Yet another Munich: The endless search for the right historical parallel

As President Barack Obama attempts to persuade the American public to support a nuclear agreement with Iran, he faces a stiff headwind in Congress. Iran cannot be trusted, say opponents of an agreement. Lift the economic sanctions on Iran, they insist, and Tehran will immediately begin cranking up its centrifuges and churning out nuclear ammo.

How do we know? Opponents cite historical precedent. Isn’t this exactly what Adolf Hitler did in Munich in 1938 — fooled the British and the French governments into thinking he was peaceable? And isn’t Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just another Hitler in cleric’s clothing?

The philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems whenever there is a crisis, folks have cited this idea to dredge up the past as support for one point of view or another.

There is a problem, however, with slapping historical analogies on the present. History is a buffet. It isn’t immutable, and neither are interpretations of it. You can choose whatever analogy seems to fit your presuppositions. So when politicians invoke history, another Santayana quote is in order: “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”

Through this prism, the use of history says more about those citing a precedent than about the likely course of events. Historical analogies are seldom deployed in the service of dispassionate analysis to determine if past might be prologue. They are usually used in the service of buttressing a particular, preordained position. Most of the time, history isn’t being used as a tool. It is being used as a smokescreen to conceal partisanship and ideology, which, in the hands of partisans and ideologues, usually trumps history.

Let’s begin with one ubiquitous historical analogy: Munich. In that infamous 1938 agreement, the British and French attempted to appease Hitler by allowing Germany to take a chunk of Czechoslovakia. Munich has become the go-to, one-size-fits-all comparison for anyone who favors brinkmanship and military action over diplomacy. For some, every strongman opponent is like Hitler — whether Nikita S. Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il — and every confrontation is an occasion for either toughness or appeasement. Using this analogy, opponents insist that, when Obama and the Europeans negotiate with Iran, they are walking into a Hitler trap. Come to an agreement with the Iranians and you get — voila! — Munich.

When every opponent is Hitler, and every situation a nascent Munich, there is no room for negotiation, only capitulation. And that is precisely how many Republicans have viewed diplomacy since Ronald Reagan was president, even though Reagan himself talked with the Russians.

As the story goes, when Reagan negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with the Soviets, limiting missiles, he rattled the saber and terrified Mikhail Gorbachev into submission. No give and take, no compromise — no real discussion. It is a good story — one, they say, Obama should study. History can be convenient that way.

But there are other examples of negotiations, even negotiations with dictators or tyrants, that ended more or less successfully without a saber or bludgeon. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which limited the expansion of atomic weapons, has proven surprisingly effective, save for such non-signatories as Pakistan, which has exported its nuclear technology to at least North Korea, and Iran. One could argue that the historical precedent of the nonproliferation agreement proves the point: It is when you don’t negotiate with your opponents that you get in trouble, not when you do. Iran opted out then. It is opting in now. On the other hand, we made a deal with North Korea, which eventually broke it. See what I mean?

But, then again, given history’s flexibility, one could argue that the more fitting historical analogy for Iran is not British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Munich or the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. Wilson had negotiated the Treaty of Versailles after World War One, including an institution for collective security. Congressional Republicans vehemently opposed it.  As biographer A. Scott Berg relates it in his Wilson biography, the Republican leadership met secretly long before the treaty was finished and agreed to defeat it — whatever its provisions. Ultimately, they did.

But that analogy has its own problems. Because one can’t prove a negative, we will never know if a League of Nations with the United States as a member would have prevented World War Two. Nor will we know, should the agreement with the Iranians not be approved, if it would have prevented them from securing nuclear weapons. The Wilson analogy goes to the possible defeat of the agreement, not to its possible success.

There are dozens of other examples where one episode of history seems to argue for a certain course of action and another episode seems to argue against it. Even looking at antecedents for Iran, again, one could argue that the onerous reparations on Germany after World War One sparked resentment and enflamed nationalist passions that led to Nazism, just as the sanctions on Iran seem to have intensified Iranian nationalism. Or one could argue that in lifting their foot from Germany’s throat, the allies gave German nationalists breathing room, which is exactly what we would be doing by lifting the sanctions on Iran.

Or think of the Great Recession and its antecedent, the Great Depression. Liberals look at history and say that government pump-priming seemed to provide the antidote in the 1930s and could have done so again. Conservatives look at the 1970s and say that government spending could send the country into an inflationary spiral. Meanwhile, in the wake of the recession, Germans, thinking of Weimar inflation, have insisted on European austerity, while European leftists, looking again to the Great Depression, insist on Keynesian spending. It is history versus history — the 1920s versus the 1930s. Or think of the opponents of the Iraq War who cited the British experience there after World War One as a quagmire, or cited our own quagmire in Vietnam, while proponents cited . . . well, they cited Hitler and Munich.

None of this is to say that history can’t be a guide for our actions. It can and should. It is to say, however, that history isn’t as ham-handed as some of its purveyors make it out to be. It is nuanced — so subtly nuanced that it seldom fits any other situation snuggly. That means that applications of history must also be carefully applied. You can’t just slap “Munich” on every situation, and think you have won the argument.

So Obama can be either Chamberlain or Wilson, either a naïve dupe or a diplomatic hero. It all depends not on history but on how we read it.

To rephrase Santayana’s dictum, “Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to cherry pick whatever fits their argument.”

Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He’s working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.

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