For decades now, the mere mention of the word Munich has invoked an image of craven appeasement. In the name of preventing more “Munichs,” the postwar Western world has seen fit to intervene in a variety of conflicts, from Indochina to Kosovo.
Curiously, few seem to have bothered to inquire how others see Munich. Japanese conservatives, for example, have a completely different view. For them, the 1938 Munich Conference concessions by then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain allowing Nazi Germany to move into Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, were seen as a stroke of brilliant diplomacy. But for Munich, Japan probably would have won its war in Asia and the Pacific, they argue.
As they see it, the British move, supported by France, encouraged Adolf Hitler to look East and attack Poland rather than West into France. From there it was but a short step to Hitler’s launching his foolish invasion of the Soviet Union, which guaranteed Nazi Germany’s eventual defeat. With Germany defeated, Japan no longer had any chance in its own war against the Allies.
Nor is it just Japanese conservatives who disagree with Western wisdom over Munich. The former Soviet Union also used to see it as a piece of cunning and perfidious British diplomacy encouraging Hitler to look east and wreak dreadful destruction on the Soviet Union.
True, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany following the attack on Poland. But in Soviet eyes, that was simply to show they would not allow Hitler unrivaled hegemony in Europe. When it came to serious attacks on Germany, the Allies delayed as long as possible so that the Soviets would have to do most of the hard work in defeating the Nazi armies.
The Western view of Munich as appeasement hinges of the Churchillian view that the West alone could somehow have stopped Hitler if it had shown determination. But as Russians even today will tell you, this was pure fantasy. Hitler was bent on aggression and could easily have defeated anything the West could have thrown at him, including Churchill.
All this is relevant to the current fuss over a book by the conservative U.S. politician Pat Buchanan, “A Republic, Not An Empire.” In it he argues that isolationism is the best U.S. policy and that it was wrong for Americans to get involved in the two world wars. Needless to say, much of the conventional Western wisdom gives him a sneering thumbs down. But his reasoning is quite interesting.
In World War I, he argues, U.S. intervention was a mistake since without it France, Britain and Germany would have fought themselves to a standstill. They would then have agreed to a peace that did not vindictively punish Germany and that would therefore have avoided Hitler’s subsequent rise to power.
Even with the Nazi upsurge two decades later, U.S. interests were not threatened. Hitler had initially made it clear it would leave Britain and much of its colonial empire alone. And the French together with most other Europeans were later to show they were quite ready to bow to the German war machine, and some even to collaborate. The one exception were the Serbs of Yugoslavia who suffered horribly for their brave resistance.
The only real victim would have been Soviet communism, whose defeat, Buchanan argues, would have saved the world the trauma of the Cold War.
Buchanan’s World War I argument certainly makes sense. Historians generally agree that Germany was no more guilty in the leadup to that war than its opponents. The brutal peace terms imposed on a defeated Germany, by France especially, clearly helped the later rise of a German militarism determined to get revenge, on France especially.
With World War II, Buchanan’s challenge to the conventional wisdom is risky since his scenario would have seen even greater killing of Jews, Russians and others subject to Nazi contempt. And if Hitler’s victory in Europe would have helped guarantee a Japanese victory, then a lot of Asians, mainly Chinese, would also have suffered even more dreadfully than they did. Australians, and New Zealanders too perhaps, would be speaking much better Japanese than they do.
But it is certainly arguable that the U.S., and much of the rest of the world, would have been better off if a postwar, Munich-fearing Washington had not embarked on so many crusades to defeat demons largely of its own making.
Buchanan stands on the extreme right of U.S. conservative opinion, and many of his positions, on abortion or minority rights for example, are unattractive. As well, his isolationism is more of the “to hell with the rest of the world” variety, rather than saying “let’s stop creating hell for the rest of the world.”
But people who try to argue a different point of view, and that includes Japanese conservatives or the former Soviet Union, should not be dismissed just because their conclusions seem to go against the conventional grain. Often they are closer to the truth than the rest of us.
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