Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Apologies to Neville Chamberlain

I have been quick to dismiss Mr. Obama as the "Neville Chamberlain of our time." I have been waiting for him to declare "Peace in our time."

But Memorial Day set me to thinking about conflicts past and I realized that my comparison between the two men is unkind - to Mr. Chamberlain.

Wikipedia summarizes his life and career as follows:

Arthur Neville Chamberlain (18 March 1869 – 9 November 1940) was a British Conservative politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940. Chamberlain is best known for appeasement foreign policy, in particular regarding his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, conceding the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany, and for his "containment" policy of Germany in 1939 that culminated in declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939. After working in business and local government and a short spell as Director of National Service in 1916 and 1917, Chamberlain followed his father and older half-brother in becoming a Member of Parliament in the 1918 general election at age 49. He declined a junior ministerial position, remaining a backbencher until he was appointed Postmaster General after the 1922 general election. He was rapidly promoted in 1923 to Minister of Health and then Chancellor of the Exchequer but presented no budget before the government fell in 1924.

He returned as Minister of Health, introducing a range of reform measures from 1924 to 1929. He was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the coalition National Government in 1931 and spent six years reducing the war debt and the tax burden. When Stanley Baldwin retired after the abdication of Edward VIIIcoronation of George VI, Chamberlain took his place as Prime Minister in 1937. In 1938, he returned the so-called Treaty Ports to the Irish Free State.

Chamberlain was forced to resign the premiership on 10 May 1940, after Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill but remained very well regarded in Parliament. Before ill health forced him to resign, he was an important member of Churchill's War Cabinet. He had a key role in the formation of the Special Operations Executive. Chamberlain died of cancer six months after leaving the premiership.

Chamberlain is most remembered for his appeasement of Hitler, going so far as to agreeing to the surrender of the Sudetenland at Munich. This decision is often depicted as a cowardly submission to Hitler's bullying.

Yet Chamberlain was operating under many handicaps:

1. He personally hated war (what clear thinking person doesn't?);
2. His nation wanted desperately to avoid a repeat of the horrors of WWI.
3. The Sudetenland was a German speaking region of Czechoslovakia. Was it so unreasonable to unite that region with the rest of Germany? After all, in 1938 the full horror of the Nazi regime was not apparent AND WWI was triggered in part by attempts to enforce the rigid old imperial boundaries and authority.
4. Germany had begun merrily re-arming in 1933, Britain had not.
5. Not only was Britain far behind in the arms race, it could not afford to build an army and an air force to counter Germany AND a navy to counter Japan in the Far East.
6. He did not recognize that, in Hitler, he confronted one of the true monsters in history.

In sum, he attempted to reach a reasonable compromise with a thoroughly unreasonable man, while negotiating from a place of relative weakness.

Mr. Obama, in contrast, believes that we - you and I - are the great monsters in history. He evidently believes it is his role to protect us by saving the world from us. In his world view, all the world's ills are a justified response to the depredations of the United States, and particularly those of George W. Bush.

Mr. Chamberlain loved his nation, for all its flaws. As for Mr. Obama, he is sorry that he did not come to power earlier.

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