The Wages of Appeasement

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This coming Monday, May 16, 2011, Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and the David Horowitz Freedom Center Present IS OBAMA OUR CHAMBERLAIN?

Come join the discussion and book signing with Bruce S. Thornton, the author of THE WAGES OF APPEASEMENT: Ancient Athens, Munich and Obama’s America.

The event is being held at 7pm (May 16) at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA  90049.  $15 per person, cash or check at the door, free parking. Register by email at or call (818)704-0523.

To mark the occasion, Frontpage is rerunning below Mark Tapson’s full interview with Dr. Bruce Thornton from our March 17th issue.


The Wages of Appeasement

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who famously returned from a Berlin conference with Hitler and announced appeasement in our time, may be history’s poster boy for political impotence and naïveté. But in the new book, The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America, Bruce S. Thornton notes that the temptation to placate an enemy seeking one’s destruction is “as old as conflict itself.”

The book assesses three notable examples of societies’ futile, disastrous responses to the aggression of determined enemies: the Greek city-states threatened by the shrewd Philip II of Macedon, England confronted by Hitler, and now the West’s clash of civilizations with “a renascent Islamic jihad and its most powerful state sponsor, Iran.” Its message couldn’t be more timely and vital.

Front Page contributor Bruce Thornton is a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno. A National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, he’s the author of Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide, Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization, six other books, and numerous essays on Western culture.

Mark Tapson: Dr. Thornton, what was the inspiration for a book about appeasement? What prompted you to see timeless similarities in the different historical settings of ancient Greece, pre-WWII Europe, and America under Obama?

Bruce Thornton: The idea arose out of many conversations I’ve had with [fellow historian] Victor Hanson about the value of historical comparisons for illuminating our own times. I think we’ve been particularly struck by President Obama’s foreign policy philosophy, which in some cases eerily mimics the naive idealism not just of Jimmy Carter but of someone like Neville Chamberlain.

These three instances are interesting to compare because they are all constitutional governments faced with autocratic and illiberal aggressors. Thus appeasement is not just a consequence of this or that particular leader’s weakness, but also reflects the weaknesses of democratic governments, particularly in foreign policy.

MT: How does democracy itself put us at a disadvantage against such “illiberal aggressors”?

BT: The glories of representative government are the replacement of force with discussion and persuasion, and the holding of politicians accountable to citizens through audit, elections, laws, and the rest. However, the reliance on discussion and verbal process makes it easy to substitute words for action when action is needed. And when leaders are held to citizen scrutiny and have to face election or audit, they find it more expedient to kick problems down the road rather than call on the citizens to make unpleasant sacrifices.

Foreign policy particularly requires long-term strategies pursued consistently, but with a two-year election cycle (one year in Athens for most offices), and politicians held to intense scrutiny by mass media, instant polling, the blogosphere, and 24/7 news and opinion programs, it becomes more difficult to develop a consistent strategy and stick to it over time. Illiberal regimes, of course, don’t have many of those problems.

MT: You write that the causes of appeasement “arise from the limitations of human nature and from the failure of political ideals,” and that this is a tragic view of life that’s out of step with our times. Can you elaborate on that?

BT: We moderns believe that human nature can progress for the better, that material improvements in human life will remove the suffering and want that in the past drove people to irrational and destructive behavior. The ancients, particularly Thucydides in his masterpiece The History of the Peloponnesian War, in contrast believed that the irrational drove human behavior more often than not – things like fear, ambition, honor, power, revenge, religious fervor, or greed for wealth or territory.

War then is not an anomaly arising from poverty, etc., but a reflection of human nature. That’s a tragic view, because if human nature doesn’t change that much, then war and violence will always be part of our lives. That’s a hard truth for many of us, who like to believe that we can progress to an ideal world of peace, plenty, and prosperity, where disputes can be resolved peacefully with rational negotiation and bargaining.

MT: You identify the most important factor in the failure of societies to withstand an aggressor as “the decay of civic virtues.” “To be free,” you write about the Athenians, “citizens had to have characters worthy of freedom.” What kind of character is worthy of freedom?

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  • Zorba

    Another example: The Vikings used to sail up the Seine and for many years extracted tribute from the Franks annually. Each year their demands increased until it finally became insufferable. Appeasement has never worked, a line in the sand does.

  • Chezwick_mac

    How about Carthage…on its death-bed, giving up its first-born as slaves, its treasure and its weaponry to buy off Rome,…only to find the Romans attacking anyway. The Carthaginians turned on their appeasing leaders, killed them all, and then engaged in a heroic but ultimately futile defense of the homeland. Both in the annuls of history and in the reality of their time, they were never heard from again.

  • tanstaafl

    Get up, stand up: don't give up the fight!

    – Bob Marley

  • steven l

    Reasonable appeasement should be the carrot. If the power of reason fails to convince the opponent, the stick must always be available and become more sophisticated.
    Perhaps we need to develop a dialogue with our society (not limited to the US) on the definition and need for a code of moral duty applicable to the whole humanity.

  • HenryCrux

    Atomic war is the end of the planet – peace at almost any price please! Kick your problems and disagreements down the road until the last minute – to survive, you all need to act like the Catholic Church has acted for 2000 years – they lost every battle but won the war anyway, or, they all believe they will win the war against the world because Christ will return – in the meantime, turn the other cheek, love your enemy as yourself, don't worry, be happy – but a little fighting is fun (until maniacs start blowing up Atomic Plants and poisoning the whole planet forever) – then, we do what the Catholics are doing right now – nothing else can do any good – radiation poison is forever.

    • SpiritOf1683

      If you lose every battle, you lose the war – simple as that. It is you who is the insane one. Lose the war and slavery is for ever. And trying to love your enemy is the most direct route to your grave. Of course you haven't heard of the phrase Give me liberty or give me death. And no, I don't believe in childish superstitions of Christ returning. He's been here once, he won't come here again.

  • rockman

    Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.
    Obama: Cry Uncle! And let slip the poodles of appeasement.

  • otispdriftwood

    I believe it was Winston Churchill who said, "Appeasement reflects the hope that the crocodile will eat you last."

  • Ronald W. Carnine

    America has already tried appeasement with Islam and it didn't work. The Barbary States hijacked American ships and enslaved American sailors. Ours gov't paid "protection" money which didn't always work and it took force to finally get it to stop. Appeasement is the same as surrender. If we only knew our history we wouldn't fall into this trap. But I fear its to late, first our allies then us. We need another Thomas Jefferson and loaded cannons.

  • Liz

    Ron Paul recently said we could have talked to Osama? Really? Ron Paul sounded too
    much like the appeasement apologist. No vote for you Ron Paul.