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Must We Put Up with Munich Analogies Yet Again?

Supporters of the war in Iraq condemn what they perceive as false analogies between Iraq and the Vietnam War.  Yet, the historical parallels which the President and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld draw between Iraq and the international situation in the late 1930s are quite similar to the faulty reasoning of the Eisenhower administration in regard to Indochina in the 1950s.

            As we observe the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the beleaguered Bush administration uses the terrorist threat and politics of fear to justify the ill-conceived military occupation of Iraq, assaults upon civil liberties, and the extension of executive powers.  The President appears to envision himself as a modern day Winston Churchill—gallantly standing alone against the gathering storm of international terrorism threatening the very existence of Western civilization.  Employing the rhetoric of World War II, Bush uses such terms as Islamic fascists and the Axis of Evil to describe his international adversaries.  In the world according to Bush, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are both likened to Adolph Hitler and the rise of fascism in the 1930s.  Just as the Nazi regime attempted to impose its ideology upon the world, Bush perceives radical Islamists as a threat to freedom and democracy around the world.  While the President acknowledges that there was no direct link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, he quickly blurs the point by insisting that Iraq is a pivotal battlefield in the war on terror—implying that if Americans do not fight terrorists on their own turf in the Middle East, then Americans will have to confront them in what the President calls the homeland. 

            Democrats or UN diplomats who suggest that the occupation of Iraq is destabilizing the Middle East and undermining the larger war on terror are dismissed as cowards who want to cut and run.  Peace advocates, thus, are described as pursuing a policy of appeasement.  They are the contemporary equivalents of Neville Chamberlain who would encourage aggression by withdrawing from Iraq just as the British Prime Minister in 1938 insisted at the Munich Conference that Hitler could be appeased by offering him the Sudetenland.  Hitler was emboldened to seize the rest of Czechoslovakia and invade Poland, setting off World War II in Europe.  Bush proclaims that he will not follow a similar policy of appeasement in Iraq and the Middle East.

            The Munich analogy employed by the President makes rather simplistic assumptions that the global aims of Hitler and Osama bin Laden are one and the same, ignoring more complex regional and historical explanations for the rise of these two men.  The United States was also ill-served during the Cold War when the Munich settlement was used as a prism through which more regional issues were viewed as part of a larger confrontation between good and evil.           

            Before his appointment as Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, John Foster Dulles called for a rollback of Soviet power and influence.  Dulles was disillusioned with the Truman administration’s policies of containing world communism.  He stated that a sustained communist offensive could not be met by containment policies such as the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine.  Dulles concluded, “Ours are treadmill policies which at best must perhaps keep us in the same place until we drop exhausted.”  The aggressive stance advocated by Dulles culminated in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala and Iran that were perceived by the Secretary of State as allies of the Soviet Union.  The limits of rollback as a policy were certainly apparent when the United States opted to not intervene in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Yet, concerns about communist expansionism in Southeast Asia provided the foundation for the expanding Vietnam War in the 1960s.

            The fear of another Munich dictated the Eisenhower-Dulles policy regarding non-recognition of communist states such as the People’s Republic of China.  The Munich complex also played an important role in the failure of the United States to ratify the 1954 Geneva Agreements which would have committed the Eisenhower administration and its South Vietnamese ally to holding free elections to unify Vietnam by 1956.  The concern about another Munich was sown so deep in the minds of the Eisenhower administration that it succeeded in transforming a local confrontation between French forces and Vietnamese communists and nationalists into a global conflict between communism and democracy.  The United States believed that communists, just as Hitler, would only continue to demand more after each compromise to which the free world acceded.  Negotiation was impossible since the ultimate goal of international communism was world domination.  The Eisenhower administration insisted, therefore, that the free world should stand firm and make no conciliations to communism, for the world understood the consequences of the Munich pact.  Speaking of communist aggression in Vietnam, Eisenhower asserted, “Somewhere along the line, this must be blocked and it must be blocked now.”

            Eisenhower and Dulles attempted to sway British and French confidence in the Geneva settlement by reminding the American allies of the Munich pact and its disastrous aftermath.  These two nations were held responsible for imposing the Munich agreement upon Czechoslovakia.  Surely, they would recognize the danger of forcing a settlement upon the people of Southeast Asia.  In April 1954, Eisenhower warned Winston Churchill of the Munich parallel in Southeast Asia.  The President asserted, “If I may refer again to history; we failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini, and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time.  That marked the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril.  May it not be that our nations have learned something from that lesson?”  Dulles also evoked the Munich analogy, but in his comparison the Secretary of State used an Asian example.  In a June 1954 speech in Seattle, Dulles associated the failure to take firm united action against communist aggression in Vietnam to the rebuff the United States suffered in 1931 when American diplomats tried to bring about united action against Japanese aggression in Manchuria.  The meaning of Eisenhower and Dulles was clear:  it was better to take strong immediate action than to risk catastrophe later.

            When the British and French refused to withdraw from the Geneva Accords, the United States pursued a unilateralist policy of supporting South Vietnam--albeit under the umbrella of a rather meaningless regional defense pact.  Eisenhower and Dulles believed the analogy between Hitler and communist aggression was quite appropriate for the Geneva Conference.   Appeasement was not the answer in 1938 and it was not a wise policy in 1954.  The demands of a monolithic communism orchestrated by the Kremlin were no more reasonable than those espoused by Hitler.  This fateful analogy blinded the United States to any type of useful role in the Geneva settlement and placed the world on the road to the bloody Vietnam War.

            The Munich analogy was applied by the Eisenhower administration to justify a policy of aggressive response to communist expansion.  The complexity of nationalist revolutions was obscured by this simplistic reading of history.  The Bush administration is once again introducing the Munich pact to discredit those urging a withdrawal from Iraq.  Fortunately, in what Gore Vidal often calls the United States of amnesia, the Munich analogy is such ancient history to many Americans that it may carry little weight in the political debate.  President Bush wants to take us back to what he sees as simpler times in which the forces of good and evil were clearly evident.  But the analogy that the President employs did not serve us well in Vietnam and is much too simplistic to describe the modern world of the Middle East.  It is not 1938, and George W. Bush is no Winston Churchill.