What did Chamberlain do? What is appeasement?
And what happened to John McCain’s arms?
One of the little election year mini-dramas making the Internet rounds is of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews’ insistent questioning of talk show host Kevin James over the issue of appeasement. “What did Chamberlain do?” Matthews asks his Hardball guest repeatedly. Mr. James was unable to answer with historical specifics.
As it happens, I’ve met Mr. Matthews, spending an afternoon with him several years ago at his MSNBC office in the company of a friend who was interviewing him for a profile in the Financial Times. The article never ran, amazingly enough, because the FT decided an American TV talk show host wasn’t of real interest to its readers, something that I admit caused me to laugh out loud.
What I find interesting about Matthews these days is the reasoning that has driven him so far over the cliff in his anti-war persona, knowing full well that he has been a devoted student of Winston Churchill. Churchill was and is, of course, famous for his opposition to Neville Chamberlain and Chamberlain’s predecessor as prime minister, Conservative Party stalwart Stanley Baldwin. Churchill’s opposition to both men, successively the leaders of his own Conservative Party, was based on his passionate belief that neither fully appreciated the danger that was Hitler’s Germany. Radio talk show host James was, to his considerable disadvantage in a conversation with Matthews, obviously unfamiliar with the details and unable to translate them to the current day.
Not so here. So let’s get down with Chris Matthews’ questions. Not for the amusement of answering Matthews, but because Matthews the very-insistent Churchill fan has long since placed himself well out there with the virtual chorus of Obama-esque would-be Chamberlains on the American left. This crowd specifically includes — for the rest of this year at least it will be led by — Barack Obama himself. Yet this thirst for appeasement is in fact true as well, as documented in this space last week, of just about every modern-day Democrat of any prominence since 1972. That was the year when the party nominated George McGovern, an enthusiastic acolyte of Henry Wallace, the man Harry Truman labeled a pacifist.
LET’S START WITH the words of Chris Matthews himself. In 2006, Churchill fan Matthews was invited to speak at Westminster College, the Fulton, Missouri school where Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946. Matthews chose as his topic “The Ten Lessons of Winston Churchill.” Lesson number six, he said, (marking it with capital letters) was as follows:
“STUDY HISTORY! STUDY HISTORY! STUDY HISTORY!”
He then quoted Churchill approvingly as saying: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you can see.” Exactly. So to answer Matthews’ questions to Mr. James, and why they are frighteningly relevant to charges that Senator Obama and his supporters like Matthews are perceived as appeasers, let’s go back to the 1930s.
First, the definition of “to appease” as provided by The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary: “to appease is to make anxious overtures and often undue concessions to satisfy someone’s demands.” Webster’s also suggests appeasement is “to yield to the demands of in conciliatory effort, sometimes at the expense of one’s principles.”
There were any number of precise reasons why Winston Churchill believed Chamberlain and his predecessor were guilty of appeasement. He was, for example, appalled at the reluctance to fund British military preparedness. This is the 1930s British version of modern Democrats in America opposing the Reagan-era buildup or refusing funding for today’s troops in Iraq. Indeed, the struggle between Churchill and his foes Baldwin and Chamberlain suggests nothing more than what has become a seemingly eternal struggle between a Reagan, either Bush or a McCain versus a Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry or Obama.
To cite but one specific example, Churchill thought his opponents derelict in funding the Royal Air Force (RAF). Churchill warned Baldwin in 1934, barely a year after Hitler had come to power, that “the Germans had a secret Air Force and were rapidly overhauling ours.” He presented Baldwin with “definite figures and forecasts.” All of which Baldwin “denied with all the weight of official authority,” depicting Churchill as a “scaremonger,” very much as Senator Obama today charges both President Bush and Senator McCain with trying to instill fear in the American people. Over and over Churchill hit Chamberlain and Baldwin over their refusal to allocate sufficient funds to rebuild the RAF. He thought the specific lack of funding was not only dangerous in the sense of leaving Britain militarily unprepared for war, but that the refusal to aggressively follow a preparedness doctrine sent a message of weakness to Hitler. As Chamberlain and Baldwin stubbornly clung to their anxious hopes of not doing anything to antagonize Hitler, Churchill ridiculed their defense budgets and public statements not simply as conciliatory but rather as “acts of submission,” castigating Chamberlain for his lack of “judgment.”
As a side point, this is precisely the feeling engendered in many Americans over the last forty years as they have followed the travel choices of Jane Fonda to Hanoi and Washington Democrat Congressman Jim McDermott to Baghdad for a pre-war chat with Saddam Hussein.
And yes, as Matthews noted in his showdown with James, Churchill was appalled at the abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. But coming as it did some five years after Hitler took power, Churchill was already well on record long before Czechoslovakia leveling accusations of appeasement at his own government and party leaders. “I have no doubt that a firm attitude by England and France would have prevented war,” he wrote his wife at one point. When Chamberlain’s Foreign Minister Lord Halifax raised the prospect of talking to Hitler, Churchill made it plain that, as one biographer, Martin Gilbert puts it, he believed “any attempt to deal with Hitler would fail.”
What Matthews left out of the appeasement equation on his show is precisely what modern Democrats, of whom Obama is only the latest, have been routinely leaving out of discussions of this kind since at least the McGovern-ascendancy in 1972.
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