1) the action or process of appeasing. (google)
2) a diplomatic policy of making political or material concessions to an enemy power in order to avoid conflict. (wiki)
3) word used by all hawks to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t take a hardline stance against aggression. (my definition)
Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich was, at the time, not as controversial as it was a year later as German tanks stormed across the Polish border. In 1938 Chamberlain and the Brits, in general, had no desire to fight a war with Germany to uphold what they increasingly saw as an abusive and unjust Treaty of Versailles. Plus, Hitler seemed a strong bullwark in the middle of Europe against Soviet aggression. Plus, Britain’s military was stretched thin and underfunded.
And so Chamberlain came to a gentleman’s agreement with Hitler: the Sudentland for peace.
Of course, Hitler did not stop with the Sudentland and the agreement at Munich has now become a symbol of the bankruptcy of the strategy of appeasement. Indeed, it’s haunted American president’s ever since: Truman in Korea; LBJ in Vietnam; Reagan and Gorby.
It is a haunting, though, make no mistake. Hitler on the brain. The fear of the domino effect.
If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk, and then he’s going to take over your house, put a bullet in your brain, and bury you in the basement. So damn it, don’t give the mouse a cookie!
The tough guy American hawks function out of this paradigm. But far from being tough, they’re more often frightened children with the most powerful arsenal on the planet. It’s the frightened children bit that gets us bogged us down: Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East.
Of course, it isn’t all because of fear. There exists a genuine hubris as well: yes, we can! But fear is a more powerful motivator than is philanthropic meliorism.
In light of the great losses of blood and treasure in recent years, much has been said by the isolationist crowd about steering clear of “permanent alliances” (Washington) and avoiding “entangling alliances” (Jefferson). Furthermore, the isolationists proclaim that we should “not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” (John Quincy Adams).
But what enabled America to pursue such a novel policy for most of its existence? And more importantly, can we return to the halcyon days of trade with all, alliances with none?
Rare is the state that does not enter into alliances for the sake of its security. In the state of nature, which is the condition all states exist, one must have a friend or two. Yet America from its early days eschewed this position. How?
The most obvious answer was geography. While America experienced a dicey early existence waging war twice against Britain and weathering the threat of war with France and Spain on account of North American colonies, geography did not fully insulate the young Republic. Once Lousiana had been bought, and Spanish Florida pacified, America faced only one foe: Britain. But oddly enough, Britain also secured America itself; indeed, Britain made America’s strategic isolationism possible.
By controlling the oceans and remaining on fairly friendly terms, Britain’s empire secured by its fleet also secured America’s independence. The Monroe Doctrine secured the Western hemisphere from European meddling, but not until the Roosevelt Corollary did America actually secure the hemisphere by force—prior to that the British empire secured our interest by default (see here for an excellent commentary on liberty’s dependence on empire).
But come 1939 Great Britain was no longer the bulwark it once was. Stretched thin, it resorted to appeasing Hitler. And the lesson was learned: as William Bullitt (America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union and then France in the leadup to the Second World War) once put it, “The moral is: If you have enough airplanes you don’t have to go to Berchtesgaden.” FDR agreed: if we had had the planes, “Hitler would not have dared to take the stand he did.”
And so suddenly, America, deprived of Britain, came to finally realize the significance of Britain:
A pro-German government might come to power in England and turn the British Isles into a “vassal state of the Hitler empire,” making a gift of the British fleet to Germany in the processs. At that moment, said Churcill, “overwhelming sea power would be in Hitler’s hands.” (Kennedy 446)
FDR, realizing the strategic shift concluded that something had to change:
The United States could not survived as “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force. Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists,” but that fatuous and dangerous dream “represents to me,” said the president, “The nightmare of a people lodged in prioson, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unnpiitying masters of other continents.” (Kennedy 440-441).
Appeasement and America First was not sustainable in such an environment.
What does this mean for the present, though?
First off, we must realize our limitations. Paul Nitze’s expansive formulation in NSC-68 in 1950 that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere must be done away with. For too long it’s guided strategic thinking on the basis that we had the muscle to actually treat a threat of an enemy take over of the Sahara the same as if Western Europe was under threat. That’s not sustainable.
Second, we must reassess the threats we face. This means considering capabilities and not just overblown rhetoric. We must ask the simple question: what are they capable of and how can they hurt us? And then come up with a solution that meets the threat. Yes, Putin is a tough actor, but is he really capable of absorbing Eastern Europe again? Are there going to be Russian paratroopers descending on Kansas? Here’s me laughing. We must also reconsider how we address threats. Yes, ISIS is a bad actor, but do we really need boots on the ground to defend ourselves from them?
Third, and this is a hard sell, we ought to purge our language of ideals (democracy, freedom, human rights): ideals are like four wheel drive, they get you deeper into the shit than you would otherwise go. Not only that, but ideals in foreign policy just open you up to hypocrisy.
Fourth, and a lesson worth learning from Munich, military strength is good. As Reagan most succinctly put the lesson learned: “Of the four wars in my lifetime none came about because the U.S. was too strong.” The best military is the one you don’t have to use.
Paradoxically, such a military also tempts men to play God.