James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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History Lessons: The Munich Agreement

by James M. Lindsay
September 26, 2012


A new installment of “History Lessons” is now out. This time I examine the signing of the Munich Agreement in the early morning hours of September 30, 1938. (The agreement itself is dated September 29, 1938.) In the video, I discuss the origins of the crisis over the Sudetenland, what British prime minister Neville Chamberlain thought he was accomplishing in his negotiations with Adolf Hitler, and why the Munich Agreement did not bring “peace for our time.”

Watch the video on YouTube here.

The Munich Agreement has become a classic example of how not to conduct foreign policy, and it turned “appeasement” into a dirty word. But Munich also highlights a classic dilemma of diplomacy: accommodation can signal weakness and invite aggression, but standing firm can trigger conflicts otherwise avoided. Policymakers choose between these two risks at their peril because which of them is greater is clearer when looking backward in history than when looking forward into the future.

So here’s a question to consider when thinking about American foreign policy: on what issue or conflict is the United States most likely to repeat Neville Chamberlain’s mistake?

If you are interested in learning more about the Munich Agreement, here are some books worth reading:

Faber, David. Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II (2009).

Goldstein, Erik and Igor Lukes (eds). The Munich Crisis, 1938: Prelude to World War II (1999).

Latynski, Maya (ed). Reappraising the Munich Pact: Continental Perspectives (1992).

Record, Jeffrey. The Specter of Munich: Reconsidering the Lessons of Appeasing Hitler (2006).

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Carl F

    There is a scene in The Godfather and its very striking with Clemenza & Michael. Clemenza says “you gotta stop them at the beginning. Like they should have stopped Hitler at Munich…. they was just asking for trouble”. The quote from Winston Churchill is absolutely stinging as well. I wonder if the same logic can be applied to the world situation today. Will we choose dishonor and still have war?

    An avid Reader,

  • Posted by MHP

    Great piece. I don’t have an answer to your question, but a war with China seems like it would present a problem for the political leaders of that country: for instance, I believe that the leaders of the country maintain their power by allowing American money to flow into the country through their manufacturing sector — a war would mean shutting down funding from America.

    The leaders (at least partially) derive power through the export mechanism, a war might disrupt that, therefore disrupting the power of the current political class. Just my two cents–

  • Posted by Arber Lloshi

    By the question one understands that to make the same mistake USA has to make concessions to one of the two states, concession which shall bolder or strengthen that state in the point it shall directly oppose USA either in open war, or in any alike action/activity. To answer the question we should get back to history first:
    Chamberlain’s decision was a result of two main factors: First, UK was not willing to fight against Germany, but rather maintain a status quo of competing and antagonist states in mainland Europe, namely France, Germany and USSR. Since in the middle, Germany needed to be stronger to balance the power of the other historically enemies of Britain (in political, economical, historic, or ideological terms). And there was the belief that Germany would contain and oppose communism and protect West from the East.
    Second, UK was not prepared to fight an inland war with Germany. The population was not willing, neither the army was as strong. Also, economic benefits of a peaceful Europe must have had some rule.
    In the today globalized world, none of the two countries fulfills all of those characteristic: Iran is not in the position Germany was in terms of military and economic power compared to that of USA, but can be used as a tool of keeping the balances of Middle East in check (as long as it does not have nuclear armament and the present Syrian regime falls) and China is in almost the same, military, economic and political position as Germany was, but is cannot be used as a tool for keeping balances in east Asia, since it tends to disrupt it by gaining more power on itself. The social and economic factors play a bigger role in the case of China than that of Iran. for those reasons I believe that there is a bigger chance that USA refrains/limits itself more towards China than towards Iran. Although there is a bigger chance for China to act more aggressively against US interests after such a limitation than Iran, considering its economic, military, territorial and demographic might. Even though Iran tends to be more aggressive I don’t think it has any of the tools needed to directly oppose US, but is just trying to gain the leading role in the Middle East, strongly in question now. I’d think of Iran more as the Italy of WWII (was never going to fight UK alone in the Mediterranean and not any big concessions was made to).

  • Posted by Jacob AG

    The circumstances are very different, especially in that Israel is an American ally, but I find it plausible that the U.S. would appease Israel to such an extent that Israel gets into a hot war and the U.S. intervenes.

  • Posted by Martin

    On China:

    You speak of history lessons? Japan has been the aggressor in all of these conflicts:

    A.) The Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 – September 2, 1945)

    B.) The Japanese invasion of Manchuria began on September 19, 1931

    C.) The First Sino-Japanese War (1 August 1894 – 17 April 1895)

    D.) The two Japanese invasions of Korea took place from 1592 to 1598.

    To speak of a mainland Asian invasion of Japan one has to go back to Kublai Khan and his Mongol invasions of Japan of 1274 and 1281… key word here being Mongol… not Han.

    It would thus seem that the last thousand years are a stream of repetitive Japanese attempts to conquer the Korean Peninsula, various islands as well as mainland China … in search of resources and cheap or slave labor.

    China’s assertiveness in regards to territorial disputes in the East China Sea HAS TO be viewed in this historical context.

    I pose to you this question: the U.S. pretty much controls the entirety of the Pacific basin. Has multiple bases in Japan, South Korea and now even in Australia. On what ridiculous logic are we to perceive Chinese as imperialist expansionists when they simply want to freely navigate and economically explore the coastal waters of their own country?

    Historical grievances demand that the Japanese at the very least acknowledge and inform their own population of the true account of the unimaginable horrors inflicted on the Chinese population in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

    Paying reparations would be logical but even at a low price of $100,000 per murdered Chinese national, Japan would crumble under the encumbrance of debt burden for the genocide of tens of millions. In view of this it would be entirely fair for Japan to simply GIFT the islands to the Chinese as a show of good will in reparation for and offer joint cooperative exploration of those waters natural resources. It would also be a good idea for both countries to teach history in an objective way without fostering nationalistic extremism and hate: a cultural cooperative join program to that end might do wonders and bring about both healing and mutual understanding.

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