LETTER: Did Chamberlain make the right choice?

To the editor:

Robert Lee re-visited his occasional theme of appeasement on Jan. 20, citing Neville Chamberlain and the September 1938 Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler. It’s time for him to take another look.

Prime Minister Chamberlain has been flayed since 1940 for not resisting the German Fuhrer’s push to seize traditionally German regions of Czechoslovakia. As Mr. Lee flogs poor Chamberlain again, it is not enough for him to dismiss the P.M.’s defenders with a wave of his pen.

Robert Lee clearly enjoys history, and has used his space to present topics usually shortchanged in public school texts. A piece from him is in order to lay out, in fuller detail, just how Great Britain could have stopped Hitler in 1938.

In March, 1938, Britain’s military commissioned a report — unknown to the public for decades — concluding that their military was not capable of stopping Germany from seizing Czechoslovakia. They were more confident of victory in a longer war, given time to prepare. In 1938, German troop strength comprised about 600,000 over 39 divisions. British troops numbered about 400,000.

Further, while World War I’s Versailles treaty strictly limited Germany’s army in previous years, Hitler’s SA, or “Brownshirts” not counted as military, had grown to more than 4 million — disciplined, organized, and ready to be incorporated into the army. It is notable, too, that Britain’s air force numbered about 20 “Spitfire” fighters and a scattering of WWI-era biplanes.

Moreover, Britain’s allies on the continent were wobbly, at best. France’s parliamentary governments fell about five times during the 1930s, making the nation low-hanging fruit for Hitler’s picking by 1940. Mussolini’s Italy was en route to signing a pact with Hitler in 1939. Germany’s Wehrmacht seized Austria earlier in 1938. Crucial material assistance from the U.S. in 1940 was difficult enough due to our neutrality laws; how stingy would Franklin Roosevelt have proven earlier?

So what else was Chamberlain to do? A British professor of history, Vernon Bogdanor, points to Hitler’s later regret about the Munich pact in a conversation with his deputy, Martin Bormann: “September 1938, that was the most favorable moment, when an attack carried the lowest risk for us …”

Was Chamberlain a craven appeaser, or did he wrangle crucial months that Britain and the free world desperately needed?

Douglas Smith