The Munich Analogy

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The Munich Analogy

Joseph M. Siracusa

At the Munich Conference of 1938, France and England followed a policy of appeasement toward Adolf Hitler, choosing not to challenge him on his takeover of Czechoslovakia in the hope that German aggression toward neighboring states would stop there and that war in Europe could be averted. The failure of this appeasement approach in preventing the outbreak of World War II subsequently made the Munich agreement a metaphor for weakness in foreign policy, and the "lesson" of the Munich Conference has permeated the American political world ever since. The Munich analogy has not only been used consistently in American presidential and governmental rhetoric but has also affected foreign policy decisions at crucial moments in U.S. history. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George H. W. Bush, from the 1940s to the 1980s, have used the example of Munich as a warning to the public about the inherent dangers of appeasing aggressors.


During the fateful year 1938, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler took the first two steps in his Drang nach Osten, or drive to the east, by annexing Austria and the predominantly German sections of Czechoslovakia. In order to win Italian support, Hitler had promised to respect Austrian independence and to refrain from interfering in the small republic's internal politics. At heart, though, he had never really abandoned his hope of uniting the land of his birth with his adopted fatherland, a feeling reciprocated by some Austrians. (Indeed, at the end of World War I, Austria asked to be united with Germany, but subsequently this was expressly forbidden in the Treaty of Versailles.) By early 1938 Hitler felt strong enough to cast his promises to the winds.

In February he summoned Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian chancellor, to a conference at Berchtesgaden, the führer's mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps, and demanded the admission of prominent Austrian Nazis to the cabinet. Schuschnigg complied but called for an immediate plebiscite, which he felt certain would demonstrate popular opposition to union with Germany. The Nazis were apparently of the same opinion, for they at once demanded the resignation of Schuschnigg and a postponement of the plebiscite, threatening invasion by German troops as the alternative. Schuschnigg resigned on 11 March. His successor as chancellor, the Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart, immediately called in the Wehrmacht, allegedly to suppress disorders in Austria. On 12 March the German government proclaimed Austria to be a state of the German Reich, and two days later Hitler entered Vienna amid a great show of rejoicing. Anschluss was complete. France and Great Britain protested, but since neither had an interest sufficiently vital to go to war to prevent this action, no one raised a hand in resistance.

Hitler next turned to "rescue" what he termed the "tortured and oppressed" Germans of Czechoslovakia, in point of fact the most democratic state of Central Europe. Of Czechoslovakia's 14 million people, about 3.5 million were Germans. These lived for the most part in the Sudeten area that fringed the western end of the republic, facing German territory to the north, west, and south. The Sudeten Germans, comprising just one of numerous ethnic minorities in Czechoslovakia, had shown little dissatisfaction with their government until 1932, when the Nazi movement first gained some strength among them. From then until 1938, the Sudeten Nazis, led by Konrad Henlein, kept up a growing agitation, first for complete cultural and political autonomy within Czechoslovakia and finally for union with Nazi Germany.

The Czechoslovak government made a succession of compromise offers, but these were one by one rejected by Henlein, who consulted Hitler at each step. By September 1938 it was evident that nothing less than cession of the Sudetenland to Germany would satisfy the führer. The Czechoslovak government did not propose to yield to dismemberment without putting up a fight. It had a relatively efficient army and a defensible frontier. It also had defensive alliances with France and Soviet Russia. If it were attacked by Germany, and if its allies fulfilled their solemn obligations, a general European war was certain. This would, in all probability, involve England also.

In an effort to find a peaceful settlement for the Sudeten problem, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain paid two visits to Hitler, at Berchtesgaden and at Godesberg, on the Rhine a few miles above Cologne. In the first (15 September 1938) Chamberlain ascertained that the führer would take nothing less than surrender of the Sudetenland to Germany. In the second, a week later, he submitted to Hitler a plan for the prompt and peaceful transfer to Germany of the areas of Czechoslovakia with populations more than 50 percent German, the fixing of the new frontier by an international commission, and an international guarantee of the independence of a Czechoslovakia shorn of these important segments of its territory and population. The Prague government agreed to these terms under combined and relentless British and French pressure.

To Chamberlain's consternation, Hitler rejected this proposal as too slow. Instead he demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Czech military and official civilian personnel from areas that he specified, with plebiscites to follow in other areas where the percentage of German population was doubtful. German troops, he warned, would occupy the specified areas on 1 October, whether or not Czechoslovakia accepted his ultimatum.

Czechoslovakia at once rejected this proposal and mobilized its army of 1.5 million men. France followed with partial mobilization, as did Belgium. France and Britain made it clear that they would assist Czechoslovakia if it were attacked, while Italy announced its intention of standing by its Axis partner. The threat of war was real.


At this point (27 September 1938) U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the picture. Urging Hitler to lay the controversy before an international conference, he added: "Should you agree to a solution in this peaceful manner I am convinced that hundreds of millions throughout the world would recognize your action as an outstanding historic service to all humanity."

Roosevelt also joined with Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier in a plea to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to persuade Hitler to accept a peaceful settlement that would give him substantially all he asked for. Hitler yielded to the extent of agreeing to meet with Mussolini and the French and British leaders at Munich. There, on 29 September, Hitler and Mussolini and Chamberlain and Daladier agreed on a plan that the Czech government perforce accepted. It differed little from Hitler's ultimatum of a week before, merely allowing slightly more time for Czech withdrawal from the surrendered area. The American contribution to the crisis was confined to a message from Roosevelt reminding all the European powers concerned of their solemn obligation under the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) not to go to war with one another. The Soviet Union was not invited. In any case, it was assumed that war had been averted. Prime Minister Chamberlain told the people of England that he had brought back "peace with honour," adding, "I believe it is peace in our time."

Two Czechoslovak diplomats summoned to Munich were held overnight under Gestapo guard and confronted on the morning of 30 September with what the great powers had done. Prague was forced to give in to the pact's terms. Jan Masaryk, son of the founding father of the Czech Republic, warned Britain and France, "If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help your souls!"

The Wehrmacht was to be allowed to take over the German-speaking frontier area of Czechoslovakia during the first ten days of October with all the military installations it contained. What was left of the republic was to be placed under some kind of indeterminate guarantee, never enacted.

The Munich pact was hailed as a triumph of diplomacy over war, and Chamberlain returned home to a hero's welcome. Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador to Berlin at the time of the conference, later wrote that "it was solely thanks to Mr. Chamberlain's courage and pertinacity that a futile and senseless war was averted." He wrote to his prime minister, saying, "Millions of mothers will be blessing your name tonight for having saved their sons from the horrors of war." The London Times reported that "No conqueror returning from a victory on a battlefield has come home adorned with nobler laurels." Americans greeted the Munich settlement with profound relief that war had been avoided. Thus, the American government and people at this time obviously favored appeasement with Hitler as the alternative to war.

As Hitler violated his pledges and anti-Semitic outrages multiplied in Germany, Roosevelt publicly voiced disapproval. He recalled the American ambassador after the violent Kristallnacht ("night of broken glass" on 910 November 1938) in Germany, a wave of anti-Jewish riots and stringent repressive measures that followed the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew.

Hitler fully reciprocated American dislike and recalled his ambassador. He viewed the United States as a racial mixture that could not even cope with the economic depression. The United States, with its political weakness and degenerate culture, he told his intimates in 1938, would prove no match for German will. The United States was too impotent to fight and would not go beyond meaningless moral gestures in international affairs. The German military shared his opinion. Using "racial arithmetic," Hitler concluded that the polyglot United States was held together only by the glue of 20 million superior Anglo-Saxons or 60 million of valuable racial stock, therefore Germany, with its larger population of Aryans, was far more powerful. America's neutrality laws in the 1930s merely strengthened his contempt.

The Munich settlement proved to be but the prelude to the complete extinction of Czechoslovakia as an independent nation. Hungary and Poland demanded and received slices of Czech territory where Magyars and Poles were numerous. As a result of the crisis, Hitler annexed to Germany more than 3 million Germans of the Sudeten region. Politically, Hitler's success broke the back of the "Little Entente"(the alliance system of smaller states that sought to preserve the central European status quo as established by the Versailles system), gutted the French alliance system in Eastern Europe, and made the Third Reich easily the dominant power in the continent.

Internal dissension between Czechs and Slovaks in March 1939 afforded Hitler the final pretext for taking control of the destinies of those two ethnic divisions of the former republic. Hitler summoned President Emil Hácha to Berlin and induced him to "place the fate of the Czech people trustingly in the hands of the Führer," who presumably guaranteed "an autonomous development of its national life corresponding to its peculiarities." On 15 March, Bohemia and Moravia became a German protectorate, which was promptly occupied by German troops. The Czech army offered no resistance. The disappearance of Czechoslovakia demonstrated Hitler's readiness to extend his claims beyond "racial" areas and base them on the Reich's needs for Lebensraum, or "living area."

Hitler had declared at Munich: "This [Sudetenland] is the last territorial claim which I have to make in Europe." His absorption of Czechoslovakia had given the lie to that declaration, and by April 1939 he was pressing Poland for consent to annexation of the free city of Danzig and a sort of German corridor across the Polish corridor to give Germany freer access to East Prussia. By this time even Chamberlain had lost faith in Hitler's promises. He abruptly abandoned appeasement and, with France, gave guarantees of aid against aggression to Poland and later to Romania and to Greece, the latter threatened by Italy's occupation of Albania. Geography would make it difficult to implement these guarantees effectively, but they at least served notice on the Axis powers that further aggression against their small neighbors would mean war with the great western democracies.

On 1 September, German forces, led by mechanized divisions and supported by overwhelming airpower, invaded Poland. Two days later, making good their pledge, Great Britain and France declared war against Hitler's Germany. World War II had at last begun. Appeasement was finished.


The very term "Munich" has since become synonymous with a typical example of dishonorable appeasement, that is, a situation when the vital interests of a nation are bartered away in return for minor concessions or none at all. Appeasement, according to this line of argument, may often result from national weakness or, worse, ignorance either from an inability to fight or a fundamental misconception of reality. In the case of Czechoslovakia, interests were literally given away without any concessions being extracted from Germany. This occurred because Great Britain and France were not militarily or economically prepared to fight another war, nor were they psychologically prepared to fight for causes that, although just, did not affect them personally. Prime Minister Chamberlain summarized public opinion to Parliament prior to leaving for the Munich Conference, pointing out "how horrible, fantastic, incredible that we should be digging trenches here because of a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing." Furthermore, Chamberlain was motivated by a belief that by conceding to the demands of a minority people who wished to be reunited with their traditional nation, he would be able to avoid war and achieve "peace with honour."

The Munich agreement soon became the archetype of failure of will in the face of moral confrontation, turning firmness into an essential virtue in the conduct of foreign policy. Statesmen, for fear of being called "Municheers," have since been encouraged to go to the brink of war in the hope that by adopting an inflexible position, the aggressor will be forced to go to retreat. This outlook has been pervasive in the American political world since World War II. As Telford Taylor points out in his seminal work Munich: The Price of Peace (p. xvi), "Munich has become a standard weapon in the dialectic of politics," but always in a pejorative sense.


It is impossible to understand American politics and diplomacy since Munich without understanding the intellectual world of those Americans who came to maturity in the interwar period. These were the same politicians, policymakers, and diplomats who had experienced the disillusionment of the Versailles system and the folly of isolationism. They had struggled through the Great Depression, which had reduced half of America's population to penury. They witnessed the rise of communism (with its forced collectivization and purges), fascism, and nazism. They recoiled from the West's abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 under the aegis of appeasement and were dragged into the second world war of their lifetime, the death toll this time probably reaching 60 million, including 6 million murdered Jews.

They also perceived a shrinking world in which war and peace were judged indivisiblethe hard lesson of Munich, learned on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The analogy shaped a generation of diplomacy. Moreover, modern warfare, with its awful weapons of death and destruction and the equally awful contemplation that they could be delivered anywhere with impunity, caused the majority of Americans to rethink past policies and their role in the world. The usually cautious American public placed its faith in the collective security of the fledgling United Nations. The fact that the UN would not or could not play this promised role produced the moment of truth: Would the United States play the keeper of the balance of power? The answer would prove to be yes, launching what W. W. Rostow once described as the "American Diplomatic Revolution."

In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been unwilling to involve America in another war, and so had done little to strengthen British and French resolve at the Munich Conference. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the United States reacted with shock and anger. The U.S. ambassador to Italy later recalled how he had expressed America's dissatisfaction with Germany's actions. He told the Italian minister for foreign affairs that "Hitler's performance had greatly shocked American public opinion and that the brutal methods employed by Hitler in seizing Bohemia and Moravia by armed force had created a profound impression on the United States." Thus, when Hitler finished off Czechoslovakia, the United States lost all hope it had held of appeasement preventing war. The ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, wrote to the secretary of state describing the feeling there: "The invasion of Czechoslovakia ends definitely all possibility of diplomatic negotiations. There is only regret that Hitler's action has ended the period when it was still possible to hope that constructive diplomatic action might maintain peace." It became clear that war was imminent and that the policy of appeasement had failed.

By the time war came to America, Roosevelt had fully learned the harsh lesson of appeasement. In his Christmas Eve "fireside chat" of 1943, he assured the public that while the allies stuck together "there will be no possibility of an aggressor nation arising to start another world war. For too many years we lived on pious hopes that aggressor and warlike nations would learn and understand and carry out the doctrine of purely voluntary peace. The well-intentioned but ill-fated experiments of former years did not work." From this moment on, American presidents would time and again refer to Munich and the appeasement policies of the 1930s as the prime example of what to avoid in the future.

Munich was also an example of what had to be avoided during an election. During the 1944 presidential campaign, American journalists and politicians alike predicted that Roosevelt would lose many votes because of his presumably conciliatory attitude toward the Soviet Union. The Republican Party actually campaigned against the Roosevelt administration's "appeasement" policies, arguing for a tougher stance against the "communist threat." This trend continued throughout the decade, as shown by a March 1946 poll in which 71 percent of the public disapproved of the administration's policy toward Russia, while 60 percent considered their policies toward the Soviets as "too soft."


After Roosevelt's death in April 1945, the incoming Truman administration was equally concerned with avoiding the experiences of the 1930s. President Harry S. Truman and his advisers believed that in order to avoid the mistakes of the previous decade, they had to resist the "totalitarian" Soviet Union before its appetite and power increased. In the postwar period this attitude emerged when the administration was faced with the issue of whether to share the secret of the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union or retain control for as long as possible. In arguing against sharing any knowledge with the Soviets, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal stated that "it seems doubtful that we should endeavor to buy their understanding and sympathy. We tried that once with Hitler. There are no returns on appeasement." The Munich analogy was invoked to emphasize the futility of treating as reasonable an immoral and irrational adversary.

Another instance in which the Munich analogy came into play was the debate over the control of the Turkish Straits in August 1946. The Soviet Union proposed a joint system of control and defense by a body composed of Turkey and the other Black Sea powers, instead of Turkey retaining complete control. This proposal was met with alarm by the U.S. State Department, which saw this as an example of what was to become known as the "domino theory." This situation reminded politicians of the tumbling European dominoes of the 1930s. With loss of control in one area of Asia, the Soviet Union might move into other areas, increasing its strength along the way, which would only mean that the United States would have to fight communism later and under less favorable conditions. The Soviet Union could only be checked by employing a policy of containment, the rough intellectual outlines of which had been developed by George F. Kennan during and immediately after the war. As interpreted by Paul H. Nitze, Kennan's successor as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, containment meant essentially a policy that sought to (1) block further expansion of Soviet power, (2) expose the falsities of Soviet pretensions, (3) induce a retraction of the Kremlin's control and influence, and (4) in general, foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system so that the Kremlin could be brought to the point of modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international standards. A key feature of containment envisaged the United States dealing with the Soviets from the position of strength. "In the concept of 'containment,'" noted Nitze, "the maintenance of a strong military posture is an ultimate guarantee of national security and as an indispensable backdrop to the conduct of the policy of containment." To Nitze, there was no substitute for the maintenance of superior force: "Without superior aggregate military strength, in being ready and mobilizable, a policy of 'containment'which is in effect a policy of calculated or gradual coercionis no more than a bluff."

The "lesson" of Munich, therefore, was to encourage firmness at all costs, even the risk of war. "Containing" Joseph Stalin was at the heart of America's Cold War.


The best example of the manner in which the Munich analogy came to grip the minds of Truman and his advisers was the decision of the president to intervene in Korea in 1950. This is striking because the U.S. government completely changed its policy toward Korea on the basis of parallels between this situation and that of the 1930s. Prior to North Korea's invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950, the United States had followed a policy of avoiding military engagement in the Korean Peninsula. This was mainly because American policymakers believed that Korea lay outside the "defense perimeter" of the United States and was relatively unimportant to its national security. Even at the beginning of June, American policy was to avoid sending military forces to Korea. This was the consistent position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one that was twice considered by the National Security Council and twice approved by the president. Furthermore, during his famous National Press Club speech of 12 January 1950, the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, made this position plain.

The North Korean invasion changed policy dramatically. This was primarily because President Truman perceived the invasion as analogous to the aggressive actions of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Truman stated that when he first heard the news of the North Korean invasion his first thought was of the 1930s. He wrote:

I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act, it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead. Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen and twenty years earlier. If this was allowed to go unchal lenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on a second world war.

Not only the president equated North Korean actions with those of the Nazis. The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, New York Herald Tribune, and New York Times all alluded to the appeasement of the 1930s in their editorials on Korea. In the House of Representatives, Democrat Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut asked, "What difference is there in the action of North Korea today and the actions which led to the Second World War? Talk about parallels!"

By classifying the Korean invasion as comparable to the aggressive actions of Hitler in the 1930s, Truman and his associates were led to the conclusion that in order to avoid the "appeasement" of the 1930s and Munich, they had to act to protect the lesser power from this aggression. Refusal to repel aggression would be nothing but appeasement. And appeasement, as history allegedly had shown, would ultimately lead to war.

The analogy with Munich would continue to be cited during the Korean War. Truman used it time and again to reassure the public of the continuing need for U.S. troops to be stationed in Korea. In December 1950, the first year of the war, Truman assured the country that "We will continue to take every honorable step we can to avoid general war. But we will not engage in appeasement. The world learned from Munich that security cannot be bought by appeasement." Critics who charged that the government was not employing sufficient force to counter the threat in Korea also used the analogy. The specter of Munich overshadowed everything. For example, Republican Senator William F. Knowland criticized the government, stating, "Talk of seating the Reds in the UN is appeasement. Talk of establishing a neutral zone in Korea is appeasement. Waiting around for Mao Zedong to become Tito is appeasement."

In November 1950, Chinese "volunteers" entered the war and the Munich analogy began to take on the form of the argument that failure to wage total war was appeasement itself. General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the United Nations forces in Korea, used this argument forcefully to criticize his own government as well as that of the British, taunting them with allegations of appeasement. When the British began to consider creating a demilitarized zone south of the Yalu River, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned MacArthur that his war objectives might be altered "in the interests of pursuing negotiations with the Chinese." MacArthur denounced this "widely reported British desire to appease the Chinese Communists by giving them a strip of Northern Korea." He once again used the Munich analogy to remind the U.S. government that its credibility would suffer unless it stood firm on this issue. "Indeed, to yield to so immoral a proposition would bankrupt our leadership and influence in Asia and render untenable our position both politically and military." Even more inflammatory was MacArthur's statement following a remark by British Prime Minister Ernest Bevin that the "young" nation, America, needed sage advice, gained by experience, from Britain. MacArthur retorted that he "needed no lessons from the successors of Neville Chamberlain." MacArthur played the Munich analogy for all it was worth, and eventually he discovered the consequences of pushing the analogy too far: in April 1951, after months of sparring, Truman fired him.


The outbreak of the Korean War and the American reaction to it, more than any other single event, crystallized the Cold War mentality that had been more or less in a state of fluidity from 1945 to 1950. As part of this process, American understanding and appreciation of the realities and aspirations of Indochina were transformed. With the North Korean invasion across the Thirty-eighth Parallel, Indochina came to be seen mainly as an aspect of the larger problem of coping with the communist conquest of the Free World by the Soviets and Chinese. Or, as Truman put it: "We were seeing a pattern in Indo-China timed to coincide with the attack in Korea as a challenge to the Western world a challenge by the Communists alone, aimed at intensifying the smouldering and anti-foreign feeling among most Asian peoples."

The Cold War paradigm that portrayed the Indochina conflict as but a functional aspect of worldwide communist aggression was passed on intact to the Eisenhower administration. The Korean War, argued President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was "clearly part of the same calculated assault that the aggressor is simultaneously pursuing in Indo-China." And, conversely, the working out of a settlement of the Korean War would presumably have a lasting impact on Indochina as well as on other nations in the region. In this way, then, the American fear of another Munich carried over into the Eisenhower administration.

In 1954 the administration feared that the Geneva Conference called to discuss the future of Korea and the division of Indochina would turn into "another Munich." An armistice had been signed in Korea the previous year, but new concerns had arisen over the eight-year war in Indochina between France and the French Union and the communist-led Viet Minh resistance movement. The conference was arranged by Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France and was also attended by countries with an interest in the issue, including the People's Republic of China.

The United States was exceptionally hostile to any negotiation with Beijing. The Americans, especially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, described the talks as "phoney" and "unpalatable" because they represented the "psychology of appeasement." Dulles was obsessed with the seating arrangements at the conference and even refused to shake hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai. Because Dulles equated Geneva with the Munich Conference he was determined to be firm whatever the outcome.

The United States has been roundly criticized for its behavior at the Geneva Conference. The delegation was so opposed to negotiations before the conference started that they even attempted to sabotage efforts to reach any political settlement. As Richard H. Immerman observed:

If by these actions it exacted some concessions from the Communists, they were limited and more than offset by the strains they placed on the western alliance. If by resisting compromise and dissociating the United States from the result officials managed to avoid the label "appeaser," they cost America countless hearts and minds, particularly those in the third world. Worst of all, by refusing to sanction the elections, Washington signaled the diplomacyand international lawwere not substitutes for force.

The American attitude was simply that any concession amounted to capitulation, for by this time the American political culture had come to equate all forms of negotiation with appeasement at Munich. The United States finally refused to sign the Geneva agreement, which divided Vietnam along the Seventeenth Parallel and promised elections in 1956 to unify the country under one government. When President Eisenhower returned from the conference, he gave the usual speech at the airport immediately upon his arrival. Although it was raining, Vice President Richard M. Nixon was adamant that Eisenhower should not carry an umbrella, lest the nation and the media be reminded of Neville Chamberlain and his famous umbrella.


The 1960s provided a classic situation in which the Munich analogy was called into play. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy pointedly used the analogy in his speech of 22 October 1962, when he announced that he would implement a quarantine on communist Cuba in response to the discovery that the Soviet Union had been placing offensive weapons there. Explaining his decision, the president reminded the nation that "the 1930s taught us a clear lesson: Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war." The transcripts of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCom) show that the Munich analogy was extensively used in governmental discussions during the crisis. In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at which the president explained that he was leaning toward implementing a blockade rather than more aggressive military action, General Curtis LeMay exclaimed: "This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don't see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich." The president was at a loss for words.

The lessons of Munich had particular meaning for Kennedy. His father, Joseph Kennedy, had been Roosevelt's ambassador to Britain at the time of the Munich Conference, and John Kennedy had been a twenty-one-year-old university student. The elder Kennedy had been a longtime supporter of Britain's policy of appeasement and continued to be throughout the war. John Kennedy, however, formed his own beliefs with the coming of World War II. He disagreed with appeasement so fervently that his honors thesis at Harvard was entitled "Appeasement at Munich." This was published after his graduation under the title Why England Slept (1940) and became a bestseller. The book argued that appeasement was a weak policy that the United States should avoid at all costs. One can therefore imagine the effect on Kennedy of being labeled a "Municheer."

This damaging term was also applied to Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, in the wake of the crisis. There had been a confrontation during talks before the crisis on what to do about the Soviet threat. Stevenson had suggested that the president "should consider offering to withdraw from the Guantánamo naval base as part of a plan to demilitarize, neutralize and guarantee the territorial integrity of Cuba [and offer] to remove the Jupiter [missiles in Turkey] in exchange for the Russian missiles from Cuba." Kennedy vehemently disagreed with these proposals, saying that this was not the right time for concessions that could divide the allies and sacrifice their interests.

Stevenson's suggestion met with a strong reaction from other members of ExCom, leading to the subsequent charge that Stevenson had "wanted a Munich." This accusation appeared in a postmortem article by the journalist Joseph Alsop, who attributed the statement to a "nonadmiring official." It turned out that President Kennedy was actually the "non-admiring official" whose comments were used to discredit Stevenson. As a result, the article made Stevenson's arguments for trading the Turkish bases seem less rational than they really were. This charge of being a "Municheer" was especially damaging to Stevenson's political reputation. The irony, of course, was that the Jupiter missiles did play a secret role in resolving the crisis.


The Munich analogy was increasingly used by Washington to justify various actions during the Vietnam War. In 1954, when the French were nearing defeat in Vietnam, Eisenhower considered sending additional aid to supplement the economic aid already being supplied. In fact, by this stage, the United States was already funding three-quarters of the cost of the war but had not actually intervened militarily. Eisenhower considered this move and sought British support to use U.S. air and naval power in Indochina. In a letter to Winston Churchill, he used the Munich analogy in order to persuade the British to support American actions: "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?"

That John F. Kennedy thought and acted upon the same assumptions can hardly be open to question. In his words:

Viet-Nam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the Keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Viet-Nam. Moreover, the independence of Free Viet-Nam is crucial to the free world in fields other than military. Her economy is essential to the economy of all of Southeast Asia; and her political liberty is an inspiration to those seeking to obtain or maintain their liberty in all parts of Asiaand indeed the world.

For these reasons, added Kennedy, "the fundamental tenets of this nation's foreign policy depend in considerable measure upon a strong and free Vietnamese nation."

Under Kennedy, the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam increased steadily, reaching some 14,500 before the end of 1963. Technically, they were engaged only in transportation, training, and advice, but these activities invariably exposed them to combat. Few questioned why they were there.

It was not until the advent of the Johnson administration, however, that the Munich analogy came into its own. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, considered Munich to be the most important historical lesson of their time. Remembering Munich, they saw weakness overseas as leading to World War III. Johnson explained, "Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression." Rusk was equally attuned to the lessons of the 1930s, which he described as the realization that "aggression must be dealt with wherever it occurs and no matter what mask it may wear. The rearmament of the Rhineland was regarded as regrettable but not worth a shooting war. Yet after that came Austria, and after Austria came Czechoslovakia. Then Poland. Then the Second World War."

This belief in the applicability of the Munich analogy to his situation led Johnson to increase troop levels, first to 300,000 and then to 500,000 by 1968. At a National Security Council meeting in July 1965 to discuss an increase in troops, an exchange occurred between Undersecretary of State George Ball, who was opposed to committing more men, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge rebutted Ball's arguments, explaining that "I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don't go in. Can't we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?" No one present at the meeting questioned this statement. Even McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser who often criticized others for using inaccurate analogies, did not comment. The administration's policymakers were convinced of the appropriateness of the analogy to their own situation in Vietnam, and often reminded one another of this fact. Even former president Eisenhower resorted to the analogy in advising Johnson in 1965. He warned the president not to be convinced by Britain's arguments for negotiation. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, he said, "has not had experience with this kind of problem. We, however, have learned that Munichs win nothing."

Most important, the Johnson administration used the analogy to convince the public that its Southeast Asia policy was appropriate. A government film produced in 1965 entitled Why Vietnam? contained flickering images of Neville Chamberlain at Munich throughout the film. Further, when announcing his decision to send combat troops to Vietnam in March 1965, Johnson explained to the public: "Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we learned from the lessons of history."

In the same year, Johnson argued that defeat in South Vietnam "would encourage those who seek to conquer all free nations within their reach. This is the dearest lesson of our time. From Munich until today we have learned that to yield to aggression brings only greater threats." Worse yet, a new wave of McCarthyism might pose rhetorical questions about how Vietnam was lost.

Similarly, Richard M. Nixon's policy of détente with the Soviet Union and China failed appreciably to alter the image of Vietnam as a vital test case and an aspect of a larger problem. "An American defeat in Viet-Nam," declared Nixon on 8 May 1972, in a message to the American people explaining his decision to mine the entrances to North Vietnamese ports, "would encourage this kind of aggression all over the world. Small nations, armed by their major allies, could be tempted to attack neighboring nations at will, in the Mid-East, in Europe and other areas."

No change was to be expected in the attitude of Gerald Ford's administration. In his formal and foredoomed request to Congress in early 1975 for continued military aid to South Vietnam (and Cambodia), President Ford reminded his recent colleagues that "U.S. unwillingness to provide adequate assistance to allies fighting for their lives would seriously affect our credibility as an ally." Saigon fell on 30 April. The collapse of South Vietnam together with the defeat of the pro-Western forces in Cambodia and subsequently in Laos marked the end of American influence in the area. For some, it came as no real surprise, for others, there were no words to explain it. The Munich analogy, in time, gave way to the "Vietnam syndrome," which led many Americans to question the wisdom of using military power at all.


President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy perspective was clearly the product of the past. Reagan's mental pictures of the world had been formed when the Nazi storm was gathering in Europe and Imperial Japan was on the march in China. He viewed the world through 1930s eyes, and he learned his generation's lesson that unwillingness to confront aggression invariably invited war. For him, the very word "appeasement" connoted surrender. President Reagan often invoked the image of Munich in order to belittle the critics of his Nicaraguan policies as "appeasers" of the Sandinistas. His administration had used Nicaraguan rebels, the contras, to pressure and ultimately cause the overthrow of the legitimate Sandinista regime. He was supported in this by the ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who argued in 1985 that the Munich analogy was appropriate in this case.

Reagan frequently made use of the Munich analogy during his presidency. In a March 1983 address before the Evangelist Society about the threat of Marxist-Leninism, he criticized the "historical reluctance to see totalitarian powers for what they are. We saw this phenomenon in the 1930s." He cautioned that "if history teaches us anything, it teaches that simpleminded or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly." In August 1983 he told the American Legion that "Neville Chamberlain thought of peace as a vague policy in the 1930s, and the result brought us closer to World War II. History teaches us that by being strong and resolute we can keep the peace." Throughout its eight years, the Reagan administration bargained from a position of strength, at great cost to the public purse, to prove its point.

President George H. W. Bush relied heavily upon the Munich analogy in his speeches during the crisis in the Persian Gulf, which ultimately led to the Gulf War of 19901991. Munich was the perfect example in this case, and Bush used it to argue that to forget the lessons of appeasement would be to betray the sacrifices made in World War II. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush invoked World War II to reinforce his message of intervention. The United States, he said, had to stand "where it always hasagainst aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law." The Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein particularly was linked to Hitler, to reinforce the necessity of standing up to dictators. "Half a century ago, the world had the chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it. I pledge to you: We will not make the same mistake again."

Possibly because the Vietnam syndrome had come to overshadow all foreign policy, Bush needed a historical analogy that would convince the American public that this was the fight worth fighting to the end. In doing so, Bush tried to avoid parallels between the Gulf crisis and Vietnam, which carried the stigma of a protracted and unwinnable involvement in a foreign war, by using Munich as the relevant analogy. When Bush announced that he was sending forces to Saudi Arabia, he reminded the country that "a half century ago our nation and the world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who should and could have been stopped. We're not about to make that mistake twice."

Bush invoked the Munich analogy to persuade other nations that the world would be even more dangerous if the United States were to refuse to fight, and also used it when he praised the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for condemning the Iraqi invasion. He said that this demonstrated "that nations which joined to fight aggression in the Second World War can work together to stop the aggressors of today." Consequently, the construction of a narrative in which Munich, not Vietnam, served as the perfect unifying symbol struck just the right chord.


Political leaders have used the Munich analogy to justify what they believe is critical foreign intervention and to remind the public of its obligations to defend liberty. They also have used it to divert attention away from thorny "public relations" problems such as the Vietnam War syndrome and even to discredit critics. In fact, the "lesson" of Munich has continued to be relevant even in the present, as each generation ostensibly seeks to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors. Just as the leaders of the 1930s learned much from World War I, postWorld War II and Cold War leaders learned much from Munich: the consequences of futile good intentions. And while leaders of the twenty-first century may not fully comprehend the process whereby the Munich agreement became the prologue to the even greater tragedy of World War II, they do seem unlikely to dismiss it from their realm of political discourse. As Donald N. Lammers reminds us in Explaining Munich, "Taken one way or another, Munich has become the great 'object lesson' of our age."


Abel, Elie. The Missiles of October: The Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. London, 1966.

Beck, Robert J. "Munich's Lessons Reconsidered." International Security 14 (1989): 161191. Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York, 1991.

Fry, Michael G., ed. History, the White House, and the Kremlin: Statesmen as Historians. London, 1991. Depicts historical knowledge as one of the basic intellectual resources used by statesmen habitually if unevenly.

Graebner, Norman A. Roosevelt and the Search for a European Policy, 19371939. Oxford, 1980. A realist critique of FDR's policies.

Henderson, Nevile. Failure of a Mission: Berlin, 19371939. London, 1940.

Immerman, Richard H. "The U.S. and the Geneva Conference of 1954: A New Look." Diplomatic History 14 (1990): 5174.

Kennan, George F. Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. New York, 1962. An important American perspective.

Khong, Yuen Foong. Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965. Princeton, N.J., 1992. The best available introduction to the subject of analogizing history.

Kiewe, Amos. The Modern Presidency and Crisis Rhetoric. Westport, Conn., 1994.

Lammers, Donald N. Explaining Munich: The Search for Motive in British Policy. Stanford, Calif., 1966. Doubts that a desire to destroy Soviet Russia played a role in British calculations.

May, Ernest R. "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy. New York, 1973. Argues that policymakers often use history badly.

May, Ernest R., and Philip Zelikov. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Medhurst, Martin J., and H. W. Brands, eds. Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History. College Station, Tex., 2000. Writings by historians and communications scholars on Cold War discourse.

Neustadt, Richard E., and Ernest R. May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. New York, 1986.

Noguères, Henri. Munich or the Phoney Peace. Translated from the French by Patrick O'Brien. London, 1963. Critical discussion of the French role at Munich.

Public Papers of President John F. Kennedy, 1962. Washington, D.C., 1964.

Robbins, Keith. Munich 1938. London, 1968. Argues that there are no great "lessons" to be learned from Munich.

Rostow, W. W. The American Diplomatic Revolution. Oxford, 1946.

Rystad, Göran. Prisoners of the Past? The Munich Syndrome and Makers of American Foreign Policy in the Cold War Era. Lund, 1982.

Shepardson, Donald E. "Munich Reconsidered." Midwest Quarterly 23 (1981): 78102.

Siracusa, Joseph M. Into the Dark House: American Diplomacy and the Ideological Origins of the Cold War. Claremont, Calif., 1998. Argues that American Cold War politicians, policymakers, and diplomats were greatly influenced by the events of the interwar period.

Small, Melvin, and Otto Feinstein, eds. Appeasing Fascism. Lanham, Md., 1991.

Taylor, Andrew J., and John T. Rourke. "Historical Analogies in the Congressional Foreign Policy Process." Journal of Politics 57 (1995): 460468. A useful survey.

Taylor, Telford. Munich: The Price of Peace. Garden City, N.Y., 1979. A defense of Chamberlain's appeasement policy.

U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1939. Washington, D.C., 1956.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. "Munich After 50 Years." Foreign Affairs 67 (1988): 165178.

Wheeler-Bennett, John W. Munich: Prologue to Tragedy. London, 1966. Classic treatment of Munich, from a British perspective.

See also Arbitration, Mediation, and Conciliation; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Cold War Origins; Intervention and Nonintervention; Isolationism .


George F. Kennan was director of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department from 1947 to 1949. In his book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin (1960), he wrote about the Munich agreement:

"Throughout that summer of 1938, the Nazi buildup against Czechoslovakia proceeded apace; and in September there occurred the celebrated Munich crisis which rocked Europe to its foundations. With the details of this crisisChamberlain's meeting with Hitler at Bad Godesberg, his later dramatic flight to Munich, his concession that Hitler should have the Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia, the Czech capitulation, the fall and flight of the Czech government, the occupation by the Germans of a large part of Bohemia and Moravia, and the reduction of what was left of the Czechoslovak Republic to the condition of a defenseless dependency of Germanywith all this, we are familiar. European history knows no more tragic day than that of Munich. I remember it well; for I was in Prague at the time, and I shall never forget the sight of the people weeping in the streets as the news of what had occurred came in over the loud-speakers.

"The Munich agreement was a tragically misconceived and desperate act of appeasement at the cost of the Czechoslovak state, performed by Chamberlain and the French premier, Daladier, in the vain hope that it would satisfy Hitler's stormy ambition, and thus secure for Europe a peaceful future. We know today that it was unnecessaryunnecessary because the Czech defenses were very strong, and had the Czechs decided to fight they could have put up considerable resistance; even more unnecessary because the German generals, conscious of Germany's relative weakness at that moment, were actually prepared to attempt the removal of Hitler then and there, had he persisted in driving things to the point of war. It was the fact that the Western powers and the Czechoslovak government did yield at the last moment, and that Hitler once again achieved a bloodless triumph, which deprived the generals of any excuse for such a move. One sees again, as so often in the record of history, that it sometimes pays to stand up manfully to one's problems, even when no certain victory is in sight."

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The Munich Analogy

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