On September 29th, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to participate in a conference with Adolf Hitler of Germany, Eduoard Daladier, premier of France, and Benito Mussolini of Italy. The topic: the cession of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany. Czechoslovakia was not invited to the conference, and the Czech delegate was forced to remain outside the room until the conference was over.
Ten hours later, an agreement was reached which granted each of Hitler’s demands. The following morning, Chamberlain presented to Hitler an additional treaty which, to paraphrase it, demonstrated “the desire of the peoples of both our countries never to go to war again.” Then Chamberlain flew back to London, and when he arrived was granted a tremendous reception. He was invited to Buckingham Palace by George VI. After his audience with the King, Chamberlain then addressed the crowd that developed and uttered the now famous sentence: “I believe this represents peace in our time.”
As everyone knows, six months later, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and, 11 months after Munich, England and Germany were at war. Ever since then, Munich has been characterized as England’s greatest embarrassment, Chamberlain has been characterized as a wimp with an umbrella, and any attempt to “sooth or to pacify,” which is the original meaning of Appeasement, has been tainted with the stigma of Munich.
During the Battle of Britain three British journalists (Michael Foot, Peter Howard, and Frank Owen), writing under the pseudonym “Cato,” wrote Guilty Men, blaming Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister from 1935-37), and Ramsay MacDonald (Prime Minister from 1929-35), and other members of the National Government (the Government from 1931-40) entirely for the crisis that Britain found itself in then. According to Foot, Howard, and Owen, they “. . . were “guilty” of being blind to their duty, of failing to rearm sufficiently, of refusing to hear – in fact of stifling – other voices which spoke the truth.” (1) This has been the consensus that has been accepted in the past 58 years by nearly everyone.
Britain eventually did win the war, but at a large cost. It was forced to liquidate many of its overseas investments, and even to give 99-year leases for military bases on its colonies in North America to the United States. It has lost all of its Great Power status. Its economy has suffered from gradual decline – so much so that Great Britain is now one of the poorest industrialized countries in the world. In fact 12 years ago, even Italy surpassed Britain’s per capita income.
After the war, the Cold War developed, and the initiative in foreign policy passed from Great Britain to the United States. So did the stigma of Munich, which helped to intensify the Cold War during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Every time a President wanted to decrease the tension, he has been attacked for being an “appeaser.” For example, when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, John F. Kennedy received, among other things, an umbrella from students at the Free University (in West Berlin). The point: don’t give in to the Soviets.
He got the “lesson” and in the following year brought the United States the closest it’s ever been to nuclear holocaust in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He and President Lyndon Johnson escalated the most unwinnable war in American history: Vietnam. During the 1970s, Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter attempted to reach a detente (or understanding) with the Soviets. But this policy was never attempted seriously, as the Soviet Union was still deeply distrusted. By the late 1970s, it was abandoned when President Carter, to retaliate against the Soviet invasion of Afganistan, launched a grain embargo and boycotted the (Moscow) Olympics.
Then Ronald Reagan was elected President. During his first term, he increased military spending by a significant amount, did not meet with any Soviet (“Evil Empire”) leader, and made the ill-quoted 1983 remark “We start bombing in five minutes.” He followed a policy diametrically opposed to appeasement. Perhaps as a result, America won the cold war, perhaps not. In any event, that’s not my purview.
Even today, when the United States is dealing with such leaders as Bashar al-Assad, it has to act tough, as if, if it doesn’t, Munich will reoccur. It was 70 years this September that Chamberlain flew to Munich, and “dishonoured his nation.” Seventy years is a long time, but it is interesting to note that that conference is still very much with us today.
- (1) R.J.Q. Adams, British Politics and Foreign Policy in the Age of Appeasement, 1935-39, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 155.