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    Middle East
     Jul 31, 2009
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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 Cuba.

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 deal.

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 weak.

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 ensues.

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 Frederick Hartmann.

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.

Rhetorical baggage
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".

Continued 1 2  

Israel wrestles with Iran problem
(Jul 31, '09)

Behind the mind games in the Gulf
(Jul 16, '09)

Israel wrestles with Iran problem

2. A midsummer tale of two Chinese spies

3. No escape for Fed

4. Russia and Iran join hands

5. Musharraf misses his day in court

6. Wilhelmine China?

7. Pakistan turns on its jihadi 'assets'

8. Middle-class suicide

9. A lesson in imperial paranoia

10. The Caspian boils again

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET,July 29, 2009)


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