As President Donald Trump arrives home from Singapore, boasting of peace with North Korea, somewhere in a British graveyard the ghost of Neville Chamberlain whispers across the decades, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Mr. President.”
It was Chamberlain who got hoodwinked by the great dictator of his time, Adolf Hitler, into signing a piece of paper full of empty words and thus promising “peace for our time.”
Shortly thereafter, the whole wide world was plunged into war.
It’s Trump, who’s unfortunately no student of history, signing a piece of paper with the great dictator of our time, Kim Jong-un, and declaring the world a safer place. But are those words on paper signed in Singapore just as empty as Hitler’s and Chamberlain’s?
For the moment, the world does feel safer – at least safer than six months ago when Trump and Kim were calling each other schoolboy names and comparing the size of their nuclear arsenals.
But if we’ve calmed ourselves for the moment, let’s not mistake the moment for long-lasting assurances of peace for our time. Yes, it’s good that the United States. and North Korean leaders are talking face to face. Anything’s better than these two unstable, unpredictable men shouting threats of nuclear annihilation at each other.
But as the New York Times points out, the statement signed by the two leaders in Singapore this week “contains polite diplomatic platitudes but is otherwise largely empty. Among adversaries, this sort of statement is a common, low-pressure way to keep talks going.”
What’s hopeful – and disturbing – are the visuals coming out of the Trump-Kim talks. It’s hopeful to see the two men shaking hands, patting each other’s backs, smiling like a couple of old friends.
What’s disturbing is the row of American and North Korean flags flying next to each other. This is a nation whose leader, Kim, enslaves his own people (despite Trump’s post-meeting assurance that the North Koreans love and revere Kim), who has murdered his own people and threatened to murder millions more with nuclear strikes.
Would Neville Chamberlain’s Britain have been comfortable flying the Union Jack next to the Nazi Swastika? Would Franklin Roosevelt have allowed the American flag to fly next to Hitler’s?
How is it that Donald Trump feels comfortable flying this nation’s flag next to a murderous dictator’s – but somehow finds it appalling when American football players merely take a dignified knee when our flag is unfurled?
What’s disturbing, too, is the way this man, Kim, has been elevated overnight from pariah to political peer. These talks have given him political legitimacy he’s never had before. When he hints at the possibility of peace, it’s a world leader who’s talking now.
For the moment, his words are loud enough that we can barely hear Neville Chamberlain, trying to whisper words of caution across the decades.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.