Eighty years ago, on May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill took over as Britain’s prime minister and Hitler launched his attack on Holland, Belgium, and France. The Blitzkrieg, as it became known, was a spectacular military success: In less than six weeks Nazi Germany defeated the Allied armies and occupied the Low Countries and a big part of France while at the same time kicking the British off the Continent.
How the Germans did it has been the subject of numerous books. But one thing that emerges is that, both at the time and later, the Allies, and the then-neutral Americans, failed to understand what really happened. A set of myths developed, many of which were believed and propagated by various military experts and intelligence services.
Most historians put the critical turning point on the morning of May 15, when in a moment of panic the French prime minister Paul Reynaud told Churchill, “We have been defeated.” The panic was based on mostly distorted and inaccurate information from the French army’s high command and from the intelligence services. The offensive was expected, but the location was not, with the attack coming about a hundred miles south of where the allies thought the main thrust would take place. The army’s command structure was unable to adapt quickly enough to the new situation, and this in turn created panic at the highest levels of government.
Today, with the Wuhan coronavirus presenting a completely unexpected challenge to governments all over the world, panic, or something like it, seems to be gripping leaders at all levels. In Michigan and Maine the governors have obviously tried to hide their panic behind masks of authoritarian bluster. In New York, Andrew Cuomo had a very public ventilator-shortage breakdown, though he recovered. The media naturally stuck the tape of his panic down the memory hole.
The problem is greater than just a few moments of panic. It involves the sad fact that some people who’ve been credentialed as experts are incompetent time-servers, men and women who fit the requirements of leading big organizations but lack the imagination and daring to deal with the unexpected. In war it is all too often the case that peacetime generals are just not up to the job. In the current time of plague, few of the public-health experts who are attached to what one might call “top-down” solutions have covered themselves in glory. Political leaders should have learned to be skeptical.
Trump’s mistakes have been caused mostly by his tendency to be overly optimistic, due in large part to his narcissism (a characteristic he shares with most recent presidents) and his combativeness. The president has better reason than most to distrust the experts, but he also has no way to quickly find new and competent experts to replace them. Modern medical science can accomplish great things given both time and resources, but in emergencies such as this one, competent and trusted leadership is more important and, judging from the evidence, in very short supply.
Remember how long it took Churchill to find generals who could develop effective strategies and win battles. We can only hope that Trump will not have to wait months (or, whoever is the next president, years) for public-health professionals to defeat this virus.
(C) 2020 National Review