In March 1939, the last vestiges of appeasement died. Adolf Hitler, until he occupied Bohemia and Moravia, had a serious diplomatic argument for his territorial aggression in Europe. The Saar plebiscite in 1935 surprised much of the world. Germans living in a relatively safe, relatively prosperous, relatively free regime chose to surrender their independence and join Hitler's Third Reich. One year later, German troops occupied, without French resistance, the Rhineland. In 1938, Austria was made a part of Germany. Soon thereafter, the German population in the Sudetenland (the northwest frontier of a polyglot Czechoslovakia) was brought into the Reich.
There is a compelling argument that as long as the Nazis ruled Germany nothing which increased Nazi power should have been permitted. But there is also little doubt that many Germans in the Saar, the Rhineland, the Sudetenland, and, probably, Austria wanted to be part of a German state, even if Hitler ruled that state. His actions followed the principle of national sovereignty which Wilson espoused. Some people fled the new territories of Germany, but most people stayed put.
March 1939 marked a much more menacing departure in terms of world peace. Bohemia and Moravia, roughly what constitutes the Czech Republic today, was Slavic. Its citizens did not want to become part of the Third Reich. They were its first foreign slaves. The creation of a German protectorate over these lands made it clear to the world that something more than national sovereignty was involved with Hitler's plans.
That was seventy years ago. What we have today is the appeasement of the Nazi equivalents of our time. Nazism, like radical Islam, often wore the mask of peace. Hitler, like Kim Jong Ill, pretended to be the victim of aggression. The Third Reich, like our enemies around the world today, grasped how much ordinary people loathed war. Peace is what Americans and Israelis today want, just like the French and British wanted peace in 1939. History shows that peace does not come from just a childish pining wish, but peace comes from a combination of courage, good will, and wisdom. That means facing evil squarely, even when it is easier to pretend that good and evil are simply matters of viewpoint.
President Bush was a flawed president with imperfect judgment, but he did grasp the importance of smiting evil before it grows too strong. Hitler, like radical Islamic terrorists, held Jews, Judaism, Christians, and Christianity in absolute contempt. The mockery of Nazi leaders for the Sermon on the Mound or the Ten Commandments was relentless. America was a decadent nation to Hitler, just like to radical Islam today. What men like Churchill grasped, and what men like Chamberlain did not, is that the Hitlers of the world have no real interest in improving the lives of their subjects. They are not concerned about the oceans of blood which their wars will bring. Their objectives are not our objectives; their methods are not our methods. It does not help to see their point of view because genocide and terrorism are never means to a noble end. They understand us (or, they think they do) and what they see is this: we value our lives and our fortunes more than anything else. We can be bribed and bullied into surrendering what really matters. Our political leaders can be charmed or alarmed into bad mistakes.
We have no time machine. If the French had resisted German occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler probably would have fallen from power and a world war, with all the horrors that followed, avoided. If the Czechs had been encouraged to resist the occupation of the Sudetenland, German generals might have overthrown Hitler and war averted. But surely the British or French politicians who took those steps might also have lost elections and the political parties who supported rearmament or brinkmanship with the Nazis might have lost parliamentary seats. Facing down evil is not always, or even often, popular.
But holding power ought to carry moral obligations. Seventy years ago, Hitler made it very plain that he was going to transform Europe and that only those who resisted him with force could stop his plans. Today, while Iran moves closer to acquiring the means to plunge our world into a new dark age, while menacing nations like China and Russia nip at our drooping power, while Hugo Chavez schemes to turn Venezuela into a grim prison like Cuba, we can act. We seem to lack the stomach to do anything, though we have the means. Seventy years after appeasement, we have learned nothing.