Academic journal article Parameters

Retiring Hitler and "Appeasement" from the National Security Debate

Academic journal article Parameters

Retiring Hitler and "Appeasement" from the National Security Debate

Article excerpt

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have an obligation to call this what it is--the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

President George W. Bush (1)

It is high time to retire Adolf Hitler and "appeasement" from the national security debate. The repeated analogizing of current threats to the menace of Hitler in the 1930s, and comparing diplomatic efforts to Anglo-French placating of the Nazi dictator, has spoiled the true meaning of appeasement, distorted sound thinking regarding national security challenges and responses, and falsified history. For the past six decades every President except Jimmy Carter has routinely invoked the Munich analogy as a means of inflating national security threats and demonizing dictators. Presidents and their spokespersons have not only believed the analogy but also used it to mobilize public opinion for war. (2) After all, if the enemy really is another Hitler, then force becomes mandatory, and the sooner it is used the better. More recently, neoconservatives and their allies in government have branded as appeasers any and all proponents of using nonviolent conflict resolution to negotiate with hostile dictatorships. For neoconservatives, to appease is to be naive, cowardly, and soft on the threat du jour, be it terrorism, a rogue state, or a rising great power. To appease is to be a Chamberlain rather than a Churchill, to comprise with evil rather than slay it.

The Munich analogy informed every major threatened or actual US use of force during the first two decades of the Cold War as well as the decisions to attack Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Munich conditioned the thinking of almost every Cold War President from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush. For Truman, the analogy dictated intervention in Korea: "Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen, twenty years earlier." (3) A year after the Korean War ended, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, citing the "domino effects" of a Communist victory in French Indochina on the rest of Southeast Asia, invoked Munich in an appeal for Anglo-American military action. "We failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini, and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time.... May it not be that [we] have learned something from that lesson?" (4) President John F. Kennedy invoked the Munich analogy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, warning that the "1930s taught us a clear lesson: Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked, ultimately leads to war." (5)

Munich indisputably propelled the United States into Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson told his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, that if the United States pulled out of Vietnam, "the dominoes would fall and a part of the world would go Communist." (6) Johnson later told historian Doris Kearns that "everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what [Neville] Chamberlain did.... I'd be giving a fat reward to aggression." (7) President Ronald Reagan saw in the Soviet Union a replay of the challenges the democracies faced in the 1930s and invoked the Munich analogy to justify a major US military buildup, intervention in Grenada, and possible intervention in Nicaragua. "One of the great tragedies of this century," he said in a 1983 speech, "was that it was only after the balance of power was allowed to erode and a ruthless adversary, Adolf Hitler, deliberately weighed the risks and decided to strike that the importance of a strong defense was realized." (8) Similarly, George H.W. Bush saw Saddam Hussein as an Arab Hitler whose aggression against Kuwait, if unchecked, would lead to further aggression in the Persian Gulf. In announcing the dispatch of US forces to Saudi Arabia in response to Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait, he declared, "If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms. …

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