TCS Daily

Reconsidering Appeasement

By Lee Harris - March 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Appeasement is a dirty word, but is it really such a bad thing?

Yes, we now agree that appeasing Hitler was a foolish mistake. Who could not see this with hindsight?

But, in looking at the past, it is also possible to put ourselves in the places of those who pursued such a policy, and to see that at the time it was made, such a policy may not have been quite as irrational as it looks to us now-an alternative approach to the ever popular Monday morning quarterback view of history.

First of all, let us note that appeasement in the sense of paying money and tribute to those who threaten our collective security is a policy that has been prudently adopted by any number of different societies in the past. The Byzantine emperors successfully relied on such a policy for over a millennium, and saw no problem in paying loot to ward off this or that threatening horde of barbarians, paying good money to keep them at the gate, instead of inside it.

Though, to be sure, there was not any notion of relying on such a policy to the exclusion of military force. Rather, it was a question of pure pragmatics-what worked best in what particular case. If this horde wanted gold, give them gold. If the next wanted territory, then crush them.

Secondly, appeasement makes sense when there is a good chance that the evil to be appeased may collapse of its own accord, either through a lack of internal stability or through its own inherently aggressive nature.

In the case of Hitler, there was the very real hope that he would aim his aggression at Stalin's Russia, with the result that the two evil systems would end by weakening and even perhaps destroying each other. In which case, why do anything to divert his attention from the East?

Furthermore, there was also the hope that Hitler might be toppled as a result of Party bickering, or through a military coup, or by the bullet of an assassin. The Weimar Republic, after all, had been in constant turmoil-perhaps Hitler was only a passing phase of political stability against a backdrop of anarchy.

And leave us with the third and final rational basis for appeasement, and that is military weakness-or, more precisely, a fear that any threat made to deter aggression will be in vain, in which case it is deemed far better to appease and hope for the best, than to bluff and be certain of the worst.

Which was precisely the position that Neville Chamberlain was in.

He was in charge of a country that wanted to avoid another World War at the cost of almost anything short of outright capitulation. He was terrified of what the Luftwaffe could do to London and other English cities; he knew, too, that the English army was absolutely no match for what the Germans would be able to field. Yes, England had a far superior navy-but what good is a Navy in defending Czechoslovakia?

It is easy for us to imagine what we would have done if we had had the present American military force at our disposal at Munich, but Chamberlain did not have this, and he knew just how weak the position was that he had to play from.

And yet there came a point where even Chamberlain knew that he had no choice but to play the cards in his hand, and this came when Hitler refused to meet the English ultimatum to pull out of Poland, at which point Chamberlain declared that a state of war existed between England and Germany.

I offer these reflections not to justify those who are asking us to appease Saddam Hussein, but to condemn them. Had Chamberlain possessed the might of the U.S., and the collective will of its people, Hitler would have been obliterated long before Munich. To make excuses for tolerating an evil on the order of Saddam Hussein when you possess the military might to crush him is not appeasement, but blind folly. The more clearly we understand Chamberlain's position, the more clearly we can see what men like Jimmy Carter are asking of us.

So the next time you hear someone compare the two men, speak up for Neville Chamberlain.

He deserves better.

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