by Terry Scambray
New Oxford Review
A review of The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America by Bruce S. Thornton. (Encounter Books, 2011 pp. 283)
Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last.” In The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, And Obama’s America, Bruce Thornton shows the depressing truth of Churchill’s remark.
Thornton, presently a fellow at the Hoover Institution, reminds us that even courageous Hector in The Iliad ran from the killing machine that was Achilles. And in 846 when Islamic imperialists began ravaging Rome, the Pope hurriedly paid 25,000 silver coins protection money. So also in 1795 before the United States had a navy, she paid a million dollars a year tribute to the Barbary pirates harbored in the Islamic states of Algeria, Tripoli and Tunis.
However, these are not examples of appeasement, but of prudence in the face of superior power. It would have been suicidal to act otherwise in these cases. Rather this book tells the extraordinary story of superior powers who were conned by clever, enemy tyrants which then led to larger but, perhaps, avoidable wars.
Phillip II of Macedon who emerged from the backwater of Macedonia cowered the powerful Greek city-states in the 4th century BC thus giving him the impetus to attack one of history’s greatest civilizations. Thornton then presents the quintessential modern example of appeasement, the terrifying rise of Hitler and his intimidation of England and France. Dr. Thornton concludes his triptych of earthly horrors by detailing how the United States is being played for a chump by the Islamic jihadists and especially by their ruthless enabler, Iran.
The Greek city-states, including Athens and Sparta, did not require a divide and conquer plan by Phillip; for their internecine wars, their internal corruption, and the indecisiveness of their democratic systems gave the advantage to a single willed tyrant like Phillip.
However, one celebrated Athenian, Demosthenes, is remembered for hisphilippics, orations which criticized his fellow Athenians for not anticipating Philip’s imperial goals. Demosthenes reminded his countrymen that despite their multitude of resources, they fought “Philip as stupidly as a barbarian boxes, clutching opponents, but not knowing how to analyze an adversary.”
So also by the 1930’s, Hitler’s evil ambitions had been analyzed by Churchill and his WWII books like The Gathering Storm are required reading for understanding this era. But Thornton makes use of more recent historical materials as well as the wider view that we get as time backs us farther away from the past. For example, Thornton argues that as early as 1923 the League of Nations’ pusillanimity in the face of Mussolini’s conquest of the Greek island of Corfu showed that the League was a toothless construct.
Thornton goes on to show that, “Munich was the culmination of a process that began the moment that the Versailles Treaty was signed on June 8, 1919.” But it was not the actual burdens of the Treaty on Germany which caused her resentment, subsequent rearmament, expansion into the Rhineland and “annexing” of Austria and of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. After all Germany had lost WWI, and France was among the victors though one wouldn’t know that by seeing the bomb pocked wasteland of northeastern France in 1918. Also, the war debt that Germany paid was “reduced several times and averaged up to 1931 only 2% of Germany’s national income.” On top of that, England and the United States loaned enormous amounts of money to Germany.
However, the problem with the Versailles Treaty, as Thornton writes, “was not its harshness, but rather its fundamental incoherence,” an incoherence that can be traced back to the naive notions of human nature promoted by the Enlightenment. This was a time coming after the dreadful internal wars of Europe that someone like Immanuel Kant, admired as a great rational thinker, promoted the naive idea of a pristine world freed from the scourge of war.
President Wilson, an avatar of such idealism, included provisions in the treaty for “self-determination” of displaced minorities of Europe. Hitler later exploited these provisions by using them as a pretext for occupying Austria and then the Sudetenland which were those parts of Czechoslovakia with large German populations.
Perhaps the most consequential aspect of Versailles was the so-called “war guilt” clause which blamed Germany for the war. But Germany refused to accept blame and even launched a journal, The War Guilt Question, which shifted the blame for the war on Russia, England, France and Serbia, an attractive rationalization for British historians eager to lay guilt on their own country.
All of which provides a disturbing connection to the present conflict between Islam and the West. Of course, Western guilt for the supposed sins of imperialism and colonialism is a staple among ‘educated’ Westerners. And this perception, as Thornton recounts, has led to a similar downward spiral beginning with American withdrawal from Vietnam even as America and the South Vietnamese were winning the war.
Influenced by this narrative of Western guilt and its application to Vietnam, Congress in the 1970’s disemboweled the CIA, then seen as “a rogue elephant” responsible for assassinations and mayhem around the world. Policies like this wedded to President Carter’s human rights program weakened support for the Shah of Iran as he battled his jihadist enemies like the Ayatollah Khomeini. Because of the Shah’s tactics in responding to the terrorists in his midst, Carter denied him support while simultaneously bringing him to the US for treatment for the lymphoma which finally killed him. Carter, undoubtedly, saw his own actions as a reasonable middle course to take.
But the Ayatollah saw such acts as contradictory and incoherent. Sensing weakness, he then put the knife to America’s throat by taking hostage the members of the American embassy in Tehran. This defiant act provided but another signal to circling vultures like the Soviets to instigate aggression elsewhere in the world.
Then in 1983, the jihadists, enabled once again by Iran, bombed the Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 Marines. President Reagan immediately withdrew American forces from the region in the face of what was perceived as a mere local pestilence.
Yet a localized pest will often grow into a wider plague. To wit: the Greeks saw Philip as a mere barbarian and couldn’t imagine him as their ruler. So too Hitler was seen by the British as “a screaming little defective,” understandably aggrieved but easily pacified. Similarly America sees Iran as understandably aggrieved by our past involvement in her politics and, thus, we rationalize her “theology of violence, traditional chauvinism, and imperial ambitions that lie behind her pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Thornton argues that the West must have “the imagination” to see beyond pretexts and professed aims to the true goals of our adversaries, “no matter how bizarre or alien” to our secular, relativistic thinking.
Like the poor, doomsday books are something that we shall always have with us. But just as there is a distinction between the working poor and the lazy poor, so too some depictions of America’s self-inflicted blindness are better than others. The Wages of Appeasement is a distinctively convincing reminder of how the West has compromised itself in the past and how America, the current incarnation of western civilization, is bent on a repeat performance.