Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Appeasement Is Underrated

| Apr. 29, 2024

Rejecting diplomacy by citing Neville Chamberlain's deal with the Nazis is a willfully ignorant use of history.

I'm opposed to censorship, but foreign-policy debates here in the United States would improve dramatically if politicians and pundits stopped defending their recommendations by constantly invoking Neville Chamberlain and the so-called "lessons of Munich."  Whenever somebody tells me that this one historical episode explains why the United States ought to do something today, I'm inclined to suspect that I’m being sold a bill of goods. 

I assume you know what I'm talking about. Nearly 86 years ago, then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with representatives of Nazi Germany in Munich because he supposedly believed that letting Germany acquire the Sudetenland (a portion of what was then Czechoslovakia that contained a large percentage of ethnic Germans) would satisfy Adolf Hitler's revisionist ambitions and ensure "peace for our time."

That's not what happened: Hitler proceeded to seize the rest of Czechoslovakia and then went on to invade Poland in September 1939. The result was World War II, a vast conflagration in which millions of people died horrible deaths. Ever since, an endless stream of politicians and pundits have treated the failure to stop Hitler at Munich as perhaps the most instructive episode in world history, an error of statecraft that must never be repeated.

For these folks, the so-called lesson is that dictators are unalterably aggressive and that one should never, ever, try to appease them. On the contrary, their objectives must be firmly resisted, and any attempts to alter the status quo should be firmly deterred—and if necessary, soundly defeated. Former U.S. President Harry Truman invoked Munich to justify U.S. entry into the Korean War, and so did then-British Prime Minister Anthony Eden when he decided to attack Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis. And it's still very much in vogue today: In February, Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe wrote of the "stench of appeasement" permeating debates about Ukraine. And just last week, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul urged colleagues preparing to vote on the latest aid package for Ukraine by saying, "You have to ask yourself this question: Am I Chamberlain or Churchill?"

To be clear: If I were a member of Congress—admittedly a scary thought—I would have supported providing more aid for the beleaguered Ukrainians. But not because I think Russian President Vladimir Putin is another Hitler who is hellbent on waging war across Europe the way that Nazi Germany did. What happened at Munich in 1938 is largely irrelevant to the issues facing us today, and invoking it is more likely to mislead than to inform. It's a bumper sticker masquerading as Serious Analysis....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Appeasement Is Underrated.” Foreign Policy, April 29, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt