Many Many Munichs

Tired of hearing conservatives denounce the Iran Nuclear Deal as “another Munich” or even “worse than Munich?” It’s actually become so routine for haters of diplomacy that it shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow, or so argue Samuel Kleimer and Tom Zoellner in the L.A. Times today.

A review of American diplomatic history shows that no agreement with a rival, no matter how wise or necessary, can be considered complete until it has endured allusions to Munich and Chamberlain. It may as well be in the Constitution as a step in the treaty ratification process.

“This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” Gen. Curtis LeMay declared after President Kennedy told the Joint Chiefs he was going to blockade Cuba rather than launch airstrikes. Kennedy, who had written his Harvard thesis about Munich, understood the risks of appeasement. But in a time of dangerous nuclear brinkmanship, he resisted the facile Munich analogy and averted catastrophe

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Kennedy also got the Munich experience in the form of a fashion choice. Black umbrellas, such as the type Chamberlain carried with him on his meeting with Hitler, became the American right’s favorite emoji for kowtowing. Protesters waved black umbrellas at Kennedy, and later at President Nixon as he disembarked from Air Force One in 1972 after his historic gambit to China.

Nixon could not have been surprised to see them. As vice president, he banned his aides from carrying umbrellas for fear that they could be visually linked to Chamberlain. When President Eisenhower returned from a summit with the Soviets in 1955, he gave his remarks in the pouring rain without the courtesy of an umbrella.

Even a president as lionized among conservatives as Ronald Reagan could not escape getting Muniched. Newt Gingrich called the 1985 conference between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” When Reagan announced the INF Treaty — which reduced American and Soviet nuclear firepower — a conservative lobbying group took out a full-page ad in newspapers across the country pairing a picture of Reagan with Chamberlain and Gorbachev with Hitler.

There is a certain species of American–especially though not exclusively on the political Right–who basically does not trust any sort of diplomacy, regarded as inherently representing the interests of effete or traitorous elites rather than the national interest. Some conservatives seriously seem to prefer military conflict to diplomacy as a general principle. And obviously, in today’s climate, any diplomatic agreement reached by or on behalf of Barack Obama will be treated as cowardly and/or feckless by the permanently obstructionist opposition. But you’d think they’d find themselves a new metaphor.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.