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Munich Still Can Drive Foreign Policy

With President Bush's decision today to provide humanitarian aid (delivered by U.S. military aircraft and naval forces, no less) to Georgia in its recently inflamed conflict with Russia, the tension between White House and Kremlin may seem vaguely reminiscent of the Cold War era strain.

But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's comment referring to Russia's actions as "classic World War II-type and Balkan-type ethnic cleansing" brings another historical comparison to mind — especially when it comes to the actions of U.S. presidents.

It didn't take long after the Munich Agreement of 1938 — which displays British, French, and Italian signatures allowing Hitler to annex the then-Czechoslovakian Sudetenland — for "appeasement" to become foreign policy's new dirty word. At the time, President Roosevelt stressed isolationism, declaring the U.S. to have "no political entanglements" just four days before the September 30 agreement was signed.

But when the European war started in 1939, FDR lost no time in providing Britain with military aid. And by his 1941 State of the Union message — delivered exactly 11 months before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor — the president was already referring to Munich as an example of the "kind of ‘pacification'... being carried on by the new order of tyranny."

Since then, appeasement has remained, in the eyes of many a U.S. president, a far greater sin than preemption. Having firmly supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's efforts in Munich, FDR no doubt felt it was a sin for which he had to atone — and for better or worse, it is one still being atoned for to this day.