The Magazine

The Talking Cure

Sometimes it makes things worse.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By MAX BOOT
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As it happens, it was Hitler who raised his finger and Chamberlain who changed. In their meetings, the Nazi dictator escalated his demands from "autonomy for the Sudeten Germans to a transfer of territory." Chamberlain caved in. In order to make his surrender more palatable to domestic opinion, he got Hitler's assent to a vague statement about the importance of harmonious Anglo-German relations in the future and "the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again." It was this "piece of paper" that Chamberlain claimed, on his return to 10 Downing Street, would usher in "peace with honor peace for our time."

Some revisionist historians have suggested that Chamberlain was a realist who wisely acted to postpone a war for which his country was unprepared. This ignores the fact, Reynolds notes, that in 1938 Germany was not ready for war, either, and that if Hitler had insisted on taking the plunge there was a high-level conspiracy among military and government officials to depose him. Chamberlain's appeasement took the pressure off and gave the Führer new confidence on the path of conquest.

"Our enemies are small worms," he told his generals in August 1939. "I saw them in Munich."

The prime "worm," for his part, genuinely and pathetically believed in Hitler's assurances of goodwill. Chamberlain told the cabinet, "When Herr Hitler announced that he meant to do something it was certain that he would do it." That kind of credulity is one of the great dangers of summitry. It is all too easy to conclude that the person across the table is being open and honest when he is actually faking sincerity--a skill cultivated by many politicians in both democratic and despotic systems.

Even Churchill, the leading critic of appeasement, was susceptible to this failing in his dealings with another dictator. In January 1944 he remarked that "if only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all. We get on like a house on fire." Later that year, after his second visit to Moscow, he wrote to his wife: "I have had [very] nice talks with the Old Bear. I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us here & I am sure they wish to work [with] us."

Churchill's transatlantic partner, Franklin Roosevelt, labored under similar illusions about "Uncle Joe." He wrote to Churchill in March 1942: "I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so." (Interestingly, FDR had a better measure of Hitler, whom he never met. In January 1939 he described him accurately--more accurately than Chamberlain, who had met him three times--as a "wild man" and a "nut.")

Churchill and Roosevelt were to be sorely disappointed at Yalta in 1945, the second summit that Reynolds dissects. He argues that Yalta gets a bit of a bum rap because it has often been associated with the Anglo-American "sellout" of Eastern Europe. Actually, Soviet domination was dictated by events on the ground: "By February 1945, when the Big Three convened at Yalta, the Soviets were in control of much of Eastern Europe. They could not be evicted except by force, and it was politically impossible for Britain or America to turn on their ally in this way."

Even so, Yalta was a failure because Churchill and Roosevelt did not succeed in drawing Stalin into a cooperative long-term relationship, as they had hoped. The Soviet dictator skillfully manipulated them to give the impression that he was making concessions even when he wasn't.

Roosevelt, for instance, offered territorial incentives in the Far East for the Soviet Union to join the war against Japan. FDR thought he had scored quite a coup when Stalin agreed--little realizing that "Stalin, as we now know, was desperately anxious to get into the Pacific war as soon as he could extricate his combat troops from Europe." -Roosevelt was also "much gratified" by how the Soviets came around on the proposed United Nations Organization: After initially demanding 16 votes (one for each Soviet republic), Stalin scaled down his demand to "only" two to three votes. In fact, Reynolds writes, this was probably his bottom line all along; he only pushed the larger demand "to gain credit for use on other issues."