And so here we are with the eightieth anniversary of the Munich agreement to look forward to this coming September. Of course, it represents the best in the great liberal tradition that one can find a reasonable solution to any major international dispute, based on the common threads of humanity and disgust at the myths of military preparedness. Recognizing that Czechoslovakia was far away and that the country’s geographic position and industrial strength were irrelevant to any serious strategic considerations, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed away its citizens’ freedom. Moreover, in one of the great political and humanist gestures of history, he signed an agreement with Adolf Hitler that, as he told the British people on his return to London, “guaranteed peace in our time.” And in spite of the urgings of Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s government undertook no serious efforts to repair the dreadful weaknesses that existed in the British armed forces until the following March, when public outcry demanded that the prime minister do something in the wake of Hitler’s trashing of the Munich agreement.
In the thoroughly dishonest period of the 1970s and 1980s, a number of historians attempted to defend the Munich Agreement on the basis that Britain was not prepared for war—in fact neither were the Germans, but that was left out of the argument. And so, the historians argued, Chamberlain’s government had made a perfectly reasonable strategic decision in agreeing to the strategic dismemberment and destruction of Czechoslovakia. As the British ambassador to Berlin noted to foreign secretary Lord Halifax, strategic concerns no longer mattered in the modern world. But they did, because the German economy was in a dreadful state, while the Wehrmacht was completely unprepared for war.
In fact, both Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, as the Cabinet minutes make clear, recognized that Britain and France would win should the crisis over Czechoslovakia come to a war with Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, they followed the tortuous path of appeasement in the belief that no responsible leader of a great nation like Germany could possibly think of war as a serious alternative to peaceful, honest diplomatic negotiations. They could not have been more wrong. Adolf Hitler and his crew of murderous fanatics had been aiming for war since they had come to power in January 1933. Yet, even after the Germans had occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia six months after Munich and then egregiously invaded Poland in September, it took the threat of a vote of no confidence to force Chamberlain to declare war on Germany.
Are there any lessons from Munich for today’s statesmen? There are. The lesson should never be that war is preferable to carefully disciplined negotiations that understand the nature of the “other.” In most cases war should be a last resort. The real lesson of Munich for democratic liberal regimes is that there exist in the world, external to their comfortable middle-class universe, regimes that do not think in the same terms as they do. Moreover, some of those regimes have megalomaniac aims at least from the point of view of those in the West. Thus, any negotiations must take place under the most rigorous, ruthless considerations of national interests. To hope that such regimes with whom we may have to enter into negotiations with will do so on the basis of honest, truthful, and rigorous adherence to the terms of any settlement is sheer and utter nonsense. And if they threaten our basic, bottom-line national interests, then war must be the only option.
Williamson Murray serves as a Minerva Fellow at the Naval War College. He graduated from Yale University in 1963 with honors in history. He then served five years as an officer in the US Air Force, including a tour in Southeast Asia with the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing (C-130s). He returned to Yale University, where he received his PhD in military-diplomatic history under advisers Hans Gatzke and Donald Kagan. He taught two years in the Yale history department before moving on to Ohio State University in fall 1977 as a military and diplomatic historian; in 1987 he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired from Ohio State in 1995 as a professor emeritus of history.