March 2012

The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Oba­ma’s America.  By Bruce S. Thorn­ton. Encounter Books. 283 pages. $27.95.

“An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last,” Winston Churchill famously said. 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 in protection money. So also in 1795, before America had a navy, she paid a million-dollar-a-year tribute to the Barbary pirates harbored in the Islamic states of Algeria, Tripoli, and Tunis.

These are not examples of appeasement, however, but of prudence in the face of superior power. It would have been suicidal to act otherwise in these cases. This book tells the extraordinary story of superior powers that were conned by clever, enemy tyrants, which then led to larger but perhaps avoidable wars.

Thornton’s first example is from ancient Athens. Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, emerged from the backwater of Macedonia and conquered the powerful Greek city states in the fourth century B.C. Thorn­ton then presents the quintessential modern example of appeasement, the rise of Hitler and his intimidation of England and France. Thornton concludes his triptych of earthly horrors by detailing how the U.S. is being played for a chump by the Islamic jihadists and their ruthless enabler, Iran.

Phillip did not need a divide-and-conquer plan to overcome the Greek city states, including Athens and Sparta; their internecine wars, internal corruption, and the indecisiveness of their democratic systems gave the advantage to this single-willed tyrant.

Demosthenes, however, a celebrated Athenian, is remembered for his Philippics, orations that 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 1930s Hitler’s evil ambitions had been analyzed by Churchill, whose World War II books like The Gathering Storm are required reading for understanding the era. But Thornton makes use of more recent historical materials, as well as the wider perspective we get as events recede deeper into 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 the treaty placed on Germany that caused her resentment, subsequent rearmament, expansion into the Rhineland, and her “annexing” of Austria and the Sudeten­land from Czechoslovakia. After all, Germany had lost World War I, and France was among the victors, though one wouldn’t know that by looking at the bomb-pocked wasteland of northeastern France in 1918. Also, Germany’s war debt was “reduced several times, averaging for the period 1919-1931 only 2 percent of Germany’s annual national income.” On top of that, England and the U.S. loaned Germany enormous amounts of money.

The problem with the Versailles Treaty, Thornton writes, “was not its harshness, but rather its fundamental incoherence,” an incoherence that can be traced back to the naïve notions of human nature promoted by the Enlightenment. It was at this time in history, after the brutal wars that ravaged Europe, that someone like Immanuel Kant, admired as a great rational thinker, could promote the idea of a pristine world freed from the scourge of war.

President Woodrow Wilson, an avatar of such idealism, included provisions in the treaty for the “self-determination” of the displaced minorities of Europe. Hitler later exploited these provisions, 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 that 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 to 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 1970s disemboweled the CIA, then seen as “a rogue elephant” responsible for assassinations and mayhem around the world. Policies like this, wedded to President Jimmy Carter’s human-rights program, weakened support for the Shah of Iran as he battled 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 U.S. for treatment for the lymphoma that finally killed him. Carter, undoubtedly, saw his own actions as a reasonable middle course.

But the Ayatollah saw such acts as contradictory and incoherent. Sensing weakness, he 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 Ronald 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 Phillip 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” they might seem to our secular, relativistic thinking.

Doomsday books, like the poor, are something 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 apex of Western civilization, is bent on a repeat performance.

- Terry Scambray





Back to March 2012 Issue