Munich mania and historical ignorance

     Hands clasped in friendship, Adolf Hitler and England's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, are shown in this historic pose at Munich on Sept. 30, 1938. This was the day when the premier of France and England signed the Munich agreement, sealing the fate of Czechoslovakia. Next to Chamberlain is Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany. Paul Schmidt, an interpreter, stands next to Hitler. (AP Photo)

    Hands clasped in friendship, Adolf Hitler and England's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, are shown in this historic pose at Munich on Sept. 30, 1938. This was the day when the premier of France and England signed the Munich agreement, sealing the fate of Czechoslovakia. Next to Chamberlain is Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany. Paul Schmidt, an interpreter, stands next to Hitler. (AP Photo)

    As I briefly mentioned on Friday, the right-wing hawks have freaked about our potential nuke deal with Iran by rotely invoking “Munich” and “Neville Chamberlain.” In their dystopic world view, it’s always 1938 and the Nazis are always poised to conquer.

    Mark Kirk, the Republican Illinois senator who is usually described as “moderate,” assailed Thursday’s framework agreement by saying, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler.” The terminally wrong Bill Kristol tweeted about Munich. An attack group, American Legacy PAC, put up an ad that morphs Chamberlain into Barack Obama. And so on.

    Granted, this rhetorical trope is old and tired. Back in ’13, when Obama attended a memorial service for Nelson Mandela and shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro, a scandalized John McCain grumped, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.” Back in ’10, when Obama was talking with Russia about nuclear arms reductions, the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank rebuked him for his “Neville Chamberlain moment.” Early last month, Ted Cruz (natch) said of the Iran negotiations, “I believe we are at a moment like Munich in 1938.”

    But the latest outbreak of Munich mania got me thinking: What if we actually compared and contrasted 1938 and 2015?

    Well, let’s see…In 1938, Nazi Germany was by far the most potent military power in the western world (across the pond, America had a tiny army that trained with leftover Great War weapons) , and Hitler advertised his ambitious territorial aims. European Jews were scattered among many nations, powerless and unarmed. European democracies, in their dealings with the unstoppable dictator, tried everything from threats to engagement. But as historian Donald Cameron Watt concluded in his seminal book How War Came, “neither firmness nor appeasement, the piling up of more armaments, nor the demonstration of more determination, would stop Hitler.”

    In other words, Hitler was Hitler. Nobody in 2015 – and certainly not any leader in Iran – is remotely analogous to Hitler. In 2015, America is the most potent military power in the world; Iran isn’t remotely close. And even though it exports terrorism, it has no Hitleresque territorial aims; since the 1979 revolution, its borders haven’t budged an inch – and its power is counterbalanced by a nuclear-armed Jewish state. And whereas Chamberlain, in Munich, sought to avoid war in 1938 by giving Hitler chunks of Czechoslovakia, Obama’s negotiators have coaxed Iran to curb its potential nuclear capability and open itself to routine international inspections.

    Go read the Munich deal. You’ll search in vain for any provision that requires Hitler to destroy a single tank or weapon; nor any provision that requires Hitler to host outside inspectors.

    See how easy that was?

    Yes, Munich mania is likely to resonate with those Americans who base their opinions on historical ignorance. But, fortunately, that’s a minority of the populace; according to a new national poll, Americans support a nuclear deal with Iran by nearly 2-1. The hawks who are jonesing for war with Iran may think it’s Neville and Adolf redux, and that geopolitics hasn’t altered a whit, but most of us are sane enough to know that ’38 was so 77 years ago.

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    Sarah Brady, who died Friday at 73, didn’t intend to become the most prominent foe of the gun lobby. Even after her husband, Reagan press secretary Jim Brady, was seriously wounded in 1981 by John Hinckley Jr. – who had illegally purchased his cheap gun at a Texas pawnshop – Sarah showed no interest in activism. She was busy nursing Jim and raising a toddler. And she was a good Republican, having worked for several GOP politicians as well as the Republican National Committee.

    But – as she told me during an interview over lunch in 1986 – she later had an epiphany.

    She said, “the single-most thing that got to me” occurred in 1984, when the family stopped at the Illinois home of Jim’s mother, shortly after the Republican National Convention. A friend offered to drive Sarah and son Scott to a nearby swimming pool. Scott, five years old at the time, jumped into the pickup truck – and began to play with a gun that was lying on the front seat.

    “Scott,” his mother recalled saying, “don’t ever point that at anybody, even a toy.” She assumed it was a toy – until she took it away from him. Then she froze. It was a .22, like Hinckley’s gun, and she could tell it was loaded by the weight. She asked the driver about it. He didn’t seem shocked that a boy had picked it up. He told her that he needed the gun for protection.

    “That brought it all together for me,” she told me during our ’86 lunch. “Here was this lackadaisical attitude. It made me really fear for my child. I’ll tell you, for the next year, I worried myself sick that, when Scott would go play at people’s houses, I kept thinking, ‘Do you suppose they have a loaded gun around and he’ll find it?’ We have a real cavalier attitude toward guns in this country. I think maybe we’re just too young a country to know better.”

    So she took on that cavalier attitude, working for six years on what became known as the Brady Bill, signed into law by Bill Clinton in ’93, mandating a waiting period and background check on all handgun buys from federally licensed dealers. The law also (eventually) paved the way for the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which today speeds those checks online.

    Obviously, she suffered many gun-bill defeats over the years – it’s the NRA’s world, she only lived in it – but her twin legacies are the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. Sarah told me that she didn’t “just want to be bellyaching behind the scenes.” So she made a difference.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

     

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