Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo

Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo

by Jeffrey Record

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In examining the influence of historical analogies on decisions to use--or not use--force, military strategist Jeffrey Record assesses every major application of U.S. force from the Korean War to the NATO war on Serbia. Specifically, he looks at the influence of two analogies: the democracies? appeasement of Hitler at Munich and America's defeat in the Vietnam War.…  See more details below


In examining the influence of historical analogies on decisions to use--or not use--force, military strategist Jeffrey Record assesses every major application of U.S. force from the Korean War to the NATO war on Serbia. Specifically, he looks at the influence of two analogies: the democracies? appeasement of Hitler at Munich and America's defeat in the Vietnam War. His book judges the utility of these two analogies on presidential decision-making and finds considerable misuse of them in situations where force was optional. He points to the Johnson administration's application of the Munich analogy to the circumstances of Southeast Asia in 1965 as the most egregious example of their misuse, but also cites the faulty reasoning by historical analogy that prevailed among critics of Reagan's policy in Central America and in Clinton's use of force in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.

The author's findings show generational experience to be a key influence on presidential decision-making: Munich persuaded mid-twentieth-century presidents that force should be used early and decisively while Vietnam cautioned later presidents against using force at all. Both analogies were at work for the Gulf War, with Munich urging a decision for war and Vietnam warning against a graduated and highly restricted use of force. Record also reminds us of the times when presidents have used analogies to mobilize public support for action they have already decided to take. Addressing both the process of presidential decision-making and the wisdom of decisions made, this well-reasoned book offers timely lessons to a broad audience that includes political scientists, military historians, defense analysts, and policy makers, as well as those simply curious about history's influence.

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Chapter One

Munich and Vietnam:

Lessons Drawn

Munich was the most spectacular act of territorial appeasement in a chain of acts that began with Germany's uncontested military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. As such, the very name "Munich" became, and remains to this day, synonymous with the larger phenomenon of the democracies' territorial appeasement in the 1930s of Nazi Germany in Europe, Fascist Italy in Africa, and Imperial Japan in China and Southeast Asia. The enduring symbol of Munich is Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain, having just deplaned at Heston Airport following his third trip to see Hitler, waving a copy of the agreement in his hand and pronouncing "peace in our time." War followed less than a year later.

    The Munich Conference of September 1938, attended by Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Premier Edouard Daladier of France, was held to discuss Hitler's demand for the incorporation into the Third Reich of those areas of Czechoslovakia—the Sudetenland—harboring ethnic German population majorities. The Sudetenland fronted the Czech-German border and contained powerful fortifications essential to Czechoslovakia's defense against German attack. At the time of the conference, to which Czech representatives were invited only as observers (they had to stay in their hotel rooms under Gestapo guard until the fate of their country was decided), Czechoslovakia enjoyed a defensive alliance with France.

    Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland was but the latest in a series of German moves that suggested his determinationto expand the Third Reich to encompass, at a minimum, all German territory "lost" after World War I. During the first years of his dictatorship Hitler had denounced the Treaty of Versailles settlement imposed on Germany in 1919, initiated Germany's treaty-prohibited rearmament, and revoked Germany's membership in the League of Nations. In 1936, Hitler ordered the military reoccupation of the treaty-demilitarized Rhineland, and France did nothing, even though reoccupation dealt a disabling blow to the credibility of French military guarantees to other potential victims of Nazi aggression. The credibility of those guarantees rested on France's willingness to invade Germany through the undefended Rhineland. Once the Rhineland was invested with German troops, however, the price of invasion skyrocketed. In March 1938, Hitler engineered the union of Germany and Austria, a move also prohibited by the Versailles treaty.

    At the Munich Conference Hitler claimed that the Sudetenland was his last territorial demand in Europe, implying that Nazi Germany's imperial ambitions did not extend to non-German territories or states, and walked away with the Sudetenland in his pocket. Six months later, German forces occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, and some six months after that, Germany plunged Europe into World War II by invading Poland (to which Great Britain and France had belatedly given security guarantees). Germany went on to attack Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, North Africa, and Russia, and then declared war on the United States.

    What happened at Munich? France and Great Britain, as Hitler saw all too clearly, were gripped by a general fear of repeating the nightmare of World War I and a more specific fear of Germany's growing military might, whose strengths Nazi propagandists had deliberately inflated. The French and British governments were blind to the true scope of Hitler's ambitions in Europe, and in addition both, but more so the British, had to deal with widespread pacifism at home. Accordingly, London and Paris appeased Hitler by giving him the Sudetenland. A crippled Czechoslovakia surely was a small price to pay for avoidance of another European war. Indeed, in a radio address to the British people, Chamberlain dismissed the entire Sudetenland issue as "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." Chamberlain changed his mind about Hitler only when the Germans grabbed the rest of Czechoslovakia. As Henry Kissinger observed, "Hitler's transgression was to incorporate non-German populations into the Reich, thereby violating the principle of self-determination on behalf of which all his previous unilateral exactions had been tolerated." But the horse had already left the barn. The Munich deal had sacrificed Czechoslovakia's formidable border fortifications, advertised French and especially British spinelessness, whetted Hitler's appetite for territory, and convinced Stalin that he had to cut his own deal with Hitler, which he did less than a year later.

    The democracies disastrously miscalculated at Munich on several fronts. First, they overrated Germany's military power. In 1938, the Czech army, assisted by Britain and France and by Czech fortifications in the armor-unfriendly terrain of western Czechoslovakia, probably could have defeated a German invasion. That is the conclusion of journalist and historian William L. Shirer, who was exceptionally well informed about Germany and who covered the Munich Conference: "Germany was in no position to go to war on October 1, 1938 [the day after the Munich agreement was signed], against Czechoslovakia and France and Great Britain, not to mention Russia. Had she done so, she would have been quickly and easily defeated, and that would have been the end of Hitler and the Third Reich." This was also the view of key German military leaders, including Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, and Eric von Manstein, who so testified before the postwar Nuremberg Tribunal. They were acutely aware of the Third Reich's relative military weakness at the time of Munich. Indeed, senior officers, including Army Chief of Staff Walther von Brauchitsch and Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder, strongly opposed risking war over the Sudetenland, and, as was revealed after the war, were contemplating Hitler's removal in the event that the democracies refused to back down to him in Munich. Defeatism nonetheless prevailed in Paris and, especially, London. Chamberlain had convinced himself that Britain and France were in no military position to prevent a quick German takeover of Czechoslovakia, and therefore that any threatened use of force would ring hollow in Berlin. Chamberlain believed that if force were threatened and Hitler called the democracies' bluff, another world war would ensue.

    Second, the French and British governments believed, or wanted to believe, that Hitler's ambitions were indeed limited to Germanic Europe. In this they were terribly mistaken. They also believed that Hitler's ambitions within the German nation were in large measure legitimate because they reflected a desire to overturn the unwise peace terms the democracies had imposed on a defeated Germany in 1919. Yet in the Sudetenland the democracies insisted on neither an uncorrupted plebiscite nor guarantees that non-Germanic minorities would be protected.

    Third, although a mobilized France could have placed powerful forces on the side of Czechoslovakia's defense, the combination of a German-reoccupied Rhineland, a purely defensive military doctrine and force posture (symbolized by the Maginot line), and a political unwillingness, at the time, to fight Germany absent the British in a wartime alliance effectively removed France as a deterrent to German attack on any European state other than Great Britain and France itself? France essentially ceded the most important decision a sovereign state can make to a British prime minister who at the time of Munich believed that Hitler could be trusted.

    But for their defensive doctrine, the French could have threatened to invade the Rhineland. During the Munich crisis, the bulk of the German army and air force (including almost all of its mechanized units) was concentrated opposite the Czech border; the price of that concentration was a token defense of the Rhineland. In October 1938, the French army was better equipped and much larger than its German counterpart and could have launched a fifty-six-division invasion of a Rhineland held by only eight German divisions. Thus, although the French were not in a position to offer a direct defense of Czechoslovakia (the two countries had no common border), they could have moved into Germany itself, posing a mortal threat to Germany's industrial heartland in the Ruhr. This is exactly what the nervous German generals feared. Indeed, in August, an emissary from the German army's General Staff was dispatched to Britain to brief Winston Churchill (then out of government) and others on Hitler's determination to invade Czechoslovakia and on the necessity of a firm British threat to deter him from doing so. Chamberlain knew of this extraordinary event but dismissed it.

    Clearly, the Munich agreement encouraged Hitler to believe that he could steal even more territory with little risk of war, just as his occupation of the Rhineland and incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich had encouraged him to believe he could get away with the Sudetenland. He believed he could move next against Poland with the same impunity with which he had gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia six months after Munich, even though Britain and France had subsequently extended guarantees to Poland. "Our enemies are worms," Hitler told his assembled generals on the eve of Germany's invasion of Poland. "I saw them at Munich." Indeed, though France and Britain ultimately honored their defense commitment to Poland, both pressured Warsaw to appease Hitler's demands for Polish territory. Even after Hitler struck, there remained hope in London that he could be talked into a military withdrawal from Poland as a precursor to new negotiations.

    Appeasement also made the terms of war with Germany, when war finally came, much less favorable to the democracies. Hitler had in effect inflicted a strategic calamity on Great Britain and France, especially the latter, without firing a shot. "We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude," declared Winston Churchill before the House of Commons. William L. Shirer's diary entry on the day the Munich agreement was signed concludes that "France has sacrificed her whole Continental position" and characterizes Munich as Chamberlain's "diplomatic annihilation."

    The military price of stopping Hitler was to grow almost exponentially. Less than a year after Munich, a Nazi Germany now aligned with the Soviet Union occupied Poland and turned its gaze westward. (French forces sat quietly behind the Maginot line as Hitler picked off his latest victim.) By the end of 1940 Hitler had crushed France and marginalized British power in Europe. Britain could not hope to overturn Nazi control of Europe absent U.S. and Soviet entry into the war against Hitler, a condition fulfilled in 1941 only by Hitler's own folly: his invasion of Russia in June 1941 and utterly gratuitous declaration of war on the United States in December.

    After the war, the influential British military commentator B. H. Liddell Hart observed that Munich was a great triumph "not only over [Hitler's] foreign opponents but also over his generals," and said that it encouraged Hitler's self-confidence in "a continued run of easy success." Munich also "changed the strategic balance in Europe." Afterward, no "acceleration of [French and British] armaments programs could be expected for a long time to offset the removal of Czechoslovakia's thirty-five well-armed divisions and the accompanying release of the German divisions they could have held in the balance." Also subtracted from the scales was Czechoslovakia's armaments industry, the largest and best in Eastern Europe; it was quickly harnessed to the German war machine. It is little wonder that Germany's military leadership viewed the willingness of London and Paris to hand over such a strategic prize to Berlin with astonishment.

    The elimination of Czechoslovakia as an eastern ally left only much weaker Poland as a substitute. But Britain and France were in no position to offer Poland meaningful military assistance; their post-Munich guarantee to Warsaw was a desperate effort to deter a German invasion of Poland. But their very behavior at Munich stripped the guarantee of any credibility. Worse still, by driving Stalin into Hitler's arms—via the infamous Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 1939—the Munich appeasers ensured that Germany's later attack on France could be conducted with a strategically secure rear in the east.

    The scope of the democracies' defeat at Munich was not confined to the strategic realm. Munich was also a sellout of another democracy that looked for protection to Britain and, above all, France, which had a defense treaty with Prague. Churchill put it bluntly in his Commons speech: "All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant." Munich was a moral travesty as well as an invitation to another world war.

    Chamberlain was, to be sure, constrained at Munich by numerous factors other than his own misjudgment of Hitler. In the fall of 1938, Great Britain was just beginning to rearm; British intelligence greatly overestimated the German military threat; support for a war over Czechoslovakia was questionable among the British Dominions; Japan seemed poised to pounce on British assets in the Far East in the event of war in Europe; and public opinion at home appeared solidly pro-appeasement if not pro-German. Additionally, much of Britain's ruling class continued to view Communist Russia as a greater threat to Europe's peace and stability than Nazi Germany, which was virulently anticommunist and formed a barrier against potential westward Soviet aggression. A decision to go to war over the Sudetenland in 1938 was highly unlikely under any British prime minister.

    But the obvious perils of counterfactual speculation do not budge the facts of Munich's strategic consequences for Britain and France. Nor do they absolve Chamberlain of wretched judgment. He sullied Britain's honor by participating in the dismemberment of a strategically important fellow democracy by a bloodthirsty tyrant. By late 1938, moreover, Hitler was manifestly untrustworthy; yet, after his first meeting with Der Führer, Chamberlain continued to believe that "in spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face ... here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word."

    The great lesson the democracies, including the United States, drew from Munich was simple and clear: appeasement of aggression only invites more aggression, and it is therefore imperative that early and effective force be used to stop it. As Walter Lippmann, who believed Munich was "the equivalent of a major military disaster," put it in 1938: "Insofar as the fascist states believe that we will use only measures that are 'short of the application of force', they will be undeterred by our wishes. I see no way of putting any stop to their aggrandizement except by convincing them that at some point they will meet overwhelmingly superior force." Implicit in Munich's lesson is the principle that once a defense commitment is made, it must be honored at any cost; failure to do so will encourage further aggression by undermining the credibility of all commitments. Hence Vietnam. Also implicit in this lesson is the notion that the twentieth-century phenomenon of totalitarianism, be it fascism or communism, understands only the language of force.

    Given the consequences of appeasement, Christopher Hemmer observed, "Munich tell[s] policy makers interested in protecting the interests of their state to oppose any form of aggression, no matter how slight, because appeasement only encourages future challenges and strengthens the aggressor." Nazi Germany could have been stopped in 1938, or even in 1936, had the democracies been determined to act and had they appreciated the true scope of Hitler's ambitions. An important related lesson of the 1930s is that totalitarian states are inherently and endlessly aggressive, or, as Richard Lebow put it: "Aggression was the fuel totalitarian dictatorships burned to maintain legitimacy; they could not survive at home without seeking to expand abroad. Their appetites abroad were insatiable." The presumption of insatiable aggressiveness irrespective of time and circumstances mandates war.

    The association of aggression with large and powerful totalitarian states is certainly supported by the behavior of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia in the 1930s and later. But the implicit transference of insatiable aggressiveness to all states, large and small, seeking territorial acquisitions by force tends to downplay, or even altogether ignore, the great disparities in power among states as well as the historical circumstances peculiar to territories in disputes among states. Ho Chi Minh was a totalitarian, but his territorial ambitions were both limited and historically supportable. In any event, his North Vietnam, even when backed militarily by the Soviet Union and China, was not capable of sustaining a program of aggression beyond the borders of Indochina. In neither ambition nor capacity are most aggressors insatiable, which means that most cases of unchecked aggression do not inevitably mushroom, like cancer, into ever-larger conquests. Slobodan Milosevic launched four wars of aggression in the former Yugoslavia, but none of them reflected an imperial agenda in the rest of Europe.

* * *

The Vietnam War conveys quite different messages to those who look to it for lessons. For starters, if Munich encourages using force, Vietnam encourages both an aversion to force and, paradoxically, an injunction to use it decisively if force cannot be avoided.

    What happened to the United States in Vietnam? There is still no consensus among participants or historians on the reasons for America's defeat in Indochina, or even on the nature of the Vietnam War. The war continues to be passionately refought, and because the basic facts remain in dispute, some have argued that the war provides no meaningful lessons regarding future uses of force. The Vietnam War "does not provide us with a point of departure for common discourse about how to face that challenge," argued David Fromkin and James Chace ten years after Saigon's fall. "The Munich Pact was a disaster, but at least the Western world recognized it as such and learned that it would be a mistake to commit the same error again. The lesson of Munich can be misapplied—but the point is that it can also be applied. The lesson of Vietnam, if there is one, cannot be applied because we still do not agree about what happened."

    But the absence of consensus has not prevented presidents and other policy makers from drawing lessons. Nor has it prevented them from attempting to apply those lessons to policy formulation, including military action. The lack of consensus on what Vietnam can teach policy makers, however, makes it much more difficult to translate the Vietnam War experience into a reliable common guide for future decisions. There is absolute consensus on the imperative of avoiding a repetition of that war, and post-Vietnam presidents have so far avoided foreign policy mistakes of the kind that led to an eight-year war in which fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed. Post-Vietnam War presidents have been more careful than the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in picking overseas fights; indeed, they have picked relatively easy wins: Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Serbia. They have also been more willing to cut U.S. losses in dead-end interventions—Lebanon and Somalia—than were Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in Vietnam. On balance, post-Vietnam presidents have displayed significantly greater risk aversion, and especially sensitivity to incurring casualties, than their predecessors. In this they have been reinforced by an even more timid Pentagon.

    Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s the professional military and many of its civilian supporters did draw a set of lessons from the war that commanded widespread agreement within the Pentagon. These lessons were translated into a doctrine that continues to exert a powerful influence on U.S. use-of-force decisions. Embodied in the tenets of what has become known as the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, the lessons are hardly universally accepted. The point, however, is that they reflect the Pentagon's "take" on what went wrong in Vietnam.

    Before examining these lessons, a survey of the state of the historical arguments over the Vietnam War is in order. What general propositions have been made over the past three decades about the war by various lesson drawers in the mainstream of the debate, and how does each fare in terms of the scope of its acceptance? I distinguish seven propositions, listed below in roughly ascending order of their contentiousness.

    1. American military intervention in the Vietnam War was a mistake. This proposition seems, certainly in retrospect, to be self-evident. To be sure, some continue to argue that intervention demonstrated U.S. credibility as a guarantor and bought time for the rest of noncommunist Asia to progress economically and politically; others contend that the real mistake lay in the manner rather than the fact of intervention. Yet, whatever the U.S. motive and manner of action in Vietnam, intervention failed to save South Vietnam and inflicted enormous damage on both Vietnamese society and the American body politic. The anticipated consequences of U.S. defeat in Indochina—the loss of most or even all of the rest of Southeast Asia and the destruction of the credibility of U.S. defense commitments elsewhere—did not materialize. If intervention was not a mistake, then how is the persistence of the so-called Vietnam syndrome to be explained? The view that intervention bought time for the rest of Asia to strengthen its internal defenses against communism is not convincing either, especially given its association with the discredited architects of intervention. The crushing of an attempted communist coup in Jakarta in October 1965 is cited as evidence for this view. But the Indonesian generals who stopped the coup acted not because of the U.S. decision to defend South Vietnam but because they were fighting for their very lives. Certainly, no mainland Southeast Asian state beyond Indochina faced a communist insurgent or cross-border threat remotely approaching the magnitude of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army forces operating in South Vietnam.

    Of course, no one can say for sure what the political map of Southeast Asia would look like today had the United States decided in 1965 to cut its losses rather than jump into the war. Vietnam almost certainly would have been reunified under communist auspices a decade earlier than it actually was, but the regional consequences of reunification in 1965 rather than 1975 remain inherently speculative. The United States might simply have fallen back to a politically and militarily much stronger position in Thailand, and in so doing reduced Cambodia's potential strategic importance to Hanoi. The end result—who knows?—might have been a Cambodia spared the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

    2. American policy makers underestimated the military skill and political tenacity of the Vietnamese Communists. This proposition also seems self-evident and is supported by the statements of key U.S. officials. For example, in 1965, Maxwell Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, marveled: "The ability of the Vietcong continuously to rebuild units and make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war. We still find no plausible explanation of the continued strength of the Vietcong." A year later, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara remarked to an acquaintance, "I never thought [the war] would go like this, I didn't think these people had the capacity to fight this way." Secretary of State Dean Rusk later confessed: "Hanoi's persistence was incredible. I do not understand it even to this day."


Excerpted from Making War, Thinking History by Jeffrey Record. Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Record. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Jeffrey Record is a professor of strategy at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. He served in Vietnam as a civilian pacification adviser and received his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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