The venerable journalist Alistair Cooke, who is old enough to remember the period, points out that Hitler reneged on the First World War peace treaty without much objection for two years before the Munich appeasement, compared with Saddam Hussein's 12 years of defying the terms of the United Nations' Gulf War cease-fire.
Then, as now, the timid and the fearful argued that a murderous tyrant may have terrible new weapons, but, after all, he hasn't turned them on us yet. The arguments for doing nothing were eerily like Western Europe's today, even down to the insistence that the comatose League of Nations, predecessor of the comatose United Nations, was the true guardian of world peace. The league exercised its guardianship by doing nothing about the Japanese seizure of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, approximately what the U.N. did when Syria seized Lebanon and China gobbled up Tibet.
"A majority of Britons would do anything, absolutely anything, to get rid of Hitler -- except fight him," Cooke said recently. Europeans were eager to talk but not to act. "The French especially urged, after each Hitler invasion, 'negotiation, negotiation.' They negotiated so successfully as to have their whole country defeated and occupied."
From 1939 on, it was an American president and a British prime minister standing up on behalf of the many backbone-free Europeans. Sounds familiar. "Western Europe has almost gone the way of Weimar," Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently on National Review Online. "Amoral, disarmed and socialist, it seeks ephemeral peace at all costs, never long-term security, much less justice." Just so.
Like the League of Nations, the United Nations today likes to fill the air with talk and content-free statements intended to placate all parties to any dispute. The aim is to keep the game going, not to solve anything. Hans Blix, the ultimate U.N. bureaucrat, is unusually good at this, issuing his many double-barreled statements that Iraq is both way out of compliance and almost in compliance at the same time.