“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood”
— Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
For nearly a century the words, Munich and appeasement have haunted and dominated American politics. It is barely a whisper now for anyone under say 70, or who is not a historian, or somehow involved in or with the vast byzantine machine that comprises America’s foreign policy or its domestic politics.
Several generations of American diplomats, generals, and presidents were however consumed with those words and what they represented and with how, in the patois of our time, they could be weaponized.
Munich became synonymous with appeasement and appeasement was synonymous with giving up and in to Hitler. And all with the hope that it would, as the word means, satisfy his demands and prevent a war. But it also meant, as you moved along the political spectrum, the idea that not only should he be appeased but that he should be joined, either directly or at least with a sense of complicit neutrality that looked the other way, while he ate his portion of history.
The story changes as the moment requires. Winston Churchill, who is now celebrated as the voice, the very essence of defiance; of noble resistance, was before we shall fight them on the beaches, and we shall never surrender, the same man who championed Mussolini and in one of his lesser known works said, that the jury was still out on Hitler. Though obviously a rough character, said Churchill, time and history may yet prove him the winner.
Joe Kennedy Sr., then America’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, was not only in favor of appeasement, but was also in favor of capitulation. In effect if not a fascist, then a fellow traveler who like Churchill, and a great many other prominent figures was far more concerned with Stalin and the spectre of revolution, than of crematoria, and the dulcet tones of the Luftwaffe serenade.
After the war, amid the burned out shells of once great cities and amid the mountains of skulls left on every continent, Munich and appeasement were changed.
They became what we now call buzzwords. To accuse someone, anyone, of appeasement in the face of anything, was to say they were cowards at best and at worst, willing to march in goose step with the Nazis.
Truman used it to defend his war in Korea and it rattled in the air when the pols hurled the charge of who had lost China, as Mao triumphed over the fascist Nationalists of Chiang Kai Shek.
To be soft on Communism was to walk in the shadow of appeasement and Munich; to be like Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who, both fearing another apocalyptic war and having little problem with fascism, went to Munich and gave Hitler what he wanted.
We know now that there were high ranking German officers and diplomats who had secretly gone to London, and said that if England and France were serious in their treaty commitments, and if they gave Hitler a believable warning that war was inevitable, then they in turn, would stage a coup.
Chamberlain sent them packing.
He was not going to risk war and he was not necessarily against the Nazis. After all, Nazis in Germany meant no Bolsheviks in Germany or France or, god forbid, in England.
Chamberlain was aware that the Royal Navy had already staged a mutiny and sailors had been executed. Walter Mosley and his fascists were marching through London; the swells at Cliveden were practicing their Nazi salutes, and of course who could be certain which side of history the royal family would claim as their own? Had the King really abdicated for the woman he loved, or had he been told to abdicate for the woman he loved, because that was easier to sell than the truth, which might very well have been that he was a fascist?
And so, Chamberlain capitulated. He was a coward, and if a fascist sympathizer he had little time to prove it as he was dead by 1940.
Jack Kennedy lived in the shadow of his father’s flirtation with fascism. He had to show that he was never going to appease America’s enemies; Castro, Kruschev, or anyone else. If he showed weakness, the right would chew him up and spit him out. Nixon said he would never appease anyone. Later LBJ said he would not allow Vietnam to be his Munich. Waking from reoccurring nightmares where people had yelled at him, calling him a coward and a traitor, he said he would not loose Vietnam; he would not see it go the way of China.
As recently as a few years ago John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, and thus walked in the long shadow of Munich, spoke of negotiations in the same terms – no appeasement, and no Munich.
Through saturation, repetition, cheap sentimentality, and dull commercialization the war has both faded and become overly familiar. Shallow jokes are cracked about certain cable channels being the Hitler channel because, they show documentaries about the war in an endless loop.
But History has its own cunning. That’s an idea long out of favor among the rationalists and the statisticians. You have to go to the poets and the long since dead historians who considered themselves to be philosophers.
But, History has its own cunning.
It lays traps and, by indirection find direction out and that’s why in ancient societies there was the concept of hubris. To act without any regard for fate, and chance, was to act with a sense of being above the forces at work and which sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, compelled action or dealt rough justice.
Free will of course is a slogan brought out by good market capitalists who could never tolerate the idea that they are not masters of the universe. They are in charge of themselves and everything else.
Just ask them.
Chamberlain had been shattered by the first war. The war took millions; it took Czars and empires and then just when all seemed ready to return to normal, there was the flu pandemic and another 20 million deaths.
The butcher’s bill was soaked in red and seemed, endless.
It’s so long ago now no one remembers it or feels its force.
But Chamberlain did.
It was like a return to the Dark Ages and the Black Death; a sense that the earth itself was going to die.
And so, Munich. Appeasement. Catastrophe.
And the long shadow shaped a generation. Nixon, JFK, LBJ, and all the rest grew up either having served and fought in the war, or having been psychologically wounded by it. They lived in that shadow and gave it to the next generation – John Kerry and John McCain and others who served and fought in Vietnam – were wounded in body and soul by it. Hillary Clinton was a junior lawyer on the Watergate committee and that photo of Bill, shaking hands with JFK, is only to be dismissed by fools who do not have the sense to fear the designs of history.
Prisoners of an idea.
When Chamberlain looked at Hitler he saw the Marne, Flanders and Verdun and the crosses in row after row after row.
But Hitler saw Versailles and shadows rattled in his mind.
Chamberlain, Hitler and Versailles cast a long shadow and the shadow drifts over Jack Kennedy who must show he is not his father and he, like Ahab chases his whale – Castro and the Russians and he dispatches men to Vietnam to report back to him: how fares the land? War or peace or defeat or, appeasement?
The decades slip by.
For cheap political reasons, and through the cavalcade of media driven hucksterism, the pols announce with the solemnity of a carnival barker that Vietnam is done; the past is the past and we step boldly into the future.
Except of course history has its own ideas and the ghosts do not take orders from network hacks or presidents.
Somewhere back in his long ago, Donald Trump was wounded and bent, and set on the path of being one of the great malignant trolls of history.
The enseamed sty, the corrupt court of real estate kings with their petty rivalries, their fragile egos, their sadistic impulses and their endless all-consuming want, formed him and stamped his soul with a scar that will never heal.
Whores, strippers, a cleanliness fetish, and its corollary, a fear and desire of and for filth; a hatred of women, a hatred of anyone who is not White, contempt for everything and everyone including, obviously, himself.
He is exactly what he appears to be: a sleazy second rate real estate goon from Queens. He is a bigot. He is a thug, and a moron of epic proportions and no one who isn’t like that, could rise through the shit filled sewers of New York’s politics and business, without being a crook.
New York in the death spiral of the 70s when Ford told them to drop dead – he would not bail out the city as it went bust.
The Reagan Gordon Gekko greed is good 80s where even a hack like Tom Wolfe could look out his window, and smell enough corruption to fill a novel.
And then the neo fascist reactionary Benito Giuliani, cleaning up Time Square, by being a thug.
Trump is a goon. He’s a thug. He’s a professional demagogue and an amateur fascist but at this point, that is a distinction without a difference.
But as bad as he is, as vile and incompetent, he survives because the republican party is a whore house. He survives because the democracts whored themselves to Wall Street.
Chamberlain did not stand alone. The British ruling class was at best against war, and at worst in favor of the Nazis.
Churchill, aware that Chamberlain had tapped his phones, made use of a secret cadre inside the Ministry of Defense to secure classified information, with which he could embarrass Chamberlain in Parliament.
It worked, but it could just as easily have failed.
It’s been 80 years since Munich and by the most narrow of threads, the official language of Europe is not German.
There is no evidence that the Russian government – by which we mean Putin Incorporated – has compromising dirt on Trump but there is now clearly, a mountain of circumstantial evidence and thus reason to believe that the President of the United States is being controlled by the gangsters in Moscow.
Putin is not Hitler. But as Mark Twain said: History may not repeat but it sure does rhyme.
Putin remembers 1989. The gang of incompetents who ran Ronald Reagan, had no exit strategy beyond chanting USA USA USA, and rolling the dice and hoping that the Russians, with their glorious history of free market capitalism, would become warm and friendly.
They cast a long shadow.
Putin is on a tear. Everything is working his way because even if Trump goes, the chaos that follows in his wake will take years to repair. And as things stand now the Mitch McConnell Quislings, the republican Chamberlains, the party of appeasement, will do nothing to stop him.
They want to destroy the New Deal and the shabby remains of the Great Society and if they can stack the court and legalize their Handmaid’s Tale corporate dictatorship then they will do it – even if the price is the crack up of the Western Alliance.
McConnel, Chamberlain. Trump, Munich. Putin, revenge.
Appeasement, and the long shadows of History.