Echoes from the past: The haunting legacy of Chamberlain's "Peace for our time"
By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
It's been said that a "peace at all costs is no peace at all." Thomas Jefferson received credit for a similar statement of profound simplicity: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Such aphorisms are as true now as they were two hundred years ago; no better evidence of their veracity can be found than the geopolitical maneuvering that preceded WWII, and the human tragedies that were multiplied by the naive and deliberate ignorance of several key leaders of their time.
In 1938, Adolph Hitler's boundless and already-proven military aggression presented an existential threat for Europe and much of the world. England's Prime Minister at that time, Neville Chamberlain was determined to mollify and appease this violent, genocidal tyrant. Instead of a full-scale German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain agreed to portions of its annexe. In exchange, Hitler supposedly agreed to cease hostilities against Poland. Returning to England, Neville Chamberlain gave his promise of an agreed peace and closed his remarks with, "Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."
So often lately we have heard this word, "peace", thrown around as if it were a human virtue and a guaranteed right to everyone who will "just cooperate" with everyone else. It didn't work for England in WWII. Repeated promises to Israel of "Land for Peace" has not worked, not even for a short while. The abrupt and careless withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and subsequent abandonment of our citizens and allies was not a sign of peace or good will. Instead it was a symptom of strategic failure, bad intelligence, poor communication and a complete lack of vigilance. Needless human tragedy, international embarrassment aside, it was a long-awaited sign for dictators and anarchists worldwide–all those who would profit from our weak leadership and the attending lapse of power–leaving a vacuum for less-than-benevolent opportunists.
For over two decades Vladimir Putin's plan for Russia, and the entire former Soviet bloc, has been no secret. The only mystery was in his tactics, but even this began to clarify after so many of Putin's political opponents were either jailed, poisoned, or both. The most baffling element in all of this is how so many people could be so surprised and outraged by recent events in the Ukraine. Putin has repeatedly displayed military aggression and other characteristics of a totalitarian leader. He has twice invaded and seized portions of Georgia, as well as annexing portions of Belarus and Ukraine, and in 2014 Putin's forces invaded and seized Crimea. The Russian leader's behavior was somewhat subdued during Trump's presidency but this could never be interpreted as a sudden change of mind or plans.
Throughout much of its short history, the newly-independent Ukranian democracy has been preparing for, and requesting membership in, the NATO and EU coalitions. Successive Ukrainian presidents have overseen the revision and ratification of their constitution in order to gain membership in NATO, but political foot-dragging in the UN has continued for nearly 20 years even as this current crisis first loomed in April 2021.
President Biden's reason for refusing military aid to Ukraine is that they don't have full NATO membership. Pure hypocrisy shows itself again–Afghanistan and Iraq were never NATO members, nor was this ever a contingency of US military aid. Front page news of NATO forces being deployed for the first time in history is, like nearly everything now, just a pile of theatrics. Troops are being sent to the borders of surrounding countries that are NATO members, leaving the Ukrainian people and forces to their fate. During his conference with EU leaders Friday, Ukrainian president Zelensky said this might be the last time he speaks with them. The Russian army has a "hit list"; certain leaders and other civilians are under direct threat and many hundreds are already dead.
Allowing the city of Kiev to fall into Russian hands is a crime against humanity–it was foreseen and could've been prevented. An empty suit in the White House is no deterrent to a tyrant like Putin, just as a groveling politician like Neville Chamberlain had no business holding the fate of England (or Czechoslovakia) in his hands. Many lives have been lost already so that "Sleepy Joe" could take his quiet afternoon nap. Vladimir Putin has been watching and waiting, and he waited for this moment to make his move. He knows Biden won't give the order to grab a weapon and stand that post; he also knows Biden will continue making decisions (shutting down the Keystone pipeline) that hurt Americans and help Russia. If Putin's forces aren't repelled at Kiev, where will the next line be drawn and who will hold that line? Can NATO troops withstand the Russian army and Putin's threat of nuclear force?
It was in England's darkest hours that Chamberlain finally stepped down, and Winston Churchill stepped up to fulfill his wartime duties as Prime Minister. He is perhaps the most well-known of all the Allied leaders--a man who refused to concede or negotiate with tyrants; he was willing to do what was right, despite overwhelming odds and it is leaders like Winston Churchill who do not rest until every last human being is safe and accounted for. He knew the only way to defend peace was to sacrifice the comforts of complacency. Perhaps these qualities are uncommon, but they are a necessity. It is only through great adversity that a person's true character is born and the best of them were born for such times as these.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing and has a degree in Molecular Biology. © 2022