Sept. 30 is the 50th anniversary of the signing, at Munich, Germany, of an agreement which averted the threat of immediate war with Hitler at the cost of disarming and partitioning Czechoslovakia.Most Americans now seem to believe that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's role in arbitrating this agreement amounted to betrayal and brought on World War II.
I will consider whether what he did was morally and politically right - and whether, in fact, it averted war long enough to make it possible for the Allies to win and gave them the moral rightness and unity necessary for victory.
In 1937, Hitler was entering the most threatening phase of his aggressive policies in Europe. In this atmosphere of impending war, Hugh B. Brown, later an apostle and member of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, was sent to England as the mission president. Late that year, he wrote two editorials for the mission journal, the Millennial Star, attempting to relate Christian principles to the current situation.
He was convinced that all participants in war, whoever is most responsible, suffer beyond all possible gains: "Both sides seem to find it necessary to overcome the kindly and humane attitudes which should characterize our civilization, to invite hatred and passion and to justify on a wholesale scale the very things which we condemn in the individual." What made all this moral destruction most horrible to him is that "War has never settled anything satisfactorily" (711).
But what do you do about a Hitler? Brown answers: (1) "The development of a body of international law . . . for certain types of international problems" and (2) " `Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' must someday apply to nations" (716). In his second editorial, "The Seeds of Peace" (Dec. 16), he quotes again Christ's command that we love our enemies and do good to them that hate us, and he asks, "Can this (rule) for individual conduct be made to apply to nations in their dealings with one another?" Brown answers, definitely yes, and he asks, "Would it not be a clear-sighted ideal for the state to advocate restraint, patience, peace-making, and love?"
This all sounds like a wonderful ideal, but what if you are facing, in a real world, mad beasts like Hitler and "evil empires" like Russia? President Brown's answer is unequivocal: "We must get away from the idea that one group of individuals are the favored children of the Lord, or that any other group is entitled to His displeasure as a group . . . War in all its phases is so diametrically opposed to the `Love Thy Neighbor' rule that no one could with consistency maintain that (Christ), in any sense, favored the resort to arms" (804).
This idealistic position was soon put to the test, when in 1938 Hitler turned his aggression to Czechoslovakia and escalated his demands until Chamberlain made the agreement at Munich.
Not only was there general approval in England, but President Brown immediately wrote an editorial for the Millennial Star, published Oct. 6, in which he unreservedly praised the Lord for blessing Chamberlain's efforts and Chamberlain for his courageous application of Christian principles in dealing with Hitler and avoiding war.
Six months later, Hitler took over the rest of Czechoslovakia and a year later invaded Poland, bringing on World War II. Do subsequent events mean that President Brown, as well as Chamberlain, were proven wrong and foolish in trying to apply Christian principles to conflict? Doesn't appeasement cause wars?
We simply don't know and can't. But no great religion has claimed that the truth or value of its moral principles depends on their practical effectiveness. Honesty is not necessarily the best policy for getting rich, and loving your enemies is not guaranteed to be a good policy for saving your life. Chamberlain at Munich did not prevent war, but he did what was right by Christian principles applied to international affairs.
President Brown never recanted his approval, and Mormon prophets have consistently supported his insistence that such Christian principles must be applied to nations, whatever the cost.
It was actually the refusal of further compromise one year later that brought the war directly on, and it can be argued that if Chamberlain had responded to Hitler's threats with threats and force rather than forbearance, the war would have begun in 1938 - and Germany would have won it! The nearly two years between Munich and Hitler's attack on England gave crucial time to the Allies to prepare for the war that Hitler was apparently determined to wage, no matter what.
And perhaps more crucially, the nearly unanimous feeling that we had, according to our highest religious and moral standards, done everything possible to avert war, gave the Allies a unity and hope for Divine assistance that may well have been crucial.
That we have not enjoyed that moral unity - nor that success - in our wars since may suggest we have more to learn from Chamberlain than from those who dismiss or attack him on this anniversary.