Revisiting Munich (Updated)

Last year in this space I recalled Churchill’s assessment of the Munich agreement in The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his World War II memoirs, and speculated how it might well apply before long to the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran.  Unfortunately it appears that moment has arrived.  With the parallels being drawn between the shameful failure in Munich and the currently unfolding shameful failure over Iran, it may be well to revisit that passage in toto:

It may be well here to set down some principles of morals and action which may be a guide in the future.  No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances.  The facts may be unknown at the time, and estimates of them must be largely guesswork, coloured by the general feelings and aims of whoever is trying to pronounce.  Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign Power, have not always been right.  On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong.  On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint.  How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting good will!  Religion and virtue alike lend their sanctions to meekness and humility, not only between men but between nations.  How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands!  How many misunderstandings which led to wars could have been avoided by temporizing!  How often have countries fought cruel wars and then after a few years of peace found themselves not only friends but allies!

The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics.  Everyone respects the Quakers.  Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states.  Their duty is first so to deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects.  But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their own fellow countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definitive conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded.  If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used.  And if this be so, it should be used under the conditions which are most favourable.  There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win.  These are the tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout history been so frequently impaled.  Final judgment upon them can only be recorded by history in relation to the facts of the case as known to the parties at the time, and also as subsequently proved.

There is, however, one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies.  The guide is called honor.  It is baffling to reflect that what men call honor does not correspond always to Christian ethics.  Honor is often influenced by that element of pride which plays so large a part in its inspiration.  An exaggerated code of honor leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds could not be defended, however fine it might look.  Here, however, the moment came when Honor pointed to the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates.

For the French Government to leave her faithful ally, Czechoslovakia, to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences.  Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honor, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration.

I’ll have more to say about this in my Forbes.com column coming shortly.

UPDATE: My Forbes.com column on this topic is now up.

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