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History professor discusses 'the gathering storm' before World War II

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, left, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, center, and Soviet Marshal Joseph Stalin attend the Yalta Conference in Yalta, Russia, February 1945.

Hal Elliott Wert of Kansas City is a professor of history at the Kansas City Art Institute and the author of “Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints” and “Hoover: The Fishing President.” He started teaching at the institute in 1972, after graduating from the University of Iowa and getting master’s and a doctoral degrees at the University of Kansas.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the events Winston Churchill called “the gathering storm” that led to the outbreak of World War II, Wert shared his thoughts recently on a talk he called “1939: Into the Abyss."

Is war inevitable in 1939?

Nothing is inevitable in history, but it looks as if things are going to hell very quickly. All during the 1930s, Britain, France and the United States are doing everything they can to duck.

By March 1939, when Hitler violates the Munich Agreement (by invading Czechoslovakia), it was clear that he has expansionist designs and that Poland is probably next and war is probably unavoidable. The British make a guarantee to Poland, and it’s a line in the sand; they know Poland can’t be defended.

What else happens in 1939 that affects the conflict with Germany?

The Spanish Civil War comes to an end and Franco prevails. Had he not, you might be looking at a communist Spain. The Germans had supplied Franco with some ground troops, and we gave him food to try to de-couple him from the Germans.

1939 also brings the Russo-Finnish War. The U.S. dances around without providing direct military aid to Finland, but Franklin Roosevelt violates neutrality laws and does a kind of Iran-Contra deal.

You were allowed to sell surplus items, so we took some brand new Brewsters (aircraft) off aircraft carriers and called them surplus and had the Swedes pay for them and had Canadian pilots fly them to Iceland. From there they got flown to Finland, but they ended up fighting against the Russians when the Finns joined the Germans to get back the territory they lost in the Russo-Finnish war.

Why doesn’t America want to get involved in Europe?

In 1939 we are beginning to peek out of the Depression.

It’s a wonderful year for movies and books. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” comes out. Hollywood puts out “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It’s been called the greatest year in film.

In sports, Seabiscuit is running well. Things are looking good here.

Do you see any parallels between the 1939 and 2014?

Yeah, I do. I think we have turned our backs on the Middle East, and I think we’ll pay a terrible price for that. This may not happen, there is no crystal ball, but Syria has the potential to be a tinderbox that sets off the whole region.

I think since the end of the Cold War, the chance of a nuclear exchange between two nations has gone up astronomically. The potential of Israel and Iran to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the other puts us in a situation of trying to manage a hair trigger, and how do you do that? You have a similar situation with India and Pakistan.

I think there is another parallel: Like Britain and France in 1939, the U.S. in 2014 is basically ducking. We are coming out of two long wars and a serious recession, and we are ready to make any deal to avoid another war. There is no will in America for war now, none.

How do you respond to people on the left and the right who ask why the U.S. should be the world’s policeman?

Because we are the only ones who can.

People say let the Europeans deal with it — they can’t. The test was Yugoslavia, and they totally failed. (President) Clinton waited too long, but the U.S. finally had to go in. German nationalism has turned into pacifism. The average age in the Dutch army is 43, and they have a union.

So the question becomes: If you want to retreat, who do you want to step up? Russia? China? Brazil? There’s nobody I want to step up.

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