Poor old Neville … he’s become such a byword for failure that they’re even comparing Barack Obama to Chamberlain. This is hardly fair to either party:
One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen — knowledge the players at the time did not have.
Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.
There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler’s part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later. In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler’s generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.
But all that being said, let’s not forget the historic context. World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe. It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death. And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree). They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy. If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.
If you’ve read my Origins of WW1 posts, you’ll probably agree that Britain alone could not have averted the First World War, although they could have stayed out of the war (which would probably have guaranteed a German victory by 1916). Unlike the attitudes in 1914, few Europeans wanted any kind of war in the late 1930s, having learned too well what the casualties of modern war could be. The idea that Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier could somehow have deterred Hitler requires an amazing lack of awareness of the political realities in Britain and France at the time … and of the state of the respective armed forces of the two nations. Neither politician could have survived the reaction if they’d forced Hitler’s hand … which might well have served Hitler’s purposes just as well as the “scrap of paper” did in the end.
In a postscript, Warren also points out that FDR could just as easily take the place of Neville Chamberlain for his own “sell out” of Poland and the rest of what became the Warsaw Pact “allies”:
Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe. I still wish he hadn’t given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do? Was there any appetite for extending the war? Zero. That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives. All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.