Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

80 Years since the Munich Agreement

Filed under: Conferences

I’m not sure how to define this event. We used to use a word when I studied in America – a colloquium. But in any event, welcome to The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, to our conference on the subject of 80 years since the signing of the Munich Agreement. The Munich Agreement, which most of you know, was signed on September 30, 1938, and I think the significance of it was that it really formed the political thinking of a whole generation afterwards.

I’m indebted to Dr. Eliyahu Richter, who is sitting in the second row, for pointing out the date to me. We keep identifying dates to commemorate that have to do with the history of the Middle East, but sometimes there are other dates that are significant, and this one too molded a whole generation. Particularly, if you look back on the period of the 1960s and 1970s, when major events occurred in modern international history, the Munich Agreement keeps coming up. I discovered, for example, the famous book by President John F Kennedy, Appeasement at Munich, which was his thesis as a Harvard undergrad, later republished as Why England Slept, again conveying the centrality of Munich in the political thinking of that generation.

President Johnson made a very interesting statement, which showed how the Munich Agreement hovered over the discourse on the Vietnam War. He said, “Everything I know about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression.” Again, the idea of how the Munich Agreement and the doctrine of appeasement affected a whole generation of policymakers, and I recall when they came out and I read as much as I could of the Pentagon Papers. The Munich Agreement is there because there were many people who thought that America got into Vietnam because it wanted to build an empire in Southeast Asia, but it had to do with not replicating the errors of Munich, and then you see that between the lines and explicitly as well.

One of the ways we organized this meeting was to look at what were the elements of Munich and what were the basic assumptions that made Munich possible. I think that it is interesting to identify three. Munich was based on the notion that there is some kind of fundamental grievance in diplomacy prior to it being achieved that becomes widely accepted. In the case of the 1930s in Germany, it became widely accepted that it was the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty that had to be remedied, had to be fixed, and I kept that in mind when I looked at events in the Middle East many times because there would be diplomats and people who were less diplomatic, who would talk about the harsh terms that they had been dealt in an attempt to shift policy in their direction. I don’t know how many times the United States of America apologized for its involvement in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran, something which the Iranians loved to remind Americans of, and even the current Foreign Minister recently made some mention of that. Of course, there is a debate in America to what extent was the CIA’s involvement decisive, or was it a contributing factor? But there were other contributing factors which are probably more important. But the grievance – that was the thing the Iranians needed, and they secured quite a few apologies from American leaders, secretaries of state, and presidents for that coup.

Something else about what made the Munich Agreement and appeasement possible as a second point -I’d like to point out: What happens many times, when if you have that sense of grievance and you’ve reinforced it and you’ve underlined it, when a particular country has aggressive intentions and it violates agreements it has signed because it has a grievance, you ignore the violations. You let them go. You don’t do anything about them. Years ago, I read an article by Fred Iklé, undersecretary of defense in the United States for policy. He wrote it in Foreign Affairs at the dawn of the Arms Control era. As you know, arms control is about cutting the weapons of both sides or putting a cap on their growth, and as he was anticipating the problems of arms control in the future, he wrote this in 1960 or 1961. He wrote an article for Foreign Affairs called, “After detection, what?” Now, you detect the violation of an arms control treaty and then what do you do? So, Iklé, in his essay quotes Stanley Baldwin, the former British prime minister, who at one point, (I don’t know if he murmured this or actually stated it very openly, but it was on the record and it was cited by Winston Churchill) he said, “If we ever admit the German violations of the Versailles Treaty, we’ll never get reelected again.” I don’t want to be too political, but there are certain names I could take out from Stanley Baldwin and insert in that sentence, but it affects a lot of treaties that have been signed and makes holding the other side to to its requirements very difficult.

The last thing I want to note, and then I will turn over the floor, is that in order for an appeasement policy and the Munich Agreement and the Munich environment to take hold, you have to have a media that drops the ball, that doesn’t do its job. When I did a PhD at Columbia, one of the things I had to do was read about 250 books, and this is probably the best book I read at the time. It’s called Appeasement: A study in political decline by A.L. Rowse, and what this is about is the old boys club from All Souls College at Oxford and how they reinforced each other and covered for each other. For example, at All Souls College, among the students were that were there was the editor of The Times of London, Dawson, who was a pivotal player in selling Munich and appeasement to the British people. Who was also at All Souls College? Lord Halifax, the great advocate of appeasement in Chamberlain’s government, stayed on with Winston Churchill a little bit till he was put out. But, for example, I said that the Munich Agreement was signed on September 30, 1938. On September 7, three weeks beforehand, Mr. Dawson from All Souls College, as editor of The Times of London, advocated Czechoslovakia surrendering its German-speaking provinces known as the Sudetenland to Hitler. So who softened up British public opinion before Chamberlain waved the piece of paper? Yeah, it was The Times of London.

Now, if the whole press corps is playing that game, you’ve got a real problem. You’ve got a situation which is susceptible to bad agreements and to appeasement. So those three dimensions are dimensions that I’ve noted and maybe people want to pick up on those, or go with other dimensions, but appeasement and the Munich Agreement is a multi-dimensional story, and it’s something we should study and learn even though it was a long time ago. Even though it affected the generation of Kennedy and Johnson, I think it affects our generation as well and we should study it so we don’t make those mistakes again.