North Korea, Iran, and the Lessons of History

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


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Comparing our foreign policy to the feckless behavior of England and France in the Thirties is often dismissed as an overused and simplistic historical analogy. But when one watches our government pursue appeasing policies toward North Korea and Iran that over and over repeat the very same errors and delusions of that awful decade, then as Juvenal said about writing satire, it’s hard not to make those comparisons.

One lesson from the Thirties is that appeasing an aggressor encourages not just that one, but also another. The key act of appeasement of that decade’s many took place in March 1936, when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with 22,000 unseasoned troops and 14,000 policemen, violating both the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Facing them were nearly 100 French and Belgian divisions. Of course they did nothing, even though, as Hitler later confessed, “If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.” With that daring move, Hitler had taken a huge step toward protecting Germany from Allied counterattacks when he invaded Czechoslovakia and then Poland, and acquiring Germany’s traditional launching pad for his invasion of France and air attacks on England.

But what emboldened Hitler to gamble on French passivity? A few months earlier, in October 1935 Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia in violation of the League of Nations. Like today’s U.N., the League blustered, threatened, and imposed useless sanctions, but in the end did nothing, even though the British Mediterranean fleet could have closed down the Suez Canal and stopped Italy cold. Historian T.P. Cornwall-Evans drew the obvious conclusion of this failure: Hitler “scorns the attitude of England, whose fine phrases contributed nothing to [Ethiopia]. If England hesitated to tackle the Italians . . . how much more would the English hesitate to grapple with the Germans.” Winston Churchill agreed: “Mussolini, like Hitler, regarded Britannia as a frightened, flabby old woman, who at the worst would only bluster, and was anyhow incapable of making war.” Thus appeasement begat appeasement until the horrific denouement came in 1939.

Now consider our decades-long appeasement of North Korea and the way it has emboldened the Iranians to follow the Kim family playbook for acquiring nuclear weapons. Just last week, newly minted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un defied U.N. resolutions and American threats by launching a missile that could deliver a nuclear payload to the West Coast. Satellite intelligence shows that the North is also preparing for more nuclear tests, indicating they have no intention of stopping their development of more nuclear weapons. This provocation came a few weeks after Obama struck a deal offering 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for promises to freeze the weapons program. This pattern of offering carrots to North Korea, only to get smacked with sticks in return, has been going on for decades now, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. That is how the North got the bomb in the first place, engaging in “negotiations” and dangling promises of cooperation in exchange for aid and time.

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  • Chezwick

    The bottom line: These regimes routinely violate the agreements they sign. Ergo, negotiating agreements with them is pointless. You'd think by now our policy-makers would've caught on.

    • sedoanman

      They are negotiating for its own sake. It's more like a hobby with them.

  • tarleton

    In a perfect world the West would recognise the writing on the wall and then act decisively , unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world …the West that we live in is languid , decadent and indecisive and so we can expect these events to take their natural course which will , sooner or later , end in disaster

  • StephenD

    None of us wants a conflict of force. But to "postpone" it only makes the inevitable confrontation that much more bloody. I don't understand why we'd bother speaking another sentence to regimes that have lied and avowed to be our enemy. I don't understand how we can believe in any "negotiated" settlement with them since they've reneged in the past. Time for talk is over. Turn their roads, bridges, airfields, granaries, power plants, etc., into glass and they'll spend more time looking for their next meal rather than wanting to rule the world. Cost a few lives now to prevent the loss of millions later.

  • dave

    The UK was so numbed after WW1 that the last thing they wanted was another war, which is why they tried appeasement. Why it is always down to the UK and the USA to sort rogue states out really annoys me as we get blamed for being the worlds police but also not being the worlds police. Why don't other countries instigate anything?
    The reality is that to win a war you have to flatten the opposition as quickly as possible. In todays world this would be completely unacceptable for a 'civilised' 'caring' country to do. This is why wars today go on and on as we can't use 'disproportionate' force. Moreover, our PR image is so bad that we would incur the wrath of our own people as well as all the other countries who hate us anyway. I just wish other countries would take responsibility for being police for a change.

  • Marty

    The United States and other democracies have to deal with tyrannical regimes that are both suicidal and genocidal. They are suicidal because of their willingness to sacrifice as many of their own citizens as they believe necessary to annihilate preceived enemies; they are genocidal for the same reason. Regime change in iran and north korea must occur and the West should be working diligently for this to occur. Simultaneously, we should be pursuing the disintegration of iran, syria, iraq, and turkey. These are all fake states that oppress religious and ethnic minorities that should be allowed to carve out their own sovereign enclaves. The end of the current regimes in these countries would not be lamented.

  • jacob

    Good old USA has been played for a pansy by North Korea for decades, with their nuclear threat….
    And on account of it, it has kept on providing free food and fuel, like the merchant who pays Mafia
    goons for "protection"….
    TRUMAN's mistake was to remove MCARTHUR when he proposed bombing Manchuria to stop
    the influx of Chinese "VOLONTEERS" in the Korean war, as it would have stopped Chinese cold..
    But this is the way history is written….
    If FRANCE would have sent just one division into the RUHR at the time the German High
    Command feared that with just their caps they would chase them away, the WWII horrors could
    have been avoided…
    So now, faithful to tradition, OBAMA is kissing N. Korea's "leader" s ass by offering him 240,000
    metric tons of food, affraid as he is of CHINA, when the truth of the matter is that, by raising import
    tariffs to Chinese products, JOBS which he keeps on claiming for would be created and stop the
    dependence of CHINESE products once and for all….
    Will this ever happen ?????
    NO WAY, JOSE….! ! !

  • Schlomotion

    TUGBOATING is when a writer takes an admittedly "overused and simplistic historical analogy" and decides to defiantly do it some more. So, Ahmedinejad is this year's Hitler. Every year Israel elects a new Hitler and vilifies a new Neville Chamberlain who dismisses any attempts to dismiss their creeling for war against that Hitler. Only Zionists are allowed to call someone a Hitler and creel for his destruction. If you call an Israeli a Hitler, the excrement hits the shofar. This is a feature of the post-Zionist Era; that they have no new methods. They have just the old boomerang fish routine. They just roll out the tired old Nuremberg Rally photos and slowly morph this week's Hate-Week face into Emmanuel Goldstein.

    • JoJoJams

      You really are pathetic, you know? The analogy wasn't who's this years "hitler" – it was about appeasment, both then and now. All the other commentors on this article have valid points regarding appeasement – with the exception of you. Not only do you not understand what the article was about, probably because you skimmed through it too fast to actually read it, in your zeal to get down to the comments and post more of your usual drivel, but you also have to throw in your "evil joooos!!" crap. It would appear that it's your brain that works in "schlomotion", and cant' keep up with what an article is actually talking about. It's sad, really. You do have some intelligence, though no where near what you think you do, based on what and how you write and reply to people, but you put whatever small semblance of knowledge and intellect you have into sophomoric b.s. I'm guessing you're a twenty-something or early thirties. You certainly have a lot of growing up to do. selah.

      • Schlomotion

        I am not into appeasement. I have never argued for appeasing Muslims, and I have frequently spoken against AIPAC's desire to be appeased. I understood the article perfectly well. I am saying that the Hitler comparison is a dead horse.

  • Ghostwriter

    It seems that Schlockmotion hasn't read a history book. Neville Chamberlain thought he could avoid war by striking a deal with Adolf Hitler. So,he flew to Munich and sacrificed Czechoslovakia for "peace in our time." In 1939,he got war. Sadly,President Obama hasn't learned those lessons and is using the Neville Chamberlain playbook. Also,what Schlobrain doesn't get is that the Israelis aren't going to wait too much longer for the mad mullahs in Iran to start a second holocaust. But,maybe that's what Schlomotion wants,another Holocaust and more dead Jews.

    • Schlomotion

      I read a-plenty. I am apathetic toward hearing Zionists talk about the Second Holocaust. They are a bunch of boys calling wolf.

      • Ghostwriter

        No,Schlomotion. Your posts have revealed a constant,almost Nazi-like hatred for Jews. You're not fooling anyone here.

        • Schlomotion

          Zionism is going to have to embrace more criticism. If it does not, it will simply be written off as one of the bad political philosophies along with Nazism, Soc.ialism, Manifest Destiny, and Dianetics.

  • bubblebrook

    The Obama Administration is the most incompetent in the history of our Republic. He is incompetent at everything we need competence for in these times. The only ray of competence he has shown thus far is his tenacity to hold on to the broken headed socialist stupidities of the Marxist 1800s. he tends to appear modern by salting Marxism with current Green scientific errors and Obamacare socialism. Of course the epitome of modern Marxism, or so I have heard, is the issue is never the issue, the issue is always the revolution and the revolution is about power.
    The definition of our Republic is its Constitution; all other definitions are wrong or incomplete!
    Marvin E. Fox

  • WilliamJamesWard

    Obama will pay what is better understood as protection money, just like what the mob forces merchants
    to pay in order not to be troubled by destructive interference. Mug money to most of us that have lived
    in Cities with criminal culture. Saying pretty please, Obama talking witht the thugocracies of the day
    which was and is a crock never gets the job done of clearing the air. First you beat down the criminals
    and then incarcerate while trying if at all possible to rehabilitate or in the last worst result eradicate.
    North Korea is a giant jail holding in the oppressed by their jailors with the aid of outside enablers.
    The MSM makes the new leader UN-cool and his regeme more than it is or ever will be, they can be
    turned to dust easily but the price in human suffering amongst the slave nation is a barrier to their
    freedom…………………………………………….William

  • g_jochnowitz

    North Korea's leaders are committed to playing a major role in attempting to destroy Israel. It is an issue that obsesses them. Way back in 1973 North Korea sent its planes and pilots to fight Israel. http://www.jochnowitz.net/Essays/NorthKorea.html