Naïve Militarism and the "Lessons" of Neville Chamberlain
Pacifism did not cause World War II. Avoiding it won't stop World War III.
Edited by Sam Thielman
Last week I wrote about the fallacy that history makes for an easy how-to guide to the immediate future, especially regarding Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. As I noted, this is not because you can’t learn anything from history (*stares in Smedley Butler*), but because it can be so difficult to figure out which precedent, if any, applies. Relatedly, the more a comparison relies on a specific contingent example, rather than larger historical patterns, the faultier the analogy tends to be.
With all that in mind, this week I want to dig more deeply into the only “lesson from history” anyone this side of Belgorod wants to talk about these days: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s notorious deal with Nazi Germany in 1938.
Here’s how Anne Applebaum summarized the episode, in an Atlantic article about the then-impending invasion of Ukraine last month:
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived home from a conference in Munich. He and other leaders had met with Hitler; they had agreed to allow the German army to annex a slice of Czechoslovakia; in exchange, Hitler offered more dialogue, and promised not to fight any further. To the cheering crowd that had gathered to welcome his plane, Chamberlain happily declared that the threat of war had passed: He had obtained “peace with honor … peace for our time.”
As it turned out, Hitler was not satisfied with that slice of Czechoslovakia. He wanted all of Czechoslovakia—and then all of Poland, all of Belgium, all of the Netherlands, all of France. In light of the blood, death, and tragedy that followed 1938, Chamberlain’s deal came to be described by an ugly word: appeasement. Chamberlain is remembered not for the peace he negotiated, but for the war that followed.
Applebaum, an influential American journalist married to a conservative Polish politician, is one of the most bellicose voices arguing for more direct confrontation with Putin. Her summary hit all the key points the Chamberlain analogy is always used to stress: his crowd-pleasing cowardice and his supposed naïveté of favoring diplomacy over war (more on that shortly). For Applebaum’s intended audience — policymakers and those who wish they were — the real threat is packed into the last line: the bitter judgment of history that she implicitly warns awaits those who follow his example of “restraint.”
That analogy is only gaining steam. A Google News search for “Chamberlain” and “Ukraine” brings up over 141,000 recent hits. Sir Neville’s ghost is trotted out by GOP leaders (who use it to blame the invasion on Biden’s weakness) and Nancy Pelosi (who has used it in praise of Biden’s resolve). It is used to argue for everything from a “No Fly Zone” to all-out ground assault by U.S. troops. Hugh Hewitt dropped the C-bomb to tie the Iran nuclear negotiations to the Ukraine war (why not, I guess), and argue for escalation in both.
The problem is that the Chamberlain analogy fails on two fronts: in the specifics of the historical event, and as an explanation for what is happening now, and could happen next.
First, let’s acknowledge what the standard version of the Chamberlain tale gets right. Neville Chamberlain — and several of his predecessors, as well as his allies in France — did pursue a policy of appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, with the aim of (depending on which sources you consult) preventing or delaying the start of a second world war. Specifically, the British chose to stand by as Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles, reassembling and remilitarizing the German Empire that had been broken apart by the treaty that ended the first world war.
Contrary to the standard version, this process did not begin but rather ended with the Munich conference of 1938. In many ways, the more important moment came two years earlier (before Chamberlain took office) when Hitler blatantly violated the Treaty of Versailles by moving troops into the Rhineland — a crucial demilitarized zone on the border of Belgium and France — and paid no price whatsoever. Britain and the League of Nations refused to impose economic sanctions on the Nazi regime.
When you start trying to discern Chamberlain and his fellow appeasers’ motivations, the picture shifts even further from the popular view. The Nazis had substantial support within the ranks of British (and, it should be noted, American and French) conservatives. In 1937, Chamberlain told King George VI that he had “sketched out the prospect of Germany and England as the two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism.”
There was widespread sentiment in Britain that the Treaty of Versailles had gone too far. Just as Britain had a “right” to its empire, the thinking went, a government in Berlin could claim a right to govern the areas home to substantial numbers of German speakers. As the diplomatic historian Paul W. Schroeder wrote in the 1970s: “British leaders might oppose Germany’s naval and colonial policies, fear her ambitions, resent her rivalry in trade, and dislike her manners, but they never seriously considered trying to undermine her domination of Central Europe.”
Rather than caving to a bully in cowardly fashion, in other words, it seems Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Édouard Daladier, cravenly sought a deal that would strengthen their positions in Europe and focus Hitler’s attention east, toward the Soviet Union. And whatever they told their respective publics, no one really thought the Munich deal was a guarantee against the threat of war. Indeed, the British and French both accelerated the pace of their own post-World War I rearmament, which they had begun several years earlier in response to the German threat. (Winston Churchill’s famous harangues about the state of British rearmament were really about matters of degree.)
World War II finally broke out not because of pacifism, but because Chamberlain finally found cause for militarism. When Hitler violated the Munich accord, breaking out of the Sudetenland and invading the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it became clear that Hitler had designs not only on “unifying” the German-speaking areas of Europe but creating an empire that could rival Britain’s. Chamberlain and Daladier pledged, NATO-style, to go to war if Germany invaded Poland. Those threats might have worked, except Chamberlain crucially refused to enter into a further defensive alliance with Stalin. That opened the door to the treaty that really started the war — the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — in which Germany and the Soviets agreed to jointly invade and carve up Poland. It was the Great Appeaser, Chamberlain, who declared war on Nazi Germany on Sept. 3, 1939.
By reducing pressure on Hitler’s eastern flank, Stalin’s treaty laid the groundwork for the invasions of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France months later. You could make a stronger case for Stalin as a paragon of naïveté, considering how much more spectacularly his agreement blew up in his face when Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941. But because he was naïvely militant instead of naïvely “pacifist,” that analogy doesn’t do the work proponents always want it to do: to argue, in every instance, for more war.
The track record of the Chamberlain analogy is not good. It was used by Harry Truman, just five years after World War II ended, to argue for escalation in Korea in 1950. It was then used by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to argue that Truman was a coward for not letting him invade China. It was used by Chamberlain’s former cabinet minister, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, to justify an invasion of Egypt in 1956, amid the Suez Crisis, which became a debacle for the UK. In 1962, Gen. Curtis LeMay used “Munich” to troll John F. Kennedy (whose father had supported appeasement as U.S. ambassador to Britain) into authorizing an all-out invasion of Cuba, assuring him that Castro and Khrushchev would back down. It was only decades later that the world learned an invasion would have almost certainly triggered a nuclear war.
The specter of Munich was used over and over to justify U.S. escalation in Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others. In 1965, an exasperated George F. Kennan told a Senate committee: “I think that no episode, perhaps, in modern history has been more misleading than that of the Munich conference. It has given to many people the idea that never must one attempt to make any sort of a political accommodation in any circumstances.”
In 1960, Barry Goldwater called the inclusion of a civil rights plank, championed by Martin Luther King Jr., in the GOP platform “an American Munich.” In 1985, Newt Gingrich bellowed that Ronald Reagan’s parlay with Mikhail Gorbachev was “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain.” The recently departed Madeline Albright justified U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s (wars that Putin has cited as justification for his invasion of Ukraine) by saying “Munich is my mindset.”
Naturally, the Chamberlain analogy was absolutely everywhere in the run-up to the Iraq War. Neoconservative kingpin and prominent Pentagon adviser Richard Perle said in 2002, “A preemptive strike against Hitler at the time of Munich would have meant an immediate war, as opposed to the one that came later. Later was much worse.” In his televised address of March 17, 2003 (known as his “ultimatum speech”), George W. Bush added: “In the 20th Century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century … a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.”
It got to a point where, in 2008, a prominent journalist on an American Enterprise Fellowship felt compelled to write that the Chamberlain analogy should be permanently retired, saying: “Seventy years have passed: Let’s put the ghosts of Munich to rest, this time for good.” (That journalist was Anne Applebaum.)
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So, fine, the Chamberlain analogy is based on a poor reading of history and has been repeatedly abused for decades. But does it still contain lessons for responding to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine?
Not really. Even on its own terms, the fabled version of “Munich” features a dictator who is repeatedly coddled as he rearmed a demilitarized state, then allowed to annex part of a neighboring country — not only with no resistance but international approbation as a peacemaker.
This has little in common with the situation the world is facing today. Russia was fully militarized going into this invasion. It is now losing massive amounts of armor and manpower on an hourly basis. In some ways, Ukraine is currently living out the Munich counterfactual: Just as Churchill and others dreamed of bogging down Hitler in a Czechoslovak war, Putin is bogged down in a worsening quagmire, fighting a fiercely fighting army supplied by the United States, Britain, and the European Union.
Where Hitler had an Italian ally and was starting to court the Soviets, Russia is increasingly isolated. No international rivals are rolling over and saying “OK, you can have Ukraine but please don’t go any further.” The NATO powers have reacted to the invasion with punishing sanctions and other measures, including the provision of arms, that, some experts note, already have us uncomfortably far up the ladder of escalation. Indeed, instead of bullying Putin into submission through a further show of “resolve” or “strength” or whatever euphemism for killing masses of people, a Churchillian response from NATO could be exactly what Putin needs to shore up his tenuous position in Russia, as the resolutely non-pacifist Tom Nichols has argued.
At the same time — and putting aside the question of whether Britain and France would have actually had an easier time defeating Germany in 1938 than they did a year later — the idea that starting a great-power war against Putin now would somehow be easier or less dangerous than at some point in the near future is a big citation needed. You can make a case that Hitler needed Czech industry and gold to take Paris and bomb London, and thus that he had the appeasers to thank for the opportunity. Putin needs no such thing! He could reduce every capital in Europe, as well as every major city and military bases across the United States, to radioactive rubble tonight. He might do so at the cost of Moscow, it’s true. But if we are proceeding according to the theory that Putin is a killer like Hitler — or worse! — who will gladly kill his own people then there is no reason to assume that isn’t a price he is willing to pay.
It is well and good for Applebaum to say, as she did in her most recent Atlantic piece calling for NATO involvement on the road to what she insists must be total Ukrainian victory: “There is only one rule: We cannot be afraid.” But who in their right mind wouldn’t be afraid of nuclear war? And why should we listen to anyone who tells us not to be?
This brings us to the last, and most dangerous, implications of the Chamberlain analogy: the idea that that direct war between the NATO powers and Russia is inevitable and that (even more tendentiously) that it is better to escalate to that point as soon as possible. As the nuclear scientist Cheryl Rofer wrote recently about talk of so-called “battlefield nukes”: “This is what happens when war becomes the center of thinking and diplomacy is excluded.” Or, as the political scientist Michael J. Mazaar recently warned:
In this crisis, the United States does confront one undeniable obligation: to ask the right questions before, rather than after, taking large-scale action; to check its sense of duty and moralistic commitment; and, this time, to be sure it finds its way to wise action, rather than a road to disaster.
There is no doubt the world, and above all millions of people in Ukraine, are in an extremely perilous situation right now. Limiting our imaginations with thought-stopping cliches from the past will only ensure the worst possible outcomes in our future.