Appease or Confront?

Ivan T. Berend is a history professor and director of the Center for European and Russian Studies at UCLA

The 20th century has been an age of aggression and war, but also a long struggle for peace and security. Can we recognize any pattern as a successful way to halt aggression: peace at any price, making concessions and compromises to avoid war; or an aggressive demonstration of strength and power, a risky willingness for confrontation to ensure lasting results? These are not only historical questions but the dilemma of the present.

We stood at the brink of a "small war." An uncompromising President Bill Clinton was determined to strike Iraq to avoid the deadly aggression of Saddam Hussein. He prepared for war but painfully had to learn he cannot count on most of his allies. President Jacques Chirac of France told President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia in a phone conversation, "You and I are trying to avoid a war . . . . Bill wants to strike . . . . [We] have a role to play." Yeltsin even warned Clinton that pursuing this may lead to a new world war. Similarly, Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among many others, preferred compromise rather than action. The U.S. tour de force, however, seemingly worked: The dictator, at last, bowed to strength and determination.

A historian, watching this crisis and controversy, cannot avoid a sense of deja vu: Similar situations have been repeated several times this century. However, the responses to the previous challenges of notorious aggressors varied: In some cases, the answers took the form of compromise and concession--one should "appease" and pacify the aggressor. In other occasions, readiness to wage war, though potentially escalating the threat of immediate conflict, provided a tactical means to maintain peace. The recollection of these two different historical patterns, and their consequences, offer eternal lessons.

On Oct. 19, 1933, Germany resigned from the League of Nations. In 1935, it denounced the Treaty of Versailles and openly broke its conditions: The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was established and universal conscription was reintroduced in March. London and Paris remained silent. Moreover, an agreement in June allowed Adolf Hitler to rebuild his navy. A shameful "appeasement policy" satisfied the aggressor's demands, thereby obviating further confrontation.

Within a year, the Wehrmacht had recovered the demilitarized Rhineland zone. Though Hitler was unprepared for war, and decisive action would have halted his advance, the great powers again failed to intervene.

Wasn't it clear that Hitler's goals were far greater than merely recovering neighboring areas with a German population? Didn't he state his aggressivedreams in "Mein Kampf" in the mid-1920s? He wrote about the "enlargement of our people's lebensraum [living space] in Europe." "Germany," stated Hitler, "regards the destruction of France as only a means which will afterward enable her to finally give our people the expansion made possible elsewhere." He disclosed his goal for a German-dominated Europe. London and Paris, however, believed in appeasement.

On a September day in 1938, after concluding talks with Hitler in Munich, Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of Britain, stepped from his plane in London, triumphantly waved a piece of paper and declared peace had been saved. Later, he conceded to Hitler's "last demand" and sacrificed Czechoslovakia to satisfy the aggressor. This "most degrading capitulation in history," as historian Norman Davies called it, was counterproductive: The more Hitler got, the more he wanted.

Britain's choice, as Winston Churchill stated, was "between shame and war . . . . We have chosen shame, and we will get war." Churchill's prophecy came true within months. In September 1939, German troops invaded Poland, and began the realization of Hitler's expansionist dream to conquer Europe. The "appeasement policy" led to the most devastating war in human history.

These events were painful experiences for older generations, but only history for middle-aged, postwar baby boomers, the generation of the president. He, however, knows the historical lesson and does not want to make concessions to a dangerous and overambitious dictator.

Prewar political miscalculations were so grave that their aftermath has provided lessons for politicians and governments of the postwar era, when the world has had to face the new challenge of avoiding World War III. For, in a strikingly short period of time after World War II, mutual distrust, misunderstanding and emerging hostility led to the collapse of the war alliance and the rise of a new confrontation, the Cold War.

The Big Three could not agree on the German question. On June 23, 1948, a currency reform in the merged western occupation zones of Germany laid the economic foundation of an independent West German state. Josef Stalin ordered the Red Army to close all routes to the western zones of Berlin--located in the Soviet zone of occupation but itself divided into U.S., British, French and Russian zones. This provoked the sharpest postwar crisis. Fear of a new war swept Europe. Stalin sent the message to his satellites, as Matyas Rakosi, the Hungarian Stalinist leader later disclosed, that war would be unavoidable in three to four years, and all had to be subordinated to the task of preparing for it.

President Harry S. Truman responded in the most confrontational way: A U.S. "air bridge" was created to keep the status of West Berlin intact. He was not ready to make any compromise and had decided, as he had said in his statement to Congress in 1947, to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." The Truman Doctrine and then the Marshall Plan offered, as CIA Director Allan Dulles stated, "the only peaceful cause now open to us which may answer the communist challenge."

Stalin expanded his buffer zone into Central and Eastern Europe and prepared for war. However, as George F. Kennan maintained in his famous analysis, the Soviet Union "does not take unnecessary risks . . . it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw . . . when strong resistance is encountered at any point." With the rejection of appeasement, the "containment policy" became the dominant practice of U.S. administrations throughout the Cold War era.

One of the most dramatic tests of this policy occurred in autumn of 1962. Nikita S. Khrushchev was seeking a strong military position and secretly built up a missile force in Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S. President John F. Kennedy didn't hesitate to send the Navy to meet the Soviet convoy in the Atlantic Ocean, and also demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuban silos. In October, the world was at the brink of a U.S.-Soviet military confrontation. It did not happen: The Soviet Union withdrew its missiles from Cuba. The United States did not invade. An agreement followed that alleviated the tension. The policy of detente emerged.

The Cold War decades were full of minor and major confrontations, with the danger of a most devastating war permanently present. The Berlin and Cuban crises were classic cases of showing force and determination to prevent aggression. The policy of containment was risky but successful. The world was saved from a new world war.

International responsibility and the demonstration of strength and fortitude are the best way to defend peace in the current Iraq crisis. This offers the most lasting results, while the policy of appeasement might make the Middle East situation even more explosive.

The historical episodes mentioned above are well known. The world, however, seems ready to forget them. Was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegal right when he stated, in the early 19th century, that the most important lesson of history is "people and governments never have learned anything from history." Fortunately, not always.

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