The Magazine

Bush's Rhetoric Deficit

From the October 6, 2003 issue: In making the case for the war, he downplays his strongest argument: America's duty.

Oct 6, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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That is the striking "message" of 1930s appeasement: Anti-appeasers attacked the policy on pragmatic grounds. "Defense of the realm" was their battle cry. "Our intelligence sources make clear," they insisted, "that you are under-estimating German weapons capabilities, and misreading German intentions." They were right (if slightly over-pessimistic with respect to German weapons). But they made little headway with the public until March '39, when the Nazis marched into Prague and it was too late--because appeasers were not interested in pragmatic issues; they saw themselves as inhabiting a higher sphere. They cared for moral questions. They stood (they believed) on the moral high ground, which trumped all practical considerations. They stood for righting wrongs inflicted on Germany. They stood for peace.

Likewise today with the administration and its opponents. The Democratic candidates talk nonsense to win primary votes; the occasional left-wing journalist who comes clean about hating the president tells us more than we ever wanted to know about the minds of left-wing journalists. But the real opposition has nothing to do with these sad characters. The real opposition stands on principle, just as Neville Chamberlain did. The essayist A.L. Rowse on Chamberlain: "'War wins nothing, cures nothing, ends nothing,' had been the burden of his song all along." (Rowse adds: "Mere pacifist clichés, ignorant and untrue.")

PEOPLE WHO ARE WRONG but have seized the moral high ground, others who are right but cannot or will not pull them down--that was late-1930s Britain. Appeasers struggled with their opponents and beat them. Churchill spoke eloquently, compellingly; in reading his speeches, the historian Robert Rhodes James wrote in 1993, "one asks oneself again and again, 'Why didn't they listen?'" The standard responses--"because people were lazy and it was easier not to"; "because Churchill had made himself so grossly unpopular that people dismissed him without thinking" (James's answer, in effect)--are no doubt true. But there is more to this story, of direct concern to America today.

The appeasers wanted to right wrongs that had been inflicted on Germany in the Peace of Versailles that ended the First World War. Some held that Britain and the West were tainted by Versailles, lacked moral standing to dictate right and wrong to Germany or anyone else. But above all, they believed in peace. The distinguished anti-appeaser Leo Amery once said of Neville Chamberlain: "He described himself as a man of peace to the inmost of his being, and that he assuredly is."

In the process of underestimating the moral seriousness of appeasement, we tend to underestimate the significance of Christianity to its leading proponents. Christianity's role is one of the least-investigated questions in the whole vast, picked-over flea market of appeasement and the Second World War. (The idea that modern European history might have hinged on the religious beliefs of the main actors strikes many intellectuals as too silly even to dismiss.) In 1961, Rowse published an indispensable small book called "All Souls and Appeasement"--"All Souls" being the heterodox Oxford college where academics mixed with leading statesmen in a relaxed, undergraduate-free environment that (as Rowse describes it) was strikingly like Heaven. He had a chance to watch the leading figures of the day, and he notes the real (not pro forma) Christianity of many: Geoffrey Dawson, the pro-appeasement editor of the Times; Chamberlain, Simon, and Hoare--the prime minister and his two closest cabinet colleagues. Moral questions mattered greatly to Dawson's top assistant, the devoted appeaser Barrington-Ward--"this man with his 'morality' and his 'principle,'" Rowse writes, "would have done less damage if he had been a bad man with more sense." They mattered greatly to Chamberlain's prime-ministerial predecessor and fellow-appeaser Stanley Baldwin--"a good man and a religious man"--who donated 20 percent of his personal fortune as a "thank-offering" to the nation after the First World War, and "deplored the hedonism and selfishness of the post-war mood" (as Robert Rhodes James explained in 1970). Thomas Inskip, who became Chamberlain's coordinator of defense, was better known as a church leader than a defense expert. (He duly raised with Ribbentrop the problem of Nazi persecution of Christians, and was politely flicked off.) Lord Halifax, who became Chamberlain's foreign secretary, was a noted high-churchman.

Appeasement, in short, was the policy of persons who cared about moral and religious questions; who acted not out of laziness or indifference but out of conviction. They sought not the prudent course but the right one.