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Hillary Clinton’s Hitler comparison and the troublesome tradition it fits into

A man holds a sign depicting Adolf Hitler alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych with text reading "They are real fascists !" during a demonstration Tuesday in Kiev. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images)

The tactic of comparing the other side to the Nazis is already widespread in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, but Tuesday night Hillary Rodham Clinton got in on the act, reportedly comparing Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions in Crimea with "what Hitler did back in the '30s."

"All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right,” Clinton said, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."

Clinton's comments were relatively tame, but they reverberated today, in no small part due to her positions as the recently departed  U.S. secretary of state and a potential 2016 presidential candidate. "So it's a real nail-biter, right now," Clinton reportedly told the crowd at a private fund-raiser in California, "But nobody wants to up the rhetoric."

That's because that rhetoric, of course, is very powerful: Over decades, the history of Nazi Germany has been invoked by individuals linked to U.S. administrations, usually as a precursor to conflict. Here are a few examples, and bear in mind this is far from comprehensive:


"We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else," President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a speech in 1965 that sought to escalate the Vietnam War. "Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history."


According to Norman Solomon's 2006 book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death," in 1984 Secretary of State George Shultz contrasted Nicaragua's Sandinista government to the Third Reich.

"I've had good friends who experienced Germany in the 1930s go there and come back and say, 'I've visited many communist countries, but Nicaragua doesn't feel like that. It feels like Nazi Germany,'" Shultz reportedly told the World Affairs Council.


In 1990, President George H. W. Bush said that the use of the U.S. troops to protect Kuwait was "one of the most important deployments of allied military power since World War II," according to the New York Times.

"A half century ago, our nation and the world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who should, and could, have been stopped," he said, clearly referring to Hitler. ''We are not going to make the same mistake again.''

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 

"What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?" President Bill Clinton said in 1999, justifying NATO bombing during the Kosovo conflict. "How many people's lives might have been saved? And how many American lives might have been saved?"

Iraq again

When attempting to justify the second war against Saddam Hussein despite arguments over evidence, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared the Iraqi leader to Hitler.

"Think of the prelude to World War II. Think of all the countries that said, 'Well, we don't have enough evidence,'" Rumsfeld told Fox News in 2002. "'Mein Kampf' has been written. Hitler had indicated what he intended to do. Maybe he won't attack. Maybe he won't do this or that. There were millions of people dead because of the miscalculations."


By 2013, President Obama was apparently aware that contrasting a modern situation to Nazi Germany was a cliche. He did it again anyway, however, when talking about Syria.

"And I want to make sure I’m being clear. I’m not -- I’m not drawing an analogy to World War II, other than to say when London was getting bombed, it was profoundly unpopular, both in Congress and around the country, to help the British," Obama said at a September 2013 news conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. "It doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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