Must We Put Up with Munich Analogies Yet Again?

News Abroad

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Supporters of the war in Iraq condemn what they perceive as false analogies between Iraq and the Vietnam War.  Yet, the historical parallels which the President and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld draw between Iraq and the international situation in the late 1930s are quite similar to the faulty reasoning of the Eisenhower administration in regard to Indochina in the 1950s.

            As we observe the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the beleaguered Bush administration uses the terrorist threat and politics of fear to justify the ill-conceived military occupation of Iraq, assaults upon civil liberties, and the extension of executive powers.  The President appears to envision himself as a modern day Winston Churchill—gallantly standing alone against the gathering storm of international terrorism threatening the very existence of Western civilization.  Employing the rhetoric of World War II, Bush uses such terms as Islamic fascists and the Axis of Evil to describe his international adversaries.  In the world according to Bush, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are both likened to Adolph Hitler and the rise of fascism in the 1930s.  Just as the Nazi regime attempted to impose its ideology upon the world, Bush perceives radical Islamists as a threat to freedom and democracy around the world.  While the President acknowledges that there was no direct link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, he quickly blurs the point by insisting that Iraq is a pivotal battlefield in the war on terror—implying that if Americans do not fight terrorists on their own turf in the Middle East, then Americans will have to confront them in what the President calls the homeland. 

            Democrats or UN diplomats who suggest that the occupation of Iraq is destabilizing the Middle East and undermining the larger war on terror are dismissed as cowards who want to cut and run.  Peace advocates, thus, are described as pursuing a policy of appeasement.  They are the contemporary equivalents of Neville Chamberlain who would encourage aggression by withdrawing from Iraq just as the British Prime Minister in 1938 insisted at the Munich Conference that Hitler could be appeased by offering him the Sudetenland.  Hitler was emboldened to seize the rest of Czechoslovakia and invade Poland, setting off World War II in Europe.  Bush proclaims that he will not follow a similar policy of appeasement in Iraq and the Middle East.

            The Munich analogy employed by the President makes rather simplistic assumptions that the global aims of Hitler and Osama bin Laden are one and the same, ignoring more complex regional and historical explanations for the rise of these two men.  The United States was also ill-served during the Cold War when the Munich settlement was used as a prism through which more regional issues were viewed as part of a larger confrontation between good and evil.           

            Before his appointment as Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, John Foster Dulles called for a rollback of Soviet power and influence.  Dulles was disillusioned with the Truman administration’s policies of containing world communism.  He stated that a sustained communist offensive could not be met by containment policies such as the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine.  Dulles concluded, “Ours are treadmill policies which at best must perhaps keep us in the same place until we drop exhausted.”  The aggressive stance advocated by Dulles culminated in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala and Iran that were perceived by the Secretary of State as allies of the Soviet Union.  The limits of rollback as a policy were certainly apparent when the United States opted to not intervene in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Yet, concerns about communist expansionism in Southeast Asia provided the foundation for the expanding Vietnam War in the 1960s.

            The fear of another Munich dictated the Eisenhower-Dulles policy regarding non-recognition of communist states such as the People’s Republic of China.  The Munich complex also played an important role in the failure of the United States to ratify the 1954 Geneva Agreements which would have committed the Eisenhower administration and its South Vietnamese ally to holding free elections to unify Vietnam by 1956.  The concern about another Munich was sown so deep in the minds of the Eisenhower administration that it succeeded in transforming a local confrontation between French forces and Vietnamese communists and nationalists into a global conflict between communism and democracy.  The United States believed that communists, just as Hitler, would only continue to demand more after each compromise to which the free world acceded.  Negotiation was impossible since the ultimate goal of international communism was world domination.  The Eisenhower administration insisted, therefore, that the free world should stand firm and make no conciliations to communism, for the world understood the consequences of the Munich pact.  Speaking of communist aggression in Vietnam, Eisenhower asserted, “Somewhere along the line, this must be blocked and it must be blocked now.”

            Eisenhower and Dulles attempted to sway British and French confidence in the Geneva settlement by reminding the American allies of the Munich pact and its disastrous aftermath.  These two nations were held responsible for imposing the Munich agreement upon Czechoslovakia.  Surely, they would recognize the danger of forcing a settlement upon the people of Southeast Asia.  In April 1954, Eisenhower warned Winston Churchill of the Munich parallel in Southeast Asia.  The President asserted, “If I may refer again to history; we failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini, and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time.  That marked the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril.  May it not be that our nations have learned something from that lesson?”  Dulles also evoked the Munich analogy, but in his comparison the Secretary of State used an Asian example.  In a June 1954 speech in Seattle, Dulles associated the failure to take firm united action against communist aggression in Vietnam to the rebuff the United States suffered in 1931 when American diplomats tried to bring about united action against Japanese aggression in Manchuria.  The meaning of Eisenhower and Dulles was clear:  it was better to take strong immediate action than to risk catastrophe later.

            When the British and French refused to withdraw from the Geneva Accords, the United States pursued a unilateralist policy of supporting South Vietnam--albeit under the umbrella of a rather meaningless regional defense pact.  Eisenhower and Dulles believed the analogy between Hitler and communist aggression was quite appropriate for the Geneva Conference.   Appeasement was not the answer in 1938 and it was not a wise policy in 1954.  The demands of a monolithic communism orchestrated by the Kremlin were no more reasonable than those espoused by Hitler.  This fateful analogy blinded the United States to any type of useful role in the Geneva settlement and placed the world on the road to the bloody Vietnam War.

            The Munich analogy was applied by the Eisenhower administration to justify a policy of aggressive response to communist expansion.  The complexity of nationalist revolutions was obscured by this simplistic reading of history.  The Bush administration is once again introducing the Munich pact to discredit those urging a withdrawal from Iraq.  Fortunately, in what Gore Vidal often calls the United States of amnesia, the Munich analogy is such ancient history to many Americans that it may carry little weight in the political debate.  President Bush wants to take us back to what he sees as simpler times in which the forces of good and evil were clearly evident.  But the analogy that the President employs did not serve us well in Vietnam and is much too simplistic to describe the modern world of the Middle East.  It is not 1938, and George W. Bush is no Winston Churchill.    

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

It is time to call raping of history, raping of history. W is not fit to lick the bottom of Churchill's boots.

Glenn Rodden - 9/24/2006

Mr. Hughes: This article is not unfair to Eisenhower and Dulles. The author is correct when he points out that Eisenhower used the Munich analogy to support the French effort against the Vietminh after WWII. Eisenhower did not send ground troops into Vietnam, but he did support the French with funds and he did send thousands of advisors to South Vietnam after the French abandoned Vietnam in 1954.

Mr. Martin: If Eisenhower was opposed to "taking the U.S. into Vietnam" why did he ignore the 1954 Geneva Accords and support the South Vietnamese government with money, material and American advisors. My point is that Eisenhower had already gotten the U.S. into Vietnam long before JFK took office.

Nixon did not get the US out of Vietnam. During his six years in office Nixon deepend and widened the war in South East Asia. While running for the presidency in 1968, Nixon claimed that he had a secret plan to end the war. Once he was in office, he expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971. When Nixon resigned in 1974, Americans were still supporting the South Vietnamese government with massive air and naval support as well as military aid.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/23/2006

The article is very unfair to Dulles and Eisenhower. The latter refused point blank to get the U.S. involved in a land war in Asia, and said so. It was John F. Kennedy who sent the first 16,000 U.S. troops into Vietnam, no matter how much liberals wish they could blame it on Johnson, Nixon, or now, defying belief, Eisenhower! You'll notice Sam Martin above has it right, as do I, and historical "revisions" like this one simply will not fly. Eisenhower, in fact, pulled us out of a land war in Asia in 1953 by threatening the Chi-coms at Panmunjam with a resumption of the Korean War using nuclear weapons. (See his book, "Mandate for Change").

samuel D. Martin - 9/21/2006

I agree with Mr. Keuter's assessment of the so called "intellectual"disdain for the President to use it in regard to Iraq. This is especially so when it is used by a President for whom most "intellectuals" have contempt.
This contempt is starkly manifest in the last sentence of the posting by Mr. Briley.
The author fails to point out however, that it was President Kennedy,ignoring the advice of President Eisenhower, who took our nation into Vietnam, with his successor Johnson further expanding this effort. It was in fact President Nixon who finally extricated the US from Vietnam.
The attempt to compare Iraq with Vietnam may sound good politically, but it is intellectually vapid in its substance.
Samuel D. Martin

Yehudi Amitz - 9/19/2006

The French were perfectly capable in 1936 to counter the invasion of the Rheinland. We even know today that Hitler ordered his troops, who entered the Rheinlad, to retreat if the French attack them.

Jason B Keuter - 9/19/2006

The "modern" world of the Middle East is not quite as modern as the poster seems to think. In fact, one of the striking parallels might be found in the argument that fascism was a response to modernity as is radical Islam. Further, both were orignially supported by traditional conservatives who felt that radicals would be of some use to them - never imagining that they would actually take over.

The real reason the Munich parallel is needed is more complex: democracies that fail to act early run the risk of needing to act later in an infinitely more costly way (morally); democracies that do act early will be burdened by never being able to prove what they stopped. Strangling a baby in its crib is not the act of an enlightened statesman - but if we the baby was Hitler and we were watching the act knowing what we know today, we might very well regard it as the act of a hero.

The opponents of US military action give us know way out, other than to let problems escalate until there's no choice but to act with violence they can't stomach in the most relatively minute degree. Barring acting overtly, we could act covertly (the equivalent of strangling Hitler in his crib); but American action will quickly be assailed as counter-democratic (no matter how compromised the coup victim is by myriad ties to decidedly non-democratic regimes and tyrants).

So, following the advice of foes of American foreign policy that entails any kind of meddling in other countries at all, we are left with America not acting and everyone else with carte blanche permission to do whatever they like. This is the Munich parallel. The author of the post even writes of squandering the chance to negotiate meanignfully in Vietnam as if Mao (he uses the owrd China) were pursuing a rational objective there!

So, since we have US inaction as our definition of "good" and freedom to act for others as our definition of "good", we are left with the following obvious point:

When a Rumsfled or Cheney says that the opponents of the war "underestimate the threat we face", they're assuming that the opponents of the war value American society and democracy as something worth defending. Those who have been against the war all along do not generally underestimate the threat as much as they lament it not being more powerful. They see hope in the destruction of the United States as it stands now - a United States they cannot stomach acknowledging as actually prosperous, free, tolerant, cultured and advanced beyond any civilization in human history. They'll point out the blemishes, but in order to have those blemishes actually characterize the country, they will exaggerate them to the point of gross dishonesty. Thus Guantanamo Bay becomes a Bergen Belsen and the pay masters of the roving death squads of the Sudan are people with whom we must have pow-wows and come to an accord that would satisfy tuxedoed pinheads in Brussels. In order to "open" people's eyes to the actual nightmare that America is, they cannot be distracted by other nations' moral crimes. True those crimes exist, but if talked about in the States, they'll simply be incorporated into the propaganda apparatus that justifies the myth of American prosperity, freedom, etc.....

The Munch parallel is not the best - the Cold War parallel is better, mostly because it's pretty much the same group of "intellectuals" taking the same sides. Unfortunately, history has not adequately demonized (aka TRUTHIFIED) the history of communism, in part because so many historians are ideological fellow travelers with so many of its premises - one of the most important being that America is a sham democracy, and if it's destroyed, a real one is waiting on the wings.

The most obscene thing about all this is how much it depends upon gross misrepresentations of history. The thinly veiled anti-Americanism of hard core opponents of American military action stands upon a dunghill of intellectual fraud.

William J. Stepp - 9/18/2006

Mr. Friedman,

Nor can I claim expertise in European history. Thanks for the reference, which I'll follow up.
David L. Hoggan's book, The Forced War, is critical of the appeasement theory.

N. Friedman - 9/18/2006

Mr. Stepp,

I do not claim expertise in European history. However, I note Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott's book, The Appeasers, which shows rather well that the British actually did not use the appeasment policy as a way of buying time to re-arm.

N. Friedman - 9/18/2006


Very well said.

William J. Stepp - 9/18/2006

Britain began a major rearmament program after the invasion of the Rheinland in 1936, and increased the size of its army. Chamberlain's negotiation with Hitler in 1938 was borne of a well-calculated interest in gaining the time it would take to to be properly prepared for dealing with Germany, militarily if need be.
England's warships and aircraft could not possibly have been ready before 1940.

Yehudi Amitz - 9/18/2006

It isn't 1938 and baby Bush is no Winston Churchill, but why compare the incomparable?
Why even study history if not for learning from past events? Will be better to wait till some European countries will beg for the help of the American GIs? It happened already in Bosnia, they used American soldiers and logistics to solve European blunders.
Yes, USA made a lot of mistakes during the cold war, but the solution to the fight with the communists should have been to replace the free media with English translations of Pravda?
Osama isn't Hitler and Saddam should be compared to Stalin. Stalin thought that he can do a pact with the devil but the soviets paid with a lot of lives for his wrong ideas! Islamo-fascism isn't fascism but Islamic extremism with deep roots in the backwardness of the Islamic world.
Of course we can't literally apply past events to the present world but we can use them for comparison.