Understanding American Foreign Policy
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
The post-World War II generation of U.S. foreign policy leaders greatly were guided in their perceptions by "lessons" extracted from the then recent conflicts in Europe. Consensus not to repeat mistakes in the inter-war years emerged. From the Versailles Treaty experience, many concluded that Congress must not be given a leading role in defining American commitments; from the failure to ratify Versailles, and from the corresponding failure of the U.S. to join the international organization of the inter-war years, the League of Nations, it was concluded that isolationism no longer could protect U.S. interests. But, most importantly, from the failure of the French-British policy of appeasement that had been followed in the middle 1930s in response to the early stages of German aggression, it was concluded that aggressor states must be checked by American power early in their rise. This lesson provided guidance that would shape U.S. postwar responses to the Soviet Union. Central to it was the lesson drawn from the failure of appeasement to protect Czechoslovakia prior to World War II.
a. Background: Origins and Development of the Czechoslovakian State, 1918-39
Czechoslovakia was not one of the long-standing states of Eastern Europe, unlike Poland, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, or Austria. It was an amalgam of two ethnicities (Czechs; Slovaks), joined together by the Great Powers. In its birth, October 18-28, 1918, some of US President Woodrow Wilson's key precepts about the route to world peace were embodied. He had argued in his "14 Points" of 1918 that "self-determination" of distinct nations (i.e., ethnicities, peoples), realized through democratic and representative institutions, would lead to a world in which war would be infinitely less likely ever again to occur. This principle was used by the victorious allies of the US (e.g., France, Britain, Italy) to create many new states in Central and Eastern Europe after the First World War. Czechoslovakia was formed from territories ceded by Germany's ally, Austria-Hungary as their empire was dismantled in punishment for having sided with the losers in that Great War. Indeed, some recalcitrant Hungarian military units remained in the eastern (or Slovak) part of the new nation well into 1919 before they finally were forced to withdraw by the Allies' pressure.
A democratic system of politics was established in all Czechoslovakia under the leadership of Thomas Masaryk, and it proved far more durable than those set up in the other new states of Eastern Europe. (E.g., Poland soon became a military dictatorship under General Pilsudski). Masaryk was elected President in 1918 and was reelected in 1920, 1927, and 1934. He resigned his office in 1935 (and died in 1937). His successor was a man who faithfully had served him in a number of posts, most significantly as Foreign Minister, Eduard Benes.
The Masaryk-Benes governments were successful in bringing about substantial economic development. The existing bureaucracy, inherited from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled Czech and Slovak regions before the Great War, provided the state an efficient administrative structure. Growth in the economy was spurred on both by this stability and by the natural complement of pairing together industrial Bohemia and rural Ruthenia, Slovakia and Moravia. Among the established heavy industries were the Skoda munitions works, a large and valuable asset to the strategic defense of the nation.
Artillery shells at the Skoda Munitions Factory, 1938
Though many political parties existed and this inhibited the stability of governments, gradually the electorate gave more and more of its support to moderate and conservative parties. This trend, along with the rare stability among personnel at the top leadership positions in government, increased international confidence in the Czech state. Masaryk and Benes also were successful in bringing about a sweeping land reform which enhanced both industrial development and eliminated one of the key grievances used by more radical parties to woo new members in the rural areas. With this action, however, some new enemies were created as lands of the Roman Catholic Church were expropriated. (Most Czechs are Catholic, but the official church presence there was widely perceived as an intrusion of German Catholic influence into the Bohemian, or Czech, community).
b. International Relations Penetrate Czechoslovakian Politics, 1933-39
After 1933, to the north of Czechoslovakia rose a powerful, ideologically guided, dictatorially governed state dedicated to expansionism: the infamous "Third Reich" of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP, or "Nazis"), in Germany. This presented problems to the Czechoslovak state, for while it was composed primarily of two major ethnic groups (i.e., Czechs; Slovaks), there also were substantial German-ethnic minorities within its borders. They were concentrated in the border districts adjacent to Germany. The Germans (3.1 million in the 1921 census) were only one of several potentially disruptive minorities. Nearly three fourths of a million Hungarians, 76,000 Poles, 180,000 Jews, and 459,000 Ruthenes also were present at the establishment of this republic (compared to 6.5 million Czechs and 2.2 million Slovaks; Chambers: pp. 170-171). During the years in which a free Czechoslovakia existed (i.e., 1918-1939), the Sudeten Germans consistently provided a political base for political groups opposed to the Czech policy of alliance with France, as well as other domestic legislation. In order to deal with the potentially seditious direction of political sympathies in these and other minority areas, the state's administration gradually became more Czech in its ethnicity, a direction that was bitterly resented not only by the Sudeten Germans but also by the Slovaks (and others).
During the period after 1933, pro-German political organizations in the Sudetenland emerged which championed an ideology which mirrored that of the NSDAP. Led by Konrad Henlein, the Heimatfront formed paramilitary gangs, usually masquerading as "sports clubs," though some particularly terroristic elements (the "Free Corps") wore their ominous military uniforms to street battles quite openly. In April 1938, this Pan-German fifth column enunciated its "Karlsbad Program" which demanded full home rule for the Sudeten Germans, reparations for injustices they had "suffered" at the hands of the Czechs, and assurances that their fascist ideology could publicly be advocated unperturbed by the police. A month later, the Czech government mobilized 500,000 troops when German troop movements north of the border seemed to suggest an impending German invasion of Czechoslovakia. But this was just a dress rehearsal.
As a precaution against having to stand up to the increasingly militant German Reich on its own, the Benes government concluded two treaties of mutual defense, one with France and the other with the USSR. Each obliged the larger nations to intervene should Czechoslovakia be attacked, though in the Soviet case this was required only if France honored its commitment. This commitment by the USSR was part of its diplomacy of "collective security," which (along with "popular front" tactics prescribed for communist parties in the West) sought to enlist others to check the threat posed to the USSR by a resurgent Germany.
Below, a map visually conveys the regions in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Munich Crisis and World War II:
c. The Crisis of 1938 and the Munich Settlement
Czechoslovakian relations with Hitler's Germany deteriorated into a serious crisis in 1938. The resolution of this rift in the Munich settlement of that year forms one of the most significant lessons in international relations in the 20th Century. French failure to live up to its commitment to protect Czechoslovakia convinced the USSR that collective security would not protect the USSR --a conclusion that led Stalin to take the diplomatic initiative and strike his own separate peace with Hitler the next year (1939). Britain also pursued a policy of "appeasement" toward Hitler during the crisis. In order to avoid general war over Czechoslovakia, Britain urged that the Czech government make concessions to Hitler. But appeasement had just the opposite effect: it appears to have convinced the German dictator that the West had no interest in protecting democracies outside their traditional spheres of influence, and that little would be risked if Germany were aggressively to advance territorial claims in Eastern Europe. To many Czechs --especially Czech communists--, the affair taught a deep lesson about the unreliability of the West.
The crisis unfolded in the Fall of 1938, only a few months after Germany had absorbed Austria and barely a year before general war ultimately would begin to cover the globe. On September 12, Hitler told a party rally at Nuremberg that, in light of the denial of appropriate rights to the Germanic peoples in Czechoslovakia, they "can obtain rights... from us," clearly implying that Germany might invade. This prospect spurred British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to embark on a series of meetings with Hitler, the first three days later at Berchtesgaden (Germany). There Chamberlain and Hitler agreed to a formula by which "self-determination" would be given to the Sudeten Germans: in areas of 50 percent or more Sudeten Germans, the border would be redrawn and that area incorporated into the Reich. French Premier Daladier traveled to London, agreed to this whittling away at his ally, then generously joined in a joint British-French announcement that each would "guarantee" the resulting new border.
In the interim, however, Hitler had decided to up the ante: when Chamberlain returned to Godesburg (Germany) to complete the deal, new conditions were announced by the Fuehrer. Hitler now demanded that Czechoslovakia additionally surrender the Polish inhabited areas to Poland and the Hungarian inhabited areas to Hungary. Moreover, he declared that no "elections" would be used to determine which Germanic counties actually would be designated to be transferred to the Reich (this had been the formula in the earlier Chamberlain-Hitler discussions).
At this point, the Foreign Minister of the USSR, Litvinov, publicly stated that, no matter what Britain and France might be attempting, the USSR would stand by its commitment to the Czech government, should it ask for Red Army protection.
As tensions rose throughout September, the Benes government decided again to mobilize its army: 600,000 troops were placed on full alert. Concurrently, the British Navy was placed into a mobilization for war. Sensing the two incompatible inclinations of the British, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini then urged Hitler to hold one final meeting in an attempt to negotiate a solution. Thus the stage was set for the Munich conference of September 29, 1938. It was attended by the French Premier (Daladier), Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain. (No Soviet, Czech or American diplomats attended). The conclusions of their negotiations were hailed as "Peace in our time" by Chamberlain on his return to Britain. The terms of Munich amounted to complete capitulation to the Germans' aggression, however: (1) the Czechs were given 10 days to withdraw from the Sudetenland; (2) an international commission (not elections) would be appointed to draw up the final new German-Czechoslovak border; (3) France and Britain would "guarantee" the inviolability of this border; (4) Germany and Italy also agreed that they would "guarantee" the new border, but only after Czechoslovakia ceded to Poland and Hungary additional territories; and finally, as a token of its concern, (5) the UK agreed to loan the Benes government 10 million pounds.
These conditions were imposed on the Czechoslovakian government. They meant that the entire system of defensive fortifications the Czechoslovakian state had built were surrendered without a fight. Three fourths of the nation's heavy industries were thereby transferred to Germany, along with many of the key railroads and roads of her transport system. The stockpiles of Czech-produced weapons held at the Skoda Munitions Factory fell into Germany's hands, and the factory itself soon was put to use building materials for the German Army, including a majority of the tanks Germany would deploy in 1939-40.
A German 1939 Panzer tank built at the Skoda Works, painted with German Markings, though manufactured in Reich-absorbed Czechoslovakia
But far more damaging than these material losses were the messages that the entire affair sent to interested third parties. All of the earlier promises made by the Western governments to the democratic Czechs were sacrificed, undermining the credibility worldwide of Western governments that, on occasion, had sought to portray in ideological terms a need for emergence an anti-fascist alliance.
Munich had a number of secondary effects as well. Dishonoring even the despicable conditions of the Munich Pact, Hungary and Poland initiated new demands for Czechoslovakian territories, and won control over them at the Vienna conference of October 1938, with Poland occupying a small piece of territory in November 1938. Hungary then joined with Hitler's Reich simply to absorb and dismember the remainder of the Czechoslovakian state in Spring 1939. None of the "guaranteeing" nations lifted a finger to stop these further aggressions. This lack of resolve can be attributed to the continuation of "appeasement" attitudes in the governmental corridors of France and Britain.
Soviet policy after Munich was more complex. Convinced by Munich that the West would not resist Hitler in any meaningful way, the USSR immediately had began earnest negotiations with the Reich for a separate, bilateral peace agreement. To avoid undermining this diplomatic initiative, no Soviet protest at all was made of the March 1939 erasure of the Czechoslovakian state (see map below) when Germany and Hungary marched in and absorbed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Buttressed eventually by the secret Hitler-Stalin treaty that was negotiated (1939), it is a fine irony that Moscow -- the only government to even orally express its actual willingness to defend Czechoslovakia at the time of the 1938 crisis -- also then endorsed the Munich Agreement as a step toward peace! Only later, after Poland was actually invaded by Germany (September 1939) did the USSR announce opposition to the Reich's (and Hungary's) absorption of Czechoslovakia in its entirety.
Frank P. Chambers, This Age of Conflict (New York: Harcourt, 1962).
For a more brief further case on the policy of appeasement as it was applied in Ethiopia, follow this link.
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