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Presidents and the Mythology of Munich

If you were making the movie, the scene might go something like this: It is late May 1940. France is collapsing and the Nazis are pushing the British Expeditionary Force into the English Channel. Britain stands alone against Hitler's mighty onslaught. In London the War Cabinet has gathered to consider a peace feeler: if Britain agrees to stop fighting, Hitler will allow the British to keep most of their empire. The notion seems tempting, under the dire circumstances, and politicians like Neville Chamberlain—the former British prime minister who, wrongly, thought he could appease Hitler by letting him swallow a chunk of Czechoslovakia in 1938—want to pursue it. But, lo, no! A lone voice—a familiar bulldog growl—fills the room. England must never yield, insists Winston Churchill (contemptuously mispronouncing the word Nazi as "Nahr-zee"). "If this long island story of ours is to end at last," Churchill rumbles, "let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground."

Stirring stuff, a Manichaean drama of courage standing against weakness and evil, and pretty much the way Churchill wanted the story told, though not quite the way it happened. The events of late May 1940 are a little less black and white than a docudrama would portray them. Recent accounts by historians like John Lukacs suggest that Churchill was not so much a lion at the ramparts as a brave and able but anxious statesman/politician, worried that his Army was not up to the fight and that the British people weren't really ready for the ordeal to come. For five days in late May 1940, he felt his way, calculating the odds, fretting about "slippery slopes" and working through the problem. At first he said that he wanted to think about the secret deal, but then stiffened and—ultimately with Chamberlain's support—decided to fight on. When he spoke to the British people on June 4, Churchill was magnificent: "We shall fight on the beaches … we shall fight on the fields … we shall never surrender." A human hero—not a man of myth, and all the more admirable for it.

And what of Churchill's great comrade, Franklin D. Roosevelt? When Chamberlain first announced, after returning from signing his deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938, that "peace is at hand," FDR sent Chamberlain a telegram: "Good man," it said. "I am not a bit upset over the final result," FDR wrote the U.S. ambassador to Italy. When Hitler began to chew up the rest of Europe in 1939, FDR temporized and maneuvered to build political support for intervention among his decidedly isolationist countrymen. Indeed, the United States did not declare war on Germany until Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor.

It may be true, as the saying goes, that leaders who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But it's also true that leaders who carelessly or heedlessly use historical analogies, who twist or hype the lessons of the past, may be destined to make even bigger mistakes than their predecessors. In modern American history, no metaphor has been more used—or abused—than "Munich." The lesson of appeasement—that giving in to aggression just invites more aggression—has calcified into dogma. Neville Chamberlain's name has become code for a weak-kneed, caviling politician, just as Winston Churchill has become the beau ideal of indomitable leadership. American politicians have gone to extraordinary lengths to be seen as Churchill, not Chamberlain, with results that have not always been in America's best interests.

The words "Munich" and "appeasement" have been re-interjected into the 2008 political debate, courtesy of President George W. Bush, who still entertains dreams of a Churchillian legacy. Addressing the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, during the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding on May 15, Bush warned against "the false comfort of appeasement" when it comes to Iran and its loudmouthed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bush did not mention Barack Obama's name; nor did John McCain when he joined the chorus the next day. But Bush didn't have to. "Yes, there have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain," McCain told reporters. The journalists asked: did McCain think that Obama was an appeaser? McCain answered indirectly, but unsubtly, "I think Barack Obama needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terror, that is responsible for the killing of brave young Americans, that wants to wipe Israel off the map and denies the Holocaust. That's what I think Senator Obama ought to explain to the American people."

Obama denies the entire premise of McCain's challenge. In his eyes Ahmadinejad may be deplorable, but he's no Hitler. Obama has pointed out that the president is not the real power in Iran, and that in fact Ahmadinejad may no longer even be in office after elections scheduled for next summer. He knows that as a young Democrat he cannot afford to look weak on national security: a week after he first declared, during a debate, that he would negotiate with any world leader without preconditions, he emphasized that he would order strikes against known terrorist targets inside the borders of ally Pakistan (as the United States does now, with mixed results). McCain—and before him, Hillary Clinton—has mocked Obama's stance on Iran as naive. But the critique didn't work for Hillary, and Obama is betting it won't in the general election, either: rather than trying to look tougher than McCain, Obama is going to argue that the familiar tropes—every dictator is Hitler, every negotiation is Munich—do not apply to the challenges facing the next president.

That doesn't mean Obama won't employ clichés that serve his purposes, like the quagmire of Vietnam. As went Vietnam, so will go Iraq if McCain is elected president, or so Obama will argue. McCain will exploit the Munich-appeasement cliché; through his loyalists and by implication, if not in so many words, he will likely portray Barack Obama as a softy and vaguely "un-American." Obama and his surrogates, in turn, are likely to cast McCain as a once brave but now slightly unhinged former POW who has stubbornly determined to stay in Iraq in a war without end. Vote for Obama, the Republicans say, and you may get another Munich; vote for McCain, the Democrats say, and you may get another Vietnam.

The Munich and Vietnam analogies are, of course, closely linked. Arguably, the fear of appeasement, of not standing up to the communists, was the single most important factor in dragging America into Vietnam. In recent years, American politics has been trapped by both clichés. It is worth examining just how one dangerous trope led to another—and how the overreaction to both has repeatedly led America astray abroad.

For starters, it is important to understand why the Munich analogy is almost necessarily flawed. In the 1990s, George H.W. Bush compared Iraq's Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and Bill Clinton's secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, argued that allowing Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to commit genocide in the Balkans was to invite "another Munich." But the only real Hitler was Hitler. Saddam and Milosevic were murderers, but at most local menaces. Hitler, on the other hand, meant to extend the Third Reich over almost all of Europe, from the Urals to the Pyrenees, and he very nearly succeeded. In the city of Berlin, today rebuilt from the ravages of war, there is a scale model that reveals the vast scope of the Führer's ambitions. Hitler planned essentially to replace the core of Berlin with a city called Germania, built from marble and granite to last a thousand years. The Hall of the People, built for indoor rallies of 180,000, makes the next-door Bundestag look like a phone booth.

The Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin was just as evil, in his own way, as Hitler, and just as megalomaniacal. He was willing to murder millions and he preached the inevitability of the global triumph of communism. But he was probably not preparing to invade Western Europe; indeed, in the late 1940s the Soviets were tearing up train tracks so that the West could not invade Russia. In 1950, Harry Truman—FDR's successor and the first to invoke the Munich analogy—was right to see the invasion of South Korea by North Korea as a Stalin-backed ploy that needed to be resisted if "containing" Soviet expansionism was to have any meaning. But rhetorical excesses quickly permeated cold-war politics. "Who lost China?" demanded the Red-hunters. (Republican answer: the Democrats. True answer: the Nationalist Chinese.) Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was cagy and realistic enough about land wars in Asia to avoid getting sucked in after French Indochina fell to the communists in 1954. But even Ike somewhat ludicrously said he was willing to go to the brink to stop Red China from bombarding tiny Quemoy and Matsu, two islands off the Chinese coast in the Strait of Formosa (Taiwan). "Should the Reds eventually control Formosa, that would be a real Munich," Eisenhower explained.

By the late 1950s, the meaning of Munich was deeply embedded in the psyches of not just politicians but academics and the old East Coast foreign-policy establishment. In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam captured Prof. McGeorge Bundy teaching "Government 180: The U.S. in World Affairs" at Harvard: "His Munich lecture was legendary … and when word got out that it was on the day's schedule, he played to standing room only. It was done with great verve, Bundy imitating the various participants, his voice cracking with emotion as little Czechoslovakia fell, the German tanks rolling in just as the bells from Memorial Hall sounded. The lesson of course was interventionism, and the wise use of force."

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy made Bundy his national-security adviser. The Kennedys' favorite word—and highest praise—was "tough." Kennedy wanted to show how tough he was by standing up to the Soviets in divided Berlin and by trying to overthrow the Kremlin's client, Fidel Castro, in Cuba. Fortunately, his early impetuous blunder at the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, was followed by a shrewd balancing of force and diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy was fortunate enough, or wise enough, to have a speechwriter (and World War II conscientious objector), Ted Sorensen, who would write into JFK's Inaugural Address, "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." (The words are much quoted by Obama.)

JFK's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, learned the lesson of Munich a little too literally. At once resentful and insecure around the Harvard men he inherited from JFK, Johnson was scornful of JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, who as ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s had been an appeaser. LBJ had fastened on the newsreel image of Chamberlain returning from Munich holding, in one hand, Hitler's useless paper promises and, in the other, an English gentleman's tightly rolled umbrella. "I wasn't any Chamberlain umbrella man," LBJ scoffed in 1960. Indeed not. "Johnson," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted to The New York Times a few years ago, "had these great colorful words to describe the danger of appeasement: If you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he'll be up on your porch, and the day after that he'll rape your wife in your own bed."

Johnson and his advisers mistook what was essentially a civil war in Vietnam for a global assault by monolithic communism. Too late, Americans began to realize that the Chinese and Russians and North Vietnamese each had their own, not always matching, agendas, and that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, that did not mean that all the "dominoes" of Southeast Asia would tumble as well. The fiasco of Vietnam—58,000 Americans dead in a long, losing effort—generated a legion of new members for the "Never Again" club. "No More Vietnams" became a mantra, especially for liberals who had marched against the war.

Among some war hawks, however, defeat in Vietnam created a whole new myth: that the civilian leaders had tied the hands of the military and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This variation on an old theme (in Germany after World War I, it was widely believed that the Army's General Staff had been "stabbed in the back" by craven civilian leaders) had its strongest adherents among the top brass. One of the most frustrated was the commander of Pacific Forces, who had wanted, among other measures, to mine North Vietnamese harbors and unleash strategic bombers. His name was Adm. John S. McCain Jr. In his memoirs, "Faith of My Fathers," his son John S. McCain III recalls returning home from five and a half years of captivity in North Vietnam to find his father deeply discouraged by the failure of will of the civilian leaders.

As a politician, the younger McCain became a firm believer in all or nothing: he held that the United States should not enter into conflict unless prepared to do what it takes to win. Hence, in 1983 he spoke out against intervention in Lebanon because he believed (correctly) that the United States was not fully committed to the peacekeeping effort. In the late '90s, when America intervened in the Balkans, McCain wanted to send in U.S. ground forces because he believed (wrongly) that the Serbs would not back down before mere air power. In Iraq, he has faulted the Bush administration for failing to send in enough troops. He has been Bush's strongest supporter on the "surge" and vehemently warned of the dire consequences of defeat for the region, and for the soul of the U.S. military.

McCain's all-or-nothing mentality makes a kind of sense and has a certain purity and nobility. But it may not reflect the messy reality of limited wars against local insurgencies. Statesmanship, particularly for a superpower, inevitably requires compromise—including, in some cases, saying one thing while doing another. (In the more elevated parlance of diplomats, this is sometimes known as two-tracking the problem.) The really great statesmen know this, and so, intuitively, do many Americans—once they stop spouting clichés about Munich or Vietnam.

Ronald Reagan is a case in point. Reagan came into office in 1981 inveighing against the "Evil Empire." But he spent much of his second term negotiating with Soviet leaders, even, briefly, discussing the abolition of nuclear weapons. He was able to negotiate, however, because he was dealing from a position of strength, having committed billions to building up conventional and nuclear forces and developing a missile defense system.

Peace through strength. "Speak softly and carry a big stick," said Teddy Roosevelt, who actually talked loudly but was a master at achieving peace by credibly threatening to use force. In 1904, when an Islamic brigand named Raisuli kidnapped an American businessman named Perdicaris, President Roosevelt won his release by sending warships and this telegram: "The U.S. government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." JFK also understood that the choice between appeasement and force is a false one; the trick is to know when to deal and when to fight. He was tested severely in October 1962, when CIA spy planes discovered that the Soviets had installed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. Kennedy went to the American people and resolutely demanded that the Soviets withdraw the missiles, imposing a naval "quarantine" on the island and massing troops and planes in southern Florida for possible airstrikes or an invasion. Behind the scenes, Kennedy's brother Robert negotiated a deal to allow the Soviets to back down while saving face. In return for the Soviets' pulling out their missiles, the Americans secretly agreed to pull out some older, less powerful missiles aimed at the Soviet Union from Turkey.

The way the Kennedys played the Cuban missile crisis in public is deeply revealing of the power of Munich analogy—and later, the Vietnam analogy. After the crisis subsided in the fall of 1962, Kennedy arranged to have leaked to two friendly newsmen, Charles Bartlett and Stewart Alsop, the "inside story" of the crisis. The White House version, quite unfairly, made a villain of U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, for allegedly counseling appeasement toward the Soviets. No mention was made of RFK's secret dealings with the Russian ambassador to remove the U.S. missiles from Turkey. In the cold-war atmosphere of the early '60s, that might have been seen as soft or weak. Bobby Kennedy, however, later wrote his own memoir of the crisis, "Thirteen Days," published posthumously in 1969, in which he broadly hinted at the secret deal. RFK had written the book with the 1968 campaign in mind. By then, RFK was no hawk. He wanted a negotiated peace in Vietnam, and thus he wanted the world to know he had negotiated a truce with the Soviets during the missile crisis.

History is sometimes written by the people who made it. But even politicians sometimes have their regrets when they paint with too broad a stroke. It is noteworthy that last week, President Bush, in an interview with The Times of London, expressed regret about using phrases like "bring them on" and "dead or alive" to describe Iraqi insurgents or Qaeda terrorists. He feared that America had been misunderstood and said, "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric."

There is a risk that, as Election Day 2008 approaches, voters will be fooled or swept away by the clichés about Munich and Vietnam. In the reality of power, presidents generally realize that the choice between negotiation and force is rarely clear-cut or either-or. It can be hard to tell what either McCain or Obama would do if they were actually to take on the burdens and responsibilities of the presidency. But most voters know what, more than any other quality—more than tough talk or promises of conciliation—they are looking for in a president: good judgment.