene at the very same time,” she said.

Churchill resisted the pressure to leave London when the bombing began, saying he had to stay where the people are. 

“And when I look at the current situation with Ukraine, there is a parallel,” she said. “How lucky the Ukrainians are that President (Volodymyr) Zelensky has emerged within their midst.”

Zelensky too decided when Russian forces were coming into Kiev to not leave the city, though America offered him safe travel to Poland. "I need ammunition not a ride,” he said.

“He embrace the idea of being out in the streets at night taking selfies while the bombings were going,” Goodwin said. “And like Churchill, he was able to transform his courage, his belief in the Ukrainian people, so that they felt it themselves.”

The Westmont College Choir
The Westmont College Choir

Zelenski told his people that he would be in the Ukraine with them for as long as it takes, but support for the war is diminishing to some extent in the West.

Goodwin said that when Obama and Biden returned from surprise visits to Ukraine they should have immediately brought the leaders of both parties to the White House to tell them about their dramatic trips. “It's amazing how the White House is such a powerful tool for a president, and they very rarely use it for social functions,” she said.

She recalled that Lyndon Johnson understood the White House’s power, inviting 30 congressmen in a group to come to the White House for dinner. “In those early days of his presidency after the JFK assassination, the spouses would be taken on a tour by Lady Bird of the mansion while the guys would have brandy and port at the end of the day,” she said. “They felt like they had something to go back and tell their constituents that they did on a social function to the White House.”

If supporting Ukraine until their military can negotiate a settlement seems complicated, Goodwin says think of what FDR faced. After Europe’s fall, England stood alone. Roosevelt wanted to send weapons, but his military advisers warned him against it. “General Bedell Smith warned Roosevelt, ‘If you send our limited weapons to England and then England loses and our weapons are found in Germany’s hands, you will be impeached or hung by a lamppost.’”

Convocation with Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin answered questions from Westmont students at convocation on campus.

But FDR ignored the general’s advice and designated every U.S. weapon as surplus to get around neutrality laws to ship abroad, “making his presidency a hostage to the fortunes of what would happen to Britain,” Goodwin said.

Compounding the problem, in December of 1940, nightly bombings had brought Britain to the point of near collapse and they had no money to pay for American weapons. Following a 10-day fishing trip, FDR created the Lend-Lease Act, a program that allowed the British to pay back the U.S. after the war. He used his infamous Fireside Chats to sell the idea to Americans who wanted to stay out of the bloody war, and within five month’s congress passed it.  

With our weapons, Britain survived the bombings and the devastating destruction of their homeland, and Germany turned its attention to Russia in 1941. The U.S. then sent tens of billions of weapons to Russia thanks to the success of the U.S.’s new government-business assembly lines.

“Of course then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and isolationism collapsed overnight,” Goodwin says. “But what FDR had been able to do in those 18 months between May of 1940 and Pearl Harbor, to help what was happening in England, to help what was happening in Russia, was truly heroic.”