Zelenskyy appreciates American history

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a dramatic, crisp, and impactful address to the American Congress in Washington on December 21.

Dramatic because it brought front and center the danger the Ukrainian people face continuously from Russian aggression. Crisp because Zelenskyy wasted no words in describing Ukraine’s situation. And impactful because his message aligned his country’s fate with proud moments in American history.

The Ukrainian President made clear his gratitude for America’s help so far and his hope for ramped-up support in the near future. He thanked the United States several times during his speech, prompting loud and long applause from the members of Congress and other dignitaries present for the occasion.

Zelenskyy selected two crucial turning-point battles from American military history to drive home his message, both of which signaled eventual United States victories over powerful wartime foes. He deftly likened Ukraine’s current military situation to those battles, to connect America’s and Ukraine’s shared devotion to independence, and to emphasize how immensely a battlefield victory can affect a war’s outcome.

Without going into detail, Zelenskyy took us back about 75 years in time to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Most Americans know the drama of that episode: the German army made a last-ditch attempt to blunt the Allies’ steady drive eastward through France on the Western Front after D-Day, June 6, by counterattacking the American troops on December 16 westward into the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and Luxembourg in bitter, snowy cold.

The Germans initially pushed the Americans back, then surrounded and besieged retreating American troops in the town of Bastogne by December 21. The German commander requested the Americans there to surrender. American general Anthony McAuliffe responded, “NUTS.” (The befuddled German general had to have that explained to him.)

A few days later, on December 26, American general George Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke through the German lines surrounding Bastogne and rescued the trapped American troops. A number of Iowans fought in the Battle of Bulge.

The Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge forced the Germans into steady retreat and, together with Soviet victories on the Eastern Front, resulted in Germany’s unconditional surrender a few months later, on V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

Here, Zelenskyy’s speech to Congress pivoted to invoke another crucial American military victory, this one during the Revolutionary War, in the autumn of 1777. The newly-formed United States had achieved little success on the battlefield by then, and the British took steps to weaken the U.S. further by dividing New England from the rest of the country.

To do so, they planned to send three forces toward Albany, New York, one from the north down the Lake Champlain corridor, one coming up the Hudson River valley from New York City in the south, and the third heading east from Lake Ontario. Had they succeeded, the American military would have found its forces separated, facing difficult odds in trying to reconnect.

British General John Burgoyne led his 8,000-man force southward from Canada in June, intending to meet up with the other two pincers. He won an initial confrontation with the Americans at Fort Ticonderoga in July, and then forced the American troops from the field at Freeman’s Farm near Saratoga, about 35 miles north of Albany, on September 19, reaching the upper Hudson River but not without sustaining considerable casualties.

Fortunately for the Americans, the expected British marches from Lake Ontario and New York City failed to show up. Meanwhile American militiamen gathered in large numbers and moved in force to engage Burgoyne. The 12,000 amassed American troops, some of them seasoned sharpshooters, surrounded and threatened to overwhelm Burgoyne’s forces, which had been whittled down to about 3,000 men.

On October 7 the Americans won a crucial victory at Bemis Heights near Saratoga, and ten days later Burgoyne surrendered his army to American General Horatio Gates. The British troops were held captive as prisoners of war until the end of the war, four years later. Burgoyne returned to England and never commanded troops in the British Army again.

The Battle of Saratoga raised American spirits and allowed the United States to retain control of Albany and the Hudson River valley. But its greater significance lay in how affected France.

Britain had defeated France in the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War) some fifteen years earlier, winning control of French Canada and nearly all the other French possessions in the New World. The French were itching for revenge.

But until the Battle of Saratoga, they hesitated to join forces with their the Americans and their seemingly weak new country. Saratoga changed that picture and proved the Americans to be a significant fighting force. Soon King Louis XVI signed a formal Franco-American alliance. The new pact forced Britain to divert some of its forces to fight the French in the West Indies and Europe. France helped the United States with soldiers, donations, loans, military arms, and supplies, and its aid proved crucial to ultimate American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

Zelenskyy (or maybe his advisers) understood the significance to America of the results of the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Saratoga. In his address to Congress last week, he implicitly urged the United States, by referencing American military history, to identify with the Ukrainian struggle against a powerful foe.

Ukraine is currently engaged in a vicious battle with Russia in the city of Bakhmut in the eastern part of the country. In his speech to Congress, Zelenskyy made the comparison explicit: “ . . . just like the Battle of Saratoga, the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom.”

Whether Congress will remain a steadfast aid champion of Ukraine after Republicans take control of the U.S. House in January is at this point unknown. Some Republicans appear willing—even eager—to cut back American support.

But by masterfully comparing our history to his country’s present military situation, President Zelenskyy certainly strengthened American sympathies for Ukrainians fighting for their country, their continued independence, their families, and their lives. It will be more difficult for Republicans to oppose continuing aid to a brave people and their courageous leader after his inspiring speech.

Top photo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the background. Posted on Facebook on Pelosi's official page.

Editor's note from Laura Belin: James Fallows further analyzed the skill involved in Zelenskyy's Congressional address and discussed some of the decisions with a member of Zelenskyy's team.

  • We’ll done, Rick!

    Thoroughly enjoyed your column. The speech also reminded me of Havel’s in early 1990. Back then there was no question about America’s commitment to freedom from Russian aggression. I look forward to the return of that America.

  • Good post...

    The author as well as readers who appreciated this would likely also enjoy readingthis recent post by Peterr at Marcy Wheeler's emptywheel site.

    Peterr lends more recent historical context. Before Zelenskyy, the last time a Ukrainian President addressed a joint gathering of the U.S. Senate and Congress, both were controlled by Republicans. And our President was a Republican. The year was 2005.


    All of which makes it even all the more saddening than it already was to have witnessed the former jackass in the Oval Office throw so many turds in punch bowls of democracy here, and inside Ukraine, and around the world to the extent he could. It's gonna be a long recovery from the poison he served to so many Americans who willingly drank it.

    Did any readers here attend Marie Yovanovitch's talk at Drake University awhile back? I did not, but would have liked to.

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