David H Young: The Art of Appeasment

[David H Young is a Washington-based analyst who blogs at www.justwars.org.]

In the early stages of the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, Adlai Stevenson, United States president John F Kennedy's notoriously dovish United Nations ambassador, suggested that Washington offer Moscow a non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from Cuba.

On hearing his advice, Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group (assembled to troubleshoot the crisis)
scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when Britain and France in the late 1930s appeased German leader Adolf Hitler prior to World War II. Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants like Hitler and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with diplomacy. But then, lo and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, Kennedy went ahead and made nearly the exact same "appeasing" trade that Stevenson had recommended.

It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well - and there is a virtual consensus that he did - then appeasement is appropriate as long as no one knows about it. Ironically, the only party with whom the US ever felt a need to be secretive was the Soviet Union, and they were the only ones privy to the deal.

The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful blockade of Cuba. Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to throw him under the bus. But why?

With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations, the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the past 70 years to rouse the rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil.

Unsurprisingly, however, the disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded foreign policy. Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the weak.

And with the Barack Obama administration making numerous overtures of re-engagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is pertinent...

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