After Hitler, the policy of appeasing dictators – ridiculed by Winston Churchill
as feeding a crocodile, hoping it will eat one last – appeared to be
permanently discredited. Yet the policy has enjoyed some successes and
remains a live temptation today in dealing with the Islamic Republic of
Academics have long challenged the facile vilification of appeasement. Already in 1961, A.J.P. Taylor of Oxford justified Neville Chamberlain's efforts, while Christopher Layne of Texas A&M currently argues that Chamberlain "did the best that he could with the cards he was dealt." Daniel Treisman,
a political scientist at UCLA, finds the common presumption against
appeasement to be "far too strong," while his University of Florida
colleague Ralph B.A. Dimuccio calls it "simplistic."
In perhaps the most convincing treatment of the
pro-appeasement thesis, Paul M. Kennedy, a British historian teaching
at Yale University, established that appeasement has a long and
credible history. In his 1976 article, "The Tradition of Appeasement in
British Foreign Policy, 1865-1939," Kennedy defined appeasement as a
method of settling quarrels "by admitting and satisfying grievances
through rational negotiation and compromise," thereby avoiding the
horrors of warfare. It is, he noted, an optimistic approach, presuming
humans to be reasonable and peaceful.
Neville Chamberlain mistakenly declared "peace in our time" on September 30, 1938.
From the prime ministry of William Gladstone until its discrediting
in the late 1930s, appeasement was, in Kennedy's description, a
"perfectly respectable" term and even "a particularly British form of
diplomacy" well suited to the country's character and circumstances.
Kennedy found the policy had four quasi-permanent bases, all of which
apply especially well to the United States today:
- Moral: After the Evangelical movement swept England
in the early nineteenth century, British foreign policy contained a
strong urge to settle disputes fairly and non-violently.
As the world's leading trader, the United Kingdom had a vital national
interest in avoiding disruptions to commerce, from which it would
- Strategic: Britain's global empire meant it was over-extended (making it, in Joseph Chamberlain's
term, a "weary titan"); accordingly, it had to choose its battles
sparingly, making compromise an accepted and routine way of dealing
- Domestic: The extension of the
franchise made public opinion a growing factor in decisionmaking, and
the public did not care for wars, especially expensive ones.
As a result, for over seven decades, London pursued, with rare
exceptions, a foreign policy that was "pragmatic, conciliatory, and
reasonable." Again and again, the authorities found that "the peaceful
settlement of disputes was much more to Britain's advantage than
recourse to war." In particular, appeasement steadily influenced
British policy vis-à-vis the United States (in relation to, for
example, the Panama Canal, Alaska's borders, Latin America as a U.S.
sphere of influence) and Wilhelmine Germany (the "naval holiday"
proposal, colonial concessions, restraint in relations with France).
Kennedy judges the policy positively, as serviceably guiding the
foreign relations of the world's most powerful state for decades and
"encapsulating many of the finer aspects of the British political
tradition." If not a brilliant success, appeasement permitted London to
accommodate the expanding influence of its non-ideological rivals such
as the United States and Imperial Germany, which generally could be
counted on to accept concessions without becoming inflamed. It thus
slowed the UK's gentle decline.
Post-1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution, however, concessions failed
to mollify the new kind of ideologically-driven enemy – Hitler in the
1930s, Brezhnev in the 1970s, Arafat and Kim Jong-Il
in the 1990s, and now, Khamene'i and Ahmadinejad. These ideologues
exploit concessions and deceitfully offer a quid pro quo that they do
not intend to fulfill. Harboring aspirations to global hegemony, they
cannot be appeased. Concessions to them truly amount to feeding the
However dysfunctional these days, appeasement abidingly appeals to the modern Western psyche, ineluctably arising when democratic states face aggressive ideological enemies. With reference to Iran, for example, George W. Bush may bravely have denounced "the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," but Middle East Quarterly editor Michael Rubin rightly discerns in the realities of U.S. policy that "now Bush is appeasing Iran."
Summing up, the policy of appeasement goes back a century and a
half, enjoyed some success, and ever remains alive. But with
ideological enemies it must consciously be resisted, lest the tragic
lessons of the 1930s, 1970s, and 1990s be ignored. And repeated.