In mid-September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived at Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat near Munich in a desperate effort to avoid war with Germany. The Nazi dictator promised peace if only he could acquire Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland region, and Chamberlain took the bait. That comforting illusion soon evaporated as Germany swallowed the rest of Czechoslovakia, blitzkrieged Poland to ignite World War II and then conquered most of Western Europe.
Thereafter, "Munich" would symbolize the failing policies of the 1930s: the folly of appeasing rather than containing Germany in its march to dominate Europe.
Time and again, American leaders have evoked the "clear lesson" of the 1930s to check aggression from foreign countries. The latest outburst erupted last May when President Bush and presidential candidate John McCain associated Democratic candidate Barack Obama with the "appeasers" at Munich, for supporting negotiations with Iran. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton called it a "defining moment" in the campaign.
Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded a rare note from Washington, suggesting that the Munich analogy has been misused to justify military actions leading to "cataclysmic and unnecessary conflict." Yet the Munich narrative studied carefully, I submit, can yield valuable perspectives for a more effective, realist diplomacy.
President Harry Truman got it right when he launched the containment policy after World War II. In a replay of the 1930s, the Soviet dictatorship replacing the German dictatorship took control of East European countries, and was seemingly poised to take over war-torn Western Europe. Only this time, Truman broke loose from the isolationist tradition and threw American power on the scales to re-create a balance of power against Soviet expansion -- a "beacon of hope" for a continent threatened by Stalinist totalitarianism.
In those same years, unfortunately, Washington swerved off course, transmuting the policy of containing Soviet expansion into containing communism around the globe. It started in 1946, according to Asian experts in Truman's State Department, when policy makers fell victim to a tragic "fixation on monolithic aggressive communism," falsely identifying communist revolutionaries in Vietnam and China as puppets of the Soviet Union.
The Munich analogy, twisted into a monolithic ideology, confused communism in Eastern Europe -- imposed by iron-fisted Soviet imperialism -- with Asian nationalists rebelling against European imperialism. For 45 years, American soldiers and CIA agents roamed the planet in the name of fighting communism, overthrowing populist governments, supporting dictatorships and invading small countries.
Vietnam loomed largest as the Munich analogy gone wild. The "communist world" stretching from Moscow to Hanoi already was fractured by historic Sino-Russian hostilities and a Vietnamese nationalism primed by anti-Chinese antipathy. In reality, American boys were pitted against Vietnamese guerrillas, well trained in jungle warfare after fighting Japanese invaders in World War II and then defeating French imperialists. When the "dominoes" fell, they fell not against America but against each other: the USSR against China, and Communist Vietnam against China and Communist Cambodia -- a bitterly divided communist world far removed from the united powerhouse that Germany was in 1938.
But myths die hard. Even as American troops were abandoning Vietnam, Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon's security adviser, was busy overthrowing Chile's democratic socialist government and replacing it with Gen. Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship. Kissinger was not going to let Chile "go Marxist" because of its "irresponsible" voters, he explained.
The Munich Syndrome, defined by the struggle against global communism, faded after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Then it resurfaced in the global "war on terrorism," another monolithic ideology sustaining Washington's clumsy diplomacy and turning potential allies into enemies.
So, what can we learn from the Munich narrative -- the actual events and their impact on American diplomacy -- when studied under the lens of historical analysis, rather than the prism of political propaganda?
Consider the ancient axiom: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." At Munich, Chamberlain weakened his bargaining power by rejecting Moscow's pleas to join forces to checkmate Germany on two fronts. His successor, Winston Churchill, however, had no such qualms when England faced the Nazi juggernaut alone. If Hitler invaded hell, Churchill declared, he would speak kindly in the House of Commons of the devil.
Sure enough, when Hitler recklessly attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Britain (and soon America) embraced Josef Stalin's dictatorship, creating the formidable alliance that would bring the Third Reich to its knees.
Churchill's lesson in realpolitik was soon lost in the postwar fog of monolithic communism, inhibiting American leaders against enlisting China to contain Soviet power in Asia until Nixon had the smarts to play the "China card" against Russia in pursuit of his detente policy (1972) with both communist giants. Today, Washington is lashing out blindly against alleged terrorists and "rogue states," making enemies out of potential allies.
By crushing Saddam Hussein's Iraq and threatening Iran, for example -- both bitter enemies of al-Qaida -- Bush actually increased the power of Osama bin Laden's terrorist forces.
Surprisingly, Gates has faulted Washington's trigger-happy diplomacy invoked by Munich, warning against the disastrous "miscalculations" that abound when nations resort to military force. Actually, the Munich narrative, itself, offers a spectacular lesson endorsing his point -- Nazi Germany, the big winner at Munich, was destined to become a world-class model for self-inflicted screw-ups.
Intoxicated by early conquests in the war, Hitler turned his "invincible" military machine against the Soviet Union -- an easy mark, many observers thought. Underestimating the enemy's hidden strength and its fierce wintry terrain, Germany awakened a sleeping giant that would help pummel the mighty Third Reich into a wasteland of smoldering ashes.
America's military campaigns during and after the Cold War were plagued with unforeseen disasters. But as miscalculations go, few episodes could beat Bush's "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. Overnight, Washington diverted essential forces from Afghanistan, al-Qaida's command center, alienated allies and energized enemies, and unleashed a tidal wave of sectarian terrorism engulfing Iraq. And that's the short list of calamities, ranging from thousands of veterans requiring lifetime health care to a soaring debt deepening our dependency on foreign creditors.
At the end of the day, however, the Cold War ended in a stunning triumph as defined by America's major objectives: to contain Soviet expansion and avoid World War III. American presidents were at their best when confronting a Soviet adversary that matched us in power and weapons. Diplomacy prevailed when military force threatened nuclear holocaust, a legacy worth pondering for repairing today's conflict-ridden foreign relations.
America's retreat into isolationism after World War I left Europe to face a Nazi powerhouse in the 1930s. After World War II America led the world, forging the United Nations and the NATO alliance to balance Soviet power. Unlike the vindictive Versailles Treaty of 1919, which sowed the seeds of German vengeance, Truman launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild both allies and enemies, arguably the most effective strategy containing Soviet power.
President John F. Kennedy's legacy towers over others in linking Munich to successful postwar diplomacy. During his Harvard years, his father was U.S. ambassador to England in the Chamberlain era. His senior thesis, analyzing England's failure to halt Nazi Germany, was published later with the title, "Why England Slept."
Kennedy's Munich lessons, however, were tempered by a keen interest in history immunizing him against simplistic black-and-white views of human conflict, by his searing war experiences in the Pacific and the loss of his brother, and an empathy for others nourished in a large family with more than its share of tragedies.
His diplomatic philosophy, therefore, embraced the necessity of military power to stop aggression, a strong imperative to settle conflicts through diplomacy rather than war and a credo requiring empathy for enemies: "Never corner an opponent . . . See things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil . . . nothing is so self-blinding."
Kennedy violated his own principles at times, but his outlook helped save the world from nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. Resisting heavy pressures to get tough with the Soviets, Kennedy opened secret channels with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and together they collaborated to defuse the most dangerous Cold War crisis brought on by their own actions.
Shaken by the Cuban showdown, Kennedy redoubled efforts to neutralize the Cold War hatreds endangering the planet. Addressing American University graduates in June 1963, he urged Americans to re-examine their "attitude toward the Soviet Union," reminding them of the common values shared by both peoples, especially "our mutual abhorrence of war." Set aside the distorted views, he urged, which regard "accommodation as impossible and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats."
Kennedy's address was risky stuff for a politician, but his words targeted a root cause of wars: the misunderstandings that drive men to battle in the charged atmosphere of wartime patriotism. Take another look at Munich -- the Soviet experience -- to appreciate Kennedy's extraordinary message.
On the eve of World War II, Stalin shocked the world by signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler that protected Germany's eastern flank and enabled Hitler to turn his forces against western Europe.
Soviet treachery at its worst? Not quite. As we have seen, Chamberlain had rejected Soviet overtures to contain German aggression, choosing instead to sell out Czechoslovakia, channeling Hitler's fury eastward against the Soviet Union. Stung by this betrayal, Stalin turned the tables and signed the pact sending the Nazi monster back against the West.
Russians learned their own lessons from Munich: that Western leaders could not be trusted and that Eastern Europe -- the corridor through which Napoleon's armies and German forces in two 20th century wars inflicted massive death and destruction on Russians -- had to be secured at all costs. Out of these catastrophic experiences came the clashing perceptions igniting the Cold War -- the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe to protect its vulnerable periphery and the American belief that Soviet expansion was a prelude for plans to conquer the world for communism.
"The Cold War was not a simple case of Soviet expansionism and American reactions," declared historian Melvyn P. Leffler, based on review of Soviet documents released after the collapse of the USSR. Each side regarded the other as aggressors, mistaking "defensive initiatives for aggressive ones," he said. Surrounded by enemies -- a nuclearized American superpower, a resurgent Germany and Japan, an increasingly hostile China -- Soviet expansion was driven primarily by fear, not imperial ambitions.
Recently, Washington reignited those fears with plans to extend our nuclear capabilities to Poland and incorporate Georgia into NATO, oblivious to Russia's Achilles heel. Meanwhile, we are reaping an anti-American hostility throughout the Middle East spawned by a half-century of bruising interventions: pre-emptive warfare, governments overturned, brutal dictators supported, economic sanctions imposed, oil resources exploited and Israel's 40-year occupation of Palestinian lands with American backing. Today, as Washington redirects our forces against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, American soldiers will face peoples already outraged over U.S. strikes killing many civilians.
A tunnel-vision diplomacy focused only on our enemies' aggression, as Kennedy warned, can cripple our foreign policy. According to a recent BBC poll of worldwide opinion, a 69 percent majority believes America's military presence in the Middle East "provokes more conflict than it prevents."
Fortunately, Gates has spoken out against the "miscalculation, hubris, bellicosity . . . and runaway nationalism" spawned by the misuse of the Munich analogy, while promoting strategies based on economic development and a lighter "military footprint" in favor of strengthening local armies. The next president would be well advised to keep Bush's defense secretary on board for the challenges ahead.
Edward Cuddy is a professor of history at Daemen College.