The Munich Analogy - Reagan, bush, and the gulf war

President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy perspective was clearly the product of the past. Reagan's mental pictures of the world had been formed when the Nazi storm was gathering in Europe and Imperial Japan was on the march in China. He viewed the world through 1930s eyes, and he learned his generation's lesson that unwillingness to confront aggression invariably invited war. For him, the very word "appeasement" connoted surrender. President Reagan often invoked the image of Munich in order to belittle the critics of his Nicaraguan policies as "appeasers" of the Sandinistas. His administration had used Nicaraguan rebels, the contras, to pressure and ultimately cause the overthrow of the legitimate Sandinista regime. He was supported in this by the ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who argued in 1985 that the Munich analogy was appropriate in this case.

Reagan frequently made use of the Munich analogy during his presidency. In a March 1983 address before the Evangelist Society about the threat of Marxist-Leninism, he criticized the "historical reluctance to see totalitarian powers for what they are…. We saw this phenomenon in the 1930s." He cautioned that "if history teaches us anything, it teaches that simpleminded or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly." In August 1983 he told the American Legion that "Neville Chamberlain thought of peace as a vague policy in the 1930s, and the result brought us closer to World War II. History teaches us that by being strong and resolute we can keep the peace." Throughout its eight years, the Reagan administration bargained from a position of strength, at great cost to the public purse, to prove its point.

President George H. W. Bush relied heavily upon the Munich analogy in his speeches during the crisis in the Persian Gulf, which ultimately led to the Gulf War of 1990–1991. Munich was the perfect example in this case, and Bush used it to argue that to forget the lessons of appeasement would be to betray the sacrifices made in World War II. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush invoked World War II to reinforce his message of intervention. The United States, he said, had to stand "where it always has—against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law." The Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein particularly was linked to Hitler, to reinforce the necessity of standing up to dictators. "Half a century ago, the world had the chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it. I pledge to you: We will not make the same mistake again."

Possibly because the Vietnam syndrome had come to overshadow all foreign policy, Bush needed a historical analogy that would convince the American public that this was the fight worth fighting to the end. In doing so, Bush tried to avoid parallels between the Gulf crisis and Vietnam, which carried the stigma of a protracted and unwinnable involvement in a foreign war, by using Munich as the relevant analogy. When Bush announced that he was sending forces to Saudi Arabia, he reminded the country that "a half century ago our nation and the world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who should and could have been stopped. We're not about to make that mistake twice."

Bush invoked the Munich analogy to persuade other nations that the world would be even more dangerous if the United States were to refuse to fight, and also used it when he praised the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for condemning the Iraqi invasion. He said that this demonstrated "that nations which joined to fight aggression in the Second World War can work together to stop the aggressors of today." Consequently, the construction of a narrative in which Munich, not Vietnam, served as the perfect unifying symbol struck just the right chord.

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