Page 1 of 2 THE ART OF APPEASEMENT, Part I Unraveling a patchwork of improvised disaster
By David Young
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In the early stages of the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, Adlai
Stevenson, United States president John F Kennedy's notoriously dovish United
Nations ambassador, suggested that Washington offer Moscow a
non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our
missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from
On hearing his advice, Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group
(assembled to troubleshoot the crisis)
scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when
Britain and France in the late 1930s appeased German leader Adolf Hitler prior
to World War II. Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants
like Hitler and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with diplomacy. But then, lo
and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, Kennedy went ahead and made nearly
the exact same "appeasing" trade that Stevenson had recommended.
It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well - and there is
a virtual consensus that he did - then appeasement is appropriate as long as no
one knows about it. Ironically, the only party with whom the US ever felt a
need to be secretive was the Soviet Union, and they were the only ones privy to
The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American
people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and
weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful
blockade of Cuba. Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to
mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to
throw him under the bus. But why?
With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations,
the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the past 70 years to rouse the
rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil.
Unsurprisingly, however, the disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement
has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any
policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded
foreign policy. Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even
when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the
And with the Barack Obama administration making numerous overtures of
re-engagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close
examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is
pertinent. Anti-appeasement rhetoric and survival instincts run amok have
clouded our judgment, and it is time to right the ship.
In September 1938, after Adolf Hitler annexed and occupied part of
Czechoslovakia for the ostensible purpose of taming ethnic conflict, British
prime minister Neville Chamberlain and French premier Edouard Daladier signed
the Munich Agreement that allowed Hitler to keep the territory, despite a
previous French security guarantee protecting Czechoslovakia's sovereignty. In
return for this concession, Hitler promised not to seize any more territory,
but he soon invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland, forcing Britain and
France to declare war.
By the close of the war, the appeasement lesson had been drawn quickly and
fiercely, leaving behind a legacy with a seemingly eternal shelf life. Barely
beneath the surface of every subsequent history textbook, the parable of Munich
is loud and clear: the longer we wait to stand up to a bully, the more the
bully will take by force - and the weaker we will be when war inevitably
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to exploring the nuances of appeasement is that
the approach of the British and French toward Nazi Germany in the 1930s is
widely regarded as perhaps the most catastrophic example of appeasement on
record. As a result, it would have been impossible for us not to forge a nearly
unbreakable association between raw appeasement and cataclysmic disaster. Nor
has anyone really resisted this impulse.
Before Munich, however, the policy of appeasement was almost institutional in
its prevalence and application, both in Britain and elsewhere. Yet while
historians in recent decades have been reconsidering just how abnormal or
scandalous British and French decisions were, the popular package of
appeasement today is still painted thick with cavalier weakness, much in
accordance with the policy's notable detractors.
"It is precisely when the vital interests are bartered in return for minor
concessions, or none at all, that appeasement has taken place," says author
Chamberlain's mistake, then, was his assumption that Hitler would keep his
promise not to demand more territory when nothing had been asked of Hitler to
begin with. "Appeasement is a corrupted policy of compromise, made erroneous by
mistaking a policy of imperialism for a policy of the status quo," according to
German Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), the father of realpolitik. Chamberlain and
Daladier thought Hitler would settle for the status quo, when really it turned
out that he would settle for nothing less than world domination. In other
words, Morgenthau argues, the appeaser's error is the failure to see that
"successive demands are but links of a chain at the end of which stands the
overthrow of the status quo".
In the case of World War II, Britain and France hoped to avoid war by appeasing
Germany on several occasions, but both eventually recognized that war was
unavoidable, given the unlimited nature of Germany's demands. Britain and
France, the thinking goes, should have known in Munich - if not earlier - that
neither Hitler's character nor his ambitions could be trusted, and that
appeasement would only whet his appetite. Accordingly, Hitler should have been
confronted as soon as possible to prove Europe's resolve, to mitigate the costs
of war, and to ensure victory.
Much of this surely sounds like common sense. When confronted with such a
threat, the most common response is to close ranks and project as strong an
image as possible. After all, weakness is not just bad for a nation's ego. "The
lesson of Munich," writes political scientist Steve Chan, "is that appeasement
discredits the defenders' willingness to fight, and encourages the aggressor to
escalate his demands." But appeasement does so much more than that.
Given the tight fit between appeasement, World War II and the Holocaust, it is
critical to note that any defense of appeasement need not defend all
appeasement - no more than defending one war requires a defense of all wars. To
date, our very powerful psychological association between appeasement and
Hitler's behavior has prevented us from considering alternatives to our
understandable gut feeling that appeasement will always lead to a Holocaust.
Such a fallacious assumption is based not on sound public policy, but rather on
the sensation that "doing something" - or anything, for that matter - is always
better than "doing nothing", which leaves us feeling impotent.
The most difficult hurdle inevitably facing any advocates of negotiated
settlement is the thin line between compromise and appeasement, but their vague
differences do not merely point to word games.
Technically speaking, Munich was a compromise; it assured Germany that it could
keep its annexed territory, and it assured the British and French that they
could avoid a war. Hitler had to make a concession, as did the British and
French. Granted, it quickly became clear that Hitler's promise not to claim any
more territory was completely insincere, but it was still promised in a
compromise. Believing Hitler's pledge may have been a disastrous mistake, as
most people believe, but the way this mistake and others like it are framed
actually points to an important distinction.
At the time, before Hitler had violated the agreement, Winston Churchill - then
only an outspoken figure in the British opposition - denounced Munich as
appeasement. "It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced," Churchill noted
in September 1938, nine days before Munich, "but also the freedom and security
of all nations. The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small
state to the wolves is a fatal delusion." Hitler was known for breaking
promises, so in Churchill's eyes, the futility and danger of appeasing Berlin
with part of Czechoslovakia should have been patently obvious.
Yet if appeasement is simply what happens when we are fooled into trusting a
liar, then Churchill (and anyone else) could only determine if Munich was
appeasement after Hitler violated the agreement's terms. Appeasement, in other
words, is an entirely retrospective phenomenon, and if decried during a
negotiation process, the label is simply a moral judgment and a prediction.
From a historical perspective, however, to be fairly labeled "appeasement", an
agreement - implicit or explicit - has to backfire; one party has to violate
the agreement's terms and make a fool out of the other party. Otherwise, we
would still view the agreement as a "compromise" rather than "appeasement".