History lessons worth learning
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.