Best Defense

One cheer for appeasement, especially in dealing with tensions in the Pacific

Recently a headline advised, “Here's How to Avoid World War Three.”



By John Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist

Recently a headline advised, “Here’s How to Avoid World War Three.” As I read the article I recalled the collective behavior and patterns prior to the second of the 20th Century World Wars. We are fortunate to have these examples because they highlight some significant elements.
First, prior to the Second World War, we saw the example of two cases of so-called appeasement, one on each side of the globe, both with similarities to the issues at play with Russian and Ukraine (and Georgia for that matter) and with China’s expansionist maritime moves in the Pacific. Both prior to WWII and today, in Europe and in the Pacific, these events posed (and pose) major challenges to the existing global system of collective security designed to avoid another world war. The insights we get from the two cases prior to WWII could not be more different, but they have great value for today because they force us to pose — probably — the right sorts of general questions.
Appeasement. It is such an ugly word, at least for Westerners — socialists, liberals, and conservatives alike. It brings up images of Hitler, Banzai “cheers” at Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937, and Italian planes gassing Ethiopian tribesmen in the period between World Wars I and II. It also brings up images of (maybe) the Japanese Delegation walking out of the League of Nations in 1933; the Emperor Halie Selassie famously speaking at that same League three years later; and most of all British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a “scrap of paper” after returning from Munich in 1938 and triumphantly proclaiming “peace in our time.” Appeasement at one time seemed the best choice to avoid World War, or some other moderate form of it.

Is appeasement a problem today? In 2015? There are many who think it is — both vis-à-vis Russia and China.

First there is the case of the appeasement of Hitler, generally regarded as the classic lesson of why appeasement never works.   The problem with this “lesson” is that it often does not account for two errors in thinking. The first has to do with the fact that we know after the fact that appeasement, or some conciliatory policy toward what many believed were valid German irredentist claims, did not work. If only Hitler’s policies had been opposed by collective action in 1935 (when Germany rearmed) or any year thereafter it might have altered the Nazi leader’s behavior. We know how things turned out, but folks at the time did not and all we have to offer is speculation. The second problem is that Hitler was fundamentally “un-appeasable.” It is now known that Hitler and his supporters were fundamentally committed to a war of revenge and conquest no matter what. This should always lead us to consider who we are dealing with and to ask, “are they appeasable?” For example, it is clear to just about everyone that Kim Jong Un and North Korea are not appeasable. So the more important question to ask is not “is X appeasable” but rather “is X un-appeasable?”

So, when it comes to the issue of Vladimir Putin and Russia, we must ask the question “is he fundamentally un-appeasable?” So far Putin has not launched an all-out Blitzkrieg, but there are three cases (Georgia, Crimea, and now East Ukraine) where it appears policies intended to mollify his and Russia’s irredentist claims have come up short. Is “bad Vlad” unappeasable, or does he, or any Russian leader for that matter, have a “tipping point” of satisfaction? Where is George Kennan when we need him?   Kennan’s answer from an earlier time was “no,” Stalin was not appeasable and Russia had to be “contained.”

Imperial Japan offers different lessons. Could she be appeased? This is a much more difficult question. Just as the Europeans appeased Hitler, the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations seemed to appease Japan over the issue of China, starting with Japan’s seizure of Manchuria in 1931 and up to the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, the event that got the U.S. into the war once and for all. The Japanese case, roughly applicable to China today, is the more subtle one. However, the U.S. did “push back” on Japan by supporting the Nationalist regime in China and taking advantage of Japanese missteps in 1937 when they did not declare war. FDR used this as a means to circumvent the Neutrality Act and send arms and trainers (such as Claire Chennault) to help the Chinese against the Japanese. By 1939 the U.S increased its financial, and then economic pressures, on Japan, which relied heavily on the U.S. for raw materials (especially oil) to prosecute its war-but-not-war in China. Nonetheless, FDR still followed a cautious policy vis-à-vis Japan; for example, refusing to fortify Guam in 1939 in order not to provoke Japan. In the second case, the actions were not so much appeasement as they were about avoiding war in order to buy time to rearm for a potential war on two fronts — in the Atlantic AND the Pacific. Also, the speculative case for harsher action against Japan in the early 1930s producing a different result is hard to support, the Great Depression provided the context and Japan’s government was well on her way to a military-dominated foreign policy by 1930. Is a similar dynamic at work in China — is the People’s Liberation Army now calling the shots for foreign policy inside the Politburo and the Central Military Committee? Her maritime challenge to the existing international maritime regime is a troubling sign that perhaps this is the case.

Few serious decision makers today ascribe to the sort of Western actions labeled as appeasement vis-à-vis Hitler. But we need something beyond the word “diplomacy” to describe actions that, while not classical appeasement, are alternatives to all-or-none calls to war as opposed to prostrate submission. This vocabulary includes moderation, compromise, conciliation, and even quid pro quo, but such words must be used with the understanding that the global system, the international rules based system that has served us so well for the last 70 years, is non-negotiable.

Full blown acquiescence, as in the case with Hitler, is certainly not called for, either in the Pacific and probably even less so in Ukraine. The question to ask, always, of a policy of moderation and conciliation is: What does it buy us? Is it keeping a worthwhile collective security system, the “rules based” international system, in place? Or is our policy fatally undermining the existing system on the way to some 21st Century version of the 1930s? Of the two cases today, that in Eastern Europe is most troubling and is more overtly destabilizing. Non-appeasement (whatever that means) is called for in that realm.

In the Pacific, remaining strong and conceding nothing as far as existing United Nations Agreements are concerned is best, but without the overheated rhetoric. Emphasizing defense of existing rules is a much easier case to make than trying to help another nation reclaim seized territory. So let the action fit the context. But toning down the rhetoric, at least in the Pacific, is probably a wise course. The prize to be sought is maintaining a system of collective security that has served the globe well since the last World War in 1945. That is the best way to avoid another World War.

John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Professor of Military History and has served on the faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College since July 2000, retiring from the naval service in 2004. He flew reconnaissance and combat missions during the last decade of the Cold War, the First Gulf War (Desert Storm), Iraq and the Persian Gulf (Southern Watch), and the Balkans (Deliberate Force over Bosnia). He earned a Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. His most recent book is Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (2015).


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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