Is there a “lesson of Munich?” Whatever it is, it was certainly misapplied by the Americans to Vietnam in the same way that the so-called appeasement of the Arab world is likely also a misapplication of Munich applied to a wholly different context.Is it true that the invoking of the great historical parable of the appeasers and the aggressors of the 1930′s , the certainty that the appetite of the aggressor is always insatiable and to stand against the aggressor early is to avoid a later and vaster grief? ….
To strike at the petty fascisms of Europe- even the fascism of Francisco Franco that was then advancing to victory in Spain, would have done little to hinder Hitler or Mussolini. For Britain or France to commit their sketch military strength to irrelevant theaters of diplomacy and war like the Iberian Peninsula which was as marginal in that day as Southeast Asia was to become, or even Afghanistan, could never, in the long run, have prevented Hitler from amassing greater and greater strength in the heart of Europe and striking when the moment suited.
The lesson of Munich, this catchword for the politics of appeasement, must, in retrospect, seem a curiously specific one- that this Hitler, this germany had to be stopped, since in a practical sense, it threatened the physical and spiritual existence of Britain and France; and just as the lesson of the Korean War was that Stalin, lod of a monolithic Communist empire, needed to be stopped. But that all aggressors everywhere, fascist or otherwise, need to be forcibly checked is questionable. The by-now canonical lesson of Munich simply will not bear the weight we put onit; it has already cost too dearly as is the equally questionable notion of an Islamic world, monolithic, on the cusp of strangulating the West.
Indeed, if there is any analogy between the 1930′s and Vietnam later and now Afghanistan and perhaps Syria, it is not Munich but the Spanish Civil War- a bloody conflict in which surrounding states invested some men and material- and much delusion and emotion- to little ultimate effect.
Spain, like Vietnam, and now the boiling residue of the Arab Spring, Iraq invasion et al. are the cause celebre of our day, enlisting the emotions of the left and right, radicalizing opinion throughout the world. At the time, failing to stop Franco meant very little in the long run. For the Nazi armed forces, Spain was no vital training grond for victory. Despite the despairing rhetoric, Spain was no harbinger of a fascist victory, no death knell for freedom.
The Spanish tragedy in the end remained what it had been in the beginning- a parochial tragedy that settled nothing about the future of Europe. When, soon after Franco’s victory in 1939,a greater war began, Spain was all but forgotten. And this question is whether Afghanistan will really settle anything in the Middle East or the tumbling of the Assad regime have any substantial impact on the West.
The trouble may be that we are all a little too apocalyptic, a little too historicist in our thinking. We are always looking for the great lessons of history when there may be none at all- only the smaller lessons: that wisdom lies not in ideological imaginings but in pragmatism; that turmoil and aggression are likely to be with us always, sometimes threatening us and sometimes not; that any nation, however strong, must husband its strength against real challenges from real quarters; that no generation can truly replay history, redeeming ancient follies. And most importantly, that the elders must not carelessly bleed the young.