A week later, the president went further. Gushing about the agreement that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached over Syria, Trump went as far as to claim credit for the Turkish-Russian accord that vastly extended the “safe zone” Turkey sought to establish through its military offensive and that has driven more than 160,000 Kurds from their homes. He then reiterated this claim in the remarks he made following his announcement that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a U.S. Special Forces operation, saying that he was “glad” he was “able to help” Turkey build this safe zone.
In late September 1938, Chamberlain made a similar claim about his negotiations with Adolf Hitler. The German dictator wanted to annex the area of Czechoslovakia that bordered Germany known as the Sudetenland. Hitler falsely claimed that the Czechs were slaughtering the largely German-speaking population of the region, and as the threat of a German incursion intensified, so, too, did the fear that such a move would lead to the outbreak of a Second World War. To forestall such an outcome, Chamberlain met in Munich with Hitler and his French and Italian counterparts.
The results directly precipitated World War II, revealing the fallacies of appeasement and the dangers present today.
Although Chamberlain is remembered in infamy, the theory behind appeasement wasn’t unreasonable. Britain was underarmed and faced three potential adversaries in Germany, Italy and Japan. So trying to come to terms with one or more of these aggressive powers made a good deal of sense.
That explains why, at Munich, Chamberlain, who, like Trump, had little experience in foreign policy, agreed to Hitler’s demands to hand over the Sudetenland, despite not consulting with the Czechs or their allies in Soviet Russia.
Chamberlain naively took Hitler at his word and was actually thrilled that the German dictator agreed to sign a statement declaring that their deal over the Czech borderlands was “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” He then returned to London a hero and, waving the paper he and Hitler had signed over his head to an adoring crowd at the airport, insisted that the deal was but the prelude to a “larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.” Later that day, he famously asserted that the joint declaration meant not only “peace with honor” but “peace for our time.”
Not everyone agreed. A disgusted Winston Churchill — whom Trump claims to admire — bluntly confronted Chamberlain in the House of Commons “You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” Churchill declared. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
In Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose freedom of action was severely curtailed by an isolationist Congress and public, privately conceded to his top political and military advisers that the Munich settlement represented a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Europe and a direct threat to the United States, particularly given the advent of air power. Roosevelt then told his stunned military chiefs that he wanted an air force of 10,000 planes and the ability to produce 20,000 aircraft per year.
Churchill and Roosevelt proved prescient.
Before losing the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia was the sixth-largest industrial power in Europe and possessed an army in 1938 that was roughly equivalent to that of Hitler’s, supported by one of the most highly productive arms industries on the continent. Fearful of German aggression, the Czechoslovaks had built extensive fortifications along their border with Germany and had signed a military alliance with France and Soviet Russia in 1935. But without these fortifications and the Franco-Russian alliance, the rest of Czechoslovakia was all but defenseless. Less than six months after Munich, Germany took over the rest of Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was dead.
The negative reverberations of Chamberlain’s blunder spread far beyond Czechoslovakia. After Czechoslovakia’s fall and the enhancement of German power through the takeover of the Czech arms industry, all Britain could do was guarantee the territorial integrity of Hitler’s next target: Poland. Chamberlain also sought to try to secure an alliance over Poland’s defense with the Soviet Union.
But Chamberlain’s cavalier lack of consultation with the Soviet Union before Munich — despite its military ties to Prague — proved disastrous. Joseph Stalin interpreted the settlement as an attempt by the Western powers to strengthen Hitler and threaten him. He quickly concluded that his prior attempt to form military alliances with the Western powers in opposition to Hitler had been a mistake.
So instead of agreeing to an alliance with Britain, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler that divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence and cleared the way for Hitler to attack Poland. On Sept. 1, 1939, less than a year after Chamberlain had signed the Munich agreement, Hitler’s armies marched into Poland, and the dream of “peace for our time” lay shattered in the ruins of the Second World War.
Chamberlain’s lack of diplomatic experience and determination to fashion his own foreign policy was his downfall. He often refused to listen to his top foreign policy advisers — as evidenced by the resignation of British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden over Chamberlain’s headlong pursuit of the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini six months before the Munich agreements were signed.
Taking the word of dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler at face value was a fatal flaw that was compounded by Chamberlain’s hubris. He vastly underappreciated the potentially devastating consequences of his actions and undersold them to the public. In a radio address amid the Sudeten crisis, Chamberlain justified his determination to appease Hitler by asking the British people why they should become involved in “a quarrel in a faraway country between peoples of whom we know nothing.”
Today, Trump is repeating not only Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement but also the mistakes that underlay that policy. He ignores counsel from his military and diplomatic advisers and takes dictators such as Putin and Erdogan — whom he referred to as a “good friend” and “great leader” — at their word.
And, like Chamberlain, he does not appreciate the threats that might be brewing as a result of his actions and has done his best to play down the potential consequences in his public statements. In words evocative of Chamberlain’s reference to the Czechs as “a far away people,” Trump claims that we no longer need to worry about the Islamic State because they are “7,000 miles away” and even if some Islamic State prisoners being held by the beleaguered Kurds escape, “they will be escaping to Europe.”
This, of course, sorely underestimates the danger of a terrorist attack on American soil or on U.S. installations overseas, as the United States learned on 9/11. It is not distance, but our ability to control the ground in northeastern Syria with the help of our Kurdish allies — which we have now lost — that has been the critical factor in our ability to contain the threat posed by the Islamic State. Nor will the killing of one man — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — alter this fundamental equation. Trump refuses to see this and prefers to “let someone else fight over this bloodstained sand.”
Most damaging, however, is the outright betrayal that the president’s abandonment of the Kurds represents. Here, Trump’s callous dismissal of an ally that has lost more than 10,000 fighters helping us destroy the Islamic State’s considerable base of power, is certainly on par with Chamberlain’s callous dismissal of the Czechoslovakian people in 1938.
Eight decades ago, Chamberlain thought he could contain the threat that Hitler represented by handing the dictator territory that had never belonged to Germany. He was wrong. Similarly, Trump’s decision to allow Turkey to gain control over northern Syria and leave the Kurds to their fate has already had consequences that stretch well beyond Syria’s borders.
It has emboldened Iran, strengthened Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in the region, alienated our allies, and — whatever one might say about the welcome demise of Baghdadi — granted the Islamic State a new lease on life. Worse still, it has irreparably damaged American credibility. There is also no guarantee that ceding control over northern Syria to the Turks and Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies will bring peace and stability to this troubled part of the world. On the contrary, it may well result in the need to send a far larger American force into the region in the future. Viewed from this perspective, the charge that Churchill laid against Chamberlain could also be leveled against Trump: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”