A Time to Appease

A Time to Appease

Mini Teaser: Appeaser! The worst insult to emerge from our political lexicon. As America grapples with exhausting overseas commitments, bringing our might to bear will require a new sort of History lesson.

by Author(s): Paul Kennedy

And when the revisionist powers moved, they moved slowly and often appealed to precedents established by the status quo nations. In Manchuria, the Japanese were walloping the Chinese for the attacks (sic) on their railways. But had the British not done a similar thing when they sent a large force to Shanghai in 1926 in response to attacks on their settlements and missions there? Yes, Mussolini was altering the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia when his troops invaded and finally took control of Addis Ababa in 1936. But that was something a French foreign minister like Pierre Laval understood all too well, since shifting colonial borders was an age-old game. One of Hitler’s first foreign-policy acts was to offer a friendship treaty with Poland; and, a year later, to agree to an Anglo-German naval-limitations treaty. Here was a guy you could deal with. The 1935 Saarland plebiscite showed the inhabitants baying for a return to the Fatherland. The demilitarized Rhineland was merely “Germany’s backyard,” so who would contest its reintegration? The 1938 Anschluss with Austria was simply Germans joining Germans. The Sudetenland was predominantly German speaking and hadn’t the great Woodrow Wilson himself pushed the principle of national self-determination? These forceful actions were disconcerting indeed, but when exactly did things reach a point where a leader wanted to take his own country into another great war, and for distant objects? The French were paralyzed, like a rabbit before a stoat. The British government was hopelessly unresolved. The Americans? Apathetic.

Even when the Fascist revisionist moves continued and the League of Nations was fully discredited, and the awful prospect of military conflict at last entered the minds of Western politicians, there was still much cause for procrastination. To begin with, fighting Germany, Japan and Italy all at the same time would be folly. But if you were going to stand and fight one of the aggressors, it probably became more pressing to placate the other two. As has been pointed out in many newer studies, the legendary and clear-cut divide between cringing appeasers and stalwart anti-appeasers does not seem to exist in the British and French official memoranda and private papers. A politician wishing to stand firmer against Germany was all too often inclined to want to keep on good terms with Italy. British navalists and imperialists who sought a sturdy defense of their Far Eastern possessions were hoping that Hitler would stay still or, perhaps better yet, turn eastward against the equally detestable Soviet Union. French statesmen, by contrast, were extremely fearful that Britain would concentrate on East Asia and thus pay less attention to Central and Western Europe. And those were just the conflicting opinions of the policy makers. Behind them, in the very troubled and class-torn democracies, were publics strongly opposed to fighting anywhere, trade unions who threatened to strike against war and center-left parties still opposing defense increases.

In this confused circumstance, the professional officials in the corridors of power—the Treasury, the defense chiefs, the colonial and trade offices—played a very large part indeed (too large a role, some historians have argued). The finance ministries of Britain and France repeatedly pointed out that their economies were virtually bankrupt from the paralysis of trade, investment and growth; that U.S. neutrality legislation forbade borrowing from across the Atlantic as they had in 1914–1918; and that deficit spending (to pay for an armaments buildup) would lead to a massive run on their currencies. The British Chiefs of Staff, for their part—“Cassandras in gold braid,” English military historian Correlli Barnett once called them—pointed out again and again that the army was overstretched across the world (Egypt, Palestine, India, Hong Kong) and had no modern equipment for a European war, that the Royal Navy couldn’t be in three theaters at once, that the purportedly great bases of the Empire were all horribly unprotected, and, the most important weakness of all, that the Royal Air Force (RAF) had fallen well behind the strength of the intimidating, modern Luftwaffe, with its capacity to deal devastating blows from the air. The Dominions Office warned that Canada and South Africa would not join a fight, and the India Office appealed for reinforcements in the Raj to stave off a simmering independence movement. This was what Neville Chamberlain needed to persuade his worried cabinet that they had to continue to give peace another try.

Detailed retrospective analyses, especially those looking at the equally worried memoranda composed by the German and Italian chiefs at the time, suggest these strategic assessments were too gloomy. Not much could be done in the Far East, but the Royal Navy could easily have handled the German and Italian fleets. The British Army in Egypt was far harder hitting than the large, unmodernized Italian armies of Tunisia. And if RAF Bomber Command could hardly reach German cities, no one should have imagined that the Luftwaffe of 1937 or 1938 could do much damage over England. As happens so often in History, the defense planners had that tendency to point to their armed forces’ own many weaknesses, but assumed that the enemies’ battalions were perfect and ready to fight. Civilian ministers certainly did not have the confidence to go against their own military experts.

But even all this, understandable though it appears, does not get us to the basic problem, which is one of political and ideological understanding: when do you know that the revisionist state is never going to be appeased by small-scale, or even middle-size, concessions? When do you know that Hitler is not like the Weimar-era Stresemann, nor Mussolini like the supple Foreign Minister Ciano? When do you know that these dictators’ appetites are never going to be fully sated by compromises within the existing international system? When do you say to yourself, “This guy can only be stopped by the threat of serious armed force and, most probably, having to use that force”? How do you know that the concession you just reluctantly made was not the last one needed? After all, Hitler assured the West that acquiring the Sudetenland was his final objective. Was it? By late 1938, Churchill was arguing that appeasement was just feeding a crocodile with smaller and smaller tidbits until it finally turned on you, and many Britons were at last beginning to agree and wanted stiffer actions. But it really wasn’t until Hitler’s March 1939 conquest of the rump state of Czechoslovakia—breaking his Munich promises and seizing a country without any Germans in it—that the die was cast. By the time of his move against Poland six months later, appeasement was finished, and within a year of fighting, the Appeasers, the “guilty men,” were to be execrated for the rest of time. No wonder that policy became the greatest insult you could throw at any later political opponent.


SINCE THEN, the various occasions on which the words Appeaser and Appeasement have been used are as countless as the stars in the sky; this poisonous term can be thrown about, from town-hall meetings, to union wage negotiations, to handling IMF conditionality offers, at all levels.

So, the broader question remains: can one distinguish between a “good” appeasement policy and a “bad” one? When the British cabinet, after very considerable debate between the pertinent ministers and their highest officials, decided to give way to Washington on the matters of Venezuela, the isthmian canal, the Alaska border—all very clear examples of “appeasement”—were they not good moves? Every one was a surrender, yet such concessions were going to help forge the famous Anglo-American “rapprochement” of the coming twentieth century. And that conclusion is not only wisdom in retrospect, but it is what senior officials like Arthur Balfour (prime minister), Joseph Chamberlain (secretary of state for the colonies), Lord Lansdowne (foreign secretary) and Edward Grey (opposition spokesman on foreign policy and later Liberal foreign secretary) argued at the time. It is sometimes very smart to step back. Yet consider a different possibility. What if the more rabid American expansionists had succeeded in their push to acquire Canada (a curious idea, I know, but some did argue that), and/or to seize British possessions like Bermuda, Jamaica, Trinidad and the rest? The result would have been to force London’s hand into war—and, without a doubt, to cause many British commentators to conclude that the earlier concessions over the canal and the Alaskan border were a folly, merely encouraging the Yankee appetite.

Certainty about such matters only comes, I suspect, with hindsight; and there we are all wise, because we know what happened. It was wise, we now know, for the English to give up Calais to France in 1558 because they would no longer be tied to the Continent. It was wise for Stalin to stay on reasonable terms with the Japanese during the 1930s and early 1940s because he couldn’t afford a Far Eastern war while Nazi Germany was preparing to blast its own way eastward. It was wise, clearly, for then-President Charles de Gaulle to extricate France from the Algerian bloodbath in the early 1960s—though “clearly” was not a word used by the French nationalists who sought to assassinate the general. It was wise, very wise, not to go to nuclear war over the Korean, Hungarian, Berlin and Cuban crises. It was wise, we can now see, for the United States to abandon the colossal encumbrance of Vietnam.

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