clock menu more-arrow no yes

I'm British. America's weird obsession with Neville Chamberlain baffles me.

Neville Chamberlain, making his infamous "peace in our time" address in September 1938.
Neville Chamberlain, making his infamous "peace in our time" address in September 1938.
Central Press/Getty Images

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned home from the Munich Conference, victoriously waving an agreement with Adolf Hitler. The deal allowed Hitler to take over part of Czechoslovakia if he promised not to seize any more European territories. Chamberlain declared he had achieved "peace in our time."

A few weeks later, Hitler broke his promise, and World War II followed shortly after. Chamberlain and Munich have forever since been associated with the naiveté and folly of appeasement.

That memory, oddly enough, seems far stronger in America than it does in the UK. As a British reporter who previously covered politics in London, I almost never heard the words "Chamberlain" or "Munich." But in the month since I relocated to the United States, I've heard them cited nearly constantly by American politicians.

Nearly everything, it seems, is another "Chamberlain in Munich" moment. Republican Senator Mark Kirk, for example, said of President Obama's framework Iran nuclear agreement, "Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler." In a telling moment in 2008, a conservative radio host compared Obama to Chamberlain, but when pressed was unable to say who Chamberlain was or what he did.

As a Brit, this American obsession with Neville Chamberlain is pretty baffling. We just don't think about him that much in the UK, but in the US he's referenced so frequently in politics it can sometimes feel as if the Americans have enlisted him as their own, to better renounce him.

What is going on? Why are Americans so fixated on a man that led my country for all of three years?

Churchill vs. Chamberlain in America's Cold War politics

Postwar leaders looked to another British prime minister, Winston Churchill, as a better model than Chamberlain. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In American politics, the habit of accusing one of another of being just like Neville Chamberlain began shortly after the end of World War II, but in a different context: the Cold War. It was this bipolar struggle against the Soviet Union, which began immediately after the end of the WWII, that set the American obsession with avoiding appeasement at all costs.

"The major presidential candidates almost ritualistically smeared their opponents as 'weak,' as insufficiently vigilant, as likely to give away the store to the wily and cunning Soviets," Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood wrote in 2010 for the World Affairs Journal. "Republicans did it; Democrats did it."

Positioning oneself as tough and unbending toward American adversaries went down well with the Cold War public. Joseph M. Siracusa, in another account of the Munich obsession's roots, cites a 1946 poll in which 60 percent of Americans considered US policy toward the Soviet Union "too soft."

All of this created an environment in which an uncompromising approach was seen as a vote-winner. Anything else opened you to accusations of "appeasement."

And it set the tone for the foreign policy debates in the US for decades. Presidents seeking to justify military action have done so by presenting themselves as anti-Chamberlains, recognizing the terrible danger facing the world in good time. It became common to cite another WWII-era British prime minister, Winston Churchill, as the model.

"Appeasement does not work," George H. W. Bush said on the eve of the First Gulf War in 1990. "As was the case in the 1930s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors."

President Clinton's justification in 1999 of the bombing of Yugoslavia was another example. ''What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?'' he said.

Presidents who've sought to negotiate with American adversaries have faced constant accusations of Chamberlain-style appeasement. Critics of Obama's Iran outreach, for example, say he fails to recognize that the Islamic Republic is a foe that cannot be trusted; any deal will make it stronger, and history will judge him as a fool.

America's rapid rise to superpower

America came out of World War II with the world's most powerful military. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

America came out of World War II as the world's richest and most powerful democracy. It's armed with the world's most powerful military, one that's been highly active in foreign conflicts in the eight decades since the Munich conference.

So it's not really that surprising that the foreign policy debate here tends to portray identifying and neutralizing any Hitler-style threats as a job that largely falls to America. Perhaps Chamberlain doesn't dominate foreign policy debate in the same way in Britain because we simply don't play that kind of dominant global role any more.

It may also be the speed of America's rise to superpower status, Logevall and Osgood suggest, that helped generate the obsession with avoiding a repeat of Munich.

"In short order, the United States went from being a junior member of the Great Power club to possessing informal hegemony over a sizable part of the globe. Neither before nor after attaining immense international clout, therefore, did Washington have to negotiate and compromise continually to prosper," they write.

For much of Western history, great powers such as France and Britain existed in competitive multipolar worlds where it was necessary to compete, negotiate, and compromise to survive. The US never really had to deal with that: during WWII, it had to outright defeat its enemies. After the war, it has been either locked in the bipolar existential struggle of the Cold War or dominated the globe as its sole superpower.

This dynamic, Logevall and Osgood say, helped feed an idea that is still central to American foreign policy conversations: the only answer to competing powers is total victory. Compromise or tolerance, in this view, is folly.

The threats America has faced since the end of the Cold War are, obviously, nowhere near as dire as when Hitler's Germany and its allies seemed on the verge of snuffing out freedom worldwide.

But that's not the point: the point is that for many Americans, the lesson was that foreign threats can never be managed or contained, but can only be defeated outright — and that failing to do so will only make the problem worse. If this seems bizarre to non-Americans — and believe me, it does to Brits — that's because just about every other country had to learn how to cope with geopolitical adversaries through means other than vanquishing them outright. That is not something the US has really developed a familiarity with. It's great to have strength and resolve, but when this is the only tool in your toolbox, that lack of flexibility can become a weakness, as well.