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Was Chamberlain Actually More Strategic than Churchill, Roosevelt, and Biden?

(Fox Photos/Getty/Hulton Archives)

Prime Minister Chamberlain’s premature death in 1940 and his transformation into a cautionary tale has meant that he was not available to remind his successors that appeasement was just one-facet of a multi-dimensional diplomatic strategy.”

The strategic lessons of the September, 1938 Munich Agreement (the sacrifice of democratic Czechoslovakia as part of Great Britain’s appeasement diplomacy toward Nazi geopolitics), is that deterrence, rather than deference, is required to stop autocrats, even at the cost of the sacred principle of self-determination. Even in the terrifying age of nuclear threats, standing firm will produce greater security than “peace at any cost,” a mantra that persists among the dying breed of church basement activist-pacifists. The naive and popular representation of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s political motives was that he came from a business class for which peace was necessary in order to reach the next quarter of corporate profits. More sympathetic accounts are that he was buying time to build up the United Kingdom’s Fighter Command, without which Germany would have won the Battle of Britain and effected an amphibious landing and conquest of England. This would have freed Berlin to drive on Moscow and consolidate control over all of Europe and then build nuclear weapons (which, according to John Toland, Adolf Hitler was fully aware of). However, even under the limitations of a weak Anglo-French air force, an early intervention against Germany in conjunction with Czech resistance, would always have been more favorable than waiting for the destruction of Poland. None of these caricatures do Prime Minister Chamberlain justice, and the real Prime Minister Chamberlain has left us important lessons.   

Where Prime Minister Winston Churchill was correct to see both Russian Communism and German fascism as threats to commercial democracies, he also wasted much of his political capital vilifying Mohandas Gandhi and the rising tide of indifference to the British Empire on the part of the British people. Just nine years after the Munich agreement, the British people voted in a government that gave India its independence. Prime Minister Churchill had also been the principal political advocate for the failed and obviously inadvisable British military intervention in 1918 against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. What Prime Minister Churchill could not do, which is why he was not to be elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom until 1951, was know how to navigate British public opinion to create a unified strategy to maintain the balance of power in Europe. 

Although initially controversial, A. J. P. Taylor’s 1961 The Origins of the Second World War, is now widely accepted as the most influential account of the sequence of events leading to the outbreak of war. It is both the basis for much of the discussion hereafter, as well as a defining text that should be read by active policymakers. Prime Minister Chamberlain’s long-term plan was almost identical to George F. Kennan’s containment strategy, which ultimately succeeded in defeating and then fragmenting the Soviet Union, winning the Cold War for capitalist democracies. Britain’s leading economist, John Maynard Keynes, who was on the punitive German reparations committee after the First World War but rejected it as counter-productive, believed that peace could only be achieved by using trade to create a wealthy middle class in Germany. (This group, he believed, would advocate for a pacific foreign policy.) The idea that trade would bring foreign policy moderation is founded on the liberal notion that trade is cheaper than either mercantile autarky or war, the latter of which is won less than half of the time by initiators and most often ends in expensive stalemates rather than victory.

The problem in the application of this strategy is distinguishing between trade promoted by containment theorists versus trade promoted by capitalist interests seeking lower costs and higher rates of return on capital. In the case of contemporary China, congressional support to induct Beijing into the World Trade Organization may have been premature, given Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ability to marshal the propaganda technology of totalitarianism to delay the liberalization of Chinese society. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy of scaling back American economic interdependence with communist China will be viewed in retrospect as an important strategic turning point. China had approached to within 71% of the American economy in 2020, within the range that power transition wars historically occurred before the advent of strategic nuclear deterrence. Today, in 2024, China’s economy has been stalled by this deliberately disruptive policy of President Trump’s, now at a nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) value of $18 trillion, whereas the United States has shot past to $28 trillion, putting the wealth balance between the United States and China now at a much safer 64%. President Trump, as an independently wealthy entrepreneur, was less beholden to corporate donors and was, therefore, far more at liberty to block investment to China than any of his presidential predecessors, including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.    

Whereas many observers in the United States and even Germany, viewed France’s army and Maginot defenses as the strongest in the world in 1935, most British observers judged correctly that the National Front government of Leon Blum had severely disrupted France’s weapons manufacturing so that it was unable to keep pace with Nazi Germany’s rearmament. What is often concealed by the Churchill hagiography is that Prime Minister Chamberlain and many of his political class were as hostile to the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik foreign policy, as they were repulsed by the nihilistic extremism, militarism, and anti-Semitism of Nazism. Based on Prime Minister Chamberlain’s assessment that a combined Anglo-French coalition was weaker than either Nazi Germany or an eventual Soviet Union, Prime Minister Chamberlain’s short-term plan was to maneuver Berlin and Moscow to balance against each other, denying both the ability to dominate Europe. 

Although the Soviet Union’s ideological appeal had waned by the early 1920s and it was crippled by self-inflicted purges, it had the largest arsenal of tanks and aircraft in the world. It was also the biggest iron and oil producer in Europe. Historians have found no evidence that London and Paris sought a Soviet-German war. In fact, the allies feared such a war could result in a defeat of one of the powers, most likely the Soviet Union, leading to the conquest of France and isolation of Great Britain. However, without nuclear weapons, a crucial ingredient in realizing Kennan’s containment strategy, or the backing of Washington, which had publicly refused to join the Anglo-French front to deter Germany on September 9, 1938 (at the height of the Munich crisis), Prime Minister Chamberlain’s plan would therefore require especially dynamic diplomacy. 

The goal was, therefore, to maneuver Moscow and Berlin against each other, without London and Paris making public that they would counter-balance against the stronger party. It was also important not to inflame public opinion, in the hope that Spain, Italy, Japan, and the countries of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia not side with Berlin. Had Prime Minister Chamberlain openly promised to aid the Soviet Union in the event of a German invasion, it would have legitimized Soviet conquests of Finland, Romania, and the Baltic States. Later demands by Churchill and ex-British Prime Minister Lloyd George for an alliance with the Soviet Union, in April of 1939, made precisely this mistake. Had Prime Minister Chamberlain promised to aid Germany and the states of Eastern Europe against Soviet annexation, Hitler would have been emboldened to declare Barbarossa as a preemptive and defensive attack on Moscow, as many post-war apologists have so claimed. In either case, France was too defensively oriented to intervene, and the British were only an offensive threat to anybody because of their extraordinary cultural talent to induce the United States into European wars.     

The Munich negotiations were accompanied by a parallel and more secretive Anglo-French negotiation effort in Moscow to create an anti-Nazi front, particularly in making the preliminary arrangements needed to get Soviet aircraft to resist German encroachments in Czechoslovakia. Prague had secured a defense treaty with France in 1925, as well as one with the Soviet Union in 1935 conditional on France’s mobilization. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ultimately suspected the disingenuousness of the negotiations by Anglo-French delays on military staff talks, starting in September of 1938 and carrying through all the way to the outbreak of war, and he came to believe that London was trying to engineer a Russo-German war. The key dislocating event that shifted Moscow’s foreign policy from a defensive to preemptive stance was the government of Poland’s backing of Germany’s dismantling of Czechoslovakia by its claims to Teschen, Czechoslovak Prime Minister Edvard Beneš confided in 1944 that it was the Polish territorial threat that finally convinced him to surrender to the Nazis. For Stalin, it was an opportunity to reconquer land taken by Poland in the 1921 Russo-Polish War. Prime Minister Chamberlain had failed, but with honor. Stalin greedily hoped to deflect Hitler’s Nazi Germany invasions westward by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, just a week before the combined Soviet-Nazi invasion of Poland.  

The tragic and entirely avoidable origins of the Cold War are found in the naive foreign policies of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Quincy Institute Deputy Director Stephen Wertheim, in his 2020 book Tomorrow, the World—The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, showed that the United States erroneously discounted Soviet military power and, therefore, mistakenly believed it to be a reasonable and manageable ally in re-establishing pre-war Europe. Because of the dramatic decay of the British Empire since the end of the First World War, Prime Minister Churchill lacked the credibility to convince President Roosevelt of the imminent Soviet threat, which included a proposed campaign into the Balkans to block deeper communist encroachments. The unreasonable concern in Washington that Moscow would make a separate peace with Berlin preserved the disastrous military division of Europe, splitting Germany, that set the geographic limits of the Warsaw Pact. Just as implied threats of nuclear attack compelled Soviet disengagement from Iran’s civil war in 1946, so democracy could have been restored to Central Europe before the long, agonizing wait, for 1989. Without the resources of the occupied Warsaw Pact, the Cold War would have ended decades earlier.  

Prime Minister Chamberlain’s premature death in 1940 and his transformation into a cautionary tale has meant that he was not available to remind his successors that appeasement was just one-facet of a multi-dimensional diplomatic strategy. Negotiating with autocrats has been proven successful, repeatedly, despite its distastefulness. Fascist Spain, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Sadat’s Egypt were all peeled out of their alliances and enticed into neutrality at crucial stages. Some, such as Italy in 1915 and 1943, Communist China in the 1970s and 1980s, even swung against their former fascist and Soviet allies, winning critical security dividends. 

The lesson learned is that both the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should have negotiation teams in Moscow and Beijing. At this very moment, the autocracies of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are tightening their coalition. If the politicians can avoid the temptation of “peace at any costs,” an even greater enticement in the age of nuclear weapons, or resist abandoning Ukraine, then the process of negotiations may weaken any Moscow-Beijing alliance creation. University of Toronto professor Emanuel Adler has argued convincingly that it was the Geneva arms control talks that were the single most decisive cause in influencing Russian Communist Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War.  

President Joe Biden is confronted with the stark foreign policy choice of risking a large or small global conflict. A war erupting out of a regional dispute in which Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, and possibly Pakistan, Belarus, and Myanmar, join together, would be catastrophic. The interlinking of the four nuclear arsenals of Russia, China, North Korea, and Pakistan would severely complicate escalation control by the Western democracies. Once a war has erupted, domestic sunk cost fallacies and demands for revenge will make separating these states from each other far more difficult. Re-applying Prime Minister Chamberlain’s sophisticated parallel diplomacy aimed at restoring the natural equilibrium of a global balance of power, focused on breaking up this nationalist bandwagoning coalition, should be President Biden’s top priority. China and Russia are natural enemies given their active and previously lethal territorial dispute. A public guarantee by President Biden of the Russian Amur region against Chinese liberation would be unforgettable in both Beijing and Moscow. China favors Saudi oil over that of Iran. Iran and Russia fundamentally disagree on the future disposition of old and new states in the Caucasus, once Iranian territory before the 1826-28 Russo-Persian War. North Korea has persistently played China and Russia off against each other to preserve its strategic autonomy. Many individuals in the Pakistani government possess American, British, or Canadian citizenship, complicating any relationship with Beijing. All ripe pickings for a Chamberlain-ian scheme.

Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, author of the 2007 book Militarization and War and of the 2014 book Strategic Nuclear Sharing. He was also a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment. He has published extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted fieldwork for over ten years, as well as in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Egypt.

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