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Appease Porridge Hot

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, February 19, 2003

The English philosopher Peter Strawson used to talk about expressions that had "grown capital letters" -- descriptions like "The Cold War," "The Flood," or "the Big Apple," which have turned into proper names which refer to a specific thing or event.

But sometimes an expression gets attached to a particular event without actually becoming a name for it -- it's more like picking up a piece of dirt that it can't scrape off its shoes. "Stonewalling" for example -- it isn't a proper name, but it always evokes the Nixon Administration's response to Watergate. Ditto "isolationism" or "partition" -- they're each linked to a particular historical moment.

Or take "appeasement." Whenever it's pronounced, the word conjures up the memory of the British policy of "appeasement" in pre-war Europe. You think of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street on his return from the Munich conference in September of 1938, after he had handed over the Czech Sudetenland to Hitler. "It is peace for our time," he told the press, "Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."

That moment had a number of far-reaching consequences -- I mean, over and above bringing the world a step closer to a catastrophic war. It sealed the political downfall of Chamberlain, and it revived the faded fortunes of Winston Churchill, who had opposed the Munich decision as "complete surrender . . . to the Nazi threat of force." And it permanently changed the meaning of the word "appeasement" itself.

Before Munich, "appeasement" didn't have the dishonorable connotations it does for us. "Appease" still carried the echoes of the root sense of "peace," and its meaning was simply "conciliate," "bring peace to" or "pacify" -- I mean, before "pacification" got its feet muddy, too. You recall the verse from the Book of Proverbs, "he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife." In fact Churchill himself recommended a policy of "prudence and appeasement" towards the Turks when they went to war with the Greeks in 1919. And Roosevelt described Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 as an "integral measure for world appeasement." That's the sense that Chamberlain had in mind when he talked about a policy of appeasement -- the idea was not to capitulate to dictators but to ensure the peace while Britan had time to re-arm, after the defense cuts that Churchill presided over when he was the Defence Minister in the 1920's. In retrospect, the appeasement policy may have been disastrously short-sighted, but it wasn't intended to be pusillanimous -- and in fact Chamberlain had few illusions about Hitler's intentions.

But no politician since then has been able to talk about "appeasement" in an approving way. After Munich, the word could only suggest a cowardly capitulation to the demands of tyrants in the hope that they'll refrain from further aggression. That's why the word is so inflammatory when it's used to describe opponents of the Administration's Iraq policy. I've been hearing more and more of this -- I counted over eighty uses of "appeasement" in the press last month in stories about Iraq, three times as many as in the month before. And the other day Condoleezza Rice gave official sanction to the label on "Meet the Press," when she likened the Security Council's actions to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930's.

That comparison obviously isn't designed to bring any allies around; it's strictly for the benefit of the Administration's own troops. It's part of a blitzkrieg aimed at seizing the moral high ground, even if you have to roll over history and etymology in the process. Whatever your view of the French and German position on Saddam Hussein, after all, it isn't remotely comparable to the attitude that Chamberlain is supposed to have taken towards Hitler -- "Let's give him what he wants and maybe he'll leave us alone."

In fact, neither Churchill nor any other critic of Chamberlain's appeasement policy ever argued for a pre-emptive strike on Germany. They simply supported what people would now describe as deterrence and containment, pretty much as the French and Germans are doing now. With the wisdom of hindsight, of course, you could argue that even that would have been an inadequate response to the threat of Hitler -- if we were rewriting history, we'd have had Britain and France make an alliance with Stalin to go after Germany then and there. And if you were of a mind to, you could say that the Security Council is making the same mistake now that Churchill made in 1938 -- that is, if you're willing to argue that Saddam Hussein represents the same threat to world security that Hitler did back then.

But one way or the other, that isn't a conversation that anybody's about to launch, at least outside of history department common rooms. It's hard to imagine the Administration comparing the Security Council to Churchill, not when the adjective "Churchillian" has become an epithet that is as uncritically laudatory as "appeasement" is derogatory.

The anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss once said that every important event lives two lives, one as history and one as myth. Political language plays a big part in that transformation -- it turns the lessons of history into a set of Cliff Notes. All that complicated historical footage reduces to a couple of stills -- Churchill as the resolute foe of bullies, glaring over his cigar; Chamberlain as the the archetypal Euroweenie, with his striped pants, high collar, umbrella and drooping moustache. And Munich itself has become one of those words like "Waterloo," "Verdun," and "Pearl Harbor" -- names that have seceded from the flesh-and-blood past and taken up a life of their own as moral fables in the popular imagination. If some words have grown capital letters and become proper names, "Munich" and the rest are proper names that politics has turned into common nouns

Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.