As today is the 70th anniversary of the Munich Conference, it is worth noting that President George Bush and Sen. John McCain have introduced this event as an instructional tool in our presidential election year. Munich’s most celebrated lesson, of course, is that Neville Chamberlain mistakenly chose to appease Adolf Hitler when the times called for resistance. The British prime minister’s failed policy is seen as having ultimately led to an unnecessary war, and for this reason he has received history’s condemnation. But if this policy debacle of an earlier time is to serve as a true learning experience, it behooves us to understand more fully the lesson this historic meeting holds.
This year’s debate over appeasement has been highlighted by President Bush attacking the policy’s pursuit in the 1930s and Sen. McCain invoking the name of Neville Chamberlain. The Bush-McCain message was clear: Sen. Barack Obama’s willingness to consider speaking with the likes of Iran’s government indicates a willingness to appease. Leaving aside Bush and McCain’s misinterpretation of the word appeasement (which is defined as not mere discussion but buying off the other side with concessions), their harking us back to Munich can prove instructive.
In international affairs a leader’s task, indeed duty, is to correctly match the nation’s foreign policy with the complexities of the time. At Munich we witness a leader’s flawed judgment causing him to pursue a policy that, in fact, is contrary to his nation’s best interests. Other times and other leaders are not immune from tragic foreign policy misjudgments.
As a case in point, we need look back no further than the policy of war with Iraq implemented in 2003 by the very persons who have raised the specter of Munich in 2008: President Bush and Sen. McCain. Here, too, we witness the absence of wise judgment in international affairs and the pursuit of a foreign policy contrary to the nation’s best interests.
Both Munich and Iraq represent a costly misjudgment of the adversary’s intentions. Chamberlain mistakenly believed that Adolf Hitler, who possessed a rapidly increasing military, was bent on peace. This incorrect assumption led the British leader wildly astray with a policy of appeasement. Bush and McCain mistakenly believed that Saddam Hussein, who did not possess weapons of mass destruction, was bent on war. Their incorrect assumption led them wildly astray with a policy of “preventive” war.
Once determined on his course, Chamberlain viewed his appeasement policy as a “mission,” dismissing all evidence and voices to the contrary. Most notable among those contrary voices was that of Winston Churchill. Churchill wisely understood the realities of the situation and courageously spoke out, even as it meant bucking his own Conservative Party and its leader.
Sen. McCain, unfortunately, played no such wise or courageous role in the Republican Party during the fateful events leading up to the Iraq war. No maverick, he fully championed his president and party’s policy. Echoing Chamberlain before him, he viewed the policy of war with Iraq as a “mission.” And, like Chamberlain, he dismissed all evidence and voices to the contrary.
In the cases of Munich and Iraq misjudgment thwarted a wiser course not taken. Chamberlain failed to resist Hitler, failed even as Churchill pleaded to arm and ally with other nations. Bush and McCain failed to pursue further a policy of diplomacy and containment, a policy that had hobbled Hussein militarily and a policy whose continuation was urged by many responsible voices. The president and senator possessed the example of our having successfully contained for decades Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Why would our leaders doubt our nation’s resolve to successfully contain the likes of Hussein’s Iraq?
“Peace in our time,” Chamberlain proclaimed his policy had secured for the British people as he returned to London that September. “One of the best things that’s happened to America,” McCain prophesied as he and the president opted for war in March 2003. Each man’s glowing predictions proved to be tragically wrong.
Looking back at the examples of Munich and Iraq we learn the grave consequences of misjudgment and incorrect policy in international affairs. The result in each instance is an unnecessary war.
There is a timeless, overarching lesson of Munich, one written in Scripture centuries ago: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time for war, and a time for peace.” May we Americans ever elect leaders who possess the wisdom to know the difference.
Parker B. Albee, Jr. is a professor of history at the University of Southern Maine.