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Appeasement yesterday and today

The Missoulian published on Oct. 3, an op-ed by two of Montana’s eminent political figures, Bob Brown and Marc Racicot. They mounted a vigorous defense of Washington’s Ukraine policy and called for its continuation. Curtailing American economic and military support would be tantamount to appeasement, the failed “strategy that led directly to World War II.”

Two of Montana’s eminent political figures of an earlier day, Burton K. Wheeler and Jeannette Rankin, present us with a different way of viewing the question of appeasement and the Second World War. They did not think that appeasement should be used as the starting point in accounting for the conflict’s slaughter of fifty million people worldwide.

That tragedy began with the vengeful policies of the victors following the First World War. British economist John Maynard Keynes, who had been present at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, described the measures taken there as a taunt to the gods. Greed, nationalism, and imperialism dominated the proceedings. The Germans would be back, he predicted: “Men will not always die quietly.”

Senator Wheeler visited Europe in 1923 to observe the destruction that the conflict and its aftermath had caused. The sight of vanquished Germany filled Wheeler with dread. No opportunity to insult, degrade, and humiliate the Germans had been overlooked.

Starving the Germans with a wanton perpetuation of the wartime blockade until they signed the Treaty of Versailles had produced horrors that Wheeler witnessed on his European tour. Käethe Kollwitz’s etchings, woodcuts, and posters give us an idea of what he saw in Germany. Her powerful anti-war works of art show the real origins of the Second World War.

Hitler would be the primary beneficiary of the crisis that misconceived Allied policies created in postwar Germany. As a U.S. senator during the 1930s, Wheeler tried to keep the United States out of war, thinking with revisionist historians like Charles Austin Beard that the imperialist order created at the Paris Peace Conference constituted the main cause of the postwar crisis.

Congresswoman Rankin also addressed the causes of the Second World War, in a speech not delivered to Congress but entered into the Congressional Record for December 8, 1942. By then the United States had been at war for a year. She had gained notoriety in 1917 as one of the few members of Congress to vote against war. She had stood alone in Congress in opposing the war resolution of December 8, 1941.

In Rankin’s speech a year later, she wondered what our own policies and actions might have had to do with instigating the war in the Pacific. She quoted from an article published in the Christian Century on the eve of Pearl Harbor, to explain the true motive for America’s entry into the Second World War: “‘that the whole colonial structure of the white empires is threatening to fall apart unless we intervene in Asia.’” She understood the war’s backstory in the division of imperial spoils at the Paris Peace Conference twenty-three years earlier.

By ignoring the back story to appeasement in the 1930s, our current leaders are drawing the wrong lessons from the Second World War in their recommendations to Washington for more weapons, more bombing, and more economic strangulation as solutions in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine also has a back story in the struggle between the United States and Russia over territories, markets, and resources. As the real issues are material things rather than sacred ideals there should be a way of figuring out a workable compromise in Ukraine, short of landing the world in Armageddon.

This OpEd first appeared in the Thursday, October 26, 2023, issue of the Missoulian.

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