Munich's Lessons Reconsidered Author(s): Robert J. Beck Source:

Munich's Lessons Reconsidered
Author(s): Robert J. Beck
Source: International Security, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 161-191
Published by: The MIT Press
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Munich's Lessons
Reconsidered
Robert J. Beck
As American F-111s
were returning to their bases in Great Britain on the evening of April 14,
1986, Ronald Reagan explained his decision to strike Muammar Qadhafi's
Libya: "Europeans who remember their history understand better than most
that there is no security, no safety, in the appeasement of evil. " 1 The president was alluding, of course, to the Munich Conference of September 1938,
an episode deeply etched in European consciousness. 2 Reagan's historical
reference was scarcely a novel one. Indeed, in the five decades since Neville
Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler, the "lesson of Munich" has been
evoked, for advocacy or for comfort, by a succession of prominent decisionmakers including Harry Truman, Anthony Eden, John F. Kennedy, and
Lyndon Johnson. 3 But what precisely is that "lesson"?
For many years, there was one widely accepted version of the "Munich"
story: Chamberlain, guided by naivete or cowardice, had wrongly appeased
The author would like to acknowledge the invaluable support of his parents, Mr. and Mrs.
Robert C. Beck, Jr.
Robert f. Beck is Assistant Professor of International Politics at the Woodrow Wilson Department of
Government and Foreign Affairs of the University of Virginia. He wrote this article while a University
Fellow in the Government Department of Georgetown University.
1. Ronald Reagan, "Address to the Nation: United States Air Strike Against Libya," Weekly
Compilation of Presidential Documents, Vol. 22, No. 16 (April 21, 1986), p. 491.
2. The Munich analogy was often used by President Reagan. For example, he told a gathering
of the American Legion in Seattle: "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." New York Times, August 24, 1983, pp. 1, 7.
3. Memories of "Munich" played a role in Harry Truman's decision to enter the Korean War.
See Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for DecisionMakers (New York: Free Press, 1986), p. 89. In 1956, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was
determined that the appeasement he had personally witnessed "should not come again" during
the Suez crisis. Anthony Eden, Full Circle: The Memoirs of Anthony Eden (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1960), p. 578. John F. Kennedy explained his "quarantine" of Cuba on October 23, 1962:
"The nineteen-thirties taught us a clear lesson. Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked
and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war." New York Times, October 23, 1962, p. 18. And in
1965, Lyndon Johnson argued that the United States must resolutely oppose communist expansion in Indochina: "This is the clearest lesson of our time. From Munich until today we have
learned that to yield to aggression brings only greater threats." Lyndon Baines Johnson, Public
Papers of the Presidents, 1965, Vol. I (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office [U.S.
GPO], 1966), p. 449. See also Doris Keams Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
(New York: Harper and Row, 1976), pp. 252-253.
International Security, Fall 1989 (Vol. 14, No. 2)
© 1989 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
161
International Security 14:2 j162
the aggressive Adolf Hitler, gaining neither peace nor honor for his concessions. Even today, most Amercian international relations scholars appear to
accept this once-conventional account of "Munich. " 4 In the last twenty-five
years or so, however, the consensus among historians about what happened
in September of 1938 has unravelled into a variety of different strands, and
the student of Munich now confronts a bewildering array of "lessons."
What is one to make of this proliferation of historical interpretations?
Where did they originate? Why were they first put forth? With so many
different accounts of the Munich Conference, can anything be said with
confidence about Neville Chamberlain's actions there? This essay will first
sketch the five-decade historiography of Munich, demonstrating how and
suggesting why one interpretation became many. Next, it will set out four
conclusions about Chamberlain's Munich diplomacy that reflect the majority
of contemporary Munich scholarship. Finally, it will assess the broader implications of the Munich Conference fifty years after the outbreak of the
Second World War.
Five Decades of Lessons
In the past half century, few episodes of diplomatic history have attracted as
much scholarly attention as the Munich Conference, with good reason. If
4. According to J.L. Richardson, "the traditional image of appeasement ... is upheld-unquestioned-in influential texts on international relations, in the 1980s as much as it was four
decades ago." See Richardson, "New Perspectives on Appeasement: Some Implications for
International Relations," World Politics, Vol. 40, No. 3 (April 1988), p. 291. The orthodox interpretation is reflected throughout the literature of international relations, especially in its introductory textbooks: Forest L. Grieves, Conflict and Order: An Introduction to International Relations
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977); Frederick H. Hartmann, The Relations of Nations, 5th ed. (New
York: Macmillan, 1978); K.J. Holsti, International Politics: A Framework for Analysis, 5th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988); WalterS. Jones, The Logic of International Relations, 5th
ed. (Boston: Scott, Foresman, 1988); Charles Kegley and Eugene Wittkopf, World Politics: Trend
and Transformation (New York: St. Martin's, 1985); Robert J. Lieber, No Common Power: Understanding International Relations (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1988); Hans J. Morgenthau and
Kenneth W. Thompson, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 6th ed. (New
York: Knopf, 1985); Frederic Pearson and J. Martin Rochester, International Relations (New York:
Random House, 1988); Bruce M. Russett and Harvey Starr, World Politics: Menu for Choice, 2nd
ed. (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1985); and Robert L. Wendzel, International Relations: A Policymaker Focus (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1977). Donald Watt's words in 1976 are still true
today: "The majority of American political analysts . . . remain uncritically convinced of the
dogmas of the anti-appeasement school." See D. C. Watt, "The Historiography of Appeasement,"
in Alan Sked and Chris Cook, eds., Crisis and Controversy: Essays in Honour of A.J.P. Taylor
(London: Macmillan, 1976), pp. 110-129. For a recent discussion of the lessons of Munich, see
Gerhard L. Weinberg, "Munich After 50 Years," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Fall 1988), pp.
165-178.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1163
Neville Chamberlain had rejected Hitler's demands in September of 1938,
the course of World War II would have been substantially altered. What is
less clear is why Chamberlain chose not to do so. Did he simply lack guts?
Was the hapless leader not holding the cards to prevail in a high-stakes game
of diplomacy? Or did Chamberlain simply lack the finesse to play a mediocre
hand?
Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, Neville Chamberlain's
diplomatic efforts at Munich were roundly criticized by members of antiappeasement groups on the political right and left. 5 The "anti-appeasers"
charged that the prime minister should have opposed Hitler. Instead their
leader, well-intentioned but naive, or perhaps cowardly, had conciliated.
This anti-appeasement account of "Munich" gained increasing popularity
after Nazi Germany's seizure of Prague and subsequent invasion of Poland.
Among the ·pre-war and wartime conservative critics of Chamberlain's
diplomacy were the chauvinist anti-German "realists" of the Winston
Churchill-Leopold Amery-Sir Lewis Namier school, as well as the social
patriots of the Labour Party such as Hugh Dalton, Ernest Bevin, and Josiah
Wedgwood. 6 Anti-Nazi idealists, ranging from advocates of collective security
to socialists and communists, constituted the liberal opposition to appease5. Donald C. Watt, "Appeasement: The Rise of the Revisionist School?" Political Quarterly, Vol.
36, No. 2 (April-June 1965), p. 196. For reviews of Munich historiography, see Anthony Adamthwaite, "War Origins Again," Journal of Modern History, Vol. 56, No. 1 (March 1984), pp. 100115; Keith Eubank, "Munich Revisited," East Central Europe, Vol. 7, Part 1 (1980), pp. 97-101;
John D. Fair, "The Chamberlain-Temperley Connection: Munich's Historical Connection," The
Historian, Vol. 48, No. 1 (November 1985), pp. 1-4; R.J. Barry Jones, "The Study of 'Appeasement' and the Study of International Relations," British Journal of International Studies, Vol. 1
(April 1975), pp. 74-75; Paul M. Kennedy, "Appeasement," History Today, Vol. 32 (October
1982), pp. 51-53; William R. Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s (New York: Norton, 1977);
Rock, "British Appeasement (1930s): A Need for Revision?" South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 78,
No. 3 (1979), pp. 290-301; Robert Skidelsky, "Going to War with Germany: Between Revision
and Orthodoxy," Encounter, Vol. 39, No. 1 (July 1972), pp. 56-66; and Watt, "The Historiography
of Appeasement," pp. 110-129.
6. For brief synopses of the conservative anti-appeasement movement, see J.R. Jones, "England," in Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber, eds., The European Right: A Historical Profile (London:
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1965), pp. 57-69; and Paul M. Kennedy, "Idealists and Realists:
British Views of Germany, 1864-1939," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 25 (1975),
pp. 153ff. For a more detailed discussion, see Neville Thompson, The Anti-Appeasers: Conservative
Opposition to Appeasement in the 1930s (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); and Maurice Cowling,
The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy 1933-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1975). The major opponents of appeasement, both liberal and conservative, are discussed
generally in Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s, pp. 68-84. Paul Kennedy analyzes left- and
right-wing attitudes toward British "appeasement" policy from 1865-1939 in the "The Tradition
of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy, 1865-1939," in Kennedy, Strategy and Diplomacy, 18701945: Eight Studies (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983), pp. 15-39.
International Security 14:2 j164
ment. The most influential elements of the liberal group were found among
the international press corps and radio correspondents, especially those of
Britain and the United States, artd a number of British scholars. 7
In the fifteen years after World War II, the bitter critique of appeasement
advanced prior to 1945 was adopted "lock, stock, and barrel" by historians. 8
Drawing upon captured German materials, upon those British documents
which had thus far been published, and upon self-justifying memoirs, historians from the left and right alike joined in an assault on British pre-war
diplomacy and Chamberlain. 9 The wide attack was buttressed in 1948 by the
publication of the first volume of Winston Churchill's war memoirs, The
Gathering Storm. 10 Historians now had "the magisterial stamp of the man who
7. Among the most important anti-appeasement British foreign correspondents were The Times'
Douglas Reed, author of Insanity Fair (London:}. Cape, 1938) and Disgrace Abounding (London:
}. Cape, 1939); G.E.R. Gedye, Betrayal in Central Europe, Austria and Czechoslovakia: The Fallen
Bastions (New York: Harpers, 1939); the Manchester Guardian's M.W. Fodor, Plot and Counterplot
in Central Europe: Conditions South of Hitler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937); and Claude Cockbum with his news sheet The Week. For more on Douglas Reed, see Richard Thurlow, "AntiNazi Antisemite," Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1984), pp. 23-34. Academic "liberals" of
the prewar period included R.W. Seton-Watson, Britain and the Dictators: A Survey of Post-War
British Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), Munich and the Dictators (London:
Methuen, 1939), and From Munich to Danzig (London: Methuen, 1939); Elizabeth Wiskemann,
Czechs and Germans: A Study of the Struggles in the Historic Provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (London:
Oxford University Press, 1938), Undeclared War (London: Constable, 1939); A.L. Rowse, The End
of an Epoch (London: Macmillan, 1947); and Arnold Toynbee. The left's attack on Chamberlain
and appeasement was to gain widespread attention during the war in the "Gollancz" series,
Guilty Men, Tory M.P., Your M.P., Brendan and Beverly, written under various Roman pseudonyms
by journalists Michael Foot, Frank Owen, and Peter Howard. See Watt, "Rise of the Revisionist
School," p. 197; and Kennedy, "Appeasement," p. 51.
8. Watt, "Rise of the Revisionist School," p. 197.
9. Among those "conservative" historians who espoused this conventional interpretation of
Munich: Lewis B. Namier, Diplomatic Prelude, 1938-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1948), Europe in
Decay: A Study in Disintegration, 1936-1940 (London: Macmillan, 1950), and In the Nazi Era
(London: Macmillan, 1952); Llewellyn Woodward, editor of the third series of Documents on
British Foreign Policy; John Wheeler-Bennett, Munich: Prologue to Tragedy (New York: Duell, Sloan
and Pearce, 1948), and The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945 (New York:
St. Martin's, 1954); Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (New York: Harper and Row, 1952);
Charles Webster, "Munich Reconsidered: A Survey of British Policy," International Affairs, Vol.
37, No. 2 (April1961), pp. 137-153; Nicholas Mansergh, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, Problems
of External Policy, 1931-1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1952); R.G.D. Laffan, The Crisis
over Czechoslovakia, January to September 1938 (London: Oxford University Press, 1951); F.H.
Hinsley, Hitler's Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951); and Charles L. Mowat,
Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955). "Liberal"
historians who attacked appeasement included Elizabeth Wiskemann, The Rome-Berlin Axis: A
History of the Relations between Hitler and Mussolini (London: Oxford University Press, 1949); and
A.L. Rowse, Appeasement: A Study in Political Decline, 1933-1939 (New York: Norton, 1961).
10. Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. I, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1948).
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1165
was at once historian and politician, a successful Thucydides, the Cassandra
of the 1930s, and the Carnot of the 1940s. " 11 It seemed there could be no
doubt: Chamberlain's personal limitations largely explained his mistaken
Munich diplomacy.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, historians began increasingly to challenge
the orthodox notion that at Munich a well-intentioned but misguided British
prime minister had capitulated to a German Fuhrer bent upon European
domination. 12 Creative scholarship, different foci of analysis, and the release
of new documents gradually caused the historiographical tide to turn.
The first important challenge of the traditional line was mounted by A.J.P.
Taylor in a provocative best-seller published in 1961. In The Origins of the
Second World War, the highly regarded Oxford historian contended that Munich had been "a triumph for British policy." Indeed, Chamberlain's diplomacy
had been "a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British
life." 13 Given its controversial content and esteemed authorship, Taylor's
study had an "iconoclastic effect on traditional interpretations of appeasement."14
While Taylor's influence was certainly of great consequence, the primary
exponent of Munich reinterpretation was Donald Watt. In "Appeasement:
The Rise of the Revisionist School," published in 1965, Watt predicted that
future research, especially into the official and private papers of British policymakers, might well destroy the charge that the appeasers simply "lacked
guts," as Sir Charles Webster had earlier contended. 15 Watt hailed revision
11. Watt, "Rise of the Revisionist School," p. 198.
12. Among the important works written in the 1960s that are more favorable to Chamberlain:
Keith Eubank, Munich (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963); Keith Robbins,
Munich (London: Cassell, 1968); lain Macleod, Neville Chamberlain (New York: Atheneum, 1961);
Lawrence Thompson, The Greatest Treason: The Untold Story of Munich (New York: Morrow, 1968);
Basil Collier, The Second World War: A Military History (New York: Morrow, 1967); and Martin
Gilbert, The Roots of Appeasement (New York: New American Library, 1966). Among those
retaining the traditional view: Donald N. Lammers, Explaining Munich: The Search for Motive in
British Policy (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University/Hoover Institution, 1966); Martin Gilbert and
Richard Gott, The Appeasers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963); Christopher Thorne, The Approach
of War, 1938-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1967); and William R. Rock, Appeasement on Trial (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Press, 1966).
13. A.].P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961), p. 9.
Williamson Murray contended in his 1984 work that "Taylor no longer fully subscribe[d] to the
theories he advanced in Origins." Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939:
The Path to Ruin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 470.
14. Fair, "The Chamberlain-Temperley Connection," p. 2. Paul Kennedy rejects this view:
Taylor's Origins "did not significantly undermine this [orthodox] picture." Kennedy, "Appeasement," p. 51.
15. Webster, "Munich Reconsidered," pp. 137-154.
International Security 14:2 1166
of the orthodox view as "a welcome change from the gruff dismissal of all
concerned as pusillanimous, stupid, ill-informed, and weak-charactered
which used to pass as historical criticism amidst the plaudits of the press a
decade and a half ago." 16
In the years since his article's publication, Watt's prognosis has been largely
borne out. Following the release in the late 1960s and the 1970s of Public
Record Office documents and of the private papers of many of Britain's
defense planners, historians have produced a multiplicity of detailed studies
of the interwar period. Using a number of different approaches, they have
focused upon a wide variety of factors influencing the diplomacy of Munich:
Britain's declining role in the international system; 17 the British tradition of
appeasement; 18 other important policy-makers besides Chamberlain;19 the
defense posture of Britain;20 the Dominions; 21 the Far East; 22 the AngloAmerican relationship; 23 the Soviet Union; 24 the Treasury;25 British intelli16. Watt, "Rise of the Revisionist School," p. 213.
17. Corelli Barnett, The Collapse of British Power (New York: Morrow, 1972); David Dilks, ed.,
Retreat from Power (London: Macmillan, 1981).
18. Paul Kennedy has written a great deal on the subject. See especially his "The Tradition of
Appeasement in British Foreign Policy, 1865-1939," pp. 15-39.
19. Martin Gilbert, "Horace Wilson: Man of Munich?" History Today, Vol. 32 (October 1982), pp.
3-9; Jane Vieth, "Joseph Kennedy and British Appeasement: The Diplomacy of a Boston Irishman," in Kenneth P. Jones, ed., U.S. Diplomats in Europe, 1919-1941 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABCClio, 1981), pp. 165-182; and Raymond H. Fredette, "Lindbergh and Munich: A Myth Revived,"
Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1977), pp. 197-202.
20. See, for example, Norman H. Gibbs' official history, Grand Strategy: Rearmament Policy
(London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office [HMSO], 1976); Brian Bond, British Military Policy
Between the Two World Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980); and Malcolm Smith, British Air
Strategy ~tween the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).
21. Ritchie Ovendale, "Appeasement" and the English-Speaking World (Cardiff: University of Wales
Press, 1975); and R.F. Holland, Britain and the Commonwealth Alliance 1918-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1981).
22. Bradford A. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1939, A Study in the Dilemmas of
British Decline (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1973); Paul Haggie, Britannia at Bay: The
Defence of the British Empire against Japan 1931-1941 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
23. Callum A. MacDonald, The United States, Britain and Appeasement 1936-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1981); and David Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance 1937-41: A Study
in Competitive Cooperation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
24. George Liska, Russia and the Road to Appeasement: Cycles in East-West Conflict in War and Peace
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); Gottfried Niedhart, "British Attitudes and
Policies towards the Soviet Union and International Communism, 1933-9," in Wolfgang J.
Mommsen and Lothar Kettenacker, eds., The Fascist Challenge and the Policy of Appeasement
(London: Allen and Unwin, 1983), pp. 286-296.
25. The first advance in the study of a much maligned Treasury was by Bernd-Jurgen Wendt,
Economic Appeasement: Handel und Finanz in der britischen Deutschland-politik, 1933-1939 (Dusseldorf: Bertelsmann, 1971). Two more recent works are Robert Paul Shay, Jr., British Rearmament
in the Thirties: Politics and Profits (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); and G.C. Peden,
British Reaniiament and the Treasury 1932-1939 (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1979).
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1167
gence; 26 and the press and public opinion. 27 Although the theses of these
studies vary substantially, their publication has lent "a degree of detachment
and equipoise hitherto unknown in the literature of appeasement. " 28
But how is one to make sense of the burgeoning "Munich" literature of
the past two decades? Despite its great thematic and methodological diversity, the corpus of Munich writing may be divided, if somewhat imperfectly,
into two basic categories: "revisionist" and "counter-revisionist."
Rejecting the orthodox characterization of Neville Chamberlain as a wishful-thinking bumbler, "revisionist" scholars emphasize the military, economic, bureaucratic and political constraints that limited the prime minister's
diplomatic alternatives at Munich. Echoing his own metaphor, they suggest
that Chamberlain simply lacked the cards to play a very difficult game. 29 This
revisionist account of Munich has gained wide currency among historians.
Indeed, at an international conference of historians held in 1980, all agreed
that "above all, any alternative course of action [at Munich] would have had
to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles of various sorts. " 30 Paul Schroeder's argument typifies that which has been proffered by the revisionists:
If one begins to tot up all the plausible motivations for appeasement-fear
and horror of another war, Britain's state of unpreparedness, fear for the
British economy and the Empire, the unprepared state of public opinion, the
isolationism of the Dominions and the United States, lack of confidence in
France, lack of interest in Central Europe, failure to understand Hitler and
Nazism, fear and distrust of the Soviet Union and communism, the absence
of a viable alternative presented either by the Conservative Opposition or
26. Wesley K. Wark, The Ultimate Enemy: British Intelligence and Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1985); and Donald C. Watt, "British Intelligence and the Coming of
the Second World War in Europe," in Ernest R. May, ed., Knowing One's Enemies: Intelligence
Assessment before the Two World Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 237-270.
27. Richard Cockett, Twilight of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement and the Manipulation of the Press
(London: Weidenfeld, 1989); Anthony Adamthwaite, "The British Government and the Media,
1937-1938," Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18 (1983), pp. 281-297.
28. Fair, "The Chamberlain-Temperley Connection," p. 3.
29. Reflecting upon his first visit with Adolf Hitler on September 15, 1938, Chamberlain felt like
"a man called on to play poker with a gangster, with no cards in his hand." Keith Felling, The
Life of Neville Chamberlain (London: Macmillan, 1946), p. 364.
30. Mommsen and Kettenacker, eds., The Fascist Challenge and the Policy of Appeasement, p. xii.
Roy Douglas, who at the 1980 historians' conference specifically addressed Chamberlain's role
at Munich, concluded that the British leader "did about as well as anybody could have done,
and the criticisms levelled against him were only credible because the government was unable
to make its own best case in reply." Douglas, "Chamberlain and Appeasement," in ibid., p. 86.
The conference on "The Threat to the International System by the Fascist Powers and the Policies
of Appeasement" was held at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park on May 23-25, 1980
under the auspices of the German Historical Institute, London.
International Security 14:2 j168
Labour, and more-one sees that these are far more than enough to explain
it.
The appeasement policy pursued by Chamberlain at Munich, Schroeder
concludes, was "massively overdetermined." Any other policy would have
been "an astonishing, almost inexplicable divergence from the norm. " 31 Revisionists like Schroeder differ in their assessments of Chamberlain and in
their emphases of those factors which constrained his efforts. Nevertheless,
all agree that the story of Munich is not simply one of individual misjudgment
or imprudence. It is for them much more a tale of the limits of diplomatic
options.
"Counter-revisionist" historians generally concede that Chamberlain faced
a number of obstacles in the autumn of 1938; they stress, however, that a
more skilled diplomat might have overcome them-or at least, better managed them. Unfortunately, the British statesman simply lacked the finesse to
play the cards that had been dealt him. According to Brian Bond, a typical
counter-revisionist, "when every allowance is made [for the constraints faced
by Chamberlain], the fact remains that a weak hand was played with crass
ineptitude."32 Anthony Adamthwaite makes a similar argument: "Britain's
position was fraught with exceptional difficulty and menace." Nevertheless,
"the way in which issues were perceived and tackled reflected a priori principles and choices. Pessimistic assessments were selected to justify a preconceived policy. " 33 Like the revisionist historians, the counter-revisionists disagree about how best to characterize Chamberlain: some emphasize his
naivete; others his closed-mindedness; still others his messianic tendencies.
All suggest, however, that Munich is fundamentally a tale of one man's
failings.
Four Conclusions
Given the broad spectrum of interpretations that have been advanced, are
there any "lessons of Munich" with which most contemporary historians,
both revisionist and counter-revisionist, would likely concur? Fifty years after
the outbreak of the Second World War, can anything be said with some
31. Paul Schroeder, "Munich and the British Tradition," The Historical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1
(1976),. p. 242.
32. Bond, British Military Policy Between the Two World Wars, p. 284.
33. Adamthwaite, "War Origins Again," p. 106.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1169
degree of confidence about Munich? William Rock cautioned in 1977 that
"like most great issues in human experience," Munich "will be variously
interpreted,. even after the generation which directly experienced it is gone.
No real consensus may emerge, no 'final judgment' seems possible."34 While
he is probably correct that no single interpretation will ever gain universal
acceptance, there are at least four significant "Munich" conclusions in which
scholars and statesmen may now feel relatively secure.
THE CHAMBERLAIN CARICATURE
For all of his manifest limitations, simplistic images of Neville Chamberlain
as umbrella-toting utopian or self-deluded Lear must be rejected. Since 1938,
Chamberlain has frequently been assailed for his diplomatic naivete, and not
without justification. Examples of his misguided, even stubborn, optimism
abound. He disregarded the prudent counsel of a number of Cabinet advisers,35 rather immodestly thought that "he had established some degree of
influence over Herr Hitler,"36 and blithely excused the Fuhrer's peremptory
Bad Godesberg demands as "not as courteous or considerate as one would
wish." 37 Chamberlain was not among Britain's most perceptive or subtle
diplomats. But as Reinhard Meyers has warned, over-dramatic accounts of
the "Munich" episode, however intuitively appealing, are distorted. Here,
the participants are merely actors in a momentous spectacle, "appear[ing]
only as personified images, no longer as real persons." In one common
rendition, the starch-collared Chamberlain "confronts the armed might of
Germany with an umbrella, draws back in terror and gives way, because he
lacks courage and determination."38 This may be entertaining theater, but it
is shabby history.
The Neville Chamberlain caricature is rooted in a few ill-chosen words
spoken by the prime minister from the window of his London residencewords spoken not by design but only for the purpose of dispersing a collected
multitude: "My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there
34. Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s, p. 85.
35. See, for example, Barnett's account in The Collapse of British Power, pp. 529ff.
36. British Public Record Office, Records of the British Cabinet (hereinafter "CAB") 27/646, Cab
13, (38), September 24, 1938. All references to unpublished British cabinet papers will follow
this form: cabinet series (Cab), document identification and document date.
37. CAB 23/95, Cab 42 (38), September 24, 1938.
38. Reinhard Meyers, Britische Sicherheitspolitik, 1934-1938: Studien zum aussen und sicherheitspolitischen Entscheidungsprozess (Dusseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1976), p. 19. Cited and translated by
Richardson, "New Perspectives on Appeasement," p. 305.
International Security 14:2 1170
has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe
it is peace for our tirne." 39 Such rhetoric probably reflected not so much
Chamberlain's strategic assessment as it did his fatigue. Earlier, when someone had suggested the very phrase from Benjamin Disraeli, he rejected it
with impatience. 40 Indeed, within a week after his fateful remarks, Chamberlain would publicly repudiate the "peace with honour" theme, begging
the House that they not read too much into words "used in a moment of
some emotion, after a long and exhausting day, after I had driven through
miles of excited, enthusiastic, cheering people."41 Even immediately upon
his return from Munich, as his car was struggling toward Buckingham Palace
through an exuberant throng, Chamberlain had turned to Lord Halifax, his
Foreign Secretary, and observed presciently, "all this [euphoria] will be over
in three months."42 Unfortunately, few would forget the extemporaneous
phrase he would utter soon afterward. Instead, "peace for our time" would
feature prominently in all subsequent caricatures of Chamberlain.
To be sure, one cannot ignore the persuasive evidence of Chamberlain's
naivete or that of his sense of personal mission. After his September 15
meeting in Berchtesgaden, for example, Chamberlain told the Cabinet that
"the impression left on him was that Herr Hitler meant what he said." In
the three hours that the British Premier had spent at the Berghof, he had
come to believe that Adolf Hitler "was telling the truth." He had likewise
"formed the opinion that Herr Hitler's objectives were strictly limited." It
was very fortunate that he had travelled to Hitler's Alpine retreat, the elderly
Conservative concluded, for if he had not done so, "hostilities would have
started by now. "43
39. Cited by Telford Taylor, Munich: The Price of Peace (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), p.
65.
40. Sir Alec Douglas-Home recalled: "I was with Chamberlain as we approached the foot of the
staircase in No. 10, where Cabinet colleagues and others were assembled. Out of the crowd
someone said, 'Neville, go up to the window and repeat history by saying Peace in our time.'
I could not identify the voice but Chamberlain turned rather icily towards the speaker, and said
'No, I do not do that kind of thing'.'' Cited by Telford Taylor, Munich, pp. 64-65. British Prime
Minister Disraeli had spoken of "peace with honor" after his return from the Berlin Conference
of 1878, which had redrawn the boundaries of southeastern Europe after the Russo-Turkish
War.
41. Felling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain pp. 381-382.
42. Ibid., p. 382.
43. CAB 23/95, Cab 39 (38), September 17, 1938. One of Chamberlain's closest colleagues recalled
the Prime Minister's sense of personal mission: "This belief in his mission underlay the whole
of his talks to me in the spring and summer of 1938. When he told me of any new project for
furthering his objects, it was not so much to ask for my comments ... as to explain why this
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1111
A week later, after his second meeting with the Fuhrer at Bad Godesberg,
Chamberlain met again with his Cabinet. Now he could speak "with greater
confidence [of Hitler's intentions] than after his first visit." He told his
colleagues that "in his view Herr Hitler had certain standards." Admittedly,
the Nazi leader "had a narrow mind and was violently prejudiced on certain
subjects; but he would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected
and with whom he had been in negotiation." Now, Chamberlain "was sure
that Hitler .· .. felt some respect for him." Perhaps the German leader had
been a bit brusque, "but it was worth remembering that Germans are apt to
express themselves curtly." In the end, Chamberlain unequivocally concluded, "when Herr Hitler announced that he meant to do something it was
certain that he would do it. " 44
Even after the Munich Pact was concluded, Chamberlain's capacity for
optimism seems to have been little diminished. 45 In his September 30 report
to the Cabinet, he explained why no representatives of Czechoslovakia had
been permitted to participate at the Munich Conference, despite his own
suggestion that they be summoned: he had been told simply "that the matter
was too urgent to permit of the delay that this course would involve."46 In
fact, the Czechoslovakian diplomats had been kept in their hotel under
German police guard while their state was being dismembered. 47 In his postconference assessment, Chamberlain lauded the Munich Agreement as "a
vast improvement" over Hitler's Bad Godesberg Memorandum-despite the
substantial similarities between the two. In Chamberlain's view, the new pact
was an "international agreer_nent," while the Fuhrer's earlier demands had
been an "ultimatum." In the end, Chamberlain exulted, "it was a triumph
for democracy that representatives of the Four Powers concerned [Britain,
France, Germany, and Italy] should have met and reached a peaceful settlement of the matter. " 48 Presumably, the Czechs did not share in the British
leader's glowing evaluation.
or that step was necessary." Samuel Hoare, Viscount Templewood, Nine Troubled Years (London:
Collins, 1954), pp. 297-298.
44. CAB 23/95, Cab 42 (38), September 24, 1938. Emphasis added.
45. On October 2, 1938, he wrote to Archbishop of Canterbury: "I sincerely believe that we
have at last opened the way to that general appeasement which alone can save the world from
chaos." Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 375.
46. CAB 23/95, Cab 47 (38), September 30, 1938.
47. Barnett, The Collapse of British Power, p. 546.
48. CAB 23/95, Cab 47 (38), September 30, 1938.
International Security 14:2 j172
When faced with such striking evidence, one might naturally conclude
that Chamberlain's views of the Fuhrer and National Socialist Germany were
uniformly unsophisticated and idealistic, even downright foolhardy. Yet,
even a cursory glance at Neville Chamberlain's diaries and private papers
yields some rather surprising evidence to the contrary. In 1934, for example,
when Mussolini moved troops to the Brenner Pass after the murder of
Austrian President Dolfuss, Chamberlain jotted in his diary: "[Force is] the
only thing Germans understand. What does not satisfy me is that we do not
shape our foreign policy accordingly." 49 In March 1937, he wrote to U.S.
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau: "the main source of this fear of war
in Europe is to be found in Germany." The only conviction that would deter
German aggression, Chamberlain said, would be "that her efforts to secure
superiority of force were doomed to failure by reason of the superior force
which would meet her if she attempts aggression. " 50 After the German
invasion of Austria in March 1938, Chamberlain repeated the theme again in
his diary, in words which might as easily have been those of Churchill: "It
is perfectly evident, surely, now that force is the only argument that Germany
understands, and that collective security cannot offer any prospect of preventing such events, until it can show a visible force of overwhelming
strength backed by the determination to use it. " 51 Only a few months before
his three dramatic visits to Germany, the British leader wrote that he was
convinced of Germany's "untrustworthiness. " 52 And on several occasions
during the Czech crisis, Chamberlain observed that he thought the Fuhrer
was "half mad," a "lunatic. " 53
49. Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 253.
50. Cited by Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939 (London: Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, 1970), pp. 325-326.
51. Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 342.
52. During the "May crisis" of 1938, after rumors of German troop movements had been
circulated and Czechoslovakia had been partially mobilized, the British Prime Minister became
convinced of Germany's ill intent. He told his sister that he had no doubt that the National
Socialist government had made all preparations for a coup but in the end had decided after
British warnings that the risks were too great: "The incident shows how utterly untrustworthy
and dishonest the German government is." Neville Chamberlain papers, "Neville Chamberlain,
28 May 1938," cited by Dilks, "Appeasement and 'Intelligence'," in Dilks, Retreat from Power, p.
247.
53. Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 350. On September 11, 1938, Chamberlain wrote
to his sisters: "I fully realise that if eventually things go wrong and the aggression takes place
there will be many, including Winston, who will say that the British Government must bear
responsibility and that if only they had had the courage to tell Hitler now that if he used force
we should at once declare war that would have stopped him. By that time it will be impossible
to prove the contrary." Such a risk notwithstanding, Chamberlain was "satisfied that [he] should
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered J173
Given such counter-indications, even some of Neville Chamberlain's harshest judges have conceded that his perspective was complex, perhaps at times
even realistic. According to Carelli Barnett, a prominent critic of Chamberlain, "The truth was that Chamberlain's diagnosis of Nazi Germany and its
intentions was not constant and consistent; that behind his policy lay not a
single, simple motive, but several interwoven motives, partly idealistic, partly
expedient, partly inspired by hope and partly by fear; and sometimes one
element and sometimes another carne to the fore." 54 Without a doubt, Chamberlain's judgment at Munich was gravely mistaken: because Hitler was
untrustworthy and his objectives were not limited, appeasement would not
suppress the German's aggressive tendencies. Nevertheless, the prime minister's rnisperception has often been exaggerated by historians: almost since
Adolf Hitler's accession to power, Chamberlain had harbored suspicions of
the Fuhrer and of Germany. Unfortunately, his skepticism was only intermittent and not ultimately determinative of British policy.
NON-EUROPEAN CONSTRAINTS ON THE DIPLOMACY OF MUNICH
As many scholars have since recognized, to focus only upon Europe is to
miss an integral part of the Munich story. It was then and is now tempting
to focus exclusively upon Europe when evaluating the diplomacy of the
Munich Conference. After all, the question of tne Sudetenland was fundamentally a European one, the principal participants at Munich were European, and if war had been fought over Czechoslovakia's future, it would
have been fought, at least initially, in Europe. But in 1938, Chamberlain had
to consider not only the fate of Czechoslovakia, but also the future of the
British Commonwealth, the effect of the Far East in the strategic equation,
and the role that the United States might play in any corning war.
In the months preceding Chamberlain's meetings with Hitler, some of the
prime minister's advisers had cautioned that if a European war were to break
out over the Sudetenland, the British Commonwealth might be torn asunbe wrong to allow the most vital decision that any country could take, the decision as to peace
or war, to pass out of [his] hands into those of the ruler of another country and a lunatic at
that." Neville Chamberlain papers, "Letter to his sisters, September 11, 1938," cited by Gibbs,
Grand Strategy, p. 648.
54. Barnett, The Collapse of British Power, p. 514. Roy Douglas agrees: With regard to the efficacy
of Munich, Chamberlain "probably vacillated in his own mind on the matter; for a relative of
Chamberlain has recollection of a private letter-unfortunately not preserved-which expressed
the gravests doubts." Douglas, "Chamberlain and Appeasement," in Mommsen and Kettenacker, The Fascist Challenge, p. 86.
International Security 14:2 1174
der. 55 The Commonwealth was not a monolithic structure; its constituent
states did not always agree on questions of British foreign policy. Accordingly, Britain could rarely be assured of their unqualified support.
This point was not lost on Secretary of State of the Dominions Malcolm
MacDonald. Shortly after the Anschluss, he told the Cabinet Committee on
Foreign Policy that, although "he had never favored our adopting a particular
foreign policy merely in order to please the Dominions," he believed that
the case of Czechoslovakia merited special consideration. If Britain accepted
the "alternative of the new commitment to Europe in effect guaranteeing
Czechoslovakia, [we might] find ourselves engaged in a European war to
prevent Germans living in the Sudeten districts of Czechoslovakia from being
united with Germany. On this issue, the British Commonwealth might well break
in pieces." While New Zealand and Australia would almost certainly follow
the British lead, and while the support of Eire was then thought likely,
Canada and South Africa would never enter a war to prevent certain Germans
from rejoining their fatherland. 56
Like MacDonald, Neville Chamberlain had to be sensitive to "British"
opinion abroad. The prime minister could ill afford to enter a war without
the support of the entire Empire; he therefore told the Cabinet on September
25, 1938:
It was clear that a position had arisen in which we might before long be
involved in war. If that happened, it was essential that we should enter war
united, both as a country and as an Empire. It was of the utmost importance,
therefore, that whatever steps we took, we should try to bring the whole
country and Empire with us, and should allow public opinion to realise that
all possible steps had been taken to avoid conflict. 57
Hoping that the move might "also help to rally the Dominions to our side,"
therefore, he dispatched his trusted aide, Sir Horace Wilson, with a message
for Hitler. 58
Two days later, on September 27, shortly before his own flight to Germany,
the prime minister reported again to the Cabinet. He had been informed that
55. See especially Ovendale, "Appeasement" and the English-Speaking World; and Ovendale, "Britain, the Dominions, and the Coming of the Second World War," in Mommsen and Kettenacker,
The Fascist Challenge, pp. 321-338.
56. CAB 27/623(2), FP (36) 26, March 18, 1938. Emphasis added. Hitler also recognized British
imperial limitations. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 19181945, Series D, Vol. I (London: HMSO, 1949), pp. 32-33.
57. CAB 23/95, Cab 43 (38), September 25, 1938.
58. CAB 23/95, Cab 44 (38), September 25, 1938.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered J175
the Czechs would offer a feeble resistance to the German army. But "more
disturbing than this was the fact that the Dominions were far from happy
about the situation." The British prime minister read messages from J.A.
Lyons and J.B.M. Hertzog, the prime ministers of Australia and South Africa,
respectively, supporting his contention. Nor were the views of Lyons and
Hertzog isolated ones, he observed: all the Dominion High Commissioners
had spoken with him that afternoon and had urged that the Czech government be pressured to accept Hitler's demands. "The situation vis-a-vis the
Dominions," the British leader concluded, "was thus very delicate." 59
If Czechoslovakia were to become a casus belli, it appeared that Britain
might lack united imperial support. This possibility may have been exaggerated by Chamberlain, either mistakenly or perhaps even deliberately. In fact,
some evidence suggests that in the last two days before the Munich Conference, the cynicism of German foreign policy had substantially altered the
pro-appeasement attitudes of the Dominions. 60 Whether or not this was
actually the case is subject to dispute. Nevertheless, one conclusion is sure:
in the six months before his fateful trip to Munich, the prospect of a British
Commonwealth divided over the Sudeten question could not have been
ignored by the prime minister.
In his deliberations over the crisis in Europe, Neville Chamberlain had also
to keep in mind the situation in East Asia. 61 What impact would a resolute
British policy toward Germany have upon the already aggressive Japanese
activities there? Would Japan exploit the opportunity presented by an AngloGerman conflict to expand her interests further at the expense of those of
Britain? Might the Japanese go so far as to intervene actively on behalf of
Adolf Hitler?
By 1938, concern over the strategic impact of the Far East upon Britain's
security was far from new, either for His Majesty's Government or for Chamberlain himself. Japan's seizure of Manchuria had compelled the British
government in 1932 to abandon its fundamental defense assumption, the
"Ten Year Rule," which had provided that planners not anticipate any major
59. CAB 23/95, Cab 46 (38) 1, September 25, 1938.
60. See Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, pp. 213-214.
61. Since "well over half the Empire, whether measured in terms of area, population or economic
importance, lay east of the Suez," the potential threat of Japan to British oriental interests,
especially to those in China, could not be taken lightly. Haggie, Britannia at Bay, pp. 126-127;
Bradford E. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, pp. 147-148; and W. Roger Louis, "The Road
to Singapore: British Imperialism in the Far East, 1932-42," in Mommsen and Kettenacker, The
Fascist Challenge, pp. 375-379.
International Security 14:2 J176
conflict for ten years. In 1934, as chancellor of the exchequer, Chamberlain
had maintained that Britain could not "provide simultaneously for hostilities
with Japan and Germany." 62 In the six months after the March 1938 German
invasion of Austria, the Chamberlain Cabinet had been discussing with some
regularity the interplay between Britain's problems in Europe and Asia, and
both the Foreign Office and the Chiefs of Staff had been closely considering
the possibility that if Britain became embroiled in a war with Germany, Japan
might attack her in East Asia. 63
On March 28, 1938, two weeks after the Anschluss, the Chiefs of Staff filed
a report that surveyed the general strategic situation should a war break out
over Czechoslovakia. In their study, specifically requested by Chamberlain,
the Chiefs determined: "In the world situation today it seems to us that if a
struggle [with Germany over Czechoslovakia] were to take place, it is more
than probable that both Italy and Japan would seize the opportunity to
further their own ends, and that in consequence the problem we have to
envision is not that of a limited European war only, but of a world war."64 If
valid, such a pessimistic conclusion would seem to have provided Chamberlain with a strong incentive for conciliatory diplomacy of some sort.
Six months later, in September of 1938, there appeared to be cause for
continued, or perhaps even increased, British apprehension over Japanese
intentions. On September 15, the same day that Chamberlain met with Hitler
at Berchtesgaden, Japanese Premier Konoe Fumimaro made a startling public
disclosure: during the previous summer, Germany and Japan had been earnestly discussing the feasibility of converting the Anti-Comintern Pact into
a military alliance. 65 This revelation came only a day after the Japanese
Foreign Ministry had expressed sympathy with Hitler's stand on the Czech
question, blaming the Comintern for the trouble and announcing Japanese
readiness to "join the forces with Germany and Italy for fighting against Red
operations in accordance with the spirit of [the] Anti-Comintern Agree-
62. Neville Chamberlain's Diary, June 6, 1934, cited by David Dilks, "The Unnecessary War?"
in Adrian Preston, ed., General Staffs and Diplomacy before the Second World War (London: Croom
Helm, 1978), p. 109.
63. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, p. 147.
64. CAB 53/37, COS 698, March 28, 1938. Emphasis added.
65. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, p. 147, citing International Military Tribunal for the
Far East, Exhibits 497, 776A, 3508; and the Saionji-Harada Memoirs, pp. 2553, 2555. See also
Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, Vol. I, pp. 564, 569.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered j177
ment." 66 Such troubling mid-September pronouncements reflected, it
seemed, the increasingly close relationship which had developed between
Japan and Germany since the beginning of 1938: in February, Germany had
recognized the Japanese client state of Manchukuo, and three months later,
had recalled her military advisers from China. 67
Until the Munich Conference, both the Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign
Office remained rather gloomy about the prospects for Japanese restraint in
the Far East. 68 The Chiefs, perennially pessimistic, feared that a war begun
in Europe would spread to East Asia. More sanguine, Halifax and his advisers
judged that while Japan would probably take advantage of a European conflict, she would only increase her pressure on the British position in China,
not intervene directly on Germany's side. 69
In retrospect, the less alarmist view of the Foreign Office was almost
certainly the more accurate one. Given Japan's involvement in September
1938 in the campaign to seize Hankow, the Japanese would seem to have
been far too preoccupied in China to have contemplated fighting Britain. 70 A
number of prominent observers, including the French and American ambassadors in Tokyo and the British Admiralty, believed this to be the case. 71
66. E.L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, eds., Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, Series
3, Vol. 8 (London: HMSO, 1955), pp. 85-86, 88-91. See also Haggie, Brittania at Bay, p. 127.
67. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, p. 149.
68. Ibid., p. 148.
69. "Minutes by Robert Howe and Sir George Mounsey on Sir Robert Craigie to the Foreign
Office, September 28, 1938." British Public Record Office, Records of the Foreign Office (hereafter
"FO"), F10233/152/23. See also "The Foreign Office to Clark Kerr, October 3, 1938," in Woodward
and Butler, Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, Series 3, Vol. 8, pp. 114-115.
70. The German ambassador in Tokyo subsequently reported that Japan had not planned any
active measures against the British or the Soviets. Even the Japanese army did not wish the
trouble in Europe to escalate into a global conflict, although it did welcome the crisis "as a
source of relief to its own position in China." See Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D,
Vol. IV, document 534, "Aufzeichnung ohne Unterschrift, September 29, 1938," and document
535, "Der Botschafter in Tokio an das Auswartige Amt, November 1, 1938."
71. Craigie reported that "the French Ambassador considers it most unlikely that Japan will
take any precipitate step if war were to break out in Europe." FO 371/22185, F 9887/152/23,
"Craigie (Tokyo) to Halifax, September 15, 1938." On October 6, Ambassador Grew commented
that there was no "warrant whatsoever for assuming that the army has any intention of becoming
embroiled in troubles in Europe under anything short of the most compelling reasons." Foreign
Relations of the United States, 1938, Vol. III (Washington, D.C.: U.S. GPO, 1954), p. 298. The
Admiralty concluded: "Compared with 1937, when anti-British feeling was widespread, the antiforeign element in propaganda has been toned down ... 1938 has been a year of unusual
political calm ... and outwardly the country has given an impression of unity and concentration
upon the war in China." British Public Record Office, AdmiraltY Records 1/9588, Japanese Navy
and Naval Air Service: Annual Report for 1938.
International Security 14:2 1178
Nevertheless, Chamberlain could not simply brush aside the frightening
possibility of war with Japan. Nor could he discount the unpleasant but
probably inevitable prospect of increased Japanese pressure in China if he
refused accommodation of Hitler. 72
Chamberlain also had to consider how the United States might act if a
European war were to result from Britain's opposition of Hitler. In a protracted struggle against Nazi Germany, American assistance would likely
prove most useful. Would the traditionally isolationist United States remain
aloof? This was certainly Chamberlain's expectation. Or would it support
Britain, either directly or indirectly?
The answer came on September 19 when Franklin D. Roosevelt met with
Sir Ronald Lindsay, British ambassador in Washington. 73 At the meeting, so
secret that not even the State Department knew of it, President Roosevelt
articulated his awkward position. While he personally opposed Hitler and
.his Third Reich, the American people remained strongly isolationist. He was
far from optimistic about the immediate future: if there were war, he anticipated that the allies might be defeated. Although this was surely an undesired outcome, Roosevelt was dubious about the prospects of the United
States taking any action. So firmly did the American public oppose U.S.
involvement in European affairs that, even in the event of war, the president
thought it "almost inconceivable" that he would be able to send troops across
the Atlantic. Given the character of Roosevelt's meeting with Lindsay, Chamberlain knew before Munich that the most Britain could hope for from the
United States was a benevolent neutrality. 74
BRITISH PUBLIC OPINION AND THE SUDETEN CRISIS
In the past twenty-five years or so, historians have generally agreed that
public opinion played a significant role in the Sudeten crisis. They have
differed markedly, however, over how that role may most accurately be
characterized. Some have contended that public opinion sharply confined
Chamberlain's diplomatic alternatives. Others have submitted that it simply
72. Chamberlain's direct participation in the formulation of British policy toward East Asia
seems to have been rather limited. Such formulation "was left, to a surprising degree, to the
permanent officials of the Foreign Office." Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s, pp. 2-3.
73. See Ovendale, "Appeasement" and the English-Speaking World, pp. 158-159.
74. FDR's assessment of American isolationist sentiment proved remarkably prescient. As late
as August, 1941, with Europe already at war, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to renew the draft by a margin of only one vote. See Lieber, No Common Power, p. 150.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1179
provided Chamberlain and his colleagues with a convenient post hoc justification for flawed diplomacy. Recently, a number of scholars have argued
persuasively that through management of the media, the Chamberlain government subtly manipulated British opinion prior to the Munich Conference.75
Certainly, great lip service was paid to public opinion by British policymakers. During ministerial discussions held on April 28 and 29, 1938, for
example, Chamberlain warned French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier that
"public opinion in Great Britain would not allow His Majesty's Government
to take such a risk" as to "gamble on the issue of peace and war. " 76 Immediately following the Czech crisis, and long thereafter, similar "public opinion" pleas would be made by Chamberlain and a number of colleagues. 77
Typical of the pleas was that proffered by Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain's
chief adviser: "Chamberlain would have been as glad as anyone if he could
have 'stood up to Hitler,' but he realized that in 1938 we were not in a
position, politically or militarily, to do so; nor were the people of this country
or the Commonwealth, still peace-minded, ready to proceed with war. " 78
While such words may be dismissed as merely self-serving, other independent evidence would seem to corroborate the view that Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy enjoyed widespread public favor. Upon his
return from Munich, for example, Chamberlain was almost universally
lauded. A Movietone News Reel dubbed Chamberlain "the man who prevented Armageddon." The Times bestowed similar praise: "No conqueror
returning from victory on the battlefield has come home adorned with nobler
laurels than Mr. Chamberlain from Munich yesterday. " 79 If a significant
segment of the British population had disapproved of what Churchill called
Chamberlain's "throwing a small state to the wolves," one might expect there
to have been a far greater post-Munich outcry.
75. See especially Adamthwaite, "The British Government and the Media," pp. 281-297; and
Cockett, Twilight of Truth. On the gagging of the BBC, see William J. West, Truth Betrayed
(London: Duckworth, 1987).
76. It was useless, according to Chamberlain, "for this Government, or indeed for any other
Government, to go beyond its public opinion with possible effect of bringing destruction to
brave people." C.P. 109(38), p. 22. Cited by Gibbs, Grand Strategy, p. 645.
77. See inter alia, Viscount Templewood, Nine Troubled Years, pp. 327--328, 375; and Viscount
Maugham, At the End of the Day (London: Heinemann, 1954), p. 388.
78. Undated memorandum cited by Adamthwaite, "British Government and the Media," p.
294.
79. Cited by Roger Eatwell, "Munich, Public Opinion, and Popular Front," Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1971), p. 122.
International Security 14:2 1180
Nor, it can be argued, was British public approval merely the post facto
embrace of an apparently successful diplomatic effort. A week earlier, when
Chamberlain informed the House of Commons that Hitler had agreed to
meet him at Munich, the prime minister was greeted not by derisive jeers
but by wild cheers: "At once pandemonium broke forth. Everyone was on
his feet, cheering, tossing his order papers in the air, some members in tears.
It was an unprecedented and most unparliamentary outburst of mass hysteria
and relief, in which only a few did not join."80 Had most of the public not
endorsed a third meeting between Chamberlain and the Fuhrer, such a euphoric reaction by Parliament would appear to have been rather unlikely.
Not all evidence bolsters the view that Chamberlain's appeasement policy
enjoyed sweeping support, however. Immediately following Chamberlain's
triumphant return to London, for example, contemporary observers may
well have overestimated Britain's support for appeasement; moreover, popular backing appears to have diminished substantially during the next two
months. According to Roger Eatwell, the "Munich Agreement was believed
to have been received with great rejoicing by the majority of the people of
Britain. And yet in a series of seven by-elections which took place during
October-November 1938 and in which foreign policy played a major role,
the Government fared badly." 81 In all of these contests, the opposition increased its percentage of the poll; in two the Conservatives actually lost seats.
This poor electoral showing casts some doubt on the view that Chamberlain's
diplomacy of appeasement had overwhelming post-Munich approval. Certainly, by the end of 1938, many Britons had begun to question the morality
and prudence of the Munich Agreement. The Economist would observe in
late November, "In matters of defence and diplomacy the Government's
critics are [now] legion."82
But even immediately before the Munich Conference's conclusion, public
sentiment may well have been turning against appeasement-at least, so a
number of government officials feared privately. On September 23, Lord
Halifax wired Chamberlain while the prime minister was still at Bad Godesberg. In his cable, the Foreign Secretary articulated Cabinet concerns: "It may
help you if we give you some indication of what seems predominant public
opinion as expressed in [the] press and elsewhere. While mistrustful of our
80. Mowat, Britain Between the Wars, p. 617.
81. Eatwell, "Munich, Public Opinion, and Popular Front," p. 123.
82. The Economist, November 26, 1938, p. 411.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1181
plan, but prepared perhaps to accept it with reluctance as [an] alternative to
war, [the] great mass of opinion seems to be hardening in [the] sense of feeling
that we have gone to the limit of concession and that it is up to the Chancellor
to make some contribution. " 83 The same day, the prime minister's press
adviser, George Steward, warned Berlin that Chamberlain might not be able
to hold out in the face "of a revolt of public opinion which is brewing."84
The "revolt" may have begun even earlier in 1938. A March poll by the
British Institute of Public Opinion, for example, found that fifty-eight percent
of those asked did not "favour Mr. Chamberlain's foreign policy." A month
before, the British Institute had discovered that seventy-one percent believed
that "Mr. Eden was right in resigning" from the Chamberlain Cabinet. 85 On
April 24, a Salter group memorandum expressed a similar view: the public
was deeply divided on foreign policy for the first time since 1914. "There
was," it concluded, "a great suspicion of the Chamberlain policy of appeasement. " 86 This assessment would seem to have been corroborated shortly
thereafter by the "volley of abuse" which greeted The Times' suggestion on
September 7 that the Sudetenland simply be ceded to Germany. 87
If a sizable body of British opinion was in fact critical of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy by the early months of 1938, why was his government not seriously challenged? The answer appears to lie in actions that
were taken deliberately by the Chamberlain government. According to Anthony Adamthwaite, "the absence of a strong challenge reflected in part the
exercise of extensive official influence on the press, broadcasting and newsreels in the run-up to Munich."88 At the "strong recommendation" of the
Chamberlain government, BBC broadcasts critical of Hitler were cancelled,
anti-appeasement newsreels cut or suppressed, derogatory press reports
curbed, and even Elizabeth Wiskemann' s allegedly anti-German history of
the Czechs and Germans89 was thoroughly revised prior to its publication.
Through persuasion rather than compulsion, the government was able to
83. FO 371/21740, C 10664/1941/18, "Telegram dispatched to the Prime Minister while he was at
Godesberg, September 27, 1938." Emphasis added.
84. Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, Vol. II, p. 896.
85. Public Opinion Quarterly, March 1940, p. 78.
86. Adamthwaite, "The British Government and the Media," p. 290, citing Liddell Hart Papers,
King's College, London.
87. Oted by Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s, p. 10. The phrase is Geoffrey Dawson's.
Dawson was editor of The Times and the writer of the lead editorial.
88. Adamthwaite, "The British Government and the Media," pp. 281-282.
89. Wiskemann, Czechs and Germans.
International Security 14:2 1182
restrict public debate and to limit the ventilation of alternative views. 90 In
view of his government's largely effective campaign to squelch the expression
of anti-appeasement sentiment in the British media, it is not surprising that
Chamberlain would later be dubbed "the first prime minister to employ news
management on a grand scale." 91
The scholarly debate will likely continue over the climate of British public
opinion in 1938, over the precise degree to which it influenced the Chamberlain Government, and particularly over that to which it was influenced
by the Chamberlain Government. Nevertheless, one broad conclusion may
now be drawn: public opinion played an important role in the Munich crisis.
Without a doubt, Chamberlain and his advisers paid close attention to public
opinion and went to great lengths to silence that which was unwelcome. It
is possible, though less likely, that popular sentiment actually constrained
Chamberlain's diplomatic efforts at Munich. Nevertheless, British public
opinion certainly provided the Chamberlain Government with a convenient
post facto rationale for its ill-fated diplomacy.
CHAMBERLAIN'S DIPLOMACY AND BRITAIN'S "STRATEGIC VULNERABILITY"
It was not until the release of documents in the late 1960s that scholars could
fully appreciate the degree to which fears of military unpreparedness had
plagued the Chamberlain government during the Czech crisis. Most policymakers in 1938 were convinced that if a conflict over the Sudetenland did
erupt, Britain would be impotent to prevent the armed seizure of Czechoslovakia by Germany. Even more worrisome, many believed that such a conflict
would likely become global in scope, and perhaps even result in Britain's
being dealt a "knock-out blow" by Hermann Goring's Luftwaffe bombers.
As has already been noted, immediately after the German seizure of Austria, the British Chiefs of Staff were asked by Chamberlain to report upon
the military situation that would result from a German attack upon Czechoslovakia. In the course of their lengthy disquisition, they gave the following
warning:
No pressure that we and our possible allies can bring to bear, either by sea,
on land, or in the air, could prevent Germany from invading and overrunning Bohemia and from inflicting a decisive defeat on the Czechoslovakian army. We should then be faced with the necessity of undertaking a war
90. Adamthwaite, "The British Government and the Media," pp. 281-293.
91. James D. Margach, The Abuse of Power (London: Allen, 1978), p. 50.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered j183
against Germany for the purpose of restoring Czechoslovakia's lost integrity
and this object would only be achieved by the defeat of Germany and as the
outcome of a prolonged struggle. 92
Lord Halifax called the report "an extremely melancholy document." 93 Sir
Alexander Cadogan, permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office, came
to a similar unhappy conclusion after many restless nights: "We must not
precipitate a conflict now. We shall be smashed."94 Chamberlain, rather
uncritically, shared the strategic view of his advisers. He wrote in his diary
on March 20, 1938: "You have only to look at the map to see that nothing
that France or we could do could possibly save Czechoslovakia from being
overrun by the Germans, if they wanted to do it. The Austrian frontier is
practically open; the great Skoda munition works are within easy bombing
distance of the German aerodromes, the railways all pass through German
territory, Russia is 100 miles away." Given these unhappy conditions, "We
could not help Czechoslovakia-she would simply be a pretext for going to
war with Germany. That we could not think of unless we had a reasonable
prospect of being able to beat her to her knees in a reasonable time, and of
that I see no sign."95
While the assessment of his Chiefs of Staff and many of his cabinet ministers may have been unduly gloomy in the months after the Anschluss,
Chamberlain should probably not be judged too harshly for his acceptance
of that assessment. In the military intelligence he had received, "there was
nothing to encourage a belief that Britain and France could by guaranteeing
Czechoslovakia enable that state to hold out against a German onslaught. " 96
Unhappily, British intelligence was so inconsistent in its quality that on
September 8, only three weeks before the Munich Conference, Lord Halifax
had mistakenly informed the Cabinet that Czech fortifications were outside
the Sudetenland, not inside it. 97
92. CAB 53/37, COS 698, March 28, 1938. Secretary of State for War Hore-Belisha summarized
the Chiefs of Staff opinion in his diary: "To take offensive now would be like 'a man attacking
a tiger before he has loaded his gun'." R.J. Minney, ed., The Private Papers of Hore-Belisha (London:
HMSO, 1960), p. 146.
93. CAB 23/93, Cab 15 (38), March 22, 1938.
94. David Dilks, ed. The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, O.M., 1938-1945 (London: Macmillan,
1971).
95. Cited by Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 123.
96. Dilks, "Appeasement and 'Intelligence'," pp. 146-147.
97. FO 371/21770, C 010114786/18, September 8, 1938. For more on the problems of British
intelligence, see Wark, The Ultimate Enemy.
International Security 14:2 1184
Among Chamberlain's advisers, particularly his military ones, pessimism
about the prospects for opposing German aggression continued through the
Sudeten crisis. A Chiefs of Staff paper prepared during the crisis repeated
earlier warnings about British strategic limitations. If war came, France and
Britain would be inferior in strength to Germany both on land and in the
air. Since Britain had not yet made a "continental commitment," even the
inclusion of Czechoslovakia on the Allied side would only just provide a
balance. Given these disquieting conditions, the Chiefs of Staff argued, "We
can do nothing to prevent the dog getting the bone, and we have no means
of making him give it up, except by killing him by a slow process of attrition
and starvation. " 98
In the event that war did come, Chamberlain was told, Britain would be
highly vulnerable to German bombs, a truly frightening prospect. Britain's
civil defense system was in sorry condition: only 1,430 searchlights were
available out of an approved 4,128; only 140 barrage balloons out of 450. She
had barely ten percent of the estimated "ideal" requirement of anti-aircraft
guns, most of which were not the newer 3.7- and 4.5-inch models, but 3inch conversions. Perhaps most indicative of the inadequacy of British civil
defense, there were only sixty fire pumps in all of London. 99
Nor did Britain seem to have much hope of challenging German bombers
in the air. In Fighter Command, twenty-nine fighter squadrons were reckoned mobilizable, but only five of these had Hurricanes and none had Spitfires. The Hurricanes themselves were of limited utility, however; since their
guns were as yet unmodified to function above 15,000 feet, they were incapable of fighting at high altitudes. In addition, there were five squadrons of
Gladiators, capable of engaging bombers but no match for modern fighters.
The remaining squadrons had obsolete aircraft: Furies, Gauntlets, and Demons. Perhaps even more problematic, Britain had no stored reserves of
fighter aircraft. Immediate reserves in workshops and with squadrons constituted a mere two-fifths of first-line strength. 100
Overall, it was estimated that Germany had some 3,200 first-line aircraft
against 1,606 British, 101 while the French did not have any capable of bombing
Germany whatsoever. Accordingly, it was believed that if Germany were to
98. Gibbs, Grand Strategy, p. 647. Emphasis added.
99. Macleod, Neville Chamberlain, pp. 259-260. For more on the problems of British civil defense,
see Peter Dennis, The Territorial Army, 1906-1940 (Wolfeboro, N.H.: Boydell Press, 1987), pp.
227-230.
100. Basil Collier, Thg Defence of the United Kingdom (London: HMSO, 1957), p. 65.
101. CAB 24/249, CP 218 (38), September 25, 1938.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1185
concentrate upon a "knock-out blow" against England, she would be able to
deliver 500 to 600 tons a day for two months. By contrast, the Chiefs of Staff
projected that the RAF could only retaliate with 100 tons a day for a far
shorter time, measurable at most in weeks and possibly in days. 102 Given
such dismal estimates, the prime minister's rather melodramatic reflection to
the Cabinet on September 24 would seem to have been justified: "That
morning he had flown up the river over London. He had imagined a German
bomber flying the same course. He had asked himself what degree of protection we could afford to the thousands of homes which he had seen
stretched out below him, and he had felt that we were in no position to
justify waging a war today to prevent a war hereafter. " 103
General William "Tiny" Ironside, who would be made chief of the Imperial
General Staff at the outbreak of war, was particularly sympathetic to Chamberlain's uncomfortable position. Long concerned about the ill-preparedness
of the British military, especially that of the Army, the general wrote in his
diary: "Chamberlain is, of course, right. We have not the means of defending
ourselves and he knows it. He is a realist and any plan he could devise was
better than war. One hopes that this will be a lesson to the people to get
their defence in order. If it does not, then it will all have been in vain."
Responding to Winston Churchill's criticism of Chamberlain, he continued,
somewhat hyperbolically:
Churchill words his protest as follows: 'The idea that safety can be purchased
by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion.' All very true, but
we cannot expose ourselves now to a German attack. We simply commit
suicide if we do. That is the fallacy of his argument. At no time could we
stand up against German air bombing. Chamberlain knows this. He dare not
say it to the people. 1o4
Ironside and his colleagues need not have worried so. 105 Contrary to what
was later commonly argued by historians, 106 British fears in 1938 of a German
102. CAB 16/183A, DP (P) 32, October 4, 1938.
103. CAB 23/95, Cab 42 (38), September 24, 1938. During his flight home, Chamberlain had
turned to his companion, Sir Horace Wilson, and said, "You know, it is a terrible thing to be
responsible for the decision as to war and peace, knowing that if it is war there is very little we
can do to save all these people." David Dilks interview with Wilson, May 1964. Cited in Dilks,
"Appeasement and 'Intelligence'," p. 143.
104. Roderick Macleod and D. Kelly, eds., Time Unguarded: The Ironside Diaries, 1937-1940 (New
York: David McKay, 1963), p. 62.
105. On September 24, 1938, the Chiefs of Staff did produce one uncharacteristically hopeful
report about the strategic situation. The record makes clear, however, that the Chiefs quickly
uncoiled from their brief flirtation with optimism. Wark, The Ultimate Enemy, p. 209.
106. Over the years, there has been a great scholarly debate on the question of when Britain
International Security 14:2 1186
"knock-out blow" were misplaced. A week before the Munich Conference,
the German air staff had concluded that such an attack against Britain would
be virtually impossible. General Helmuth Felrny, the commander of the
German Second Air Force, had only recently been appointed to study the
problems of air attack upon Britain. On September 22, 1938, he warned
Goring that "a decisive war against England appears to be ruled out with
the means now available." 107 Little had changed since August, when one of
Felmy's staff had characterized his command's capability as "no more than
the capacity to inflict pinpricks. " 108 Even eight months after the Sudeten
crisis, Felmy would conclude a command planning meeting by "pointing out
how unprepared the Luftwaffe was, both in 1938 and 1939, to support a
'strategic' bombing offensive against Britain."109 Williamson Murray, a modern historian, has aptly summarized the strategic situation in September of
1938: "In nearly every respect [the Luftwaffe] was unprepared to launch a
'strategic' bombing offensive and so could not have significantly damaged
Britain's war effort in spite of weaknesses in British air defenses." Ironically,
it "would have had difficulty just in fulfilling its operational commitments to
support ground forces operating against Czechoslovakia and the West." 110
Given the Luftwaffe's immature condition in 1938, then, Britain was virtually
invulnerable to a German "knock-out blow," despite the manifest ill-preparedness of its own defenses. Unhappily, Chamberlain was not privy to
this essential intelligence. 111 Had he been so, the prime minister would have
might best have engaged Nazi Germany. Particularly during the 1960s, it was fashionable to
argue that Chamberlain's diplomacy was a conscious effort to delay British military confrontation
until a more propitious moment. Among those to have supported this thesis are: Eubank,
Munich; Collier, The Second World War: A Military History; Robbins, Munich; John C. Slessor, The
Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956); Sholto Douglas, Combat and
Command (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966); Viscount Simon, Retrospect (London: Hutchinson, 1952); Neville Henderson, Failure of a Mission, Berlin, 1937-1939 (New York: G.P. Putnam's
Sons, 1940); F.S. Northedge, Freedom and Necessity in British Foreign Policy (London, 1972); and
Stephen W. Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, Vol. III (London: Collins, 1974).
107. Cited by Wark, The Ultimate Enemy, p. 68.
108. Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, p. 251, citing "Votragsnotiz uber
Besprechung mit Ia des Befehlshabers der Luftwaffengruppe Braunschweig, August 25, 1938,"
National Archives and Records Service, Document T-1022/2307/34562.
109. Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, pp. 251-252, citing Bundesarchiv/
Militararchiv Rl 7/42, RL 7/43, Luftflottenkommando 2., Fuhrungsabteilung, Nr. 7093/39, May
13, 1939, "Schlussbesprechung des Planspieles 1939." The accuracy of this May 1939 appraisal
was conceded a week later by the Luftwaffe staff.
110. Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, pp. 252-253.
111. F.H. Hinsley argues that if a study had been done in 1938 of Luftwaffe training and of the
physical and logistical requirements for strategic attack on Britain, it would have demonstrated
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1187
had greater incentive, at least, to challenge the Fuhrer. That Chamberlain
would have done so seems rather unlikely given his abhorrence of war;
however, the proposition is ultimately moot.
The Modern Implications of Munich
The lesson that "Munich" underscores is that statecraft can be an extremely
difficult enterprise, not unlike a game of poker played for the highest stakes.
When the diplomat takes his place at the gaming table, the fundamental
security of his own and other states may well be at risk, yet he has precious
little control of the hand dealt him and usually cannot even choose his
opponents. Neither the rules of strict rationality nor those of fair play consistently apply: the bullet may prove ultimate arbiter. Given a strong hand,
the diplomat's task is comparatively uncomplicated; at times even a bumbler
may prevail. Should the diplomat face a lesser opponent while holding a
poor hand himself, he may still win if he plays skillfully. If, however, his
opponent is crafty and his own hand seems mediocre, the challenge before
him is daunting; if the diplomat's judgment is faulty, disaster is virtually
certain.
As we have seen, this was the unhappy situation faced by Neville Chamberlain in September of 1938. His diplomatic opponent, Adolf Hitler, was
exceedingly shrewd and inscrutable, a master of bluff and deception. The
German leader held an ace card, his claim to be a champion of Sudetendeutsche
"self-determination." And in the event his opponents proved uncooperative,
Hitler prominently displayed an intimidating weapon, the German military.
By contrast, Chamberlain's hand appeared rather weak indeed: Britain could
not rely upon American military assistance in the event of war; the Dominions seemed divided on the Czech question; if a European war came, Japan
might seize the opportunity for expansion; there were signs that the public
might not support a war with Germany; and perhaps most disturbing, the
British military had argued that it was ill-prepared for a major confrontation.
In short, Chamberlain's position seemed perilous. Certainly, the potential
for his miscalculation was great-especially given his misplaced hopes and
his predisposition towards conciliation. It is little wonder then that Halifax
that Germany was incapable of such an assault. See Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second
World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations (London: HMSO, 1979), pp. 78-79.
International Security 14:2 1188
would later say of Munich, "Oh well, if you don't make one mistake, you
make another. " 112
But half a century after the Sudeten crisis, how can the diplomat avoid
making "one mistake or another"? A close scrutiny of the Munich episode
makes it clear that this task will frequently prove profoundly challenging,
but more importantly, it suggests several means by which the game of
diplomacy may more successfully be played.
First, the statesman can take some solace in the fact that regardless of his
hand's strength or opponent's skill, he nevertheless has some control of how
he will play. Even if his cards appear to lack merit, he may still choose a
strategy of bluff and finesse in order to defeat his diplomatic challengers.
Indeed, this ability to hoodwink one's opponent is a prerequisite for the
successful diplomat.
Chamberlain seems in retrospect to have lacked both the ability and the
inclination for such diplomatic finesse. By the time of the Munich Conference,
he appears genuinely to have trusted Adolf Hitler, and to have been intent
on honest dealings. Even had he chosen a resolute strategy, Chamberlain
almost certainly would not have achieved a negotiated settlement: in late
1938, Hitler appears to have been bent on the invasion of Czechoslovakia,
despite the best counsel of his military advisers, and to have pursued diplomacy only grudgingly. 113 Nevertheless, if Chamberlain had stood firm despite
his hand's apparent weakness, Hitler might have been removed from
power, 114 or what is far more likely, war with Germany might have been
fought under more favorable circumstances than those of 1939. Although
Britain was tragically ill-prepared to fight in September of 1938, Germany
was even more so. The German economy then was strained to the breaking
point, and the Wehrmacht lacked the economic base and reserve strength to
112. Ernest May, "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 18.
113. Throughout the crisis, Hitler continued to plan actively for attack. He rejected Chamberlain's most generous concessions at Bad Godesberg. Perhaps most revealingly, on September
21, he told the Hungarians that the only danger was that Czechoslovakia would submit to every
demand. Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, p. 205. According to J.L. Richardson, recent research has substantiated the traditional view that "Hitler did not expect to be able
to achieve his goal of Lebensraum without a great war." See Richardson, "New Perspectives," p.
310.
114. A plot to remove Hitler had been made by some of his generals who recognized German
weaknesses in September of 1938 and feared a premature conflict. Their coup attempt would
have been tremendously risky and might have failed. See Robert J. O'Neill, The German Army
and the Nazi Party, 1933-39 (London: Cassell, 1966), pp. 163-165.
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1189
gain strategic victories in both east and west. Accordingly, an earlier war
with Germany would very likely have proved a shorter one. 115
A second means of facilitating the diplomat's task is to bolster his diplomatic hand. While the statesman typically cannot do this himself, his government may take a variety of steps to do so. One worthwhile measure
consists in the cultivation of public support for the government's foreign
policy.
Had the Chamberlain government striven to educate the British public of
the dangers posed by the Third Reich, a firmer diplomatic stance at Munich
would have been rendered less difficult. Regrettably, Chamberlain was disinclined either to stir British passions against Germany or to risk war over
the Sudeten question. Indeed, as we have seen, the government sought at
his direction to suppress anti-German and anti-appeasement coverage by the
British media. Herein lies another valuable lesson that may be gleaned from
the Munich episode: popular support per se cannot save flawed policy.
Another obvious way that a government may improve the "hand" of its
diplomats is to strengthen the defense posture of its state-or as the Romans
enjoined, "Si vis pacem, para bellum." (If you desire peace, prepare for war.)
Unfortunately, this straightforward maxim is as troublesome to implement
as it is ancient. In determining policy, governments must inevitably make
hard choices between social and defense spending, between military and
economic security.
Such deliberations are particularly painful for the government of a declining hegemonic power, as British leaders discovered in the 1930s. Britain's
diverse assets were shrinking even as her domestic and imperial liabilities
were expanding; negative balances of payments and trade were the rule, not
the exception. 116 In these uncertain times, British decision-makers clung to
economic orthodoxy, rejecting deficit spending to finance the defense of
Britain. Neville Chamberlain, chancellor of the exchequer from 1931 until
1937, gambled along with his colleagues at the Treasury that the pound
would prove mightier than the sword. 117 In part because of this policy decision, the British military found itself ill-equipped to confront Nazi Germany
115. See Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, pp. 363-364.
116. See R.S. Sayer, The Bank of England, 1891-1944, Vol. III (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1976), appendix 32, tables A and C, pp. 308-309, 312-313.
117. Chamberlain told the Cabinet on October 3, 1938, that ever since his term as chancellor of
the exchequer he had feared that "the burden of armaments might break our back." CAB 23/
95, Cab 48 (38), "Meeting of the Cabinet, October 3, 1938," p. 304.
International Security 14:2 1190
in September of 1938. While Britain's defense posture was not as precarious
as was then believed, it seems clear that had British rearmament in the 1930s
not been bound so tightly by government purse-strings, Neville Chamberlain's diplomatic position at Munich would have been different. Thus, ironically, the prime minister may have been "caught in a web of his own
making. "ns
Even if His Majesty's Government had been more willing to pay, however,
the inadequacies of the British industrial machine and of British technology
circumscribed Britain's rearmament efforts in the 1930s. 119 Lord Weir, an
industrialist and a member of the Defence Policy and Requirements Committee (DPRC), would crisply summarize the unhappy situation faced then
by British defense planners: "We were short of fundamental facilities for
making certain articles." 120 Among the "facilities" in woefully short supply
were skilled labor, engineers, and technological innovation. Accordingly, the
British Army would enter the Second World War with Czech light machine
guns, the RAF with American instrument panels, and the Admiralty with
armor plating from Czechoslovakia, the United States, and Germany. In the
late 1930s, rearmament had "put British industry to the proof, and found it
wanting." 121 Such industrial and technological difficulties may simply be the
lot of a declining hegemon. 122
Finally, and of great importance, diplomats and decision-makers can profit
greatly from an improvement of their state's intelligence capabilities. Not
only must accurate intelligence be gathered in a coordinated fashion, but
even more importantly, it must be analyzed correctly and conveyed to those
who formulate and implement foreign policy. Even the shrewdest diplomat
can fail if he does not hold the intelligence "card."
Had his military advisers been more encouraging, it is at least possible
that Chamberlain would have taken a stronger stand against Hitler. Unfortunately, "the Chiefs [of Staff] had consistently provided ammunition against
118. Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, p. 271.
119. The "British capacity to manufacture sophisticated arms was so seriously reduced that very
large amounts [of money simply] could not be spent immediately." Dilks, "The Unnecessary
War?" in Preston, General Staffs and Diplomacy before the Second World War, p. 110. For more on
the industrial and technological impediments to British rearmament, see Barnett, The Collapse of
British Power, pp. 476-485.
120. CAB 16/123, DPR (DR) 1, January 13, 1936.
121. Barnett, The Collapse of British Power, p. 485.
122. On the pernicious effects of hegemonic decline, see Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World
Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Munich's Lessons Reconsidered 1191
a strong policy." 123 Their reports, informed by worst case analysis heaped
upon worst case analysis, failed to suggest a policy alternative to appeasement-before Munich, the Chiefs had never even considered the effect of
the loss of Czechoslovakia on the strategic military balance. 124 Accordingly,
British intelligence provided little to deflect Chamberlain from his intention
of seeking a peaceful settlement, and a good deal to stimulate it. 125 Ultimately,
this "worst case" strategic analysis of Nazi Germany, when combined with
Neville Chamberlain's "best case" analysis of Adolf Hitler, proved a disastrous amalgam.
In his introduction to Munich 1938, Keith Robbins argues that the only
"lesson of Munich" is "that there are no lessons." Those who study the past,
Robbins opines, are "useless in predicting the future." Rather, they should
strive to "prevent others from doing so." In support of this rather pessimistic
conclusion, he points to the "telling irony" that "for many of Chamberlain's
critics, the lesson of Munich led straight to Suez." 126 To a degree, Robbins is
correct. Scholars and statesmen alike have often been too facile in their
application of historical analogy. 127 And in the fifty years since the outbreak
of World War II, the "lesson of Munich" has been the special victim of
spurious invocation. 128 Yet to suggest that nothing can be learned from
history is to be unduly gloomy. While prudence cautions against sweeping
lessons, one cognizant of the "dangers of history" may still glean something
of value from its study. 129
123. Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, p. 210.
124. Nor, apparently, had the French. See Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power,
pp. 210-212.
125. Wark, The Ultimate Enemy, p. 207.
126. Robbins, Munich, pp. 4-5.
127. Herbert Butterfield, for example, contends that those in 1919 "who talked of 'avoiding the
mistakes of 1815' were using history to ratify the prejudices they had already." Butterfield,
History and Human Relations (London: Collins, 1951), p. 177. Similarly, A.J.P. Taylor argues that
"men use the past to prop up their own prejudices." Taylor, From Napoleon to Lenin (New York:
Harper and Row, 1966), p. 64.
128. See May, "Lessons" of the Past.
129. See Butterfield, History and Human Relations, pp. 158-181.
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