My wife and I just returned yesterday from a 3-day trip back in time, and physically as well, to the site of her high school in Menlo Park, California. There, she celebrated with over 200 former classmates their collective 50th year class reunion. Complete with name tags featuring yearbook pictures, 1960’s music, and lots of hugging, laughing, beer, wine, food and conversation, this was a 3-day event to remember. As a spouse, of course, I knew almost nobody. Other spouses were in the same boat. So, we banded together at the “spouses’ table” and have now formed a tight-knit brotherhood/sisterhood of outcasts. We enjoyed watching our spouses and/or significant others reuniting with old boyfriends, girlfriends, club members, etc. And, we all shared a common bond, part of which was reinforced by our age – yes, time has taken a toll on all of us, and there were really no exceptions.
All of this makes me think about what we have learned over the years. Of course, our high school education was partly vocational (i.e. home economics, typing, auto repair) and partly designed to prepare us for college. Most of my contemporaries, and my wife’s as well, went to college. There, we staggered-off in a variety of directions. We learned languages, history, geography, computer science, biology, chemistry, economics and so on – the list is unending. We learned a lot, both in high school and in college, or at least we thought we learned a lot. But, perhaps not. I am reminded of the commencement address delivered by James McBride at my son’s graduation from Whitman College. Paraphrasing McBride from the dais that day, “…Congratulations (to the graduating class) on demonstrating to the satisfaction of your peers, your professors, and the administration of Whitman College that you have learned how to pass a test! But, beyond that, you know nothing, really.” Whoa, I said to myself! Can this be? Did Whitman not teach my son anything that will really serve him well in life?! What about his high school – Bellarmine College Preparatory? Did Bellarmine not teach him anything except how to pass a test? I stared at my wife with my eyes wide open and my mouth agape. Other parents in attendance rolled their eyes as well. We were dumbfounded! Well, that was a few years ago, and with the passage of time, I am beginning to understand better what McBride was talking about.
You see, the more I look around me, the more I see history repeating itself, and I wonder what, if anything, we have really learned from it all. Take World War II for example. For those readers here who might never have dialed out on a rotary telephone, World War II was a nasty, nasty conflict. To illustrate just how nasty it was, here are a few statistics describing that War:
World War II Statistics
Number of Americans who served in World War II
Average amount of time each U.S. military serviceman served overseas during WWII
Number of people worldwide who served in WWII
Number of of deaths sustained worldwide during WWII
Number of of European Jews killed during the holocaust
Number of U.S. troops engaged during WWII
Number of of American casualties during WWII
Number of of German Generals executed by Hitler
Number of bombs the allies dropped during WWII
3.4 million tons
Number of of U.S. soldiers that were wounded during WWII
Number of men who served on U-Boats
Number of men who served on U-Boats who never returned
Number of airplanes that US 8th Air Force shot down
Total average amount of bombs dropped by the allies each month during WWII
Number of countries involved in WWII
This War started in 1939 (some would argue a bit earlier), and it ended in 1945. Those in attendance at my wife’s high school reunion this last weekend were likely born during, or soon after the end of this War. Our fathers and/or mothers may well have seen the conflict up close and personal, either in Europe, North Africa, or in the Pacific. This was the “mother of all wars”, and one which we in the United States vowed never to have to repeat. We developed strategies (“peace through strength”, “mutual assured destruction”, etc.) all intended to prevent another war like World War II. Now, as I look back, I am interested in what went on before that War broke out – what did we or others do wrong? Can we identify our earlier mistakes, and maybe not repeat them? I wonder. I really do.
One of the principal protagonists in the period leading up to the declaration of war by Britain and France in 1939 was Neville Chamberlain, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1937 to 1940. His governance during those years has been the subject of much discussion and study in the years after the War. Chamberlain was at once loved, revered, and then discredited, even hated, as a result of positions he took as Prime Minister in the years leading up to Britain’s formal entry into the conflict. A useful summary of his tenure is contained in an article entitled “The Big Question – Was Neville Chamberlain Really the Failure Portrayed by History?” (www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-big-question-was-neville-chamberlain-really-the-failure-portrayed-by-history-1774449.html). Chamberlain’s legacy is described in this article as follows:
“… Chamberlain, Britain’s bloodhound-faced, mustachioed, wing-collared, brolly-carrying Prime Minister at its outset, has become entrenched in popular legend as the man who fatally failed to stand up to Hitler in the approach to hostilities.
What did Chamberlain do?
A year before war was finally declared over Germany’s invasion of Poland, general European hostilities nearly broke out over Hitler’s wish to seize part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland, a region which contained many German-speaking Czechs). In a vast blaze of publicity, the like of which had never been seen before, Chamberlain flew to Germany three times in September 1938 to stave off the conflict, and eventually, in a final meeting in Munich at the end of the month, succeeded. He got Hitler to sign a friendship agreement with Britain and flew back to wave it before cheering crowds on the Tarmac of Heston Airport (the Heathrow of those days) while declaring he had secured “peace in our time”.
But wasn’t that a good thing?
Not if you were a Czech. Chamberlain’s plan was simple – to keep Hitler from causing trouble for Britain by giving him what he wanted – in this case, the Sudetenland (which six months later became all of Czechoslovakia). He and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier, persuaded the Czechs not to make a fuss while a big chunk of their country was given away to one of history’s vilest figures. Chamberlain had a name for his policy: appeasement. In his mind it seemed like a rational way of avoiding conflict. But the word has come to stand for cowardice of the basest kind, for a craven inability to stand up to bullies. Appeasement now seems dreadful, and it wasn’t even any use – a year later, war came anyway. The term and Chamberlain’s name have become virtually synonymous.
Is that a fair historical verdict?
Maybe. Maybe not. Historical verdicts are rarely the whole truth, are they? To see Neville Chamberlain as exemplifying appeasement and nothing else, to see him merely as the historical epitome of spinelessness, ignores two other factors. One is his earlier political career, and what he had done with it. The other is the question of whether or not, in September 1938, he had any choice but to act as he did.
What was interesting about Chamberlain’s earlier career?
In many ways, it had been a monument to social reform – Conservative though he was. Chamberlain came from a famous political dynasty in Birmingham: his father, Joseph (“Joe”) Chamberlain was Lord Mayor of the city and one of Britain’s leading Liberal politicians in the late 19th century (though he later allied himself with the Conservatives over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland); his half-brother, Austen Chamberlain, rose to become Conservative party leader and Chancellor of the Exchequer (though never Premier). Although Neville Chamberlain himself was also Birmingham’s Lord Mayor, he entered national politics late, in 1918, at the age of 49; but, by 1922 he was Minister of Health, a position he held twice over the succeeding years and used especially to bring in a raft of measures to promote social housing (which have now of course been entirely forgotten). He was far from being a typical Tory.
But what about appeasement? What do you mean, he might have had no choice?
We easily forget what a completely intractable problem the rise of Hitler presented other European states within the 1930s. Just how were they to deal with a man controlling Europe’s most militarized and warlike nation, who had an implacable will to dominate the whole continent? In the event, Hitler was only to be stopped by history’s most titanic war, which may have cost 25 million lives in Russia alone. But who would choose such a solution? Memories were only too fresh of the Great War, the First World War of 1914-18 in which a whole generation was slaughtered. Furthermore, there was a terror of a new weapon: the bomber aircraft. In 1938, the Committee of Imperial Defense told Chamberlain that a German bomber offensive launched against Britain would result in half a million civilian deaths within the first three weeks. The armed forces felt Britain was not ready for conflict militarily. The general public – you and me, 70 years ago – were terrified of war, and as desperate to avoid it as Chamberlain himself was. You can argue that doing anything to put it off was, as he believed, a rational choice. Certainly, when he stood on the Tarmac at Heston waving the piece of paper bearing Hitler’s signature, he was regarded as a national hero. Only a few voices, such as that of Winston Churchill, denounced appeasement as the sell-out it was. You and me were silent.
So why is Chamberlain now so reviled?
The answer, really, is because of his naivety. He was naïve in thinking that Hitler would keep his promise to make no more territorial grabs – der Führer gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia a mere six months later, and then turned to Poland, and even appeasement could not stop him then. But Chamberlain made a great parade of his naïve belief in Hitler’s goodwill. The three eve-of-destruction flights he made to Germany were a wholly new event in international politics – the first shuttle diplomacy, if you like. He had never been on a plane before in his life, but he saw, quite rightly, that this remarkable démarche would capture the public imagination, and he basked in the brief hero status it gave him. Yet the momentum of hope and expectation it engendered was so enormous that the disenchantment was all the greater when within 12 months the hope was shown to be hollow. And there was one other area where he failed disastrously – at least in the verdict of history.
What was that?
He lost the rhetoric battle. He might have had to do what he did, but his words carry a shameful echo. He spoke of poor Czechoslovakia as “a far away country of which we know nothing”. He said he had achieved “peace in our time”. He hadn’t. Contrast that with Churchill, whose great achievement in the Second World War was his rhetoric. Whenever Churchill intervened directly in the conduct of military affairs, as he frequently did, the results were disastrous. But we have forgotten that. What we remember is We Shall Fight Them On The Beaches. We remember Never Has So Much Been Owed By So Many To So Few. We remember Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat. And with Neville Chamberlain, we remember Peace In Our Time (not).
Did Chamberlain have any choice but to appease Hitler in September 1938?
* He should have seen then that appeasement would not stop such a power-mad dictator
* A resolute show of force (with the French) might have persuaded Hitler to pull back
* His actions convinced Hitler of Britain’s weakness and encouraged him in further demands
* There seemed to be no other option if full-scale war with a resurgent Germany was to be avoided
* Britain’s military forces were not ready for war anyway and the government feared a bombing campaign
* Chamberlain was reflecting widespread public opinion at the time which wanted peace”
Is there something to be learned from this story of war and peace, conflict and appeasement? Or, is this all just an interesting historical intellectual exercise? Let’s fast forward to today. In so doing, I will follow with eight quotes, taken from two world leaders. Here they are – see if you can identify the authors:
- …But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.
- …How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.
- …Where the stakes are the highest, … we cannot possibly succeed without extraordinary international cooperation. Effective international police actions require the highest degree of … collaborative enforcement.
- …However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbors (sic), we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole (Country) in a war simply on her account.
- …People of Berlin – people of the world – this is our moment. This is our time.
- …We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing (sic) possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will.
- …We’re not going to baby sit a civil war.
- …We would fight not for the political future of a distant city, rather for principles whose destruction would ruin the possibility of peace and security for the peoples of the earth.
Well, it looks to me at first reading like these quotes all come from one person. They all sound to me somewhat idealistic, naive, and isolationist. Actually, the quotes alternate between Barack Obama (starting with #1) and Neville Chamberlain. It is hard to tell them apart. Again, this is an interesting exercise, but what have we baby-boomers learned from history, high school, college, or whatever? Is there a parallel today to the situation in pre-WWII Europe? If so, what is it, or what are they? Chamberlain/Obama? Hitler/Putin? Crimea/Sudetenland? WWI/Iraq War? Economic malaise in Britain/Economic malaise in the US and Europe? The bomber aircraft/Suicide bombers? Hatred of Jews/Hatred of Jews and Christians? To my eye, there appear to be lots of parallels. And, to my eye, we have learned nothing, really, from history. I am starting to agree with James McBride that, notwithstanding our demonstrated ability to pass high school and college tests, we remain functionally almost illiterate when it comes to learning from history. The implications of our historical illiteracy are disturbing, in my view.
All of that said, my wife’s high school reunion was really a lot of fun (even for this outcast). But, I like to complain, so just don’t tell her I said so!