Ukraine is confronted with a stark choice: fight on through a bitter winter with death raining from above, or initiate negotiations with Russia under unfavorable terms. Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the leaders of the Greek island of Melos confronted a similar choice.
The leaders of Melos were faced with the prospect of either submitting to Athenian rule or risking annihilation. This was the proposition conveyed by the Athenian envoys, as recounted by Thucydides in his classic study of the Peloponnesian War. The Melians unequivocally had justice on their side. But Thucydides was at pains to show that justice alone is never enough. Unless right is allied with might, confidence in the truth of one’s cause can become a fatal trap—a siren song that too easily condemns the just to doom.
Hoping in Sparta—their motherland—the Melians refused any compromise with Athens that might weaken their independence. An early battlefield success bought the Melians some time, but their Spartan friends failed to arrive. Athens renewed its attack with a much larger force, and the island was roundly defeated. Its men were put to death, its women and children enslaved. Athens colonized the island with its own settlers.
The historical record of Thucydides’s morality tale is mixed.
Against reasonable odds, Britain prevailed against Nazi Germany in the air war of 1940, a feat doubly remarkable because British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had no ally to lean on in this hour of need. He refused to negotiate, and history applauded his choice.
French Marshal Philippe Pétain, by contrast, signed a peace deal. The French could have continued the struggle with their naval fleet and might have waged guerilla warfare, but their leader opted for safety, to his longstanding disgrace. A cloud of shame still hangs over the French nation today, albeit partially lifted by the heroic resistance movement and the military action led by General Charles de Gaulle.
During the same period, Finland offered a different lesson. In 1939, it fought heroically against Soviet aggression, with Western backing. After significant battlefield losses, it signed a peace agreement with the Soviet Union in March 1940, wherein it consented to the loss of substantial territory.