A familiar word is creeping back into the arguments over whether America, with whoever wants to go with us, should make a preemptive strike against Iraq. The word is "appeasement," as in "Munich." We could call it "Baghdad."
The British, or at least the British who remember history, understand this better than most. Under the headline "Appeasement won't stop Saddam, any more than Hitler," the London Daily Telegraph offers a trenchant editorial analysis of "appeasement" as it emerged in England before World War II. There were few dissenters, but one of them was Winston Churchill. He scoffed that Neville Chamberlain's speech setting out "Peace with Honor" should have been called "peace with Czechoslovakia going to Hitler."
The informed conventional wisdom in Britain as the 1930s drew to a close was an indulgence in wishful thinking at the price of principle: "Their equivalents now," argues the Daily Telegraph, "are those in the media who think that George W. Bush is stupid, and mock his inarticulacy. They would have mocked Churchill."
The Wall Street Journal offers a period piece, an op-ed essay, "Appeasement, Then and Now," first published in1945, on the one-year anniversary of D-Day, by Thomas F. Woodlock. He recalled how Britain's Liberal Party gave Chamberlain a very hard time when it became clear that all he had gained with his appeasement was a collection of empty promises, only to provide Hitler with more time to do his very dirty work.
"Today, we have a strikingly similar situation with a single difference, a difference, however, in the parties not in the situation," he wrote on that now distant historic day, addressing the naive liberal attitudes toward the Soviet Union, as it was planning the construction of its Iron Curtain even as Allied soldiers were going ashore on Omaha Beach. Appeasement was an attitude, the inability to look at the real intentions of Stalin.
No analogy is exact, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld updates the argument with specificity for our own times. When he went to Camp Pendleton to thank the Marines for their service in Afghanistan, he compared those opposing military action against Iraq today to the pacifist voices who said in 1940 that Hitler would do nothing worse than he already had, as if swallowing Czechoslovakia was not telling enough.
"There were people saying, 'Don't do anything. He'll stop. He won't do anything terrible.'" Mr. Rumsfeld underlined his warning later in an interview with Fox News: "Think of all the countries that said, 'Well, we don't have enough evidence.' 'Mein Kampf' had been written. Hitler had indicated what he intended to do. 'Maybe he won't attack us.' Well, there are millions dead because of the miscalculations."
Many of those who did indeed get a whiff of dead rat nevertheless foolishly persuaded themselves that peace could be bought at any price. Fortunately for our own time, wiser voices are raised. Vice President Cheney challenges us to learn from Saddam's past behavior. Saddam duped the United Nations inspectors once; why believe he would act differently today?
The inspectors, the veep noted, "were actually on the verge of declaring that Saddam's programs to develop chemical weapons and longer range ballistic missiles had been fully accounted for, and shut down." Then Saddam's brother-in-law defected, fleeing for his life, and led the inspectors to evidence documenting the secret weapons program. That was six years ago.
Hitler used the advantage of time, as evil men will do. Saddam Hussein is using time, too. The president has repeatedly warned that time is not on our side. "The people who argue (against a preemptive strike) have to ask themselves how they're going to feel at that point where another event occurs and it's not a conventional event, but an unconventional event," Mr. Rumsfeld says. "Was it right to have wanted additional evidence or additional time or another UN resolution?"
George W. Bush lacks the Churchillian gift of rhetoric that galvanized Britain, arguing that appeasement is a failure of nerve, but he could rally Congress with a marshaling of facts and a consistent and unequivocal presentation of those facts, making the case for a necessary preemptive strike.
Hitler fought two wars, one against the Allies and another against the Jews. In the end he lost both, but not without exacting a terrible price, leaving behind battlefields strewn with dead soldiers, cities of broken brick and mortar and the ghosts of 6 million Jews. And now the ghost of Hitler himself hovers over Saddam Hussein's shoulder, plainly visible to the wise.