He came, he saw, he was conquered.
That was Canadian prime minister Sir Robert Borden in 1917 – and it was U.S. President Joe Biden more than a century later.
Mr. Borden was in France at an important juncture in the First World War. He had been to Great Britain and had consulted with British prime minister David Lloyd George. Canada already had committed 400,000 soldiers to the war. Some 30,000 Canadians had perished.
But Mr. Borden was moved in two senses of the word: moved by what he saw in France, and moved to devote more to the effort. What endures to this day is a poignant picture of the prime minister sitting on a blanket at Bed 28, comforting a wounded Canadian soldier, light streaming in from the windows. Soon Mr. Borden was committed to conscription in Canada.
Moved, too, was Mr. Biden on Saturday, the latest witness to the effects of war in Europe. An emotional man by nature, a foreign-policy expert by experience, a leader of the West by virtue of his position as American president, he travelled to Warsaw’s processing centre for refugees from Ukraine, a vital symbolic front in the 21st century’s most brutal military conflict. He met with refugees and saw firsthand their determination and their desperation.
The meaning and impact of this visit, much anticipated, cannot be overstated.
“They’re an amazing group of people,” he said. “They’ve got nothing.”
By standing face to face with these refugees, Mr. Biden put an American face on Ukraine’s struggle. Like all Americans outside of the Indigenous, his family was part of an earlier great migration: his great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt, one of the 1.5 million Irish who fled to America in the time of the potato famine, left County Mayo and settled in Scranton, Pa. And so this week the President identified himself personally with the thousands who have poured across the borders from Ukraine – a modern flood of, in the beloved words of the poet Emma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Mr. Biden’s visit with these refugees – and, earlier, with volunteers from the World Central Kitchen who are feeding them – surely steeled his determination. It sent a direct message of resolve to his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin: America and the West are dedicated to this fight. It sent a similar message to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky: Your fight is our fight.
His meeting with the refugees was classic Biden: a two-handed clasp of the shoulders, a hug that was mostly a tug, an intense look into the eyes of a woman far from home. A man who ran for the Senate six times did what came naturally: He held a baby. Then came a selfie, a click of a cellphone camera producing – to adapt a phrase from America’s 18th century struggle for freedom to the 21st century fight for freedom – a shot seen ‘round the world.
“Each of these children said, in effect, ‘say a prayer for my dad, for my brother,’” said the President, whose own son was in Iraq during hostilities there. Mr. Biden reflected on families’ fears in times of combat. “You wonder,” he said. “You just wonder.”
Though Mr. Biden did not enter Ukrainian territory – ”part of my disappointment is that I can’t see it firsthand like I have in other places” – his visit to this area was the latest in U.S. presidents’ efforts to stand, symbolically if not literally, with those embattled or in battle.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Casablanca in 1943 while fighting consumed North Africa in the Second World War. Lyndon Johnson travelled twice, in 1966 and 1967, to Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon followed in 1969 with a trip to Saigon. Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all visited the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, which was also the site of a famous trip by president-elect Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
George H.W. Bush flew to the Middle East to have American Thanksgiving dinner in 1990 with soldiers about to participate in Desert Storm against Iraq, and his son, George W. Bush, visited Iraq twice and also travelled to Afghanistan. Bill Clinton visited Bosnia twice.
These visits were conducted with immense security, but they had immense symbolic value.
This is a symbolism well understood by Canadians, for it had real consequences, both for the First World War and for the history of the country.
Mr. Borden agonized during and after his trip to the front in France over how to bolster Canada’s contribution to the war, which at that time had much of the moral imperative that Ukraine’s war with Russia possesses today. At the heart of this agony was the question of the million Canadian men of military-service age who had not enlisted in the fight, and whether they should be conscripted into the armed services.
“Conscription seemed to go against everything the war stood for: a just war to free the oppressed and restore liberal ideals,” Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum, wrote in a 2011 essay in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies. “It was the enemy, Canadians had been told time and time again, who conscripted men within their blood-crazed, militarized society built upon subjugation and oppression. Would Canada’s fight for liberty and justice become a war that enslaved its own people in a militaristic Canadian kultur? Borden agonized over this discordance, putting off calls for conscription, hoping to find a solution based on voluntary enlistment. None was to be found.”
And so the prime minister settled on conscripting Canadians to the war effort. It was a giant step toward sealing Canada’s identity. But it also widened tensions between anglophones and francophones. War is a great engine of social change. This week Mr. Biden saw that personally – and, very likely, like prime minister Borden in a different conflict in a different era, wondered how he might do more.
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