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On the Use and Abuse of Munich

Please, American blowhards: No more analogies to 1938

German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons

It was no certainty that John Kerry and his colleagues from other countries would be able to conclude their recent deal with Iran. But what was absolutely certain was what would come next: Immediate shouts of “Munich.”

Needless to say, Benjamin Netanyahu—who keeps a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill in his office, and for whom every month is September 1938—has cried betrayal: Barack Obama is the new Neville Chamberlain, and the Iran agreement is a new Munich. The refrain quickly sounded on Capitol Hill. For one example among many, Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex) tweeted “Worse than Munich,” along with a link to a Breitbart News item that juxtaposed Kerry and his Iranian counterpart with Hitler and Chamberlain, respectively. Allen West is no longer a Florida congressman, but he remembered to chime in: “America just had a modern-day Neville Chamberlain moment.” 

Mind you, sympathy for Kerry should be qualified. In Paris in early September—speaking in the accurate French for which the Republicans once derided him— Kerry tried to persuade a skeptical French public about the need to intervene in Syria: “This is our Munich moment ... our chance to join together and pursue accountability over appeasement.” 

But then when is it not a Munich moment? “I think that no episode, perhaps, in modern history has been more misleading than that of the Munich conference,” George Kennan told the Senate in 1965. By that point, words “Munich,” “appeasement,” and “Chamberlain,” had not been merely misunderstood, as Kennan said, but repeatedly misprized and misapplied, very often with disastrous consequences. A complete list would fill a book, but here are a few items.

When Communist forces invaded South Korea in 1950, President Harry Truman invoked the spectre of Munich as the United States went to war: There must be no appeasement this time. After the initial American disasters, General Douglas MacArthur landed behind enemy lines at Inchon and drove the invading forces deep into North Korea. As he approached the border with China on the Yalu River he was warned that any further advance might provoke Chinese intervention; MacArthur replied that to halt would be to appease the Chinese, as the British had appeased Hitler. He duly advanced to the Yalu, whereupon a vast Chinese army fell on his forces and drove them all the way back again.

In 1956, the whole woeful Suez adventure was infused by “Munich” and a dread of appeasement. Sir Anthony Eden had succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister the previous year, and when Colonel Nasser seized the Suez Canal, Eden warned President Eisenhower that Nasser’s action echoed the occupation of the Rhineland 20 years before. Eden was in a much stronger position to use such language than our present-day armchair warriors. Apart from having served gallantly as an infantry officer in the Great War, where he won the Military Cross rescuing one of his men under fire, he resigned as Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary in 1938 in protest of appeasement.

He was not alone in making the comparison. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Leader of the Opposition, told Parliament that Nasser’s aggression "is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war.” When there was a hint of concession to Nasser, the octogenarian Churchill himself was heard muttering offstage, “I never knew Munich was a city on the Nile.” And so British troops landed in Egypt to avenge Chamberlain’s humiliation eighteen years earlier.

Then came the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. General Curtis LeMay had once directed the great air raids—what he liked to call the “fire jobs”—in which hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had been incinerated; his career would end in 1968 as running mate to the segregationist George Wallace. In between, LeMay had risen to be Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. He was now eager to bomb Cuba, and angrily told Kennedy to his face that his refusal to do so was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.”

That Senate hearing where Kennan spoke was on Vietnam. During the 1964 presidential election, the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, was derided for saying that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” He replied by saying that Churchill “once was called an extremist— and that’s quite a popular word around today—because he spoke up for Britain’s defense at a time when appeasement was popular.” His opponent was the incumbent, President Lyndon Johnson. While vice president he had visited Saigon and, in one of the least plausible invocations there have ever been of the great name, hailed the South Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, as “the Churchill of Asia,” although that didn’t stop the Kennedy administration giving a nod to the coup which deposed and then killed Diem at the beginning of November 1963, as it turned out only three weeks before Kennedy was himself was shot. Far from shrugging off Goldwater’s words, LBJ was captured by them. He sent ever more American troops to a doomed war in Indo-China, because “I didn’t want to be no Chamberlain umbrella man.” Johnson often repeated afterwards that he couldn’t bear to seem an appeaser. Why Are We In Vietnam? asked the title of Norman Mailer’s book. One answer might be, Because of “Munich”.

But if any one group did their best to corner the Munich market it was the neoconservatives, who invoked the comparison with monotonous regularity. In 1977, Norman Podhoretz decried “the latest culture of appeasement,” and said that “the parallels with England in 1937 are here.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, Podhoretz’s essay was accompanied by a drawing of Jimmy Carter carrying an umbrella. Jeane Kirkpatrick chimed in, writing contemptuously of ''the mirage of a peaceful alternative to war'' which is really a defeat, and added that “'The classic textbook example is Neville Chamberlain's 'peace in our time' compromise at Munich.'' Even a Republican president couldn’t escape being Muniched. In 1985, Newt Gingrich said that Reagan’s first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev was “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

After that is was Bill Clinton’s turn. “The word that best describes Clinton administration policy is appeasement,” Robert Kagan and William Kristol snorted in 1999. Sheer exhaustion inhibits me from listing all the “Munichs” and “appeasements” we heard when anyone questioned the wisdom of the Iraq war, while President Bush the Younger contemplated his bust of Churchill. “The establishment fights most bitterly and dishonestly when it feels cornered and thinks it’s about to lose,” Kristol wrote in 2002. “Churchill was attacked more viciously in 1938 and 1939 than earlier in the decade.” This piece was called—guess what?— “The Axis of Appeasement.”

More recently, when the short, sharp conflict between Russia and Georgia erupted in the summer of 2008 there was a grim inevitability about the invocations of you-know-what. Gerard Baker is an English journalist, and an Anglo-neocon, who now edits the Wall Street Journal, but was then writing for the London Times. He contemptuously described President Nicolas Sarkozy of France going to Moscow, and coming back "waving a piece of paper and acclaiming peace in our time.” And in the Washington Post, Kagan compared the Russian attack on Georgia to the 1938 "Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia."  

Even then, the Open Champion for Muniching must be Netanyahu, whose latest effusions were part of a much larger oeuvre. Its high point may have been his 1995 book A Place Among the Nations, where he dilates at length on the Israeli predicament in terms of Hitler, Chamberlain and Munich, and on the supposed analogies between the 1930s and his own time. The Arabs states are the Third Reich, wrote Netanyahu, Israel is Czechoslovakia, “Judea and Samaria” (aka the West Bank) are the Sudetenland, and the demand for a Palestinian state is the agitation by the Sudeten Nazis under Konrad Henlein.

Now leave aside the breathtaking vulgarity and unseemliness of those comparisons. What was Munich actually about? The new disposition of Europe after the Great War had supposedly redrawn borders on the principles of nationality and “self-determination”, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, with his characteristic mixture (I nearly wrote “characteristic American mixture ...”) of arrogance and ignorance. His pompous and preachy “Fourteen Points” included the adjustment of frontiers along “clearly recognisable lines of nationality,” and “The people of Austria-Hungary ... should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.”

But little of the kind happened. The supposedly national “successor states” of interwar Europe were in practice just as much “prison houses of the nations” as the multinational empires they had succeeded. It soon became a touchstone of liberal opinion, not least in America, that the treaties imposed on the defeated powers had been unjust and had created new ill-used minorities, and one in particular. The artificial new state of Czechoslovakia did not recognise “clearly recognisable lines of nationality,” as H.N. Brailsford, in his day the leading radical English commentator on foreign affairs, observed in 1920. Of all the redrawing of borders, Brailsford wrote, "the worst offence was the subjection of over three million Germans to Czech rule.” 

Just about the only thing that makes sense in those comparisons by Netanyahu and Kagan is that the Palestinians no more want to be ruled by Israelis, and the people of South Ossetia no more want to be ruled by Georgians, than the Bohemian or Sudeten Germans wanted to be ruled by Czechs. When Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler, and agreed to cede the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia to Germany, he thought he was remedying that injustice. And that was why A.J.P. Taylor wrote — albeit provocatively — in his 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War, that Munich “was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life.” What’s more, though little known, Winston Churchill had no rooted objection to the dismemberment as such of Czechoslovakia. He said so to a colleague of Edvard Beneš, the Czech president.

His objection, set out in his great speech to Parliament in the Munich debate, was to what “everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” Whatever the original rights or wrongs, Chamberlain had capitulated to brute force. And with his peroration Churchill staked his claim in the event of a war which most people dreaded: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

At Munich, Chamberlain had not wanted to prepare for war. He had wanted to avert it. But he could not, and on September 3, 1939, he did take the country to war, on a point of honor. His policy of appeasement had not been intended to buy time so that Great Britain could be better prepared for war, although that was what happened: Between September 1938 and September 1939, radar was installed round the British coastline and the RAF acquired the fast monoplane fighters, Spitfire and Hurricane, without which he Battle of Britain would have been lost. 

But there is more to the story. On the day the war began Churchill was at last recalled to the government, and he gave a short, wonderful speech in Parliament specially convened that historic Sunday. Compared with his speeches in 1940 it is barely known. It should be read regularly in Washington:

In this solemn hour it is a consolation to recall and to dwell upon our repeated efforts for peace. All have been ill-starred, but all have been faithful and sincere. This is of the highest moral value—and not only moral value, but practical value—at the present time, because the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions of men and women, whose co-operation is indispensable and whose comradeship and brotherhood are indispensable, is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted. This moral conviction alone affords that ever-fresh resilience which renews the strength and energy of people in long, doubtful and dark days. Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace. Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest.

Those words were a specific repudiation of any doctrine of preemptive war. Churchill said, and meant, that the country which had tried to avoid war rather than the country which had started it was the one which would be morally strengthened and sustained.

One thing I should like to add, courteously but firmly, is this: invocations of Munich and appeasement by Americans are quite intolerable and disgraceful. I wasn’t around then, but my parents’ generation lived through the war and served in it. None of them wanted war, however much they hated Hitler, and Londoners had been warned — by Churchill as well as Stanley Baldwin — that bombing would kill vast numbers of them. In the event, the effects of bombing were not as severe as Churchill and others had foreseen, although 60,000 British civilians were killed by The Luftwaffe while they saw it through to the end.

And what were you doing at the time, my American friends? After 1918, the United States had withdrawn from the world. The Senate refused to join the new League of Nations, hobbling it from the start, Congress slammed the door on immigrants, which later doomed desperate Jews fleeing Europe. The Democrats were at least as isolationist as the Republicans, and even if President Franklin Roosevelt had wanted to intervene against the threat from Hitler’s Germany, which he did not, public opinion would not have let him. 

In October 1937 Roosevelt did speak publicly of the need to “quarantine” the aggressors -- and as Walter Lippmann noted at the time, the speech had “an exceedingly unfavorable popular reaction”. A Gallup poll that year found that 70 per cent of Americans thought it had been a mistake to fight in the Great War, and 71 per cent were opposed to American action against foreign dictators. In 1938 -- the year of Munich -- another poll showed that half of all Americans thought the Jews had too much power in the United States, and a quarter sympathized with Hitler’s expulsion of German Jews. 

After Munich, Roosevelt sent a telegram reading "Good man" to Chamberlain, and told the American ambassador in Rome, "I am not a bit upset over the final result." As late as the fall of 1940, he was still campaigning for a third term on the unambiguous promise to keep the United States out of any foreign wars. And the United States remained neutral while the British fought on, for more than two years, until Japan attacked Pear Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States, and not the other way, be it noted.

One future president had been in London shortly before the war, where his father Joseph P. Kennedy (that corrupt antisemitic bigot, who sympathised with Hitler, said that Germany should be conciliated before the war began, and thought that England would lose when it did) had been Roosevelt’s eccentric choice as American ambassador. On his return home, young Jack Kennedy wrote drily to his father in London that the American people were united in their determination “to fight to the last Englishman.” 

Bearing his words, and FDR’s, in mind, it would be a very good idea if American abjured any references to Munich whatever. Why do I think that isn’t going to happen?