The Misappropriation of Munich

Colin Dueck and Jeffrey Record point out that historical analogies tend to "mislead, rather than inform."

Returning from Munich in late September 1938, a triumphant Neville Chamberlain proclaimed to the British public, "I believe that it is peace in our time."  In exchange for Hitler's assurances that Germany's territorial expansion would cease, the British prime minister had agreed to cede Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland to der Führer. Ironically, by agreeing to Hitler's demands, Chamberlain whetted the dictator's appetite for war and conquest.

Almost seventy years later, Chamberlain's strategic miscalculation serves as a warning to policymakers about the futility of appeasement.  The breakdown of the Munich Agreement seems to prove that dangerous dictators are irrational, unreliable and undeterrable.

Unfortunately, as Jeffrey Record of the Air War College and Colin Dueck of George Mason University noted at a National Interest event yesterday, American politicians have consistently misapplied the "lessons of Munich."  Record observed that, since 1945, policymakers have used the failure of the Munich Agreement to both inform their own decisions and persuade the public to support specific policies.  Since the Munich Agreement does not provide an appropriate guide to understanding post-1945 crises, the application of this analogy leads to the implementation of poor policy choices. 

Dueck added that when policymakers utilize historical analogies to influence their decisions and rally public support, they tend to ignore the significant differences between the present situation and the chosen historical examples. For instance, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Bush Administration publicly reasoned that the reconstruction of a post-Saddam Iraq would be as successful as the occupations of post-World War II Germany and Japan.  However, even a cursory examination of Germany and Japan in 1945 reveals that those countries exhibited unique factors that made them especially receptive to democratic reforms.  There are many examples of unsuccessful attempts at nation-building-Somalia and Haiti, for instance-that the current administration chose to ignore.   

If analogies-in particular, the lesson of Munich-often lead to incorrect judgments, why are they still present in policy discourse?  As part of the prologue to America's "last great war", the Munich Agreement remains imprinted on the collective U.S. imagination.  In the discussion following the comments of Record and Dueck, Michael Vlahos remarked that World War II-related analogies connect Americans to "our mythical past", allowing us to preserve our sense of national identity. The war's continued relevance is such that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, neither of whom actually experienced that conflict, used examples from that era to justify certain policy decisions.

Furthermore, the lessons of Munich are unlikely to be discarded because Americans tend to have a poor knowledge of history.  In order to gain approval for proposed military interventions, American presidents often present their policies in moralistic terms.  To successfully appeal to the citizenry's sense of moral outrage, presidents and policymakers must paint their enemies as wicked and irrational.  As Hitler may be the only recent historical figure that almost all Americans recognize as unquestionably evil, policymakers have been quick to point out the resemblance between the German dictator and contemporary U.S. adversaries.  Of course, these comparisons tend to be faulty. Even the cruel and aggressive Saddam Hussein was not as disposed to risk-taking as Hitler was.

Indeed, the Munich Agreement has cast a long shadow over U.S. foreign policy. For instance, its troubling influence can be perceived in the United States' refusal to consent to direct talks with the North Korean government.  The failure of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement almost seven decades ago has convinced the Bush Administration that the desire to negotiate is an indication of weakness of will.  The crises in North Korea and Iran could be managed more effectively if the United States showed some readiness to engage unsavory regimes with whom it shares some common interests.  Similarly, if the British and French political classes had sought closer ties with the Soviet Union before the outbreak of World War II, they might have been able to more effectively resist Hitler. Perhaps then, the real lesson of the Munich Agreement is not that the demands of rogue states should be ignored, but that in order the control crises, some dialogue with unsavory regimes may be necessary.

Marison Morrison ([email protected]) is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.