As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history. ~George W. Bush

By “repeatedly,” Bush means once in 1939, but it is the one and only time that counts.  Had there been a few more “appeasers” (i.e., cooler heads) during the July crisis, the world might not have been plunged into the inferno for half a century and more.  Most who think about it will acknowledge that the two world wars were to some extent two parts of a long, interrupted conflict.  Interventionists constantly talk about how this conflict resumed in the 1930s, but they rarely talk about how it began, because every instinct that they champion in international relations was shown to lead to unnecessary, unprecedented slaughter in 1914.    

Does Krauthammer know that Bush is stealing his favourite appeasement anecdote?  Sen. Borah must be the most-cited representative from the state of Idaho in the history of the state.  The quoted line is a silly one, since quite a few people “talked to Hitler” and could not dissuade him.  If security guarantees from two of the most powerful states in the world could not dissuade him (because the guarantees did not seem credible), talking wouldn’t, either.  But this episode does not teach the lesson that Mr. Bush thinks it does.  It does not show that negotiating with despotic regimes is always and everywhere unwise or undesirable.  It is sometimes unwise and undesirable, and the difference between the prudent statesman and the blundering jingoist is the ability to discern which is which.  Kennedy going to Vienna was a blunder, not because having summits with the Soviet premier was inherently stupid or dangerous, but because Kennedy seemed to demonstrate in Krushchev’s eyes a certain weakness that could be exploited, which he tried to exploit with the Missile Crisis.  How one engages with hostile states matters far more than whether one engages with them.  Making a fetish out of non-engagement, Mr. Bush has typically mistaken refusing to talk with a sign of strength, and so necessarily takes any indication of engagement as proof of weakness and “appeasement,” which shows how shallow and absurd this entire ideology of resolve vs. appeasement is.   

While I find it strange that someone who ordered the illegal invasion of another country would so frequently invoke the example of the late 1930s, the lesson to learn from 1939 is that once you have made a security pact with a state that you have no real intention of keeping, and then effectively break that pact, all your other allies are sitting ducks.  No one will believe that you are going to fulfill your security guarantees in the future if you fail to do so once, so the guarantee will not deter an invasion, which means that you will feel compelled to embark on a war in which you can do nothing for the state whose security you have guaranteed, while compromising your security in the process.  The proper lessons from the late 1930s are these: don’t make security guarantees that you don’t need to make and that don’t serve your national interest, because you have to be willing to back up these guarantees when they are challenged.  The mistake that London and Paris made in these years was to act as if they were in a position to do something against Germany, and to make guarantees that many of them did not want and in any case could not keep had they wanted to do so.  Those, including Messrs. Bush, McCain and Obama, who wish to expand our military alliances to far-off places about which they know nothing are preparing the way for some future international crisis over a border dispute, whether real or staged, and certainly a President McCain will have the “no appeasement” mantra ringing in his ears as he insists that the peace of the world is worth defending a state in which the United States has no interest whatever.

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