One question nags at us: Is this a Rich Strike moment?
The thoroughbred filly that beat 80-to-1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby is the greatest underdog to prevail in the Run for the Roses in more than a century. Her victory came in the same week that Louis Domingue, the journeyman Pittsburgh Penguins goalie — who spent more time in hockey’s minors than in the NHL and bounced around to five teams before he finally made it to sporting headlines — emerged as the hero of the playoffs, a third-stringer catapulted to the starting position and to fame when the team’s two other netminders were sidelined.
And of course these underdogs captured the attention of North America just as the ultimate underdog, a small democracy with an active-duty army smaller than that of Sri Lanka is winning global attention by holding off the superpower army of Russia, the fifth-largest in the world.
The world loves an underdog, and much of the world — except Armenia, Belarus, Cuba, China, Iran, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, an axis of indifference to, if not in defiance of, democratic values — is rooting for Ukraine.
“Literature, fiction, poetry ... makes justice in the world,” said the writer and poet Grace Paley, who died 15 years ago. “That’s why it almost always has to be on the side of the underdog.”
Right now, the Spring War of 2022 is stoking memories of the Winter War of 1939-1940, when in the early days of World War II tiny Finland held off the mighty Soviet Union — which had 203 times as many tanks and 51 times as many combat-ready aircraft — for 105 days before succumbing to superior force. Ukraine has kept Russia at bay for some 70 days.
“They are showing similar tenacity,” said Omer Bartov, a European historian at Brown University. “But the world in 1940 was a very different place from the world in 2022. The Allies were rooting for Finland, not only because it was fighting a mammoth power but also because the Soviet Union was the ‘big bad boy’ of the neighborhood and was allied with Nazi Germany.”
Finland and Ukraine do not stand alone in standing against superior force.
Turkish resistance at Gallipoli in 1915-16 pinned down a powerful British army, a devastating defeat for London. No one gave Gen. William Slim’s 14th Army much chance against a huge Japanese force in Burma, and yet the “Forgotten Army” defeated the Japanese in ferocious jungle warfare for which they were not trained. Israel repelled the armies of five Arab nations to establish the Jewish state in 1948.
There is more. Rebels of the Algerian resistance stood up to their French colonial masters in the 1950s, prompting the end of the Fourth Republic and the reemergence of Charles de Gaulle as the leader of the French. The North Vietnamese outlasted the Americans in Southeast Asia, forcing their 1975 withdrawal. Various strains of Afghan resistance staved off the British in the 19th century, the Soviets in the 20th and the Americans in the 21st.
But the underdogs of the greatest emotional relevance surely were the Americans of the 18th century, who defeated the British to win independence for the United States.
“The colonists were the clear underdogs,” said Tami Biddle, retired professor of military history at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “But we had the French Navy providing help from the outside — aid from abroad, which the Ukrainians now have in spades. We were a new country; there was no major city that determined everything. There was no easy way to take us down. Whenever you are fighting on ground you know, you have an advantage. For the Americans, the Finns, and now the Ukrainians — they know the land. The nuances of the land can work so much in your favor.”
Many other underdogs won acclaim, though seldom from the rich and the powerful, and in the end were defeated.
No one thought that Yemelyan Pugachev — an illiterate, an invalid and a spiritual wanderer — could foment a Russian peasant rebellion in the years before the American Revolution. But his force of Cossacks, farmers, miners and laborers, and his cry for the abolition of serfdom, along with his claims of being Tsar Peter III, attracted a wide following that barnstormed through eastern Russia until Catherine dispatched an army that defeated him and led to his execution.
No one expected that Toussaint Louverture, born into slavery but steeped in the classics and Enlightenment values, could lead a successful slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), defeat a French army, hold out for more than a decade, and stir profound fears of “slave insurrection” that terrified landowners in the American South. But he overreached and eventually was beaten by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
No one expected the Boers to offer much resistance to the British in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), but they proved astonishingly resistant. In the end, the British, employing a scorched-earth policy, prevailed.
In our time, no one expected the Ukrainians to hold off Vladimir Putin’s army, which expected a swift triumph and regarded the “special operation” as something of a military mopping-up operation. It turned out different — at least for now.
Last week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told G-7 leaders that his country was fighting for a full withdrawal of all Russian forces and military equipment from Ukraine, including Crimea, which Russia occupied in 2014. Prevailing in Ukraine without Crimea would be an astonishing achievement. Prevailing with Crimea? An upset for the ages.
Barry Goldwater once said he was “the most underdog underdog there is.” He surged in the 1964 primaries and won the GOP presidential nomination. Then he lost 44 states to Lyndon Johnson.
Goldwater eventually won bipartisan redemption, pleasing the right as the founding father of modern conservatism and the left by persuading the disgraced Richard M. Nixon to depart the presidency after the Watergate scandal and as a supporter of gay rights in the military. Above all, he had a fighting spirit that by the time of his death in 1998 won the admiration of all.
“The central thing is morale,” said Biddle, the Army War College scholar. “If you’re fighting for what you believe is a good cause, your fighting spirit can be unstoppable.”
Is this a Rich Strike moment? Perhaps it always is a Rich Strike moment.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.