With hawks pulling out the Munich analogy every time the US or UK makes a concession to some regime deemed sufficiently evil in the court of public opinion, Alex Massie revisits Neville Chamberlain’s actions at Munich* and wonders how clear it is that those actions were wrong. It’s good stuff, and a perspective I had never much thought about before.
While it is certainly possible, and in hindsight likely, that war in 1938 would have stopped the Nazis before they had the capacity to overrun the continent and engage in a prolonged war, this is by no means guaranteed. American neutrality laws at the time of Munich made it questionable at best whether the US would have been able to even offer the type of assistance that it offered the UK between 1939 and 1941, and it was only after Munich that talks between the US and France began on exporting aircraft to France (aircraft that did not arrive until 1940, at which time they were redirected to Britain). Moreover, the RAF had only 5 Spitfires and not a single Hurricane in service at the time of Munich. By comparison, the Germans already had well over 1000 Messerschmitt Bf 109s in service.
It’s also worth remembering how quickly France and the Low Countries fell to Germany in 1940 despite the presence of British troops. It seems difficult to conclude that a declaration of war upon Germany in 1938 instead of 1939 would have not only prevented this but would have clearly ensured a relatively quick victory for the allies. And what if war in 1938 changed nothing about how quickly France and the Low Countries would have fallen? Without the full strength of the Spitfires and Hurricanes, would Britain have been able to withstand the Nazi air campaign?
This, of course, also says nothing about the fact that the killing fields of the First World War were no more a distant memory for Britain and France in 1938 than the Cold War is a distant memory for the US in 2009.
None of this is to say that Chamberlain’s actions at Munich were ultimately correct – in hindsight, the fact of the Holocaust makes just about anything that would have at least had the possibility of preventing it the correct course of action, and more hawkish action by Britain and France prior to the invasion of Poland fits this bill. It is, however, to say that the notion that Munich somehow proves that appeasement is always and everywhere a wrong decision is an extremely dubious notion.
Finally, Massie throws in a quote from a WWII-era leader about Munich that brilliantly warns against using Munich as a lesson that a hawkish approach to conflict with other nations is the right approach:
“No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances. … Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. … How many wars have been precipitated by fire brands!”
That leader? Winston Churchill.
*Massie makes clear that criticism of Chamberlain’s failure to do anything in 1936 is an entirely different issue altogether.
UPDATE: Relatedly, I see that Will has made a similar point about the claim that the decision to pull back on missile defense is equivalent to doing nothing to save the Hungarian Spring uprising in 1956, noting that the decision to do nothing in 1956 was the right decision. This claim seems to be the perfect example of what I was referring to here in noting that the Cold War is just as fresh in our minds today as WWI was in 1938. If hawks wish to claim that Chamblerlain’s actions at Munich were overly influenced by the fear of another WWI, then they should be willing to recognize that they may be overly influenced by the fear of another Cold War.