Editor's note: We refeature this article for today's seventy-fifth anniversary of the Munich Agreement. “APPEASEMENT!” WHAT a powerful term it has become, growing evermore in strength as the decades advance. It is much stronger a form of opprobrium than even the loaded “L” word, since Liberals are (so their opponents charge) people with misguided political preferences; but talk of someone being an Appeaser brings us to a much darker meaning, that which involves cowardice, abandoning one’s friends and allies, failing to recognize evil in the world—a fool, then—or recognizing evil but then trying to buy it off—a knave. Nothing so alarms a president or prime minister in the Western world than to be accused of pursuing policies of appeasement. Better to be accused of stealing from a nunnery, or beating one’s family.
So it is a rather risky enterprise even for an academic to ask, in a scholarly way, whether acts of appeasing a rival might not sometimes be a good thing. You wanted to continue negotiations with Saddam Hussein? Appeaser. To avoid criticizing Chinese policies in Tibet? Appeaser. To wriggle out of Afghanistan? Appeaser. To give in to French air controllers’ wage demands? App . . . Well. Before such abuse of the term gets worse, perhaps we should all take a small History lesson.
Moreover, it seems most appropriate to return to the “appeasement debate” at this moment since we’ve just celebrated the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s assumption of the office of prime minister of Britain and the Commonwealth. In the evening of May 10, 1940, that pugnacious veteran politician arrived at Buckingham Palace and was asked by King George VI to try to form a new government. Just a short while earlier Neville Chamberlain had tendered the resignation of his administration, brought down by the military disasters in Norway, a large-scale revolt by his own Tory backbenchers and a general public demand for a much more decisive conduct of the war. Churchill assented to the king’s request and left the palace to form his own national coalition government. Appeasement shuffled off stage left, and anti-Appeasement, the ghost of Saint George and “Action This Day,” entered from the right. Auden’s dull, dishonest decade was over. The difference was total: night versus day; evil versus good; weakness versus courage.
BUT WAS the difference really so complete? It served well for wartime propaganda purposes and building public morale. It served again, and very well, for McCarthyite criticisms of “weak” U.S. foreign policies, criticism regarding the loss of China, conduct of the Korean War, the do-nothing posturing in Washington after successive Soviet crushings of East European uprisings, the loss of Vietnam and so on. The late and very great diplomatic historian at Harvard Ernest May once composed a slim work entitled “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 1973) with a chapter about false analogies of the Munich story. It is still worth a read, and perhaps no more so than today, when the American political establishment earnestly debates what should be done not only with regard to the imminent policy conundrums (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea) but also how to handle the more existential questions of the United States’ power and place in the world (see: rising China).
Before delving into the depths of the 1930s, a few general remarks concerning semantics and historical precedents. There was a time when appeasement was an inoffensive, even a rather positive term. The French word “l’apaisement,” from which it probably derives (or the earlier medieval-French apeser), meant the satisfying of an appetite or thirst, the bringing of comfort, the cooling of tensions. Even today, Webster’s dictionary’s first definition of “appease” is “to bring peace, calm; to soothe,” with the later negative meaning being, well, much later in the entry. Even when it was first employed in political discourse, its meaning was benign; in 1919, hoping to bring Europe from war to peace, Prime Minister David Lloyd George declared that his aim was appeasing the appetites of the peoples of the Continent. That was from a position of strength, not weakness.
Over the centuries, though, some governments have appeased other states out of a sense of vulnerability, or for the purposes of prudence. Thus, many eighteenth-century wars ended inconclusively—often with the surrender of a province or the handing back of captured territories—because statesmen mutually agreed that compromise was a lesser evil than further bloodshed and losses. Once the archconqueror Napoleon was totally defeated by all the other nations in 1813–15, this more moderate temperament returned to Europe. Limited wars, cutting deals, buying off a rival to avoid a conflict were commonplace acts. Even as the great powers entered the twentieth century, one of the most exceptional acts of appeasement, and repeated conciliation, was occurring—yet it is something that very few American pundits on appeasement today seem to know anything about. It was Great Britain’s decision to make a series of significant territorial and political concessions to the rising American Republic.
For example, in 1895 London decided on a diplomatic solution (read: concessions) regarding the disputed Venezuela–British Guiana border they had spent more than five decades arguing over because of the belligerent language coming out of Washington on the side of Caracas. In 1901, the cabinet overruled Admiralty opinion and agreed that Britain would give up its 50 percent share of a future isthmian (i.e., Panama) canal, to which it was perfectly entitled under the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty signed with the United States in 1850 to guarantee the waterway remained neutral. In 1903, London outraged Canadian opinion by siding with the U.S. delegates over the contentious Alaska–British Columbia border. Yet another retreat. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who so eagerly reckoned to benefit from an Anglo-American war that distracted his European rival, was bewildered that the British kept giving way—kept appeasing—when it was obvious to most naval observers that the far larger Royal Navy could have spanked the nascent U.S. fleet. London did not see things that way, because it had many other concerns: growing naval challenges from the Continent; a deteriorating situation in the Far East with the Chinese rising up against imperial forces during the Boxer Rebellion; jockeying with France over control of the Nile Valley; a Russian army advancing toward the Hindu Kush and Britain’s shaky Central Asian interests. Far better to buy the American imperialists off, preserve their enormous mutual trade across the Atlantic and save the cost of defending Canada. Sometimes, giving way made sense. In this case, appeasement worked, and arguably played a massive role in helping to bring the United States to an official pro-British stance as the two great wars of the twentieth century approached. Curiously, I have never seen any of our current American neocons and nationalists declare it was a bad thing that Britain essentially surrendered over the isthmian canal, Venezuela, the Bering Sea seal fisheries and the Alaska boundary.
THIS BACKGROUND is surely worth bearing in mind as we approach the Western democracies’ history of turning-the-other-cheek or of outright concessions to the revisionist nations of Japan, Germany and Italy as the 1930s unfolded. The list, we know, is shameful: Manchuria to Japan, Abyssinia for the Italians, the Rhineland to Germany, the Spanish Civil War and resultant rise of authoritarianism, Germany’s repeated violations of the Versailles arms-limitations treaties, the Japanese attack on China proper, the Anschluss, the Munich deal and annexation of the Sudetenland, the march into Prague, Italy’s assault upon Albania (and on the Soviet side, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Only in September 1939 did Britain and France decide, rather ironically—since Poland had shared a bit in the slice-up of Czechoslovakia in the previous year—that enough was enough when German forces crossed the Polish border, and that war could no longer be avoided.
And yet, hold on, for the historians who research about and teach this story will explain that there is an even-longer list of reasons why it took so long for the worms to turn. As Donald Lammers put it in a book many years ago called Explaining Munich (Hoover Institution, 1966) there seem to be so many justifications for Western appeasement policies that the real difficulty would have been to explain why they did not avoid a conflict with the dictators!
A fuller recitation is a tome unto itself of course. The broadest explanation, and surely still the most understandable, was the long shadow cast by the memories and losses of the First World War, a self-inflicted disaster for Europe of such magnitude that it was impossible to imagine that governments would want to go to war again. The hastily sewn-together peace settlements of 1919–1923 did not help, for they left lots of minorities on the “wrong” side of the newly drawn borders, all pressing that their complaints be appeased in some future settlement; and this in turn made the great powers who drew those boundaries uneasy, even guilty, about the many inconsistencies in the Treaty of Versailles. If there was any consolation, they thought to themselves, it was that these grievances could now be handled by the new wonder instrument of international politics: the League of Nations. And this despite the fact that it was no more than a shell organization without any military capacities of its own, and that some key larger nations were missing from its membership, above all, the very powerful though isolationist United States. While the American Republic had the capacity to bring down the world’s financial and trading system after 1929, it had no appetite for helping to uphold the postwar territorial changes. And when the global economy collapsed, well, who in their right minds would turn to armaments and war instead of retrenchment and looking after the home front? The democracies wouldn’t; the resentful nations would.Image: Pullquote: Nothing so alarms a president or prime minister in the Western world than to be accused of pursuing policies of appeasement. Better to be accused of stealing from a nunnery, or beating one’s family.Essay Types: Essay