Fifty years ago Neville Chamberlain emerged from his airplane, gestured with his umbrella, and announced to his anxious countrymen that the abject surrender he had just signed in Munich would assure them what the Prayer Book pleads for, “peace in our time.” The major effect of his act was to give both umbrellas and peace a bad name for generations to come. Within a year, the world was at war while the Munich agreement went down in history as proof positive of the futility of concessions and the virtues of uncompromising strength. Its “lesson” has since been invoked to justify causes as diverse as the American intervention in Vietnam, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and opposition to arms
control agreements. Nor would it surprise me if, behind the Kremlin’s secretive walls, Soviet strategists invoked that lesson to oppose a withdrawal from Afghanistan, Poland, or Hungary, gravely warning of “another Munich.”
Yet is the lesson of Munich really so simple, that appeasement is bad and uncompromising strength good? Unquestionably, the Munich agreement was one of the pivotal tragedies of our time. By surrendering Czechoslovakia to Hitler, the Western democracies brought on precisely what they feared. Their surrender broke the back of German opposition to Hitler. It destroyed the one genuinely free, democratic state east of the Rhine and helped discredit democracy in that part of the world. It did not him Hitler’s fury toward the east, only armed him with state-of-the-art weaponry for a war that effectively eliminated both France and the British Empire as world powers and drew Soviet might into the very heart of Europe....
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