239 “The Spirit of Munich”–Assessing Appeasement

 In The Gathering Storm (volume one of Winston Churchill’s account of the Second World War) the former prime minister penned these memorable words:  “It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how the structure and habits of democratic States, unless they are welded into larger organisms, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to humble masses; how, even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued for even ten or fifteen years at a time.  We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted form desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.”  And his martyred contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, further declared:  “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act “ (pp. 17-18).  

Few historical truths are more easily documented than this:  appeasing evil is evil!  So Bruce S. Thornton’s The Wages of Appeasement:  Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America (New York:  Encounter books, c. 2011) deserves careful reading and reflection.  A professor of classics and humanities at California State University as well as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the author brings both erudition and acumen to his text, laying the groundwork for his discussion with an account of ancient Athens’ failure to resist the aggressions of Phillip II of Macedon.  The city’s civic virtues had decayed—as Demosthenes  so eloquently declared—and with the loss of courage to defend themselves came the loss of freedom so celebrated by Pericles a century earlier.   So Athens slowly slid into obscurity and irrelevance.  

Two millennia later the Athenian approach marked Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 attempt in Munich in to forge a “peace with honor” with Adolph Hitler.  For nearly two decades, disillusioned with the consequences of WWI, the resolve of men such as Chamberlain had softened as  increasing numbers of jaded intellectuals (e.g. Bertrand Russell) and cheerful clerics (e.g. the “Red” Dean of Canterbury) embraced self-abasement, disarmament, pacifism, and a naive faith in the efficacy of internationalism.  “The ‘sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage,’ as [George] Orwell put if of prewar English anti-patriotism, ‘the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm’” (p. 279).  One of the “sniggering intellectuals” Orwell condemned was the historian G. M. Trevelyan, who said, “‘Dictatorship and democracy must live side by side in peace, or civilization is doomed’” (p. 107).  George Lansbury, a Labor Party leader, actually admitted “he would ‘close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force.  I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world “do your worst”’” (p. 94).   And the world did its worst in short order.  As Mussolini and Hitler flexed their muscles—invading Ethiopia and the Rhineland—few men of courage opposed them.  Sufficiently emboldened, Hitler pursued his designs, fearing little resistance from England and France.  “‘I saw them at Munich,’ he said.  ‘They are little worms’” (p. 118).  WWII, with all its horrors, inexorably followed.

“The spirit of Munich,” said Alexander Solzhenitsyn when accepting his Nobel Prize, “has by no means retreated into the past; it was not a brief episode.  I even venture to say that the spirit of Munich is dominant in the twentieth century.  The intimidated civilized world has found nothing to oppose the onslaught of suddenly resurgent fang-baring barbarism, except concessions and smiles.  The spirit of Munich is a disease of the will of prosperous people; it is the daily state of those who have given themselves over to a craving for prosperity in every way, to material well-being as the chief goal of life on earth.  Such people—and there are many of them in the world today—choose passivity and retreat, anything if only the life to which they are accustomed might go on, anything so as not to have to cross over to rough terrain today, because tomorrow, see, everything will be all right.  (But it never will!  The reckoning for cowardice will only be more cruel.  Courage and the power to overcome will be ours only when we dare to make sacrifices)” (pp. 24-25).    

To Solzhenitsyn, America’s retreat from Southeast Asia, abandoning Vietnam just as victory was immanent, revealed the collapse of courage most visible in this nation’s intellectual and political elite.  The spirit of Munich, Thornton says, spread throughout the burgeoning anti-war and anti-American community in the ‘60s ‘70s, seriously compromising our intelligence agencies as well as demoralizing our armed forces.  It saturated the Carter Administration, whose “appeasing response to the Iranian crisis” in 1979 opened the gates to Islamic Jihad around the world.  The architect of the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini had set forth his objective in 1942:  “‘Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world.  All the countries conquered by Islam or to be conquered in the future will be marked for everlasting salvation’” (p. 166).  He pulled no punches, declaring:  “‘Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war.  Those [who say this] are witless.  Islam says:  Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you!’” (p. 166).  The Koran and the sword are welded together—the book guides the faithful; the sword slays the infidels.  When the Iranians took hostage 66 Americans and seized our Embassy, President Carter equivocated and pleaded, sending a “groveling” letter assuring Khomeini of his commitment to “good relations ‘based upon equality, mutual respect and friendship’” (p. 168).  Though the hostages were released when Ronald Reagan was elected, our world forever changed as radical Muslims embraced jihad.  Despite a series of attacks on American installations, neither Reagan nor Bill Clinton responded decisively, confirming Osama “bin Laden’s estimation that U.S. power was “‘built on foundations of straw’” (p. 190).  Clinton, who regularly “wilted” when faced with politically risky decisions, responded to al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole by ordering “all U.S. Navy vessels to head for the safety of open waters and to avoid using the Suez Canal” (p. 197).  

Then came September 11, 2001!  A very different president, George W. Bush, responded quite differently, committing American troops to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But despite initial support, as the wars drug on President Bush had to deal with hoards of increasingly shrill critics—mainly Democrat luminaries such as Al Gore, Barbara Boxer, Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean, who in 2004 commandeered anti-war throngs by spouting “Marxist clichés about ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ and the evils of capitalism’” (p. 203).  Joining the anti-war brigade, Barack Obama “campaigned on a foreign policy predicated on moralizing internationalism, a preference for diplomacy and transnational institutions, a focus on human rights and foreign development, and the assumption that the United States was flawed and in need of some humility after the reckless aggression and oppressive practices of the Bush administration” (p. 214), signaling “a return to the Carter philosophy that had helped put in power an Islamist regime in Iran and ignited a Soviet global expansion” around the world (p. 216).  “Thus we rationalize away the jihadists’ careful justifications for their violence in the theology of Islam and seek to ameliorate what we think are the true causes—poverty, lack of political participation, or historical injustices—rather than realizing that those who believe they are divinely sanctioned to kill others will not be talked or bribed out of their beliefs, but can only be destroyed” (p. 280).  

So there is every reason to acknowledge that Obama, committed as he is to an “outreach” to Muslims, personifies the “spirit of Munich.”  He appeases the Islamists just as Chamberlain appeased the Nazis, even insisting that administrative officials—and journalists—sanitize their language in order to falsely portray Muslims (at home and abroad) as “peace-loving” and jihad as “spiritual improvement rather than violence against the enemies of Islam” (p. 255).    In his repeated laments for the sins of the West, he simply ignores the historical evidence that “over the centuries Muslims have conquered, killed, ravaged, plundered, and enslaved Christians and occupied their lands in vastly greater numbers than all the dead resulting from European colonial incursions of America’s recent wars in Muslim lands put together” (p. 263).   Facing such hostile world, Thornton insists, America must respond in ways atypical of the democracies led by men such as Chamberlain and Obama, which almost always make short-sighted, self-serving, emotionally-based decisions.  

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Markedly different from the spirit of Munich so evident in today’s progressive intelligentsia was the “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher!  As Claire Berlinski makes clear in “There is No Alternative:  Why Margaret Thatcher Matters” (New York:  Basic Books, c. 2011), appeasement was not in her genes!  Rather, she demonstrated the kind of courage which only comes from deeply-held convictions.  For her, these were established in her early years as she attended a Methodist church.  In contrast to those unprincipled politicians who forever float with the winds of popular opinion, Lady Thatcher refused to bend when principles such as freedom and justice were at stake.  To her there were never two sides to an issue—there was only one, the right side!  In a remarkable statement, responding to those who urged compromise and “consensus,” she declared:  “To me consensus seems to be:  the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.  What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’?” (Downing Street Years, p. 167).

In particular, she “was one of the most vigorous, determined, and successful enemies of socialism the world has known” (p. 5).  Living in a “weakly socialist nation” slowly shaped over the decades by the Labour Party following Fabian strategies, she smelled Britain’s festering decadence and refused to sanction the “basic immorality” of socialism, believing that “socialism itself—in all its incarnations, wherever and however it was applied—was morally corrupting.  Socialism turned good citizens into bad ones; it turned strong nations into weak ones; it promoted vice and discouraged virtue; and even when it did not lead directly to the Gulags, it transformed formerly hardworking and self-reliant men and women into whining, weak and flabby loafers.   Socialism was not a fine idea that had been misapplied; it was an inherently wicked idea” (pp. 7-8).  

She emerged as a political powerhouse with a speech to the Conservative Party in 1976, calling for a return to free enterprise economics, a repudiation of the Labour Party which was then “‘committed to a program which is frankly and unashamedly Marxist,’” a shift which would bring about “‘the rebirth of a nation, our nation—the British nation’” (p. 68).  She urged her party to launch a crusade by appealing “‘to all those men and women of goodwill who do not want a Marxist future for themselves or their children or their children’s children.  This is not just a fight about national solvency.  It is a fight about the very foundations of the social order.  It is a crusade not merely to put a temporary brake on socialism, but to stop its onward march once and for all’” (p. 69).  Citing Shakespeare’s rendition of King Henry V’s words before the pivotal Battle of Agincourt, she concluded:  “‘As was said before another famous battle:  “It is true that we are in great danger; the greater therefore should our courage be”’” (p. 69).  

And the courage of King Henry was needed when the Iron Lady came to power in 1979, for Britain was widely regarded as the Sick Man of Europe (a “disgrace,” in the opinion of Henry Kissinger), “sunk to begging, borrowing, stealing” (p. 10).  Little remained of the nation that a century earlier had proudly orchestrated the Pax Britannica, ruling one fourth of the world.  “It was the world’s undisputed premier naval power; it controlled the world’s raw materials and markets; it had long been the world’s leading scientific and intellectual power; it was the financial center of the world and the premier merchant carrier; it had invented the Common Law; it had invented modern parliamentary democracy” (p. 9).  Only faded remnants of such glory days remained.  To Thatcher, Britain’s decline was “a punishment for the sin of socialism” installed by her countrymen in 1945 when they elected Clement Atlee prime minister and established a enveloping welfare state.  Having defeated the Nazis in war, they surrendered to the socialists in peace!  She thought that “in 1945 the good and gifted men and women of Britain had chosen a wicked path.  They had ceased to be great because they had ceased to be virtuous.  In ridding Britain of socialism, she intimated, she would restore it to virtue.  She would make it once again worthy of greatness” (p. 13).  Consequently:  “Hatred of communism, hatred of Marxism, hatred of socialism—and an unflinching willingness to express that hatred in the clearest imaginable terms—was the core of Thatcherism” (p. 47).  

“Thatcherism,” Berlinski says, was rooted in the religiously devout, industriously middle class rearing that nurtured Margaret Thatcher.  Her father was a Wesleyan lay preacher whose influence and convictions shaped her.  As a child she began speaking publically by reading passages in church, sharing in her father’s ministry and resolving to follow his example, frequently citing the Scriptures in her political pronouncements.  Accordingly:  “She did what was right, she did what was right, she did what was right.  She did it because her father told her to” (p. 21).  Her education (a chemistry degree from Oxford, supplemented by a law degree earned while working as a research chemist) equipped her.  Her marriage, to a prosperous businessman, Denis Thatcher, sustained her.  But no external factors fully explain her!  She was, quite simply, a remarkable woman with sharply-honed political skills who guided Britain through her “longest sustained period” of “economic expansion of the postwar era” (p. xix).  Using extensive interviews with her allies and enemies, Berlinski enables us to better appreciate Thatcher’s genius and success.  

Early on, as Prime Minister, she refused to back down to Argentina and successfully waged a 1982 war to maintain British control of the Falkland Islands.  “Without this victory, it is unlikely that the Thatcher Revolution could have occurred” (p. 158).  Standing firm and winning the war greatly enhanced the prestige of both Thatcher and her country, building the popular support she needed to win “a massive victory in the 1983 general election” (p. 179) and subsequently to deal with domestic issues.  “‘We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands,’ she said.  ‘We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty’” (p. 183).  The foremost “enemy within,” by all odds, was the thoroughly Marxist trade unions, effectively strangling the British economy.  So Thatcher defied and denatured them, despite a long and bloody coal miners’ strike.  She did so by “stockpiling coal, training the military to drive trains in the event of a sympathy strike by the railway workers, accelerating the development of nuclear power, importing electricity by cable from France, and refurbishing coal-fired power stations to permit them to run on oil” (p. 208).  

Thatcher’s opposition to Marxism included a deep hostility to the USSR, which, when she became Britain’s prime minister in 1978, “appeared to be not only invincible, but ascendant” (p. 270).  In her 1976 speech to her party, she boldly announced her convictions, saying:  “‘I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western World.  A Cold War warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter.  Am I any of these things?  Well, yes, if that’s how they wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life’” (p. 263).  Undeterred by her critics, impervious to their poison darts, she gladly joined Ronald Reagan in doing whatever possible to throttle Communism wherever it appeared in the 1980s.  “Publicly, Thatcher—and only Thatcher, among the leaders of the world—supported Reagan unwaveringly, despite massive domestic and international pressure to do otherwise” (p. 273).  By doing so, she earned Reagan’s enduring gratitude and friendship.  Together they successfully dealt with a new kind of Communist, Mikhail Gorbachev, whom they both liked, and in short order the Soviet Union collapsed.  

Reviewing the book, Peter Schweizer, the author of Reagan’s War, concluded:  “Finally the Iron Lady gets her due.  Claire Berlinski brilliantly lays out how Margaret Thatcher’s strength and conviction changed the world.  Without a Prime Minister Thatcher there might not have been a President Ronald Reagan.  And Berlinksi reminds us how the whole world would benefit from a new Thatcher today.”  

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In Obama’s Globe:  A President’s Abandonment of U.S. Allies Around the World (New York:  Beaufort Books, c. 2012), Bruce Herschensohn places the nation’s foreign policy within the context of the past half-century, showing how the Carter and Obama administrations failed to rightly understand and handle challenges abroad.  Unlike FDR and JFK, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, all of whom boldly pressed for victory over our foes, presidents Carter and Obama tried to appease the nation’s enemies and in the process deserted our friends.  “Carter’s abandonment of El Salvador and Nicaragua,” for example, “ended with a fall of those two governments that cost over 70,000 deaths of Central Americans fighting against Soviet proxies who had taken advantage of the opportunity given to them” (p. 27).  He lacked what JFK called “the stuff of presidents,” envisioning himself as a purveyor of “human rights,” a peace-maker rather than a commander-in-chief.  

Following the Carter approach, President Obama annulled agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic in order to curry favor with Russia.  Distancing himself from Britain, Obama (through his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) proclaimed America’s neutrality regarding the on-going dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands.  In Tunisia and Egypt, Obama shunned long-term allies, opening the gates for Islamists (notably the Muslim Brotherhood) to take control of Arab nations.  To Herschensohn:  “The celebration of Mubarak’s fall was much more reminiscent of 1979’s fall of the Shah of Iran and the welcome of the Ayatollah Khomeini” (p. 60).  And in Iran, when millions took to the streets demanding liberty from the oppression imposed by Khomeini and his heirs, Obama refused to give even verbal support!  So too in Syria—Obama has feebly protested the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad but done nothing of substance to overthrow him.  His policy—termed “leading from behind” by a White House advisor—illustrates timidity and constant concern for his own political position.  Obama’s treatment of Israel further illustrates his abandonment of American allies around the globe.  By consistently referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as land “occupied by Israel,” and by announcing, on May 19, 2011, his desire to return to the 1967 boundaries between Israel and Palestine (a noon-existent state), he made “one of the worst, if not the very worst statement made by any U.S. President regarding a friendly nation that won a war” (p. 89), the president has egregiously distanced himself from our only allies in the Middle East.  

Wherever Herschensohn looks (and he deals with many more areas that I’ve indicated), President Obama seems committed to appeasing our enemies and abandoning our allies, hoping the world be safer without American leadership.