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Authored by Dr. Jeffrey Record. | August 2005
No historical event has exerted more influence on post-World War II U.S. use-of-force decisions than the Anglo-French appeasement of Nazi Germany that led to the outbreak of the Second World War. Presidents have repeatedly cited the great lesson of the 1930s?namely, that force should be used early and decisively against rising security threats?to justify decisions for war and military intervention; some presidents have compared enemy leaders to Hitler. The underlying assumption of the so-called Munich analogy is that the democracies could and should have stopped Hitler (thereby avoiding World War II and the Holocaust) by moving against him militarily before 1939. This assumption, however, is easy to make only in hindsight and ignores the political, military, economic, and psychological contexts of Anglo-French security choices during the 1930s. Among the myriad factors constraining those choices were memories of the horrors of World War I, failure to grasp the nature of the Nazi regime and Hitler?s strategic ambitions, France?s military inflexibility, Britain?s strategic overstretch, France?s strategic dependence on Britain, guilt over the Versailles Treaty of 1919, dread of strategic bombing and misjudgment of the Nazi air threat, American isolationism, and distrust of the Soviet Union and fear of Communism.
Appeasement failed because Hitler was unappeasable. He sought not to adjust the European balance of power in Germany?s favor, but rather to overthrow it. He wanted a German-ruled Europe that would have eliminated France and Britain as European powers. But Hitler was also undeterrable; he embraced war because he knew he could not get what he wanted without it. There was thus little that the democracies could do to deter Hitler from war, though Hitler expected war later than 1939. There was going to be war as long as Hitler remained in power.
A reassessment of the history of appeasement in the 1930s yields the following conclusions: first, Hitler remains unequaled as a state threat. No post-1945 threat to the United States bears genuine comparison to the Nazi dictatorship. Second, Anglo-French security choices in the 1930s were neither simple nor obvious; theywere shaped and constrained by factors ignored or misunderstood by those who retrospectively have boiled them down to a simple choice between good and evil. Third, hindsight is not 20/20 vision; it distorts. We view past events through the prism of what followed. Had Hitler dropped dead before 1939, there would have been no World War II or Holocaust, and therefore no transformation of the very term ?appeasement? into a pejorative. Finally, invocations of the Munich analogy to justify the use of force are almost invariably misleading because security threats to the United States genuinely Hitlerian in scope and nature have not been replicated since 1945.
No post-1945 foreign dictatorship bears genuine comparison to the Nazi dictatorship. The scope of Hitler?s nihilism, ambitions, and military power posed a mortal threat to Western civilization. No other authoritarian or totalitarian regime has managed to employ such a powerful military instrument in such an aggressive manner to fulfill such a horrendous agenda. Stalin had great military power but was cautious and patient; he was a realist and neither lusted for war nor discounted the strength and will of the Soviet Union?s enemies. Mao Zedong was reckless but militarily weak. Ho Chi Minh?s ambitions and fighting power were local. And Saddam Hussein was never in a position to reverse U.S. military domination of the Persian Gulf. Who but Hitler was so powerful and unappeasable and undeterrable?
They were at every turn severely constrained by domestic politics, economic difficulties, perceptions of military inadequacy, and Hitler?s effective strategic deception regarding Nazi Germany?s intentions and capabilities. Appeasement of attempted German revision of theVersailles Treaty made both moral and strategic sense because the treaty was unjust, strategically short-sighted, and unenforceable. Nor was it politically possible for the democracies to forcibly oppose the reunification of the German nation within a single state; the victors of 1918 had violated Woodrow Wilson?s sacred principle of self-determination by prohibiting union of Germany and Austria and by creating the polyglot state of Czechoslovakia with unhappy German minorities in that state?s border areas with Germany.
Appeasement became untenable the moment Hitler demanded, under the threat of force, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia? which was not only a democratic state prepared to grant the Sudeten Germans considerable autonomy but also a significant military counterweight to German territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe. Yet neither Britain nor France was in a military position to defend Czechoslovakia, although Chamberlain?s threat of a general war deterred Hitler from seizing all of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Many hindsighters believe they now know what Britain and France (and for that matter the United States) should have done in the 1930s?regime change in Berlin via Hitler?s assassination or, failing that, an invasion of the Third Reich?because we all know that World War II and the Holocaust were the consequences of appeasement. These facts were hardly self-evident at the time. Today?s should runs afoul of yesterday?s could not and would not. British and French statesmen did not know they were on the road to general war; on the contrary, they were seeking to avoid it. In any case, neither assassination of the head of a major state nor the launching of preventive war against that state fell within the repertory of practical and politically acceptable policy options available to London and Paris. Past events are viewed through the lens of subsequent events. To be sure, Neville Chamberlain profoundly misjudged Hitler, but if Hitler had dropped dead the day after the Munich Conference of September 1938, Munich would in all likelihood be an historical footnote and ?appeasement? a non-pejorative term.
Such invocations have more often than not been misleading because security threats to the United States genuinely Hitlerian in scope and nature have not been replicated since 1945. Though the Munich analogy?s power as a tool of opinion mobilization is undeniable, no enemy since Hitler has, in fact, possessed Nazi Germany?s combination of military might and willingness?indeed, eagerness?to employ it for unlimited conquest. This does not mean the United States should withhold resort to force against lesser threats. Nor does it mean that Hitlerian threats are a phenomenon of the past; an al-Qaeda armed with deliverable nuclear weapons or usable biological weapons would pose a direct and much more lethal threat to the United States than Nazi Germany ever did.
The problem with seeing Hitler in Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Saddam Hussein is that it reinforces the presidential tendency since 1945 to overstate threats for the purpose of rallying public and congressional opinion, and overstated threats in turn encourage resort to force in circumstances where deterrence, containment, even negotiation (from strength) might better serve long-term U.S. security interests. Threats that are, in fact, limited tend to be portrayed in Manichaean terms, thus skewing the policy choice toward military action, a policy choice hardly constrained by possession of global conventional military primacy and an inadequate understanding of the limits of that primacy.
If the 1930s reveal the danger of underestimating a security threat, the post-World War II decades contain examples of the danger of overestimating a security threat.