Even before they were over, people started calling the 1930s "the locust years," Sir Thomas Inskip, Britain's minister for coordination of defense at the time and a man who knew his Bible, first used the phrase, borrowing it from the Old Testament prophet Joel, who described a hard and ugly era as "The years that the locust hath eaten."
Winston Churchill picked the phrase up for The Gathering Storm, his book on the prelude to World War II. For Churchill, it described the years 1931 to 1935, when in the great English statesman's memorable words, "the entire situation on the continent of Europe was reversed" for the worse. It was a "dismal period" when "horrors and miseries ... beyond comparison in human experience" became inevitable, Churchill wrote.
What rankled--no, what deeply frustrated and angered--Churchill and Inskip about the 1930s was that both men believed the great powers of the time (Great Britain, France and the United States) could have taken steps during those years that would have averted World War II and its horrors. But the great powers did not take those steps. Indeed, they did very little at all to tame the aggression of the world's three rogue nations of that day--Japan, Italy and Germany. Each of these bellicose countries might have been reined in, many historians now believe, long before they visited on the globe the vast and horrible disaster that was World War II.
The great powers did more than merely fail to act. French, British and U.S. leaders often looked the other way, ignoring clear signs of the impending horror. They hoped, perhaps, that what was not seen and acknowledged would go away and not have to be dealt with even by force of character.
Or they were obsessed with an equally dangerous notion, a belief--against all evidence and common sense--that by disarmament and through frequent calls for world peace they could persuade the aggressive powers to forget their ambitions, sheathe their swords and make war no more. Instead those powers chose to rearm, grew militarily strong and answered every call for peace and disarmament with stunning acts of aggression that should have made their intentions clear to the world but didn't. The United States, pursuing a policy of isolation, stood aloof. In 1935, Congress passed the Neutrality Act to underline that stance.
Today, the willingness with which the West refused to understand the intentions of its enemies is dumbfounding. In the early 1930s, for instance, Churchill was shouted down in Parliament when he described Adolf Hitler's plans for conquest outlined in Mein Kampf.
The same willful ignorance also was astride in France. A Parisian court ordered a translation of Hitler's book destroyed. After that, only expurgated editions of Mein Kampf were to be had in French, presumably free of the German fuhrer's extreme bellicosity and hatred for France.
The antiwar crowd showed a phenomenal capacity to be blind to, or simply not to care about, Hitler's already evident persecution of Jews, which grew ever more ferocious when few spoke up in opposition.
The advocates of disarmament and peace met every example of Hitler's aggressiveness with dismissal. The Treaty of Versailles, which reordered Europe after World War I, was unfair to Germans, they said, and Hitler was just setting things right. Once he got what he wanted, he'd stop, they promised. As for Italy, well it wasn't a serious threat, and Japan simply was too far away to matter.
In his widely admired book Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties, historian Paul Johnson calls the 1930s "an era of international banditry in which the totalitarian states behaved simply in accordance with their military means." Weak when the decade began, but ferociously ambitious, Japan, Germany and Italy were powerful at its end. By 1937, Germany had 800 bombers to Great Britain's 48. That same year observers calculated that the German and Italian air forces could drop 600 tons of bombs a day on anyone who stood in the way of their ambitions. …