If one peruses the pages of The New York Times from mid-September 1938 through the first week of October 1938, it is apparent that what we are witnessing today is a virtual replay of those three weeks – only worse.
Two weeks before the September 30, 1938 Munich agreement, Germany increased its demands, while promising (the Times reported) “hearty reciprocal cooperation in the work of solving other problems incidental to a wider European settlement.” A week before the agreement, German “demands had become higher,” but Hitler reassured Chamberlain that they were his “final” ones. A few days before the signing, Hitler appeared before 15,000 people in Berlin’s largest auditorium, where the “Sieg Heils” from the audience “were heard around the globe, for Hitler had a world hook-up” on radio. Chamberlain sent a letter to Hitler stating that Germany’s demands were unacceptable but urged continued negotiations, because “force produces no solution.” By the end of the week, Chamberlain had accepted virtually all of Hitler’s demands. The British leader was, the Times reported, “obviously exhausted and had resolved to make an end of the whole business.”
As soon as the Munich capitulation was signed, it was portrayed as a great success. In the letters published in the Times in the first week of October, one finds (1) a letter suggesting that “the Fuehrer was finally swayed by the moderates” around him and predicting a “more moderate” German policy “from now on”; (2) a letter asserting the “gains” from the Munich agreement “far outweigh the sacrifice” and that Hitler would now “be required to make good his assurance that he has no further territorial claims”; (3) a letter arguing Munich was “the greatest tribute” to Britain and France, since they had exhibited “solicitude for their civilians” by rejecting war; (4) a letter alleging that the “tumultuous cheers given to Mr. Chamberlain in Munich were not so much because he gave Sudetenland back to Germany as because he brought peace”; (5) a letter urging readers not to concentrate on “bewailing what Czechoslovakia lost,” but to focus on “this outstanding defeat of Hitler’s,” since it had been “proved beyond doubt” that Hitler now realized that “power politics does not work anymore.”
On October 9, 1938, the Times published its weekly “News of the Week in Review,” which observed that a “new Europe began to emerge last week … as new alignments appeared over the horizon.” There was little doubt, the Times noted, that Germany would soon dominate Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but it reported that Britain saw the agreement as the first step toward stabilizing the continent. The countries most directly affected, however, had “many doubts,” and made it clear that in the future “they would depend less upon the bulwark of diplomacy than upon the strength of their arms.” The Times then described what had happened during the week:
Britain, [with] the crisis over … kept aloof from the events in Czechoslovakia while the government defended its foreign policy in a full-dress Parliamentary debate. From the start, even though some of the nation’s best speakers were ranged against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the outcome was never in doubt.
Debate was opened by Alfred Duff Cooper, former First Lord of the Admiralty, who resigned in protest against the Chamberlain policy. “The Prime Minister,” he said “has believed in addressing Herr Hitler through the language of sweet reasonableness. I have believed he was more open to the language of the mailed fist.” Because he could not “swallow” the Munich agreement, he had resigned. “I can still,” he told Parliament, “walk about the world with my head erect.”
Winston Churchill attacked the Munich agreement as an “unmitigated defeat” for Britain and prophesied that it would be but “the bitter foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden times.”
Prime Minister Chamberlain and his supporters defended what had been done. Said Mr. Chamberlain: “The government deserves approval … for its conduct of affairs in this recent crisis which saved Czechoslovakia from destruction and Europe from Armageddon.” He insisted that negotiations with the dictatorships, that agreements with them, were the sole alternative to war. …
The Commons gave Mr. Chamberlain a vote of confidence, 366 to 144, with about twenty Conservative members abstaining from voting. … Mr. Chamberlain, whose chief means of relaxation is seeking out the haunts of the salmon and trout, thereupon packed his fishing tackle and set out for Scotland …
What we are living through now is worse than Munich, not only because we are ignoring the lesson learned from that event — at the cost of a six-year world war and millions of deaths — but because even Chamberlain would be shocked at what is transpiring again.
Chamberlain implemented what was, at the time, was a mainstream theory of international relations – that appeasing a dictatorship with respect to its colorable claims could limit its ultimate aims. But at least Chamberlain did not pay Hitler a huge amount of money for signing the agreement. At least he did not finance Hitler’s regime at home and his plans abroad. At least he did not publicly assure him he could be a “very successful regional power.” At least he did not proceed without a parliamentary majority. At least he did not adopt a constitutionally suspect procedure enabling him to prevail with a one-third partisan minority. At least he did not assure his fellow citizens they could rest assured it was a good deal because it would have his name on it. At least he did not negotiate a time-limited agreement and acknowledged it would put Germany in a position to prevail at the end of the agreement.
In the past two weeks, Iran increased its demands while holding out the possibility of a new era once the agreement was signed. The “moderate” Iranian president marched with huge crowds behind him holding signs reading “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” with the pictures flashed throughout the world with the world hook-up of the Internet. After an exhausting 17 days of negotiations, with “deadlines” serially ignored by Iran and seriatim U.S. concessions escalating as they went along, the president and secretary of state made an end of the whole business by accepting virtually all of Iran’s demands, while paving the path toward its ultimate goal.
In 1938, there was Winston Churchill’s prophetic eloquence and Alfred Duff Cooper’s principled resignation, but they were insufficient to stop the biggest disaster of the 20th century. In the United States 77 years later, Congress will have not one week, but 60 days, to review what is worse than Munich. It is more than enough time to understand the pending disaster. But because of the procedure the president has adopted, the question is not what the majority of the Congress thinks but what one-third of it does. We are about to find out if there are any senators and representatives in today’s Democratic Party comparable to Churchill or Cooper.