In September of 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a conference with Germany’s Adolph Hitler and declared that the arrangements from the conference had brought, in his famous estimation, “Peace for our Time.” Chamberlain’s speech has had two major legacies. The first is one of historical irony: in September of 1939, World War II erupted. The second is a lesson: don’t give fascist dictators what they want, as it will only lead to tragedy. This second lesson has come to be known as appeasement, after Chamberlain’s mistaken belief that giving Hitler what he wanted (appeasing him) would calm Hitler down.
In recent years, certain elements of the country have extended the lesson offered by Mr. Chamberlain to virtually every facet of President Obama’s foreign policy. Appeasement, in the hands of the critics, now seems to mean any attempt to reach out to other countries that don’t share our worldview. Obama has repeatedly faced howls of appeasement in his foreign policy. So, it is hardly a surprise that news of the deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program would be greeted with many, many, many, comparisons to Chamberlain in 1938. To hear the hawkish elements of society tell it, Obama’s spineless diplomacy is nothing less than the opening act of Armageddon.
But, here’s the thing about appeasement: it’s not as clear cut as critics would have it. From the immediate contexts of the present day to the examples of American diplomatic history, cries of appeasement from the right are overheated at best and hypocritical at worst.
Most of the contexts that were present in the 1938 conference are completely different today. For example, Germany was the stronger power at the time. Britain, coming off the economic depression of the thirties and severely undermanned, was in no real position to dictate terms. Should they have stood up to the Nazis? Yes. Nevertheless, Chamberlain and his government felt, as a direct result of their weakened position, that war with Hitler would not end well.
In the present day, the U.S. is by far the more powerful player. In all categories across the board, from the quality of the military to its reputation abroad, America enjoys a position of prominence. Further, America has allied with several other countries in the quest for a deal. Iran has now been under harsh economic sanctions for a decade, which is part of the reason why the talks are happening in the first place. It’s hardly appeasement when all of the cards are held by your side.
Obama’s critics cry foul whenever he suggests reaching out to hostile powers. What his critics ignore is that U.S. leaders traditionally fulfill this role — it used to be called diplomacy. Throughout the Cold War, open lines of communications connected Washington to our rivals in Moscow. The Republican leaders of the time, from Eisenhower and Nixon (and the real life Frank Underwood, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) to the conservative idol Ronald Reagan all reached out and compromised with the Soviets. Was it appeasement then when we came to deals with Russia regarding nuclear weapons?
The lessons of World War II were hard won and well known. The lessons of the 1938 conference should never be forgotten. But they should not be used lightly either. The lessons of the war are not some tool that you can use as you see fit, especially when you disregard the actual contexts and facts of the event in the name of cowardly point scoring.
Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey is all about disrupting the lame-stream media narrative, except for when it suits him, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Junotbend.