The Munich analogy is one of the symbols invoked most frequently in American foreign policy, and has been for the entirety of the period since World War II. Since the 1970s, it has been challenged by the Vietnam analogy, which is frequently invoked against it. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of this idea, harkening as it does to what is seen as a straightforwardly heroic phase of American history, the time of the 'Greatest Generation'.

The Munich analogy is all about the Munich Conference held in Germany in 1938. In March of that year, the Nazi state had annexed Austria in a move known as the Anschluss. It was well known that Adolf Hitler had his eyes on Czechoslovakia, especially the part of it which contained a large number of ethnic Germans. This part was known as the Sudetenland. So, in September, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier struck a deal with Hitler at Munich. He could have Czechoslovakia. But after that, he could have nothing more. The Czechs had not been represented at the meeting.

Chamberlain famously described it as 'peace for our time'. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, was less sanguine. 'We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat,' he declared in the House of Commons. 'We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude...we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road... And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time'. Although he couldn't know it, he was stating in simple terms a point that would be made again and again in the subsequent history of the twentieth century.

Of course, the Munich conference was not the end of Hitler's ambitions. He now held Western politicians in total contempt for their weakness. His voracious appetite for territory was not sated, and soon he invaded Poland. This precipitated World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history. Maps were redrawn, empires crumbled, and sixty million people died. Obviously, the fascist Axis powers and their Soviet fellow-travellers were mostly to blame for this. But the complicity of France and Britain in Hitler's rise was never forgotten. This was especially the case because it soon became known that in 1938, Germany's military was weak and could have been defeated by the Western powers if they had resisted Hitler's revisionism.

The immediate lessons

Their failure to do so became the emblem of a particular strain in Western thought about foreign policy, especially in the United States. The majority of thinkers in the United States saw Europe as the perennial home of tyrants, whereas they regarded their own country to be the abode of remarkable virtue. World War II was not just a world catastrophe, but was specifically interpreted as an American catastrophe; one that the United States had been dragged into against its will by mendacious dictators and cynical appeasers. If the U.S. was going to prevent this from happening again, it would have to carry out two tasks. Firstly, it would have to build an international system girded by multilateral institutions which discouraged aggression. Secondly, it would have to respond quickly to any sign of aggression that threatened this system.

The raft of multilateral institutions set up by the United States after the war were for the most part planned in the early 1940s, when most of the New Dealers in the Roosevelt administration saw the USSR as a future ally. However, the fact of Soviet aggression and the onset of the Cold War meant they had to survive in a much more adversarial environment. The battlefields of Korea were the first test. Invoking the Munich analogy in explaining the reasons for the war, President Truman declared that if the allies 'had followed the right in policies in the 1930s - if the free countries had acted together to crush the aggression of the dictators, and if they had acted at the beginning when the aggression was small - there probably would have been no World War II. If history has taught us anything, it is that aggression anywhere in the world is a threat to peace everywhere in the world'.

Such an expansive interpretation of America's security responsibilities dominated the nation's discourse for decades. Some took it to an extreme conclusion, arguing that the United States should engage in 'rollback' and actually invade the Soviet Union while it was still weak - and crucially, non-atomic - after the world war. Given the Soviet Union's avowed goal (rhetorical or not) of world domination, they argued that a decisive confrontation would come sooner or later anyway - why not bring it about now, while we are strong and they are weak? Although the proponents of rollback thought they had found their man in Dwight D. Eisenhower, he proved disappointing to them. Instead, 'containment' became the order of the day.

The lessons of Vietnam

The consensus in American foreign policy which followed the onset of the Cold War suffered a blow in the jungles of Vietnam. The Munich analogy counseled assertion in the international realm, seeking to find and confront any aggressor before he could sin against the international system. The lessons of Vietnam, meanwhile, were the opposite: American power seemed malignant and counterproductive, and it was widely argued that it might have been best if it were exercised as infrequently as possible. This seemed to be especially so in a region of the world that was as 'peripheral' as Indochina, a small region on the Eurasian rimland that was far removed from the more important points of conflict down the middle of Europe and the two Koreas.

With America humbled, the Munich analogy seemed in retreat. Many argued that the United States no longer had the power or the will to cast itself as the defender of freedom everywhere. There was widespread doubt in American society that the projection of American power could be beneficial for the world. American exceptionalism was no longer the dominant paradigm, as it seemed that the war in Vietnam had proven that American power was not qualitatively different to the power of any other nation-state in its negative consequences. The Munich analogy was not completely defeated. When the SS Mayaguez was taken captive by the Khmer Rouge, the National Security Council agreed that if it did not rise to this small challenge, much more painful ones would arise in Southeast Asia.

The turnaround in the Cold War had little to do with Munich, as it involved the confrontation of an established state that was in fact past the peak of its power, not approaching it. It began to be employed again after the Cold War was over, in the numerous small wars fought against 'little Hitlers' in places like Iraq and Serbia. Both dictators found themselves compared to Hitler by U.S. presidents, who went on to argue that if they were not firmly resisted, they would go on to act just like the infamous German and cause even more pain for the world later on. However, the analogy was used selectively and when it suited the United States; the resistance of any aggression anywhere in the world was no longer seen as a desirable or credible goal for American foreign policy. It was judged less costly to deter and contain potential foes than to strike at them. In that respect, the lessons of Munich had been tempered by the lessons of Vietnam.

The lessons of Iraq?

After 9/11, President Bush unveiled the Bush Doctrine, one tenet of which is the use of pre-emptive force against potential threats. 'I will not wait on events, while dangers gather,' Bush informed the Republic in his 2002 State of the Union address. 'I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer'. A few months later he returned to this theme in another major address, vowing to 'take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge'. The impact of the Munich analogy is clear, and was invoked to justify the war against Iraq. Vice-President Cheney joined the dots when he summarized the views of the wars opponents: 'The argument comes down to this: Yes, Saddam is as dangerous as we say he is. We just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it'.

One of the reasons that the Bush administration went into Iraq was because it perceived that Saddam was breaking out of the regime of containment imposed in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and that if they did not act now he would only get stronger. They also hoped to send a message to any other potentially troublesome regional power. Lawerence F. Kaplan and William Kristol summarized this angle in their widely-cited book in support of the war: 'A strong America capable of projecting force quickly and with devastating effect to important regions of the world would make it less likely that challengers to regional stability would attempt to alter the status quo in their favor. It might even deter such challengers from undertaking to arm themselves in the first place. An America whose willingness to project force is in doubt, on the other hand, can only encourage such challenges'.

'The message we should be sending to potential foes is: "Don't even think about it"', they conclude.1 This is a return to the global pretensions of American security in the early days of the Cold War. They are advocating a strategy of pro-actively confronting tyranny and aggression wherever it is to be found to discourage it emerging anywhere it might be found in the future. Yet it is possible that the Bush administration has led American power into a period of purgatory, if not a permanent graveyard, in Iraq. Weighing against the Munich analogy there are now not only the lessons of Vietnam, but also the lessons of Iraq.

Meanwhile dangers gather; and peril draws closer.

1. Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, The War Over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission (San Francisco, 2003), p. 123 - 4.