In Lynne Olson's new book, Troublesome Young Men, I was particularly struck by a passage describing the intense political fight in Britain in the late 1930s as Tory dissidents sought to unseat their prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, over his policy of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini. Everyone expected the worst of any new war (for example, massive aerial bombing with poison gas); the only question was whether Britain could somehow avoid it.
Olson describes the bitter feuding among the Tories on pages 171-175. An excerpt, quoting Churchill: "Among Conservatives, families and friends in intimate contact were divided to a degree the like of which I have never seen. Men and women, long bound by party ties, social amenities, and family connections, glared upon one another in scorn and anger." Another source recalled at least a dozen married couples who were bitterly divided. Of course, some still conducted themselves with a certain style: "A debate over appeasement at the home of Kenneth Clark became so rancorous that one dinner guest, an eminent Oxford don, roared at another guest: 'I look forward to using your skull as an inkpot.'"
One source of the right-left divide in the US today is deep disagreement over the Islamist threat. The comparison with the Tories in Britain before World War II is not perfect. Some who say the 'war on terror' is overblown or counterproductive genuinely believe it, or are focusing on the many mistakes in executing that war. However, now it is quite clear that those who speak out against Islamism face the very real threat of physical violence and/or legal action. The inevitable question arises: how many downplay the Islamist threat because they fear what would happen if they opposed it? The appeasement-minded Tories were at least honest enough to acknowledge that they feared another cataclysmic war.