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Monday, 3 February, 2003, 11:45 GMT
Peace for our time
I suppose the day that changed my life was the day I had a letter from the foundation of one Edward S Harkness, an American tycoon who had given his fortune over to good works, mostly medical research.

Shortly after the First World War he noticed that a whole generation of young Americans were going off to study at European universities.

Now Mr Harkness knew, as perhaps few of his kind did, that America too had universities that were leaders in particular fields.

He therefore invented a reverse fellowship - 25 fellowships - to be awarded to graduate students of British and Empire universities to study in America.

In the spring of 1932 I found myself one of the lucky 25 and I was launched, I must say, on the most generous fellowship for two years' study in the United States.

The letter I received contained a booklet with some such title as Living and Travelling in the United States.

It contained three items of advice which I thought, at the time, slightly comical but came to see were a godsend to any newcomer to the New World.

First, it told us gently but firmly something that you still have to tell visiting Englishmen of any age and education - buy lightweight suits and shirts for indoor wear in winter, as well as summer and buy one heavy outer winter top coat if you're going to a Northern or a Midwestern state.

I ignored this in my first weeks at Yale, till I found myself, like the visitors I'd just mocked, Englishmen in horsehair tweeds cursing the steam heat - what they called after the French "central heating" - and trying to force obstinate windows - an irritable gesture that, by the way, gave Winston Churchill his first heart attack on American soil - on any soil, come to think of it.

The second caution was more comical still.

You were obliged by the terms of accepting this fellowship to buy a second-hand car, which I did, for $45, and drive round the United States on your summer holiday.

The booklet warned you to be sure before you put any clothes away for the summer to see that they were encased in plastic bags full of menthol balls or spray. This seemed an unnecessary nicety.

But it said that failure to do so would expose your clothes to the ravages of the Buffalo moth - a predator unknown in England.

I paid no attention. But back in Connecticut at the end of September I found my hung clothes in shreds - thanks to the visits of the said Buffalo moth.

The third item was a startler. When you're driving across country don't give a lift to any female trying to hitch a ride just before you cross a state border.

There was something called the Mann Act, passed by Congress in 1910, which prohibited "the transportation of females across state borders for immoral purposes".

Were they kidding? They were not. We'll go into that a little later.

I promised to lay off topic A - Iraq - until the Security Council makes a judgement on the inspectors' report and I shall keep that promise.

But I must tell you that throughout the past fortnight I've listened to everybody involved in or looking on to a monotonous din of words, like a tide crashing and receding on a beach - making a great noise and saying the same thing over and over.

And this ordeal triggered a nightmare - a day-mare, if you like.

Through the ceaseless tide I heard a voice, a very English voice of an old man - Prime Minister Chamberlain saying: "I believe it is peace for our time" - a sentence that prompted a huge cheer, first from a listening street crowd and then from the House of Commons and next day from every newspaper in the land.

There was a move to urge that Mr Chamberlain should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Parliament there was one unfamiliar old grumbler to growl out: "I believe we have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat."

He was, in view of the general sentiment, very properly booed down.

This scene concluded in the autumn of 1938 the British prime minister's effectual signing away of most of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

The rest of it, within months, Hitler walked in and conquered.

"Oh dear," said Mr Chamberlain, thunderstruck. "He has betrayed my trust."

During the last fortnight a simple but startling thought occurred to me - every single official, diplomat, president, prime minister involved in the Iraq debate was in 1938 a toddler, most of them unborn. So the dreadful scene I've just drawn will not have been remembered by most listeners.

Hitler had started betraying our trust not 12 years but only two years before, when he broke the First World War peace treaty by occupying the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland.

Only half his troops carried one reload of ammunition because Hitler knew that French morale was too low to confront any war just then and 10 million of 11 million British voters had signed a so-called peace ballot.

It stated no conditions, elaborated no terms, it simply counted the numbers of Britons who were "for peace".

The slogan of this movement was "Against war and fascism" - chanted at the time by every Labour man and Liberal and many moderate Conservatives - a slogan that now sounds as imbecilic as "against hospitals and disease".

In blunter words a majority of Britons would do anything, absolutely anything, to get rid of Hitler except fight him.

At that time the word pre-emptive had not been invented, though today it's a catchword.

After all the Rhineland was what it said it was - part of Germany. So to march in and throw Hitler out would have been pre-emptive - wouldn't it?

Nobody did anything and Hitler looked forward with confidence to gobbling up the rest of Western Europe country by country - "course by course", as growler Churchill put it.

I bring up Munich and the mid-30s because I was fully grown, on the verge of 30, and knew we were indeed living in the age of anxiety.

And so many of the arguments mounted against each other today, in the last fortnight, are exactly what we heard in the House of Commons debates and read in the French press.

The French especially urged, after every Hitler invasion, "negotiation, negotiation".

They negotiated so successfully as to have their whole country defeated and occupied.

But as one famous French leftist said: "We did anyway manage to make them declare Paris an open city - no bombs on us!"

In Britain the general response to every Hitler advance was disarmament and collective security.

Collective security meant to leave every crisis to the League of Nations. It would put down aggressors, even though, like the United Nations, it had no army, navy or air force.

The League of Nations had its chance to prove itself when Mussolini invaded and conquered Ethiopia (Abyssinia).

The League didn't have any shot to fire. But still the cry was chanted in the House of Commons - the League and collective security is the only true guarantee of peace.

But after the Rhineland the maverick Churchill decided there was no collectivity in collective security and started a highly unpopular campaign for rearmament by Britain, warning against the general belief that Hitler had already built an enormous mechanised army and superior air force.

But he's not used them, he's not used them - people protested.

Still for two years before the outbreak of the Second War you could read the debates in the House of Commons and now shiver at the famous Labour men - Major Attlee was one of them - who voted against rearmament and still went on pointing to the League of Nations as the saviour.

Now, this memory of mine may be totally irrelevant to the present crisis. It haunts me.

I have to say I have written elsewhere with much conviction that most historical analogies are false because, however strikingly similar a new situation may be to an old one, there's usually one element that is different and it turns out to be the crucial one.

It may well be so here. All I know is that all the voices of the 30s are echoing through 2003.

About that third caution to innocent arriving students - Do not pick up females hitching a ride close by a state border! If you drive them into a new state you could be arrested under the Mann Act for "Interstate transportation of the female for immoral purposes".

No fellow I heard of ever reached the state of prosecution and whenever I saw a sign announcing, say, "State of Kansas two miles ahead", I made a point of stepping on the gas.

I thought, until a couple of days ago, that the ludicrous Mann Act had been long repealed, apparently not so. A young, very pretty woman in Louisiana, only half a dozen years ago, got caught by it.

She was a prostitute with a shrewd business sense and in no time turned into a successful and then very prosperous, upper crust madam, and in boisterous Louisiana, much admired madam.

She had 80 girls in her service when she made the mistake of extending her business to neighbouring states - Alabama, Mississippi - eventually a telephone service in Washington.

Now there is, as you know, no national police force in America but for any crime that involves crossing a state border that's when the FBI is allowed to step in.

They stepped into the lush life of Sylvia Landry and sentenced her to six years in jail.

An old restaurant owner in Baton Rouge, the state capital - where she'd serviced so many politicians, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, judges - he said: "It's outrageous. What a scandal. Six years for something that's been going on since Adam and Eve and the beginning of time!"

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