Historical revisionism is always in season and is generally a useful, or at least diverting, activity. But Nick Baumann’s effort, in Slate last week, to resuscitate the strategic reputation of Neville Chamberlain (British prime minister, 1937–40), on the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, was a bridge too far in historical myth-making.
It is correct that Britain and France could not go to war to prevent Germans in Czechoslovakia, especially concentrated in Sudetenland, from becoming Germans in fact; and that, as a practical matter, this meant conceding Sudetenland to Germany, as the Czechs could not deport a million Germans without justifying and bringing down on themselves an irresistible German invasion.
Baumann breathlessly revealed what every even slightly informed person on the subject already knew: that Britain and France had no ability to stop Germany on the ground in Central Europe. Even at the end of World War II, Britain had only 25 divisions engaged against Germany in Northwest Europe and Italy (compared with 80 U.S. and 16 French and Canadian combined). The British army (like all other armies) could defeat the formidable Germans only when they had they had a heavy numerical and armament advantage, as at El Alamein in Egypt in November 1942. No sane person ever suggested that Czechoslovakia could be successfully defended from Hitler militarily if he attacked it.
As Baumann rightly recorded, in his meticulous construction of the straw man of a direct military contest for that country, the British were just bringing a new generation of fighter aircraft into full production: Spitfires and advanced Hurricanes that would be the equal of the German Messerschmidt. The Commonwealth countries — especially Canada and Australia, two countries that, with India, contributed almost 40 percent of the combined Imperial war effort (almost all of them volunteers, an astonishing fact given that their homelands were not under direct threat of attack) — would not have joined such a war. The U.S. was bound by statute and the weight of public and official opinion to remain neutral, and France, so magnificent in World War I, was now much less robust and reliable. Italy was antagonistic and the USSR was an enigma.
Baumann concludes that, with Chamberlain’s military advisers opposed to war, allies unlikely or uncertain, and public opinion opposed, he was right not to go to war. And, inexorably, he then places the bridegroom on the wedding cake: Appeasement is often a misnomer and should not be a dirty word, and war should not be undertaken over-hastily. Those who at this point have that ghastly, sinking feeling that what impends is a labored apologia for the trans-red-line dithering, lane-changing, buck-passing, straw-grasping pall of official prevarication of the Obama administration in current and recent foreign-policy matters are right to reach for the sick bag.
Fortunately, the premise is bunk. No one, and certainly not Winston Churchill, was advocating plunging straight into war over Sudetenland. Nor were conditions quite as daunting as Baumann describes. Contrary to what he wrote in Slate, no one then confused Hitler with the bellicose, Ruritanian buffoonery of Mussolini. The first lord of the British Admiralty, Lord Strabolgi, famously said in 1935: “The British Mediterranean Fleet could blow the Italian Navy out of the water in 15 minutes, and every naval person in the world knows it.” So it could, and a few years later, more or less did. But no such comments were ever uttered about the armed forces of Germany, and it was precisely because everyone knew what a struggle war with Germany would be that the prospect of it was so dreadful.
While the U.S. was neutral and the USSR was an enigma, President Roosevelt told the British ambassador, Sir Ronald Lindsay, that the U.S. would make all the sinews of war available to Britain and her allies at knock-down prices, would support any blockade of Germany, and cautioned against what he called the prevailing “We who are about to die salute you” attitude of the British and French. Obviously, it would have been folly to invest too much confidence in any promise of Stalin’s, but he was then beseeching the British and French to stand up to Hitler, and promising to join them if they did. It was precisely the supineness of the Anglo-French at, and on the road to, Munich that drove him into the arms of Hitler, as he explained to Churchill and Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference. They understood his perspective because they had shared his frustration at the time.
The evils of British appeasement of the Axis Powers in the Thirties were not confined to Munich or to Hitler. It was Stanley Baldwin’s appeasement of Mussolini over the shameful and barbarous invasion of Ethiopia that caused a revulsion in British and French public opinion and the dismissal of the foreign ministers of both countries, Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, over the Hoare-Laval Pact. (This prompted King George V, not particularly renowned for his verbal witticisms, to say to Anthony Eden: “Don’t send coals to Newcastle or Hoares to Paris.”) Eden himself resigned as foreign secretary in 1938, partly over Chamberlain’s renewed appeasement of Mussolini, and partly over his gratuitously insulting reply to Roosevelt’s invitation to attend a general peace conference on the 20th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Chamberlain preferred to grovel to Hitler and Mussolini rather than observe even normal civilities with the president of the United States, or to reply seriously to the overtures of the leader of the Soviet Union, despite the fact that they, and in his way Hitler, were the only leaders of Great Powers in the late Thirties who had any idea of what they were doing. And he soon judged it preferable to give a unilateral military guarantee to Poland than to explore the possibilities of an arrangement with Stalin. That guarantee is what caused World War II, after the rejected Stalin made a cozy deal with Hitler, following Chamberlain’s rebuff (and against the prescient advice of Roosevelt, that Hitler would turn on Russia after seeing off France).
War with Germany over Sudetenland was not the only alternative to what was conceded at Munich. Chamberlain should have taken up Roosevelt’s invitation and offer and visited the United States, once in his senior-official life, instead of flying to Germany with his coattails trailing out behind him three times in September 1938. He should have tried hard for a Soviet alliance, and brought the USSR in with the Little Entente (Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia), added the Poles, and offered a one-year handover of Sudetenland to Germany, with compensation to the Czechs and assistance in moving their fortifications, and a serious, all-power guarantee of that country’s revised border.
Instead, there was only a cowardly, pro forma, four-power guarantee that led to the Hungarians’ and Poles’ feasting on the carcass of that stricken country as soon as the great German beast had killed it, followed by Hitler’s swallowing Bohemia and Moravia whole, all with complete impunity. And Chamberlain should not have made anything of his session with Hitler on the morning after the conference, when the Fuehrer said nothing but “Ja, ja” to everything the British prime minister said, before signing off on the statement that they were determined “never to go to war with one another again.”
Above all, Chamberlain should not have made the whole British Commonwealth and the democracies generally appear craven supplicants and cowards before Hitler’s shrieked threats, and should not have affronted history and the stern realities of the time by inciting false euphoria and returning from Munich comparing himself to Disraeli when he came back from his triumph at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Disraeli had faced down Bismarck and returned with more than he had sought (including the island of Cyprus): He did secure “peace with honor.” Chamberlain, as Churchill said, “had to choose between war and shame. You chose shame and you will get war.” So he did.
And any comparison to President Obama’s foreign policy — which was the implicit message in this spurious retrospective — apart from repeated misjudgments and self-inflicted wounds to the credibility and prestige of each man’s country, is completely spurious.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.