His­tory lessons worth learn­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

In his ex­cel­lent book “The Wages of Ap­pease­ment: An­cient Athens, Mu­nich, and Obama’s Amer­ica,” Bruce S. Thorn­ton in­tro­duces us to the teach­ing power of his­tory. He has learned much about what hap­pened in the past and shares his knowl­edge in el­e­gant and straight­for­ward prose hap­pily de­void of “schol­arly” jar­gon. He draws log­i­cal and com­pelling con­clu­sions, am­ply sup­ported by the his­tor­i­cal record and stated clearly.

Mr. Thorn­ton does all this by pro­vid­ing an in­ter­est­ing and richly in­for­ma­tive look at the phe­nom­e­non of ap­pease­ment in three his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods, as his ti­tle in­di­cates. He does not sug­gest that the par­al­lels are ex­act. Rather, he draws salient points from each pe­riod, all in sup­port of his cen­tral the­sis that “fear, honor, and in­ter­est,” iden­ti­fied by the Greek his­to­rian Thucy­dides as the causes of con­flict, are “use­ful as well in iden­ti­fy­ing the causes of ap­pease­ment.”

He first ac­quaints us with the Greek city states in the fourth cen­tury B.C. and the cir­cum­stances that led to their con­quest by Philip of Mace­don. More than a cen­tury ear­lier, the Greeks had joined forces to op­pose and ul­ti­mately de­feat pow­er­ful Per­sian in­vaders at Salamis and Plataea. Sub­se­quently, how­ever, the Greeks fell into in­ternecine conflicts, most no­tably the Pelo­pon­nesian War be­tween Athens and Sparta.

Mr. Thorn­ton deftly de­scribes the ri­val­ries among the Greeks and the “short­sighted” in­ter­ests that “dis­tracted” them from “the long term but much more se­ri­ous threat of Philip.” For his part, Philip was skill­ful in ma­nip­u­lat­ing the Greeks and play­ing them off against one an­other. Time and again, “Philip’s mas­tery of du­plic­i­tous diplo­macy ob­scured his real in­ten­tions” from the Greeks, who were per­sis­tently un­able to unite against a com­mon en­emy.

Among the Greeks, De­mos­thenes saw Philip’s aims more clearly than most. Mr. Thorn­ton views De­mos­thenes as “the model of re­sis­tance to tyranny and the de­fense of free­dom” and cred­its him with cor­rectly per- ceiv­ing “the de­cay of po­lit­i­cal virtue” as the “most im­por­tant fac­tor in the loss of Greek free­dom.”

Specif­i­cally, De­mos­thenes crit­i­cized the Athe­ni­ans for be­ing “more con­cerned with their do­mes­tic en­ti­tle­ments and plea­sures than with pro­tect­ing their in­ter­ests and free­dom through the pro­vi­sion of funds for de­fense and through per­sonal [mil­i­tary] ser­vice.” He un­der­stood that cit­i­zens “who see the state as a source of largess” will be “loath to . . . make the sac­ri­fices re­quired to pro­tect free­dom against those who would de­stroy it.”

For the Greeks, then, it was “in­ter­est” that was as­cen­dant as the cat­a­lyst for ap­pease­ment. When it came to Eng­land and Ger­many in the pe­riod be­tween the world wars, “fear” was the dom­i­nant of the three causes to which Thucy­dides had pointed.

Mr. Thorn­ton re­views the “delu­sional faith in the ef­fi­cacy of treaties” that char­ac­ter­ized the pe­riod fol­low­ing World War I.

It be­comes clear that Hitler was like Philip in his abil­ity to take the mea­sure of those he sought to best and to tell them what they wished to hear un­til words no longer mat­tered.

There are par­al­lels, too, with the en­ti­tle­ments that lulled the Athe­ni­ans, given Eng­land’s spi­ral­ing na­tional debt and de­mands for in­creased so­cial wel­fare spend­ing. Yet it was fear, the “sec­ond mem­ber of the Thucy­didean triad,” that played the lead­ing role in “le­git­imiz­ing the pol­icy of ap­pease­ment” in the pe­riod be­tween the world wars.

Mr. Thorn­ton re­counts the car­nage of trench war­fare that dec­i­mated an en­tire Euro­pean gen­er­a­tion dur­ing the first war and the cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual re­ac­tion that made the sec­ond in­evitable.

With­out a be­lief in the “es­sen­tial good­ness” of Eng­land, “a pol­icy of ap­pease­ment be­came at­trac­tive, for why should one kill and die for some­thing so rep­re­hen­si­ble?” It was a near thing, as we know.

Turn­ing to “Amer­ica and Ji­had,” Mr. Thorn­ton of­fers a thor­ough and bal­anced ac­count of the his­toric con­flict be­tween the West and Is­lam, the “ma­lign lega­cies” of the Viet­nam War on Amer­i­can re­solve, the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion and hostage cri­sis, the tra­vails of the CIA and the resur­gence of rad­i­cal Is­lam with which we are all too fa­mil­iar.

He brings us to the cur­rent day and to our pres­i­dent’s poli­cies and pro­nounce­ments, which con­tinue the “se­rial fail­ures” that “em­bold­ened the es­ca­la­tion of vi­o­lence that cul­mi­nated in 9/11.” He re­minds us that — in the words of for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Ge­orge P. Shultz — we “can­not al­low our­selves to be­come the Ham­let of na­tions ... ham­strung by con­fu­sion and in­de­ci­sive­ness.”

This is a mas­ter­ful book, richly re­ward­ing and un­like so many on the shelves these days, it is gen­uinely ed­u­ca­tional.

Ray Hartwell is a Navy vet­eran and a Wash­ing­ton lawyer.

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