This Time Is Exactly Like That Time, Except In The Ways It Is Not

Hungary1956

On the missile shield, Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:

It is all too reminiscent of the Hungarian spring, when the US stood by and let the USSR crush the Hungarian freedom movement. This appeasement will do nothing but embolden the most militaristic and dangerous elements of the Russian ruling class.  Message: America has retreated.

This move will cause us  nothing but trouble in the long term.  And it’s a fine repayment for the support and friendship that these brave Eastern European countries have shown America, isn’t it?

If he knows about this, there is a tear in Ronald Reagan’s eye this morning.

Will at The League rebuts:

On the merits, this is just terribly confused. No one – not even pro-missile defense analysts – thinks that interceptor sites in Eastern Europe will have any practical impact on the effectiveness of Russia’s nukes. Their arsenal is too massive, their ICBMs are programmed to fly over the North Pole, not Poland, and if the Russians were to invade Eastern Europe, I doubt they’d be stupid enough to nuke the same territory they plan on occupying. Arguing that we’re appeasing Iran at least has the virtue of making sense, but even that doesn’t hold up because we’re developing another program designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles in the Middle East.

It’s the analogy between Hungary, 1956 and Poland, 2009 that really confuses me, however. I mean, how should we have responded to the Soviet crackdown? Should we have invaded Hungary and ignited another world war? It seems to me that a devastating conflict fought primarily in Eastern Europe would have been far more detrimental to Hungarian interests than a diplomatic approach that actually helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union decades later. Obviously, this required some unpleasant compromises with a very repressive regime. Similarly, I’m not thrilled that Putin and Medvedev approve of our decision to remove the missile defense system. This doesn’t mean the decision is wrong on the merits (quite the opposite); it just means that basing foreign policy on the principle that antagonizing unpleasant regimes is always a good thing, while viscerally satisfying, doesn’t produce the best substantive outcomes.

Some negative reaction to the President’s decision from across the pond. Con Coughlin at The Telegraph:

Seventy years ago, the West’s appeasement of Nazi Germany resulted in the invasion of Poland, the start of the Second World War, and ultimately the deaths of an estimated 50 million people. Barack Obama’s decision yesterday to cancel Washington’s planned missile defence shield is unlikely to have the same apocalyptic consequences, but it does suggest that the spirit of appeasement is alive and well, and residing in the White House.

Mr Obama may claim, as he did yesterday, that there are better ways of defending the West from nuclear strikes by rogue states such as Iran than building a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe. But the programme was about more than protecting Western Europe from attack by rogue states. It was also an important symbol of the West’s commitment to maintaining the freedom of those Eastern European countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, that were liberated from the Soviet Union following the collapse of the Iron Curtain 20 years ago.

Melanie Phillips at The Spectator:

As time and credibility drained away, the Obama administration announced that if Iran hadn’t moved by late September, the US would finally get tough, which meant some kind of souped-up sanctions regime. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what would happen next. Having contemptuously disdained the idea of talking to the US, a few days ago Iran suddenly said it would indeed talk to the Great Satan – but not about its nuclear programme, only about ending nuclear proliferation (guess which country it has in mind for a cosy chat with Obama?) and getting rid of great power vetoes at the UN.

In other words, it has graciously consented to talk about terms for the surrender of the west. In doing so, it would park the sanctions threat indefinitely and tie the US up in further knots for months, thus ensuring the tranquil completion of its nuclear programme, and make the US look so weak and pathetic that Neville Chamberlain would retrospectively appear heroic and far-sighted by comparison, thus hugely endangering not just America but the world. In the circumstances, only an imbecile, brainwashed ideologue or lunatic would agree to pick up Iran’s gauntlet of contempt.

Daniel Korski is more positive:

Obama was right to double back on the Bush-era initiative, but will needs to be clear that he expects Russian support on a number of open files, including Iran, while the US must take care of its allies, especially Poland and the Czech Republic, but also others who feel exposed to Russia’s whims. Tomorrow’s speech on Russia by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will be one to watch.

Alex Massie links to the three above and wonders about Chamberlain:

To take a pair of recent examples: Obama’s decision to relocate missile batteries from Poland and the Czech Republic to the mediterranean is, accoring to our old chum Con Coughlin, rank appeasement, (Brother Korski offers a more sensible appraisal here, incidentally) while Sister Philips bitterly complains that the prospect of a mid-level meeting between Iran and the United States, demonstrates that Chamberlain was a far-sighted hero compared to Barack Obama.

Perhaps she’s right. But if so, it says nothing about Obama’s weakness and everything about Chamberlain’s appreciation of the national interest. That is, Chamberlain was a hero whose determination to avoid a cataclysmic war until it was no longer avoidable ought to be saluted, not vilified.

Whatever mistakes may have been made in 1936, by the time of the Munich conference Chamberlain found himself in an invidious position and, the judgement of history notwithstanding, he played his cards as best they could be played. Hitler may have been in a weak position at Munich, but so was Chamberlain knowing that there was neither public support nor much military readiness for a new war, least of all one to be fought on the continent. (As you can see, mind you, I choose to defend Chamberlain on a narrow front.)

To listen to the Munichites talk one might be excused for thinking that actions never have causes, only consequences. Furthermore, one might surmise that the choices available to Prime Ministers and Presidents are clearly between good and evil, black and white. But history does not work like that, no matter how tempting it is to pretend history runs along neat, straight lines. Chamberlain’s policy of delaying war until it was utterly inevitable may look foolish now but it was a policy guided by prudence and an awareness of what was possible. It was also popular.

Anyone reading Field Marshall Alanbrooke’s war diaries cannot help but be struck by the good fortune with which British forces escaped France in 1940. Equally, Alanbrooke (who would later become Chief of the Imperial General Staff) writes with the melancholy knowledge of a man returning to the bloody fields of his youth. On the 14th December 1939, for instance, he writes that seeing the fields he’d first visited in 1914 prompted “a mass of memories which were given a bitter twinge through the fact that I was back again starting again what I thought at the time I was finishing for good and all. It gives me a lonely feeling also going back over these old grounds, so many of them that were with me then are now gone, and so many that are with me now were not born then.”

It’s pretty easy for bar-room generals to complain that Britain wasn’t willing to embrace another war just 20 years after the last one had cost a million lives. But if you can’t imagine why there might have been a proper, even decent, reluctance then, frankly, I suggest you lack the empathy and imagination that any half-decent historian or commentator needs if they’re to be successful.

Mark Thompson at The League on Massie:

While it is certainly possible, and in hindsight likely, that war in 1938 would have stopped the Nazis before they had the capacity to overrun the continent and engage in a prolonged war, this is by no means guaranteed.  American neutrality laws at the time of Munich made it questionable at best whether the US would have been able to even offer the type of assistance that it offered the UK between 1939 and 1941, and it was only after Munich that talks between the US and France began on exporting aircraft to France (aircraft that did not arrive until 1940, at which time they were redirected to Britain).  Moreover, the RAF had only 5 Spitfires and not a single Hurricane in service at the time of Munich.  By comparison, the Germans already had well over 1000 Messerschmitt Bf 109s in service.

It’s also worth remembering how quickly France and the Low Countries fell to Germany in 1940 despite the presence of British troops.  It seems difficult to conclude that a declaration of war upon Germany in 1938 instead of 1939 would have not only prevented this but would have clearly ensured a relatively quick victory for the allies.  And what if war in 1938 changed nothing about how quickly France and the Low Countries would have fallen?  Without the full strength of the Spitfires and Hurricanes, would Britain have been able to withstand the Nazi air campaign?

This, of course, also says nothing about the fact that the killing fields of the First World War were no more a distant memory for Britain and France in 1938 than the Cold War is a distant memory for the US in 2009.

None of this is to say that Chamberlain’s actions at Munich were ultimately correct – in hindsight, the fact of the Holocaust makes just about anything that would have at least had the possibility of preventing it the correct course of action, and more hawkish action by Britain and France prior to the invasion of Poland fits this bill.  It is, however, to say that the notion that Munich somehow proves that appeasement is always and everywhere a wrong decision is an extremely dubious notion.

And finally, for the Hell of it:

UPDATE: Rich Lowry and Alex Massie on Rich Lowry

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Go Meta, History, Military Issues

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