I was in a class one fall day with a group of perfectly nice people and somehow we got onto the subject of Neville Chamberlin which naturally led to the comment that “the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.” I asked: “why to this day do we so strongly condemn Neville Chamberlain instead of Herr Hitler the party that breached the Munich Agreement?” It seemed like a legitimate question at the time. Suddenly the worm had turned! I could see it in their eyes as they turned on me like a pack of wild jackals coming to pick my bones clean. The room literally erupted with uncontrolled passionate dialogue regarding how he should have known better and perhaps implying it was a cowardly act at best. I eventually put this fire out and moved on to try and salvage the rest of the day. However, as a result of this incident my curiosity had been peaked and I decided to look into the Munich Agreement because I was not so quick to make Neville Chamberlain out to be a fool or a coward as he is conveniently portrayed by many. It is easy from the vantage point of the 21st Century to articulate with such conviction and clarity what should have happened in 1938. If you listen closely you can hear the echo of every armchair historian screaming “it’s a bad deal turn back don’t sign it or bad things will happen.” To be fair to Neville Chamberlain let’s take a closer look at the Munich Agreement to examine what really happened and place it into proper context.
The Munich Agreement was signed on September 29th 1938 by Neville Chamberlain (England), Edouard Daladier (France), Benito Mussolini (Italy) and Adolph Hitler (Germany). The agreement transferred the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany in exchange Hitler agreed that Germany would not make any further territorial demands in Europe. Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier employed the diplomatic philosophy of “appeasement” which is a last ditch effort aimed at avoiding war by making concessions to the aggressor.
Furthermore, the Munich Agreement was signed approximately 20 years after the end of the First World War that left France with 1.3 million dead and Great Britain with 908,000 dead. These figures don’t include the missing, POW s or wounded. By contrast the United States lost approximately 126,000 lives in the Great War. Additionally, Belgium and France had their countries physically devastated by the Great War. Consequently, their appetite for another European war on the heels of the last one was not very large. In fact prior to the Munich agreement a public poll in March of 1938 asked the English people “should Britain promise assistance to Czechoslovakia if Germany acts as it did towards Austria?” 43% said no and 24% had no opinion. Even as late as February 1939 after the signing of the agreement, the British people saw some value in Chamberlain’s strategy. When asked “which of these views comes closest to your view of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement?” 28% said it will lead to lasting peace in Europe while 46% believed that it will keep them out of war long enough to rearm.
Historical voyeurs want to ignore the psychological impact the carnage and destruction left behind by the Great War had on the participants of the day and examine the Munich Agreement in a vacuum. This is a luxury that Mr. Chamberlain didn’t have. It is easy today to cherry pick the facts and conclude that this was a bad idea on the part of England & France. However, had Hitler fulfilled his end of the agreement this would have been a great agreement. Knowing what we know now, in essence Chamberlain was trading the Sudetenland for the lives of 60 million people. It has been estimated that 2% of the world’s population was killed in the Second World War or the equivalent of 60 million people. If you are judging from the 21st Century you might want to include these facts to provide proper context. Would you make that trade? What did Chamberlain loose by signing this agreement? Why not make Hitler responsible for breaching the agreement rather than Neville Chamberlain the culprit for trying to avoid another world war on the Continent? Have we become that casual with human life that an attempt to save the lives of 60 million people is viewed as a bad idea? These are questions that deserve honest answers before we can condemn P.M. Chamberlain.
Legacy – What has Neville Chamberlain left us?
The actions of Neville Chamberlain had a very profound effect on Geo-Political diplomacy moving forward. The legacy of the Munich Agreement reared its head in 1962 and almost led the United States to a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis by clouding the vision of the players. President Kennedy was being accused of being an “appeaser” by the military leadership because he wanted to try diplomacy to avert a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. With Neville Chamberlain clearly on their mind the military advisors manufactured immense pressure on President Kennedy to take military action against Cuba because they didn’t want another “Munich.” However, we can say with certainty had President Kennedy not chosen to negotiate with Nikita Khrushchev a nuclear exchange would have occurred taking the lives of millions of people both American & Russian.
In the United States the Munich Agreement has gone through the complete evolution process and now has morphed into “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” In the 21st century any world leader or group we have a conflict with we compare to Hitler and of course any attempt to negotiate with Hitler-types would only produce another Munich Agreement. This description establishes a perfectly constructed enthymeme which allows the average person the ability to quickly make the right judgment in a complex geo-political situation.
The final step in the complete maturation of the Munich Agreement occurred on September 11th 2001 when suicide hijackers who were labeled “terrorists” flew their aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings killing approximately 2500 US citizens. Almost immediately the name Hitler was replaced in the American lexicon with “terrorist” that broadens the scope of possibilities for inclusion into the “non-negotiable” club. Consequently, any American official not wanting to be accused of “appeasement” can conveniently skip the diplomacy stage altogether and move directly to the use of WMD as a front line acceptable option to resolve geo-political conflict by claiming “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” On that September day in 1938 Neville Chamberlain had no idea the lasting effects that his actions would have on future governments. It has completely changed the way we talk about geo-political events. Today we use words like negotiation, compromise and appeasement interchangeably collapsing them into synonyms complete with all of the negative connotations associated with Munich. So what has Neville Chamberlain left us? He has left every world leader a “hall pass” for their actions that can be rationalized by claiming they want to avoid another Munich. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Consequently we conveniently have Neville Chamberlain to blame for ALL of our geo-political actions otherwise we might have to take responsibility ourselves!