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(HOST) Some members of the Bush administration relate those who question the Iraq war to defeatists who sought to accommodate Nazi Germany before the outbreak of World War II. Commentator Vic Henningsen takes a look at the phenomenon of what was called “appeasement.”

(HENNINGSEN) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently told an audience heavily populated with World War II vets that critics of the Iraq War “seem not to have learned history’s lessons” – a thinly veiled reference to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.

Appeasement is a policy of making concessions to a potential aggressor in order to preserve peace. Its most famously associated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who sold out Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich in September 1938, believing Germany’s promise to make no further demands. Why, he asked, should Britain risk war for the sake of – quote – “a far-away country of which we know very little and whose language we don’t understand.” End quote.

Chamberlain’s effort to secure what he called “peace in our time” was enormously popular with Europeans whose vivid memories of the bloodletting of the First World War made them willing to do almost anything to avoid another. But appeasement was a masterpiece of self-delusion: akin, said one pundit, to throwing meat to a hungry lion on the assumption that it would turn vegetarian. Hitler had broken every promise he made and he broke this one too, plunging the world into war less than a year after Munich.

From then on, appeasement became a dirty word, an epithet thrown at timid souls who didn’t believe that the correct response to aggression was resistance, rather than conciliation. Cold War policy-makers cited the so-called “lessons of Munich” to justify massive defense spending in support of an aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union.

But, as is often true in history, the supposed “lessons of Munich” were over-learned and over-applied. The knowledge that appeasement helped bring on World War II led Cold War leaders to over-zealous application of force or the threat of force in response to virtually any challenge. The memory of appeasement was implicit in the “domino theory”: the prevailing belief of the time that if one nation fell to communist aggression, its neighbors would also fall one by one, as Europe had fallen to Hitler. Those who opposed American use of force in the face of perceived Communist aggression were denounced as “appeasers”. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson feared such accusations, which contributed to their decisions committing the United States to its ill-fated venture in Vietnam, where we learned that we were not confronting Hitler-like territorial aggression, but something much more complicated and less easily understood.

And that, I think, is the point. The ghosts of Munich haunted American leaders of the 1960’s and led them to disaster. When today’s leaders tar their opponents as appeasers who haven’t learned from the past, we should reject such irresponsible rhetoric and remember that history teaches many lessons. The flawed assumptions of those who made war in the 1960’s were connected to the flawed assumptions of those who sought to avoid it in the 1930’s. Thoughtful leaders must examine both.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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