“Adlai wanted a Munich.” Were I a betting man, I would offer handsome odds that few readers of this newspaper could identify the time and context of that insult. But this is Washington, and some journalistic antiquarian would probably leap from his study to win the bet.
Oh yes, he’d say, I remember: It was late autumn 1962, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Kennedy White House was celebrating a triumph. John F. Kennedy and his myrmidons had faced down Nikita Khruschchev and forced him to pull his medium-range missiles from Castro’s Cuba. Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, two intimates of the Kennedy White House, heard the naughty jab at Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations (and highly-regarded two-time presidential candidate) and quoted it in a Saturday Evening Post reprise of the crisis. It insinuated that Adlai Stevenson had advocated spineless concessions to get the missiles out of Cuba.
This was perhaps the debut in American domestic politics of a dubious analogy whose cost in confusion has been high. It materially influenced the Vietnam War and, as recent exchanges indicate, continues to pack a high-voltage jolt.
What is rarely noted is that Munich - the historical event - offers little sustenance for the political epithet. But before getting into that, let it be noted that the swipe at Stevenson was ironic. If in December 1962 we had known the secret details of the deal that ended the missile crisis, we would have known President Kennedy’s emissaries had signaled that our medium-range missiles would also be pulled from Turkey, after a decent interval.
We would also have known that a pledge had been given that the United States would not again attack Castro’s Cuba, as we had done through surrogates a year earlier. If Stevenson indeed suggested such quid pro quos he had merely proposed what Kennedy conceded - sanely, be it also said. The missile crisis brought the world far closer to nuclear war than anyone then imagined.
As for the historical Munich, let us note a few of many complications. Probably the most material was that in the Great War of 1914-18, which had ended a mere 20 years earlier, Britain had lost three-quarters of a million men killed, one of every 16 males between 15 and 50. The death toll for the ruling class had been especially heavy. This loss had dulled the appetite for war over “a faraway country of which we know little.” It didn’t excuse, but helps explain, the mindset with which the British faced war over Czechoslovakia. The Anglo-French guarantee of that new nation, moreover, included a guarantee of the ethnically German Sudetenland that bordered it. Its attachment to the new state was part of a punitive reshuffling of populations that was sure to challenge any German politician. Today, it would probably be denounced as ethnic cleansing. Indeed, Gustav Stresemann, the most admired German statesman of the Weimar period, had challenged that postwar dispensation. But Stresemann was a civilized man who sought “revision” of treaties by agreement. Adolf Hitler was a thug who demanded it by threat.
The concessions that Neville Chamberlain made at Munich in September 1938 did allow his awakening country a critical year to rearm - an interval in which she developed an edge in fighter aircraft that saved the day in the Battle of Britain three years later.
We can pontificate endlessly about Chamberlain’s illusion. Foolish man, he thought that the handover of the Sudetenland would satisfy Hitler’s “last territorial demand.” The English gentleman was neither temperamentally nor physically attuned to cynical gangsters. But Winston Churchill, who denounced the Munich agreement, realized in retrospect, as many did, that Chamberlain may have done “the right thing for the wrong reasons,” at least tactically.
Churchill’s treatment of Chamberlain and his appeasement policy in the early volumes of his wartime history “The Gathering Storm” and “Their Finest Hour” is far more generous (and better history) than that of a long succession of armchair pundits who never heard a shot fired in anger but toss the Munich analogy about with abandon.
The analogy should be retired from the arsenal of insult as the parody of history it is. That’s the point. History is always debatable, invariably inviting revision, “re-seeing.” That is what distinguishes it from political sloganeering. Historians still argue over what happened at Munich. So might we if we knew enough about it.