George W. Bush and "Appeasement"

Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

George W. Bush's remarks before the Israeli Knesset, where he charged Barack Obama with "appeasement" for seeking diplomatic alternatives to war with Iran, shows that despite his abysmal approval ratings and lame duck status he is going to insert himself into the politics of 2008. That might be a good thing for the Democrats.

Obama's call for negotiations with Iran has been welcomed by governments throughout the world and follows the advice of the conservative "Iraq Study Group" headed by Lee Hamilton and James Baker. How that stance constitutes "appeasement" of any nation or any leader is anybody's guess.

I am so sick of hearing the "appeasement" argument trotted out whenever some right-wing blowhard wants to sound "tough" and dismiss diplomacy no matter how badly the historical context screams out for it. Lyndon Johnson used "appeasement" to justify standing "tough" in Vietnam with disastrous results. Now Bush repeated this old canard to try to politically isolate anyone who doesn't see the world through his jaundiced eyes. John McCain naturally agrees with Bush and vowed never to talk to U.S. adversaries unless they totally capitulate to U.S. demands ahead of time.

Like the old comic strip character, "Pogo," said during the Vietnam War: "We have seen the enemy, and it is us."

During the last week of September 1938, when the leaders of two democracies, Edouard Daladier of France and Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, met in Munich with two fascist dictators, Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany, the goal was to push Hitler east. Hitler's intentions were clear. He sought "Lebensraum" in Eastern Europe and considered the Slavs an inferior race to his own and the Bolsheviks the biggest single threat to Western Civilization. Hitler wished to absorb into the German Reich the largely German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, a nation carved out by the Versailles Treaty after Germany's defeat in World War One. The hyper-nationalist, flag-waving, right-wing Nazi regime in Berlin never accepted Czechoslovakia's legitimacy.

Hitler's call for seizing the Sudetenland was THE classic "stab-in-the-back" argument: the civilian diplomats who "betrayed" Germany at the end of WWI were all left-liberal "traitors" who sold out the nation at Versailles. (We hear the same argument from our own right-wing revisionists of the Vietnam War.) All Hitler was doing, in his view, was restoring what rightfully belonged to Germany.

Severely weakened by the Great Depression and in no position to make military threats, Chamberlain and Daladier hoped to push Hitler's ambitions eastward. The one unifying belief all four leaders shared was their fanatical hatred of the Soviet Union and anything remotely related to International Communism. A strong and well-armed Nazi regime in Central Europe, they believed, was a necessary buffer to Soviet power. And with their own domestic economic crises and their labor unions going communist, France and England focused their attention not on the threat of fascism but on the growing influence of the Soviet Union. (Their positions on the Spanish Civil War bear this fact out.)

France and England hoped Germany would spark a shooting war with the Soviet Union and then they could sit back and watch the fascists and communists tear each other apart. It didn't work out that way.

If Chamberlain and Daladier could negotiate with Hitler and Mussolini, why couldn't they also talk to Josef Stalin? Stalin was interested in resurrecting some form of the old "Triple Entente" alliance system that attempted to box in Germany in the years leading up to World War One. It might have been a long shot, but had France and England been open to including Russia in the negotiations Germany might have been stuck with an instant two-front war if it invaded any of its neighbors, east or west. German power might have been checked. As it turned out, after June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union ended up being allied with France and England anyway (and with the United States after December 7, 1941), so maybe the whole damn bloody thing could have been avoided with some creative diplomacy. That's the real lesson of "appeasement" and it is the opposite of what the right-wing says it is.

I'm only pointing out that there was a historical context to the 1938 Munich deal that gets lost in the din of contemporary saber rattlers.

This piece of 20th century "history," wholly denuded of its context, has been the most abused "lesson" of World War Two. Those who want to use military violence always justify their actions by smearing those who oppose them as "appeasers." Every U.S. president since Harry Truman has used this argument in one form or another.

But "history" also shows quite clearly that sometimes negotiations and diplomacy are much smarter and far less dangerous avenues of settling international disputes than always reflexively reaching for the guns and the cruise missiles.

What's needed in the Middle East is a comprehensive Non-Aggression Pact that includes all of the major players: the EU, Russia, Israel, Iran, Muslim states outside the region, the United States, the Arab League, etc. The region must be a nuclear-free zone and any act of military aggression must be outlawed by mutual security agreements, and not dictated by the United States, which under Bush has lost its credibility as an honest broker. The US must redeploy its troops out of Iraq and some kind of just settlement must be negotiated between Israel and Palestine. More wars and attacks and concrete walls and occupations and bombings and terrorist attacks and targeted assassinations and check points are doomed to failure. Negotiations and diplomacy must take over where military violence has failed.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Richard Cook - 5/22/2008

There's no need for this discussion to degenrate into a right- or left-wing battle royale. Let's take Mr. Palermo's idea on its merits. Who would enforce such a non-aggression pact? Would they have the authority to use force to do so? Further, what constitutes "military aggression?" Does Hezbollah count as a military? What of Hamas? What about al-Qaeda, or either the SCIRI or Mahdi militias? If "military violence has failed," then what do we say about negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians?

Elliott Aron Green - 5/19/2008

Dear Krueger, the US is negotiating with almost everybody all the time. And certainly with Ayatollah regime in Iran, which Carter and Zbig Brzezinski helped put in place, do you remember? So far diplomacy --multilateral diplomacy-- has not led the Iranian regime to give up its nuclear weapons program. What makes Palermo or anyone think that Obama's personal chat with Ahmadinejad [or any president's "man to man" chat with him] will turn the wolf into a lamb? Or will chatting with a US prez only encourage A-jad?

By the way, why does Palermo see his adversaries as "right-wingers" or "conservatives"?? After all, Krueger lists baker, gates, scowcroft, and so on, who are all eager to chat with A-jad. But it seems that they are considered "right-wingers." Why then is Palermo allied or aligned with "right-wingers"??

Wouldn't a personal chat with a US prez give A-jad undeserved prestige and credibility and likewise enhance his noxious views in the eyes of world public opinion?? Anyhow, can Palermo or anyone prove that Bush only or primarily had Obama in mind when he made his speech? It seems that the appeasement shoe fits carter and jim baker to a T.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/19/2008

The point is that the principal objective of foreign policy is, or should be, to avoid awful wars for your country, and, that we have a sorry record of not doing so under Democratic leadership.

In the case of Hitler he should have been stopped by the Allies when he took the Rhineland, or previous to that, perhaps, which could have been done with almost no carnage compared to WWII. In the Pacific, FDR's policy toward Japan almost demanded that they attack us... Woodrow Wilson, another 42% president like Slick Willie, was not required to send our troops to die in WWI, either, and their sacrifice gained us nothing. Truman's crazy State Department, loaded with Russian spies, should not have declared Korea outside our zone of influence and interest, inviting that invasion. Kennedy and Johnson, of course, were completely to blame for getting us stuck with the Indo-Chinese tarbaby, rushing in like fools--something Eisenhower had managed to avoid for the previous eight years--while Democrats assailed John Foster Dulles as a "warmonger."

I see a certain consistency in the line of Acheson, Rusk, Zbig, Madeline, Holbrook, and more recently John Kerry and Barack Obama. They were and are all naive, and all too willing to disarm and trust the word of our enemies. This sorry list has always been too eager to apologize for the United States, as well, and too slow to confront many of the world's worst barbarians. They were or are also insanely enamored of a certain kleptomaniacal instution on the East River, and are still trying to cede them more U.S. sovereignty. Fortunately, George W. Bush has "outed" the UN crooks (I guess that's redundant) on his watch, and they can never sell such absurd notions about that place to Americans again.

Jon Marte - 5/19/2008

"Like the old comic strip character, 'Pogo,' said during the Vietnam War: 'We have seen the enemy, and it is us.'"

I think there is an implication in that statement that the quotation was somehow connected to Vietnam.

The quote is from an Earth Day poster.

It's misused in this article.

Mike Schoenberg - 5/18/2008

Except for Viet Nam, what is the point you are making. That the other 3 wars were not right to be in? Far better that England be a pawn of the Nazi's.

Mike Schoenberg - 5/18/2008

What happened to the s called New Road or whatever that Bush had for peace between Israel and Palestine? Probably some out-patient in the White House said can't be done now.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/18/2008

Though Dana Perino -- who's rapidly earning a reputation for being out of the loop and uninformed -- issued a very similar statement to yours, multiple news outlets reported that White House officials confirmed that Obama was indeed the target of the remarks. It's also entirely consistent with the Republican echo chamber attacks on Obama.

It wasn't even subtle.

John H. Lederer - 5/18/2008

"George W. Bush's remarks before the Israeli Knesset, where he charged Barack Obama with "appeasement" for seeking diplomatic alternatives to war with Iran.."

I missed that part. Do you have a quote where "he charged Barack Obama with 'appeasement'"?

I thought he was talking in generalities and if they were aimed at anyone specific, would likely to be aimed at Jimmy Carter, whose self initiated diplomacy was a matter of recent concern to the Israelis and the U.S.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/18/2008

Since Democrats led us into World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War--every single one of America's most bloody wars in the 20th century--the evidence suggests that they are incapable of conducting U.S. foreign policy successfully. Democrats also tried to surrender our country in the tiny Iraq War, which is now headed for victory because saner heads prevailed, i.e., the Republicans. Why on earth would anyone want to trust the Democrats to conduct foreign policy again? Obama cannot be elected unless a majority of voters is insane.

Richard William Krueger - 5/17/2008

I meant: thank God only 28% of the population are bozos like you running around.

and "made the world FAR more volatile"

Richard William Krueger - 5/17/2008


Richard William Krueger - 5/17/2008

It's only appeasement if you give them something. You seem to think that appeasement is tantamount to not invading and bombing the living daylights out of a country. If the scenerio that the article played out, if their was a non-aggression pact, how would that be appeasement? Tell me how Iran would be appeased with a non-aggression pact?

Robert Gates, Colin Powell, Lee Hamilton, Brent Snowcroft, James Baker, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton....all appeasers. You're paradigm for diplomacy? George W. Bush, an abject failure with not one verifible accomplishment, only the crack-pot dreams that one day his presidency will be vindicated by history.

I think that the people of The United States would rather throw their hat in with the first group (yes, including Nixon) rather than George Bush.

Richard William Krueger - 5/17/2008

A bold in principled president? If you mean "a callow and moronic usurper", then you're absolutely correct. Bush's foreign policies have made the world for more volatile. Don't belive me? Read a NIE every once in a while.

One cannot be principled if they only whittle the world to fit in the little cubby that they see sit. Example? Attacking countries on cherry-picked evidence which was suspected to be faulty. That's principled? Thank God there's only 28% of you bozos running around.

Richard William Krueger - 5/17/2008

It's painfully obvious that the majority of the respondents to this artivle have no idea what appeasement means. Sitting down with a government and talking to them doesn't equate to appeasement. It is only after you concede something to the other party that you are appeasing.

How do I know that some respondents to this article have no idea what they are talking about? Well, there this nugget from Jason: Amazing: the author actually proposes, in the midst of a tirade of being sick of the appeasement charge, a NON-AGGRESSION PACT!!!!!!!!!! Wow!

So, when the U.N. was talking to Saddam Hussein, trying to get him to be more cooperative with weapons inspectors, they were appeasing him? Simply by talking? Or when Reagan visited with Gorbachev, was that appeasement? What about when Nixon went to China?

The line of thinking espoused by a few people here seems to be that you can never broker peace between regions. It's a shame that you people are so damn stupid that you can't understand that this unilateral, go-it-alone type diplomacy is a failed excercise and that America is worse of because of the "tough guy" (I use the term loosely, since Bush is a high school cheerleader and military deserter) foreign policy of this administration. Idiots.

Maarja Krusten - 5/17/2008

What a curious assessment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop [Soviet-Nazi] Pact (MRP). What you view as "diplomacy as its most effective" resulted in enormous hardship and suffering -- not just during WWII but for decades after -- for people of once-sovereign nations. Hardly what I as an American, grateful for the freedoms under which we live, would wish on people of other nations. Consider why successive U.S. administrations, starting under Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959, issued "Captive Nations Week" proclamations. Consider how long it took for the parties to even admit to the secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. See
for the perspective of one of the nations affected by the MRP. It did not regain until 1991 the sovereignty it had held through 1940.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/17/2008

Bravo for the comment on diplomacy with statesmen.

Are there things that can be negotiated with Saudi Arabia? Yes. How about their share of payment for protection of shipping lanes? Keeping US troops in the region? Are there things that can be negotiated with Pakistan? Yes. How about US counter-terrorism access to border regions.

The amazing thing is the insipid comment that diplomacy is for enemies as well as friends. It really isn't. America has major disagreements with all sorts of world powers that it deals with diplomatically: trade and security arrangements topping the list. To give a recent example, France is once again discussing a return to NATO under the condition that it be given the Southern Command. This is a weighty subject fit for diplomacy - and not just between France and the US but other NATO nations as well. All of these nations have RATIONAL interests to pursue, interests that must be accommodated in any final agreement - that's what diplomacy and compromise are: agreements that meet the rational interests of the affected parties.

With Iran, they have no rational interests regarding Israel. Neither does Hezbollah, nor Hamas nor any Palestinian authority. What these groups want is not just obviously irrational from an Israeli perspective- it doesn't address any actual rational need any one in the society has either. It won't make them healthier, more productive, at Peace in other words, what radicals want and what they think it will achieve are completely unrelated. Thus, to give an irrational party part of what they want to buy some kind of concession, will only lead to frustration on the part of that irrational party.

The appeasers have turned psychology on its head . The so-called rational person may be sublimating irrational desires. A great work of literature may be riddled with infantile sexuality or destructive fantasies. But the appeasers have it flipped upside down. Apparently, they believe that psychotics are expressing latent logic. Killing all the Jews is really code for sharing a water way - a thing the psychotic doesn't know yet but will come to realize their closet rationality through the dialectic of a talk with Obama. It's as if they think that dreams about sex are really expressing deeply repressed wishes to be accountants and obey all traffic signals. If a patient said they wanted to kill their teacher, the appeaser would interpret this to mean they want to do their homework.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/17/2008

Bravo on the truth comment and academics.

Amazing: the author actually proposes, in the midst of a tirade of being sick of the appeasement charge, a NON-AGGRESSION PACT!!!!!!!!!! Wow!

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/17/2008

There is a subtext to all of the criticism of Bush's remarks:

1. Don't every say anything substantive on international affairs. Bush actually took a stand, talking about an issue of EXISTENTIAL SIGNIFICANCE in Israel.

2. Don't be clear with your allies. Bush should be talking only in vague terms with Israel. Telling them they have his support, but leaving room open to negotiate away that support with Israel's enemies.

3. Previous Presidents talked to their enemies, so should you. Bush is chided for never learning from his mistakes: should he never learn from history's mistakes, however, that's great. Past Presidents who met and negotiated with the Soviets were APPEASERS and generally speaking, these meetings brought about agreements that the Soviets always violated - and worse, the price paid was always an extension of Soviet power, meaning an extension of Soviet control over subject people. In other words, people who defend "talking to your enemies" need to defend the results of doing so.

To throw this argument up at Bush is to forget Bush's historic apology to the people of eastern Europe for the crimes of Yalta, where the US callously negotiated away their freedom.

4. Bush and McCain are doing what needs to be done to assure that Obama's Presidency will not be a total cave in - the good news is that Obama is now insisting he's not an appeaser and to buttress his argument, will take pains to prove it. The Democratic left favors policies tantamount to appeasement and the Republican right has always been there to push the Democratic party towards the center.

5. Iran's position does not merit discussion. What is there to discuss? Iran wants to kill 6 million Jews. The US position is they can't kill any. Can we find a happy medium? How about the State of Israel continues to exist but all the inhabitants are annihilated? There is really nothing to "negotiate". A country stating this as its objective that wants to acquire nuclear weapons will be stopped from doing so.

Bush is a bold and principled President. What his critics want is him to be a waffling, timid and vapid bureaucrat who can speak fluidly.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/17/2008

good points

Bryan Mullinax - 5/16/2008

That whole pact between Hitler and Stalin that carved up Poland and started the shooting war? Diplomacy at its most effective. I would submit that it is the most effective diplomatic act of the past century.

But examples of a comprehensive Non-Aggression Pacts that actually guaranteed non-aggression are extremely thin on the ground. In fact, effective multi-party non-aggression pacts are non-existent. The League of Nations (to enforce the abolishment of aggression) was completely ineffective long before its dissolution in the ashes of World War II. The United Nations has proved effective only at making jobs for cookie-pushers who were too incompetent to be hired by their own countries. Stopping aggression is just too tough a thing for it to do.

The people who Obama and the Democrats and the Stalinists (apparently) want to talk to don't believe we have a right to exist. They don't want to co-exist. They believe that good public relations is simply not televising the beheadings. They hang homosexuals by the neck until dead. They stone women who are found to be "adulterers". They require 4 witnesses to confirm that a woman was raped.

What in the world do we have to talk to them about? Which one of us gets killed first? Whether they would simply be content with killing people in their own countries for a while?

They know that the West is weak. They watch Democrats on TV and hear the appeasement. So they know they is what they will get. Why else does Hamas want Obama to be President? Because they approve of his policy on universal health care?

The squealing of Obama and the Democrats simply shows that they know this is the truth and are angry that it is actually being acknowledged. And the thin-skinned nature of their yelping shows that its a good idea to continue to repeat it.

America will only survive if realists work hard to keep her safe in a world that hates her. And listening to the wafting fairy tales that diplomacy can do the job (when it has repeatedly proven untrue) would only mean the eventual destruction of our country and our freedom.

Patrick Murray - 5/16/2008

Would it have been appeasement to talk to Hitler if the British and French already had troops in the Sudetenland in 1938? The analogy is stupid. The way America has gotten out of the previous two presidentially declared wars (Korean,Vietnam) was by negotiation after the wars were perceived as stalemated. Do we think that if we stay in Iraq for another presidential election cycle that Iraq will be hunky-dory or do we think that it will revert to civil war and three new states?

Jim Good - 5/16/2008

By his this definition, Bush is an appeaser when he allies with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Don Carlson - 5/16/2008

Palermo---"I am so sick of hearing the "appeasement" argument trotted out..."
One of the reasons leftist academics are fecund in their disciplines is that they are so easily tired by the truth, and therefore try always to improve upon it or dismiss it all together.
The American public needs to distinguish between diplomacy and appeasement. The first might be carried on with statesmen, but diplomacy becomes appeasement when carried on with murderers. In all likelihood Mr. Obama will have only the capacity to manage appeasement--nothing more. Welcome to Carter Town and Pilosiville.

Richard Landes - 5/16/2008

Palermo shows little understanding of why "negotiations" did not work with the Nazis and will not work with Jihadis. The lessons of the appeasement debacle of the 30s are many and he's missed most in his irritation with "right-wing" historians who bitch about everything by invoking appeasement.

If only "left-wing" historians would meditate on the colossal moralizing self-delusion involved in appeasement -- it was a peace movement -- they might be in a position to understand why his final paragraph is a ludicrous dream if he proposes to achieve it by negotiations, and could only be accomplished by the kind of devastating victory in war that the allies achieved over the Germans and Japanese. The idea his "nice" solution -- which I'd love to see implemented for real -- this kind of thing can come from negotiations is one of the follies of our time which we will end up regretting.

It's not humane to imagine that humans "really" don't wants war (just like we negotiating liberals). It's folly.

History News Network