By Dr. Rafael Medoff
President Bush has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy with his remark that those who advocate negotiating with “terrorists and radicals” are comparable to those who, in the 1930s, advocated negotiating with Nazi Germany.
The president quoted a statement made by the arch-isolationist U.S. Senator William Borah in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939: “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.” Mr. Bush characterized Borah’s position as “appeasement” and a “foolish delusion.”
Although Sen. Borah was a Republican –and he was not the only Republican to advocate talking to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s– many Democrats regarded President Bush’s statement as criticism of Senator Barack Obama’s willingness to meet with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ironically, however, if the president was looking for advocates of appeasement, he might have considered some of the positions taken by the U.S. State Department, then and now.
Consider, for example, the reaction of the State Department in 1935, when a New York City judge ruled that five protesters who tore down a Nazi flag from a German ship were justified since it was the equivalent of a “pirate ship” with “the black flag of piracy proudly flying aloft.” The Hitler government was furious, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, hoping to appease the Nazis, issued an apology. That prompted a rare public criticism of the Roosevelt administration by a Jewish leader–American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen Wise chided the administration for “exaggerated profuseness and abjectness to the Nazi regime” and for failing to “utter even one brave word in condemnation of the program and the practices of the Nazi regime.”
Two years later, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia angered the Nazis by suggesting that the 1937 World’s Fair should include a “Chamber of Horrors” for “that brown shirted fanatic who is now menacing the peace of the world.” Secretary of State Hull responded by again apologizing to the Germans–this time twice, in fact.
When the Nazi authorities and their puppets in Vichy France complained to Washington in 1941 about U.S. journalist Varian Fry and diplomat Hiram Bingham IV smuggling Jewish refugees out of the country, the State Department responded by canceling Fry’s passport and transferring Bingham to Portugal.
Fast forward to this spring, and one again finds the State Department looking for ways to appease a rogue regime. In March, the department watered down a report on North Korean repression, for fear of angering Pyongpang. In a leaked email, one State Department official explained that the U.S. needed to “sacrifice a few adjectives” (i.e., the truth) rather than risk disrupting ongoing negotiations with the North Koreans.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s recent annual human rights report omitted China from its list of the world’s worst rights violators, a designation Beijing had received in previous years. Journalists speculated that State was trying to help China improve its image in advance of this summer’s Beijing Olympics–speculation which was fueled when Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Farrar repeatedly dodged questions about it at a press conference.
In this same spirit, the State Department recently released an 84-page report on “Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism” which cited numerous offending governments around the world, including various Arab regimes–yet conspicuously refrained from mentioning the antisemitism promoted by the Palestinian Authority in its media and schools. Was this, too, a deliberate omission intended to advance the State Department’s diplomatic agenda?
It is certainly true, as President Bush suggested, that the strategy of appeasing dictators does not have an impressive record of success. Certainly the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939 did not appease the Nazis. Neither did the State Department’s apologies to Hitler or its sabotage of Varian Fry’s refugee rescue operation. Time will tell whether the State Department’s more recent gestures to totalitarian regimes will be any more successful.