The Lessons of Munich and Vietnam


September 06, 1993|By JEANE KIRKPATRICK

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Is it impossible for people to learn from the experience of others, for one generation to learn from those who came before? Have the leaders of the Western world already forgotten the famous lessons of the century -- Munich and Vietnam?

There are no perfect historical analogies. No time, place or circumstance is quite like any other. But personality types and patterns of behavior recur, and this makes the lessons of one period relevant and useful to the problems of the next: as the experience of Munich relates to Bosnia, for example.

The deal cut by Britain and France at Munich on September 28, 1938, and forced by them on a reluctant Czechoslovakia, is not exactly like the deal worked out by Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg and urged on unwilling Bosnians. Serbia is not Germany, and Slobodan Milosevic lacks some of the political skills of Adolf Hitler.

Still, there is much in common between these events. At Munich, Western powers formally accepted the dismemberment of a Central European state and offered international guarantees even as they urged on Czechoslovakia surrender of territory and defensibility. The deal was done by honorable, well-intentioned men who longed to preserve a semblance of peace in Central Europe and believed territorial concessions would appease the appetites of the expansionist, nationalist Nazi government and a leader notable for extremism, chauvinism, religious intolerance and violence.

The French news magazine Le Point recently noted the similarity between Nazi and Serbian governments and leaders and wrote that Mr. Milosevic has, by his record of rapes, murders, torture and mass deportations, ''earned a place for himself among the great villains of the century -- Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.'' He is also, it notes, the big winner in Yugoslavia's civil war, much (I note) as Adolf Hitler was a big winner in his early aggressions.

Once again there are Western diplomats ready to recognize borders changed by force and to coerce victims of aggression into accepting their country's dismemberment. And once again the Western negotiators offer guarantees, as in 1938 Britain and France offered guarantees to a truncated Czech state, that the new borders will be respected more than the old.

Now: Will the appeasement of Mr. Milosevic prove not only dishonorable, but as unsuccessful as Munich in pacifying a Central European nationalist the world finds difficult to take seriously? Will Western guarantees of indefensible Bosnian borders prove no more reliable than Western guarantees of defense of a truncated Czechoslovakia? Yes.

Will the experience of appeasement demoralize France, Britain, the European Community and NATO as surrender to Hitler's demands demoralized Western governments in 1938 and 1939? Will it undermine their credibility and encourage further aggression, as happened in 1939? Yes.

Respect for the lessons of Munich and understanding of the folly of appeasement guided American leaders from Harry Truman through George Bush. Does Bill Clinton, a man of a different generation, understand the lessons of Munich at a time when his European colleagues have forgotten them? What would Mr. Clinton do if he desired to act on the basis of those lessons? Certain things are clear.

We would not speak or act as if neutral between aggressors and victims of aggression. We would not acquiesce in the acquisition of territory by force, or reward ethnic cleansing, or enforce boundaries established by ethnic cleansing and force.

We would use U.S. or NATO air power -- whichever seemed more feasible -- and, acting under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, break the sieges and end the devastation imposed on Muslims by Serbian forces. We would block the flow of weapons, ammunition, fuel and food from Serbia into Bosnia.

We would not send thousands of U.S. ground troops to enforce an unjust settlement. Such open-ended deployment of forces in an enterprise with ambiguous goals, and which is opposed by the indigenous population, is extremely imprudent.

That brings me to the second great learning experience for the United States in this century -- Vietnam. Does the U.S. president understand the lessons of that experience? Mr. Clinton's commitment of U.S. troops to Somalia and his promise of 20,000 ground forces in Bosnia raise serious questions about whether he has studied the lessons of his generation's war.

The Vietnam War, too, was -- like our new commitment in Somalia -- born of honorable motives and dedicated to serving principles of non-aggression. But before it was over, Americans RTC involved in the effort had learned it was a terrible mistake to try to remake -- not to help, but to remake -- a culturally and geographically remote country, to rid it of a leader not to our liking and to install a different one.

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