How Zelensky appealed to history, explained


In the coarsest terms, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise trip to the United States was predicated on securing political and military support for his country’s ongoing war against Russia. But to do so, Zelensky made explicit and implicit appeals to history, casting his country’s struggle not as a small nation trying to fend off a larger aggressor but as a continuation of a centuries-long fight between democracy and totalitarian or autocratic foes.

That this would appeal to President Biden is a given. He has framed his presidency around that same tension, playing host to a summit centered on democracy during his first year in office and elevating the conflict in his inaugural speech. This is clearly in part because of the ways in which American democracy itself has been infiltrated by autocratic sympathies, including by his immediate predecessor in office. It’s also because the world’s power centers — the United States and the European Union vs. Russia and China — generally fall neatly into two camps.

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But Zelensky’s speech before a joint meeting of Congress sought to broaden that appeal generally. And to do so, he invoked past conflicts between freedom and oppression, both in his speech and in his appearance itself.

Mirroring Churchill in 1941

As The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell wrote this year, a speech to Congress earlier by Zelensky, in which he appeared by video, mirrored that of another famous wartime leader: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in December 1941.

The Churchill speech came only weeks after the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany declared war on the United States on Dec. 11. Two weeks later, on the day after Christmas, Churchill appeared on Capitol Hill.

His nation had been at war with the Nazis for two years. In 1940, England had sustained repeated air raids by German attackers, an onslaught dubbed the Battle of Britain. In speaking to Congress, Churchill invoked his country’s own experience. Some of his words might as well have come from Zelensky, eight decades later.

“The United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard,” Churchill said then. The subjugated people of Europe, he said, “have put aside forever the shameful temptation of resigning themselves to the conqueror’s will. Hope has returned to the hearts of scores of millions of men and women, and with that hope there burns the flame of anger against the brutal, corrupt invader.”

We need not remind you that the U.S.-U.K. alliance at that time proved successful in fending off its totalitarian opponents.

At the time Churchill spoke, though, that victory was by no means certain. The United States and its allies made slow progress against the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. But by 1944, the tide had turned, and Allied forces, following their successful invasion of France that June, were forcing Germany to retreat to the east, with the Soviet Union — on which the Germans had declared war in June 1941 — pressing in from the other side.

In mid-December, however, Germany launched a counteroffensive, pushing the Allied line backward. Drawn on military maps, the effect was of a westward-pointing swell in the Allied line, giving the battle a name: the Battle of the Bulge.

This would prove to be Germany’s last gasp. The counteroffensive was crushed in January 1945 and, by spring of that year, Germany was defeated.

Zelensky’s speech on Wednesday drew an analogy between that fight and his own army’s winter struggle against Russia.

“They threw everything against us, similar to the other tyranny, which is in the Battle of the Bulge,” he said. Germany “threw everything it had against the free world, just like the brave American soldiers which held their lines and fought back Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944. Brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s forces this Christmas.”

The implication being that victory in this battle would lead inexorably to victory overall.

Zelensky also made reference to the United States’ own struggle for independence against an anti-democratic oppressor: our war of independence against England.

That war began when colonists rebelled against the governance of King George III. The colonists were disadvantaged against well-trained and well-outfitted British regulars, but they quickly developed tactics and organizing techniques that allowed them to engage the British on more favorable terms.

In 1777, two years after the first shots of the war were fired, the British sought to invade the colonies from their Canadian provinces. British troops pushed down into New York, hoping to separate New England from the rest of the colonies. Colonists met them near Saratoga, N.Y., and stopped the British advance. The victory was total, helping to turn the tide of the war.

The Ukrainian president analogized that battle to the fighting near the city of Bakhmut, which he’d visited this week.

“To ensure Bakhmut is not just a stronghold that holds back the Russian Army, but for the Russian Army to completely pull out, more cannons and shells are needed,” Zelensky said. “If so, just like the Battle of Saratoga, the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom.”

Then, referring to the U.S. promise to provide advanced air-defense batteries to his country, Zelensky made a pointed play on words.

“If your Patriots stop the Russian terror against our cities,” he said, “it will let Ukrainian patriots work to the full to defend our freedom.”

What Zelensky didn’t point out was that the Battle of Saratoga precipitated another key factor in the Revolutionary War: the arrival of the then-superpower France to aid the American effort.

Roosevelt’s speech after Pearl Harbor

As he neared his speech’s conclusion, Zelensky invoked another speech from 1941: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Always will our whole Nation remember the character of the onslaught against us,” Roosevelt said, then offering the words that Zelensky quoted: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

“The Ukrainian people will win, too, absolutely,” Zelensky said Wednesday night. “I know that everything depends on us, on Ukrainian armed forces,” he continued — “yet so much depends on the world. So much in the world depends on you,” meaning the United States and, specifically, those in Congress tasked with deploying the country’s resources.

It was, after all, a speech centered on securing the military assistance he needed to ensure that absolute victory.