I first heard the remarkable phrase that serves as my title in 1946 when, fresh out of the US Army, I went up to New Haven, Connecticut for an interview with the chairman of the Yale Classics Department, to which, taking advantage of the generous provisions of what was popularly known as the GI Bill, I had applied for admission to the graduate program for the Ph.D. in Classics. I had submitted a copy of my certificate of the BA I had received from St. Johns College, Cambridge in 1936. I did not make any mention of the fact that I had made rather a mediocre showing in the final part of the Tripos, ending up with a second class (at least, I comforted myself, I did better than Auden, who got a third, and Housman, who failed completely). To jazz my application up a bit, I had included my record in the US Army, private to captain 1942-45. The Professor, who had himself served in the US Army in 1917-18, was very interested, and remarked on the fact that, in addition to the usual battle-stars for service in the European Theatre, I had been awarded a Croix de Guerre a l’Ordre de l’Armée, the highest category for that decoration. Asked how I got it, I explained that, in July 1944, I had parachuted, in uniform, behind the Allied lines in Brittany to arm and organize French Resistance forces and hold them ready for action at the moment most useful for the Allied advance. “Why were you selected for that operation?” he asked, and I told him that I was one of the few people in the US Army who could speak fluent, idiomatic, and (if necessary) pungently coarse French. When he asked me where I had learned it, I told him that I had fought in 1936 on the northwest sector of the Madrid front in the French Battalion of the XIth International Brigade. “Oh,” he said, “You were a premature anti-Fascist.”
I was taken aback by the expression. How, I wondered, could anyone be a premature anti- Fascist? Could there be anything such as a premature antidote to a poison? A premature antiseptic? A premature antitoxin? A premature anti-racist? If you were not premature, what sort of anti-Fascist were you supposed to be? A punctual anti-Fascist? A timely one? In fact, in the '30s, as the European situation moved inexorably toward war, the British and French governments (the French often under pressure from the British) passed up one timely opportunity after another to become anti-Fascist. They did nothing when Adolf Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations and began a massive rearmament program (except that the British government negotiated an Anglo-German Naval Treaty that gave Hitler the right to build the U- boats that, in the early '40s, came close to starving Britain into surrender). No action was taken when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, demolishing the buffer against an invasion of France created by the Versailles Treaty. They allowed Hitler and Mussolini to supply Franco with planes, tanks, guns and troops, while enforcing a so-called Non-Intervention Agreement that cut off supplies to the Government. They remained silent while Mussolini conquered Abyssinia and Hitler annexed Austria. And in 1938, they sold down the river for a ludicrous illusion of Peace in Our Time the only strong, democratic state in Eastern Europe that might have been a deterrent to Hitler’s plans for expansion, the Czechoslovak Republic. You couldn’t call Chamberlain, Daladier and Laval ‘timely anti-Fascists’. They declared war on Hitler in 1939 as he invaded Poland, a declaration that gave no help to the Poles, who were crushed between the armies of Hitler from one side and Stalin from the other. So what kind of anti-Fascists were they? My French maquisards had a phrase for the Frenchmen who, in 1944, as the Allied armies broke out of the Normandy pocket and raced across France in pursuit of the retreating Wehrmacht, finally tried to join the Resistance. Resistants de la dernière heure was their contemptuous name for them - ‘last- minute anti-Fascists’. It is a perfect description of Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax.
But in 1939, last-minute was too late. Too late to save the millions who died in the death camps; too late to save the soldiers and sailors who died in the campaigns in Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, France and Germany, at Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa and many other places Americans had never heard of; too late to save the civilians who, like the inhabitants of Guernica, died under the bombs in Rotterdam, London, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Hiroshima. It would have been better to be premature.