An Appeasement Primer

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

The U.S. Defense Secretary’s comparison of the anti-war movement in the United States today with its historical analogue in Great Britain in the 1930s sent the left into a tailspin. Locally at least one university figure has taken issue with it in print.

“Knowing the facts of history is crucial to much of what we do as a nation and a people, but so is how it is used,” John Prados wrote on on August 31st. “And the Bush administration’s use of history—and specifically its use of ‘appeasement’—requires comment because it is both dangerous and misleading.”

“In the past week Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has twice invoked the historical analogy to appeasement—referring to the years just before World War II, culminating in the Munich conference of September 1938—to frame the globe’s current struggle with terrorism in apocalyptic terms.”

Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University. This particular “archive” is not a federal government agency but a repository of information obtained from classified government files through the Freedom of Information Act.

Prados quotes George Santayana’s admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or to become academic historians, one might add.

To be fair to Prados, he does, in a separate number for Tom Paine, take issue with the 9-11 conspiracy theorists, a group that is growing in Academe. “In terms of focus, the 9/11 Truth Movement has largely steered clear of such outlandish attributions as the Elders of Zion, and they do aim properly at the Bush administration,” he writes. “But the theories largely postulate that the Bush White House either made 9/11 happen, or this president knew all about what impended and let 9/11 happen.”

“Neither is likely in my view.” Regretably, when he moves from present-day speculation to an analysis of Great Britain before World War II, his conclusions may leave those who have studied the period, and particularly those who have lived through it, perplexed.

“There was no mass political movement demanding appeasement of Germany,” Prados writes. “Rather there was a specific policy choice—made primarily by Sir Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister of the time—to mollify Hitler and gain time for rearmament.”

The writer gives no source for this stunning assertion. But the late William Manchester, in his biography of Winston Churchill, uses painstaking documentation, much of it from the private papers of British policymakers of that era, including Chamberlain’s. If Chamberlain, Churchill’s tragic predecessor, gave any thought to rearming the United Kingdom, he managed to keep it to himself quite successfully throughout the 1930s while Germany steadily rearmed.

· As a Member of Parliament in 1933, Chamberlain attacked opponents of His Majesty’s government’s appeasement policy who, of course, included another MP who would become prime minister—Churchill himself: “They thereby destroy the possibility of markets to ourselves,” Chamberlain said of critics of appeasement. Manchester characterized this eerily reminiscent appeal to free trade principles over national security concerns, made to his Birmingham constituents, as “a typical Chamberlain touch.”

· As a lame duck Chancellor of the Exchequer (Britain’s counterpart to a U. S. Treasury Secretary) in 1936, incumbent Prime Minister Chamberlain told a gathering of his fellow Tories that he was “concerned that the cost of defence programs was mounting at a giddy rate.”

· Not giddy enough, it turned out. By 1938, Chamberlain was prime minister, presided over the appeasement policy he inherited and was ready to proclaim peace in his time. “In every other category—artillery, tanks, and equipped divisions, Nazi gains were overwhelming,” Manchester wrote in The Last Lion. “While Chamberlain was lecturing his ministers on the military value of stocks and bonds and spending 304 million pounds on arms, German arms expenditures exceeded 1.5 billion pounds—a five-fold gap.”

“The number of Nazi divisions jumped from seven to fifty-one.”

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.