Seventy years ago today, Adolf Hitler's armies swept into Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Second World War had begun, a tragedy loosed on humanity as a direct result of a well-respected and popular foreign policy called appeasement.
Appeasement is commonly associated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the politician who presided at its funeral, and vice versa. But appeasement was all the rage in the period between the two world wars. It was seen as the preferable alternative to the type of conflict that had taken the flower of European youth in the so-called Great War, World War I. The American variation of this policy was isolationism, which did not compromise with emerging threats but simply ignored them.
Appeasement was a defensive policy aimed at mitigating grievances. Mr. Chamberlain believed that Germany had some justifiable complaints based on the punitive Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, and was willing to reach out his hand in hopes Hitler might unclench his fist. But Hitler's worldview was fundamentally different. He saw war as a legitimate, even desirable means of settling disputes and pursuing power. The dictatorships in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Japan had no problem promoting warlike policies when it suited them and were happy to accept concessions from the appeasers when they were offered.
Pronouncements from the totalitarian states declaring their destiny to rule their neighbors and exterminate their enemies were dismissed by more sophisticated audiences in the West as mere rhetoric. Speeches from Hitler, Josef Stalin and Benito Mussolini from that era read like a road map for the tragedies to come, but few were willing to connect the dots before it was too late. Politicians like Winston Churchill were in the minority when they warned the world that the dictators meant what they said.
The appeasers were not pacifists. Mr. Chamberlain said in 1938 that he believed force could be used but only when "the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defense, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible." If there were no vital interests involved, the sword should not be drawn. If methods short of war such as economic sanctions were available, they should be applied until the aggressors were forced to the bargaining table. Yet none ever were.
The great powers were willing to barter the fates of smaller states in the pursuit of peace. Small countries were not worth the sacrifice, and the world was willing to discount the predations of the dictators. But this came at a cost. Unbounded appetites can never truly be appeased. Concessions only lead to further demands. When Italian troops invaded Ethiopia in 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie made an impassioned appeal to the League of Nations Assembly for assistance. "It is us today," he said. "It will be you tomorrow." But tomorrow was another day, and the league took no effective action.
In the end, appeasement was a form of procrastination, delaying a debt that grew with each passing year. When it came due, the enemy was stronger and the fight was harder. By September 1939, it was clear that appeasement did not prevent war but made it inevitable.
Today, the spirit of appeasement is alive and well. Authoritarian states like Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela bully, bluster, build up their forces and project their power. Threatened countries like Israel, Honduras and Georgia -- who in the past might have counted on the U.S. for assistance -- must now seek their own path. The White House ponders grand bargains that will settle the world's problems and placate the aggressors. Our leaders listen, analyze, promise and apologize. All the while, the world's dictators look longingly at maps and contemplate what frontiers previously denied them are slowly beginning to materialize.