Rumsfeld's Misuse Of History
August 31, 2006
John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. His forthcoming book is Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Ivan Dee Publisher).
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, said the philosopher George Santayana a century ago. Knowing the facts of history is crucial to much of what we do as a nation and a people, but so is how it is used. And the Bush administration’s use of history—and specifically its use of “appeasement”—requires comment because it is both dangerous and misleading.
In the past week Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has twice invoked the historical analogy to appeasement—referring to the years just before World War II, culminating in the Munich conference of September 1938—to frame the globe’s current struggle with terrorism in apocalyptic terms. Vice President Dick Cheney has used the same analogy, without even gracing it with a name, to defend what he calls the “battle for the future of civilization.”
Both sought friendly audiences, confident they would not be challenged. Rumsfeld, most recently, spoke before the American Legion (interesting, isn’t it, how the Legion and the VFW have been treated to so many key public manipulations in the past few years) and Cheney at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, famous as the home of the Strategic Air Command and today the center of the United States Strategic Command.
Cheney’s line, which he has used before also, was that today’s jihadists are “not an enemy that can be ignored, or negotiated with, or appeased.” Cheney speaks of the enemy as a “totalitarian empire,” Rummy refers to it as “the rising threat of a new type of fascism.”
At least Rumsfeld acknowledges his resort to historical analogy, recounting his little portion of the Munich story and adding that “once again, we face similar challenges.” His history is directly tied to Munich, where Britain and France negotiated with Adolf Hitler a “settlement” that skewered Czechoslovakia but succeeded only in gaining the Allies a few months before Hitler invaded Poland, igniting global conflict.
The Bushies clearly intend to evoke an atmosphere of shattering events, but their history is fractured and misleading, and their use of this analogy is a throwback to the methods that led America into Vietnam, among the nation’s greatest errors of the last century. In invoking Munich, Secretary Rumsfeld claims that the Western approach was based upon “a sentiment that took root that contended that if only the growing threats . . . could be accommodated, then the carnage . . . could be avoided.” He further presents this as “cynicism and moral confusion” and “a strange innocence” about the world.
None of this is true. There was no mass political movement demanding appeasement of Germany. Rather there was a specific policy choice—made primarily by Sir Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister of the time—to mollify Hitler and gain time for rearmament. In fact, the French wanted to stand on their alliance with the Czechs and fight Hitler, but were persuaded to back down. The British might even have been right within a certain narrow framework: For years they had restricted defense spending and were just starting to correct that, while Hitler’s promises—both to his military and his Italian allies—envisioned no war before 1942, which could have enabled an allied military buildup to bear fruit. The widely accepted charge that the Allies were wrong to “appease” Hitler stemmed in part from Neville Chamberlain’s extravagant declaration that Munich had brought “peace for our time”—when only a short time later World War II broke out.
That was the lesson of Munich, at least until Vietnam. There the Munich analogy was used repeatedly to justify intervention and escalation. Here is President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, writing to Sir Winston Churchill: “We failed to halt . . . Hitler by not acting in unity and in time . . . the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril.” Eisenhower wanted support to jump into the Vietnam War at the time of Dien Bien Phu. Ironically, Churchill, whom Rummy today makes the hero of his Munich triptych, turned Ike down.
In February 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked Munich in his reasoning for responding to a terrorist incident in the Central Highlands by beginning the bombing of North Vietnam. That summer, when LBJ sent U.S. armies to fight in Vietnam, he invoked Munich again. As Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk repeatedly mentioned the dangers of appeasement. It was the effort to avoid another Munich that led to years of stark tragedy and desperate peril in Vietnam.
The correct lesson to be drawn from Munich today is that when presidents and their administrations raise its specter, it is a sure sign they want to pursue extravagant policies, usually of violence, based on narrow grounds with shaky public support. Today the Munich analogy functions as a provocation, a red flag before a bull. It is dangerous because it claims that the only solution to any situation is to fight—Cheney’s point exactly. Having done nothing beyond silly propaganda—despite its own claims—to undermine the jihadists by eliminating the economic and political oppression that form the basis of jihadist appeal, the Bush people counsel that the fight is everything and that talking is “appeasement.” We have seen in Lebanon lately just how misguided is that approach.
Bush administration history is like their reality—faith-based. President Bush himself, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, characterized those who saw and spoke the truth about the run-up to the Iraq war as “revisionists”—historians who try to change the conventional wisdom about the past. Cheney not long ago declared it was “inexcusable” to repeat that truth. The same speeches that contain the Munich claims portray the Iraqi and Afghan people as “awakening to a future of hope and freedom” (Cheney) and say the U.S. strategy in Iraq “has not changed” (Rumsfeld).
The faith is that if you repeat falsehoods enough times the public will believe them. There is another historical analogy there—a real one—to Adolf Hitler’s henchman, Josef Goebbels. He called it the “Big Lie.” No wonder the administration’s flacks need friendly audiences.